The Struma River Valley — Home To Bulgaria’s Big Red Wines & So Much More

I take the opportunity to taste and learn more about the wines of Melnik and the Struma River Valley and stay one more night here. I join Will who reluctantly takes the wheel of his Romanian-built Dacia rental car. He’s from the UK, and this car is for driving on the right side of the road—as they do in Bulgaria and not in London. Plus, living in London, he doesn’t need nor own a car.

Our first stop is Zlaten-Rozhen, named after the town and home to the Rozhen monastery, the owners operate a hotel in Rozhen and extended its brand and opened this winery. With a modern architecture design, we find a vintage Mercedes Benz sitting in the lobby and are greeted by Maria who tours us through the winery and barrel room before leading us through a tasting of some of Zlaten-Rozhen’s wines.

As one of the few wineries in Bulgaria with Italian varietal Sangiovese planted, Will and I are curious to see how it is expressed as grown in the sandy soils of the Struma River Valley. We learn that the owners planted the grape long before they recruited Italian winemaker Federico Ricci took the helm as chief enologist.

Sitting at the tasting bar on the second floor of the modern winery, we look out a few rows of vines. These are table grapes and not part of the winery’s vineyards which are located nearby but not walking distance from the winery. Maria tells us they would like to plant vineyards around the winery, but as with Villa Melnik, it’s complicated. (read this post for more on this).

The wines at Zlaten-Rozhen are well made, and the label designs are unique, many laced with shiny gold emblems and accents. Maria tells us Zlaten is the Bulgarian word for gold, so it’s appropriate.

We run through a handful of whites and reds from Zlaten Rozhen and find the wines to be a great value and well worth trying. The winery is cozy and a perfect place to escape the heat summer Melnik heat and sip a crisp and clean Sandanski Misket—and whatever else might suit your palate.

Doc sitting in front of Zlaten Rozhen Winery and public tasting room in the Struma River Valley near Melnik, Bulgaria.

Scanning Militza’s Melnik Wine Route Map, we decide to visit Rupel. Will is curious as this is perhaps the only winery in Bulgaria that has planted the Italian king grape, Nebbiolo. However, when we arrive, we find the winery and tasting room is closed. We see one of its employees standing outside the winery. We show him the map that shows the winery is open to the public. He insists it’s closed. We try to communicate; we don’t speak Bulgarian, and he doesn’t speak English. This is not a problem as he whips out his phone, and using Google Translate, we have a conversation.

Will and our new friend use Google Translate to communicate during our ad hoc winery tour and tasting from tanks at Rupel Winery near Melnik in the Struma River Valley in Bulgaria.

He points to my camera and then hands me his phone, “You want to shoot the cellar?” I nod and smile, He walks us to behind the winery and onto to the crush pad and into a large room with towering stainless steel fermentation tanks. He shows us how Rupel uses an integrated nitrogen gas system for the stainless steel tanks. The gas ensures there is no oxygen during fermentation and therefore no oxidation resulting in fresher and crisper wines. We walk by another large tank that sits horizontally on the pad. He explains that this is used to press the wines, but inside is a bladder or balloon that gently pushes against the grapes and it can be adjusted depending on the grape varietal. Will says these are great for rose and commonly found in Provence in France.

The crush pad and fermentation tanks at Rupel Winery in southwestern Bulgaria.

Then we walk into the winery, and he shows us the barrel aging cellar and another large room with more stainless steel tanks. Handwritten cards hang from the valves, but the words are all in Cyrillic. Will figures out what a few of them mean, pointing to Nebbiolo and another with Marselan. Using our phones and Google translates our new friend shows us the tanks with Nebbiolo. As we walk around the cellar, he disappears for a moment and then returns with two wine glasses.

In the next moment, we’re tasting 2016 Nebbiolo, 2017 Nebbiolo, and the 2015 Marselan—all from the stainless steel tanks. He explains that some wines have been in barrique while others only in stainless. We’re impressed by the Marselan especially given that not yet bottled and it’s nearly four years old.

When another employee shows up and watches as we wander the tanks and taste wine, we learn she is our host’s mother. And for about forty-five minutes from the time we arrived despite the communication chasm of two different languages, we learn, laugh, and enjoy an experience which is so more personal and unique than if we were to just sit in a retail tasting room and taste wines. And it all happened by circumstance.

Tasting yet to be bottled Nebbiolo at Rupel Winery from the 2016 and 2017 vintages with our new friend a winery worker who invited us in to take pictures and ultimately let us taste a few wines—despite a complete language barrier that we hurdled with the help of Google Translate.

In the barrel room with mother and son at Rupel Winery near Melnik in southwestern Bulgaria.

After Will and I head to the luxurious Relais & Châteaux Zornitza Family Estate. Sprawling for some 800 hectares on a hilltop overlooking surrounding vineyards and with views toward Melnik and its Sand Pyramids, the gorgeous property features an award-winning restaurant, spa, and wellness center and luxurious villas and rooms. There are hiking trails and vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and two playful dogs. We meet Alex Skorchev, the charming and professional sommelier for Zornitza Family Estate. He walks us through the resorts well-stocked wine cellar which features top-quality wines from not only Bulgaria but pricey bottles from Bordeaux, Sauternes, Italy, Spain, and the United States. He shows me a bottle of Joseph Phelps Insignia, one of my favorite from Napa Valley. These wines are out of reach for most Bulgarians, but for the affluent locals and tourists that stay here, these are the wines one would expect to find at a resort of this caliber.

Alex is also a trainer for Bulgarians and others looking to complete their WSET Diploma (Wine & Spirit Education Trust), the coveted and challenging qualification program for wine and spirits professionals His passion and love for wine exudes as he shows and tells us about the great wines of Zornitza’s cellar.

 

Spectacular views of the Struma River Valley and the Melnik Pyramids from the Relais & Châteaux Resort at Zorntiza Family Estate in southwestern Bulgaria.

Every winery needs a good dog, at Zornitza there are two!

Alex shows us his impressive collection of wines from all over the world and all over Bulgaria in the Zornitza Family Estate wine cellar.

Will scans the collection at Zornitza down in the cellar.

Entrance to the Relais & Châteaux resort Zornitza Family Estate in the Struma River Valley outside Melnik in southwestern Bulgaria. 

Afterward, Alex guides us through a tasting of Zornitza’s own limited production wines, which are rich, extracted and wines of both finesse and power. They are from young vines, so there is a long future for Zornitza, and I look forward to returning in a few years to see how they progress.

Melnik and the Struma River Valley offers something for everyone. For accommodations from the luxurious five-star resort of Zornitza and lovely Hotel Melnik to budget options in the town. There are great restaurants, old churches and monasteries, and natural beauty found by hiking the hills including waterfalls and rivers. And then there are the wines from fifteen producers all experimenting with local indigenous varietals and beautiful expressions of international grapes such as Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon — and even Italian varietals of Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. There’s a lot to explore and learn here, and that’s why I know Melnik should be on every wine and food lover’s lists of places to visit.

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