Vines & vistas...Bulgaria's Melnik wine region

| September 4, 2019

France, Italy and Spain are well known for their production of fine wines. However, if someone were to sing the praises of a Bulgarian wine, you might be a little shocked. Cox & Kings’ Daniella Bassett discovers why it’s worth shouting about.

A land of high peaks, deep river valleys and great plains, Bulgaria’s fertile soils have nurtured winemaking vines for 7,000 years, dating back to Thracian times. This is one of the oldest winemaking countries in the world.   

In the 1980s, Bulgaria witnessed a heyday in wine production, becoming the world’s second largest wine producer. However, their wine gained a negative reputation for declining quality and being cheaply sold to a Russian market. In spite of this, in recent years Bulgaria has burst back onto the wine world’s radar with determination and charm. After a short hiatus, it is ready to compete with some of Europe’s most prestigious wine-producing countries.

Zornitza Family Estate grounds, Bulgaria

Vineyard views, Zornitza Family Estate

Bulgaria’s sunlit hills produce flavourful, quality grape varieties. The country can receive up to 2,500 hours of sunlight per year, placing it in the same climate range as key regions of red wine production, including northern Italy, southern France and northern Spain and Portugal. There are five official wine regions in Bulgaria and each has its own microclimate and grape varietals, including over 40 different indigenous grapes. The most widely known and loved of these are Mavrud, Melnik, Rubin and Gamza.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Melnik region on a journey exploring the region’s best vineyards, dramatic landscapes and cultural highlights. Melnik is a traditional Bulgarian wine region situated in the mountainous southwest of Bulgaria. The hilly terrain of this region creates an ideal microclimate for growing superior grapes that create strong, well-ageing reds. The Shiroka Melnishka Loza (broad-leaved Melnik) grape variety specific to this region was a favourite of Winston Churchill’s and is known for its pleasant sour taste and cherry undertones.

Melnik, Bulgaria

Melnik, Bulgaria

The town of Melnik is not just notable for its wines but also for its charm. Officially the smallest town in Bulgaria, Melnik has beautiful landscapes, delicious food and picturesque streets. The Kordopulov House, a 250-year-old wine merchant’s estate with functioning cellars, is a focal point of the town. The house is Bulgaria’s largest Revival-era building and dates back to 1754. As well as possessing luxurious architectural features, such as stained-glass windows and oriental fireplaces, the house also has an intriguing secret cupboard from which members of the original owner’s family could eavesdrop on wine-trading deals. You can book wine tastings and tours in the still-working cellar.

Melnik Earth Pyramids

Melnik Earth Pyramids

Tucked away behind the town are the Melnik Earth Pyramids. These spectacular, naturally formed rock formations are also known as hoodoos or fairy chimneys. Spanning an area of 17 square kilometres, the towers can reach up to 100 metres in height. They also provide the backdrop to Rozhen monastery, first established in 1217 and still functional today. Within the monastery are beautiful, 16th-century frescoes, stained-glass windows and woodcarvings. An easy trip from the main town, Rozhen monastery is less visited by tourists and provides an intimate glimpse into monastic life in Bulgaria. After exploring the pyramids, you can refuel at one of the many family-owned tavernas in Melnik or the nearby town of Rozhen. Be sure to sample a traditional Bulgarian Shopska salad, a hearty, meaty main course and some goat’s milk yoghurt and home-made jam to finish.

Fresco, Rozhen monastery, Bulgaria

Fresco, Rozhen monastery

As a prominent and prestigious Bulgarian wine region, it is no surprise that the local area is home to several high-quality vineyards and wineries. Two of the best in the region are Villa Melnik and Zornitza Estate.

Villa Melnik, opened in 2013, is a family-owned vineyard and winery perched atop a hill overlooking sweeping panoramas of vines. The sandy soil of the vineyards are stocked with plentiful supplies of both local and international varieties. The broad-leaved Melnik grape is prominent in the region and is the star of the show in Villa Melnik’s Family Tradition wine.

Villa Melnik winery, Bulgaria

Villa Melnik winery

Each wine is made with a technique steeped in family tradition. Over three floors of the winery, the grapes are filtered using the natural force of gravity. This process ensures that no unnecessary pressure is placed on the grapes and that the wine’s natural structure is maintained. After being bottled or barrelled, the wine is taken to the spectacular underground cellar. This network of limestone, clay and sand tunnels is situated directly under Melnik’s famous Earth Pyramids. The tunnels maintain constant temperature and humidity throughout the year, creating the perfect ageing conditions for the wines.

Villa Melnik wine cellar, Bulgaria

Villa Melnik wine cellar

Zornitza Estate, also a family-run affair, began its history in 2011. While relatively new to the wine world, this Relais & Chateux property and wine estate produces high quality wines with the expertise of the country’s only master of wine to guide them. There are 50,000 square metres of vineyards around the estate, Syrah being the dominant vine. Taking a trip into the property’s cellars is like being transported back in time. The dimly lit and dusty racks are filled with the property’s specialist wine collection, as well as their own products. Each bottle of Zornitza’s wine is bottled and waxed by hand with precision and care, and the animation with which their wine experts teach guests about the process is captivating. The property itself is also full of hidden wonders, with acres of beautiful farmland and an atmospheric, soothing spa complete with three pools, sauna and steam bath.

Zornitza Family Estate outdoor pool, Bulgaria

Zornitza Family Estate outdoor pool, Bulgaria

Above all, what struck me most about Bulgaria was the people and their quiet patriotism. This modest and friendly part of the world is relatively unchartered by tourists yet has so much to offer, from vines to vistas. Luxury is handled with an unparalleled homeliness and residents readily share their favourite parts of their country with you. While the likes of Italy and Spain have the well-trodden security of hotspot destinations, Bulgaria offers something different in the way of charm. It is unapologetically rugged and an all-round delight.

Cox & Kings arranges both group and private, tailor-made tours to Bulgaria. For further information, please either visit our website, call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.

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