Bulgaria is a well kept secret and its great wines are largely unsung. Melnik and Struma Valley wine region is a small and significant wine region in southwest Bulgaria.
Villa Melnik is one of the most important wineries in the region and celebrated for preserving indigeneous grape varieties.
Without knowing much about Bulgarian wines, we spent a few days discovering the region and the local wines.
At Villa Melnik, we spent a day touring the winery, sampling Villa Melnik wines and discovering homemade Bulgarian food.
The day ended with feasting on Bulgarian traditional specialities at one of the best local restaurants in Melnik.
Curious about Bulgarian wines? Join us on a tour of Villa Melnik and the traditional wines and local foods.
Villa Melnik – A Boutique Family Owned Winery
Villa Melnik, is located in the village of Harsovo, which is just seven kilometers south of the town of Melnik.
The area is significant because of the indigeneous grape, Broadleaf Melnik or Shiroka Melnishka Loza, is native to the area.
At Villa Melnik, we met with Nikola and Lyubka Zikatanovi, the passionate owners of this boutique winery.
Nikola Zikatanov grew up in the area and founded Villa Melnik as a way of paying respect to the 200-year winemaking tradition in his family.
Together with his wife, Lyubka, they have worked for many years to preserve traditional indigeneous local Melnik grapes.
This was at a time when many producers were replacing them with international grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Their daughter, Militza, runs sales and operations and organized our trip to Villa Melnik.
Shortly after we arrived, we took a tour of the property, with Mariya, who walked us through the wine making process.
A Tour of Villa Melnik Winery
Starting at the top of a hill next to the winery, we learned from Mariya that the first vines were planted in 2004 and the winery opened its doors in 2013.
Villa Melnik has about 50 hectares (123 acres) of vines spread out around the winery and the surrounding villages.
The winery makes 10 red wines and 6 white wines using both indigeneous and international grape varieties.
Some of the familiar grape varieties you’ll find are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
We were most excited about discovering the indigeneous grape varieties like Broadleaf Melnik, Mavrud, Sandanski Misket and more.
The driving philosophy at this boutique winery we learned is “quality over quantity”.
Modern Wine Making at Villa Melnik
One of the things that surprised us was how modern the facilities were at Villa Melnik. Prior to our Villa Melnik stop, we had visited other wineries in Melnik.
In a similar fashion, the other wineries also had state of the art technologies. All had impressive steel tanks, touch screen pads, up-to-date bottling equipment and much more.
For an ancient wine growing region, we didn’t expect to see such modern technology and equipment.
The grapes at Villa Melnik are harvested by hand. At the top of the three-storey winery, the grapes are destemmed and crushed. The grape juice is then fed directly to the fermentation tanks on the second level using gravity.
Even though Villa Melnik does not consider themselves an organic winery, they operate harmoniously with nature. They use gravity rather than machines in the movement of wines.
In the same way, the vineyards are not treated with pesticides. Furthermore, the light breeze from the surrounding mountains and the pollution free climate makes it ideal for producing quality grapes and wines.
The Treasury in the Underground Caves
One of the most surprising parts of the tour were the sandy underground tunnels used for storing wines.
The network of tunnels and caves which are built on the side of a hill, took two years to dig. According to Mariya, they provide the perfect temperatures and humidity for aging wine year-round.
While French and Canadian barrels are used, Bulgarian barrels are used specifically for aging Bulgarian wines.
As Mariya said “for indigeneous Bulgarian grapes, it’s only right to use Bulgarian barrels.”
As we made our way out of the tunnel, we passed what Mariya called “The Treasury.”
Securely under lock and key, this is the private collection of wines from every single Villa Melnik vintage.
Private collectors and guests can also buy wines and Villa Melnik will store their bottles for them. We saw bottles guests were storing for special occasions like anniversaries, birthdays, the birth of children and the upcoming Christmas season.
When the tour ended, we made our way up to the tasting room, where we were eager to taste indigeneous Bulgarian wines made with passion and tradition.
Villa Melnik Wine Tasting
Waiting for us in the tasting room were the founders, Lyubka and Nikola.
On a large table with views overlooking the vineyards were glasses of wines and platter of cheese, local cured meats and fruits.
Joining us at the table was a lady from the nearby village of Harsovo, who would later share with us a few traditional Bulgarian dishes.
Lyubka who is passionate about collecting traditional Bulgarian recipes, arts and rituals, invited baba Karamfila (baba means grandmother) to share a few homemade specialties with us.
We had a lovely time and tasted a variety of incredible wines.
In this article, we’ll highlight our favorite and surprising Villa Melnik wines.
Surprising Orange Wine
One of the most surprising wines we had is Orange Wine. It was our first time hearing the term and tasting the wine.
Orange wines, also called Amber wines are actually the original way white wines were produced.
We learned from Nikola that the original wines come from Georgia, where the wine was made in claypots and then buried in the ground.
The wines get the orange color from the production process whereby the juice, skin and seeds and all fermented together.
The skin gives color to the grape juice and the seeds give tannins making the wine stronger-bodied.
The inspiration for the Orange wine, Nikola told us, came from his daughter. Before joining the family winery, Militza, worked in London where Orange wine had become trendy.
The only way he could convince her to come back and join the family business was to make Orange Wine at her request.
Tasting Villa Melnik Orange Wine
Villa Melnik’s Orange wine is made from Sauvignon Blanc. The wine ferments together with the juice and seeds for about a month, giving the wines intense aromas and flavors.
We enjoyed the Orange wine and found it refreshing and more intense than a typical Sauvignon Blanc. It was deep and rounded with a long aftertaste.
According to Nikola, the wine is very popular in the U.K and they are also selling it in Japan and Brazil.
Now in its 3rd year, Orange wine has become Bulgaria’s #1 Specialty Wine and it has also won medals in Brussels and Greece.
The Emblematic Melnik 55 Wine
From Villa Melnik’s Applauz line of wines, we tried Melnik 55, 2017 Reserve. Melnik 55 is one of the most distinctive and unique wines from the Melnik and Struma Valley wine region.
This region is home to the indigeneous grape variety known as Shiroka Melnishka Loza or Broadleaf Melnik. Wines from this particular grape were some of the most popular wines in Bulgaria in the19th and 20th century.
While popular this grape proved challenging to cultivate because Melnik is a late ripening variety. To solve the problem, scientists made hybrid crossings of Broadleaf Melnik to deliver wines that ripened earlier.
On the 55th attempt, the scientists finally settled on the hybrid crossing of Broadleaf Melnik and Valdiguie, a French grape varietal, to produce the region’s most famous Melnik 55 wine.
Tasting Melnik 55
We were eager to taste Melnik’s famous wine and were not disappointed. The striking rich red color was inviting. On the first sip, we tasted hints of berries and a slight peppery finish.
We enjoyed the wine and found it incredibly smooth and very easy to drink. The flavors are intense and at the same time rounded and balanced.
We learned that during the tasting that apparently, Winston Churchill was a huge fan of Broadleaf Melnik, ordering 500 liters of wine annually for his personal cellars.
This was one of our favorite wines and we could taste why locals take such great pride in this indigeneous grape variety.
In the celebration of the Menik 55 heritage, Villa Melnik has the following printed on the back of the label.
“We applaud the wine growers who cultivate the land. The winemakers who craft the wines. The wine lovers who share it.
– On the back of the label of the Applauz Melnik 55 2017 Reserve
Other Rare Wine Varieties from Villa Melnik
Continuing with wines made from the Broadleaf (Shiroka) Melnik, we tasted two other unique varieties.
We started out with Ruen 2015, a crossing of Broadleaf Melnik with Cabernet Sauvignon. A full-bodied and expressive wine, we enjoyed the black cherry aromas and complex finish.
The second unique variety we tasted was Melnik 1300 Jubilee 2016. This is a crossing between Broad-leaved Melnik Vine and the Georgian grape variety known as Separavi.
Created in 1963, this varietal was renamed in 1981 for the 1,300 year celebration of Bulgaria as a nation.
Tasting Ruen and Jubilee 1300 at Villa Melnik
The intense deep inky, purple-black colors of the Jubilee 1300 wine captured our attention. With distinctive berry aromas and a long finish, this fine has the characteristics worthy of the nation.
As we were sampling these indigenous grape varieties, Nikola spoke passionately about preserving the local grape varieties. He shared stories of how he went against the grain, deliberately reviving the disappearing grape varieties, while his neighbors thought he was crazy.
Villa Melnik was the first to bottle Jubilee 1300 wine in the region. It is also the only winery in the area growing Mavrud, another famous Bulgarian old red grape variety that has been cultivated since ancient times.
We were impressed by Villa Melnik’s commitment to the preservation and celebration of indigeneous Bulgarian varieties. The quality of the wines was exceptional and Villa Melnik’s efforts are instrumental in putting Melnik wines in the international spotlight.
Hailstorm a Powerful Villa Melnik Wine
As we continued our conversations, Nikola introduced us to Hailstorm, a wine that almost never existed.
This wine was a result of a natural phenomenon, he told us. Unfortunately, on July 1st 2016, a hailstorm hit the area and reduced the grapes by 80% so only 20% of the grapes survived the hailstorm.
Those that survived became strongly concentrated because they took all the juice (or strength) from the roots. So, as Nikola said, “we gave the name Hailstorm to the label.”
Tasting Hailstorm Wine
An incredibly powerful and delightful wine. This was another one of our favorites. This beautiful wine was a combination of local and international grape varieties. The wine consisted of Mavrud 40%, Melink 55 – 20%, Syrah 20% and Cabernet Sauvignon 20%.
The wine which has not yet been released to the public recently won a Gold 2019 at a Brussels Wine Competition.
Villa Melnik has plans to release the wine to the public in September 2019. And this time, rather than wait for a hailstorm, they will strongly reduce the yield on one plot of land to mimic the same effect.
If your travels take you to Bulgaria, look for this wine at restaurants and gourmet style wine shops. Better yet, take a trip to Villa Melnik and get this wine from the source.
Bulgarian Homemade Food & Products
As we were winding down on the wine tasting, Lyubka turned the attention to Baba (grandma) Karamfila to share a few of her traditional products with us.
As part of her efforts to preserve traditional recipes, Lyubka, introduced us to three of baba Karamfila’s recipes.
While translating for us, we tasted a sweet pumpkin jam, and two different kinds of pasta-looking doughy products. One version was the dough cut up thin long strips and the second one looked like crumbles, similar to oatmeal.
Local Jam Made of Pumpkins and Grape Juice
The jam, known as rachel, is made of made from pumpkins and the juice of broadleaf Melnik. Calcium oxide, extracted from limestone from the nearby Melnik sand pyramids is used to make the pumpkins crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.
Using the sweet non-fermented grape juice, the pumpkins are soaked together with grape juice yielding a sweet jam. There is no sugar added and delicious taste comes from natural goodness of the products.
When we first learned the jam was made from pumpkins, we were surprised. In addition, a jam made with wine, made us even more curious to taste it.
The first taste was an interesting contrast between crunchy and crispy textures. The sweet flavors were subdued and there was nothing artificial about the taste. We really liked the jam and it quickly replaced the honey we typically put on bread at breakfast.
This jam is typically available only after harvest in September and October. If you are visiting Melnik at that time, it is worth seeking out, rachel, this local specialty jam.
Homemade Bulgarian Pasta
To introduce us to the pasta dishes, Lyubka started out by showing us a video of baba Karamfila teaching locals how to make the pasta.
In our discussion, we learned that baba Karamfila is ill and this has fueled Lyubka commitment in the preservation of the recipes.
The two pasta-like dishes are made with the same ingredients, though the preparation style differ.
The thin sheets of pasta are known as Kori and the crumbles are called Trahana or Traanu in the local dialect. To make these pasta dishes the ingredients are simple and include eggs, milk and white flour.
The Kori is made by rolling the dough into very thin sheets, as paper thin as phyllo (filo) dough. The sheets are then left to dry in the sun. As they dry, they crack up by themselves and you simply gather the pieces.
The traditional dish made with the Kori strips, we learned is called iufka. It is typically eaten in the winter, in the evenings, after a long day of working in the fields.
A few days later, we cooked the Kori strips at home and loved them. We cooked them like pasta, in hot boiling salted water.
Similar to the taste of pasta, the Kori were light and with a smooth texture. Not being a huge fan of pasta, which I find heavy, I relished the fresh taste and flavors of this Bulgarian specialty.
While the trahana is prepared with the same simple ingredients, it is crumbled by hand before being set outside to dry in the sun.
Nikola fondly recalled his childhood and the way he would eat trahana. He talked about boiling a part of the trahana and frying another part in butter. He would then mix the two together.
Young children, he told us, would typically eat it with a mixture of Bulgarian white Sirene cheese, sugar and honey.
We also learned that it can be eaten savory with sirene cheese and olive oil. We cooked it at home, similar to the way that we would prepare quinoa and enjoyed the soft consistency.
These two traditional dishes are modest and simple dishes. We learned later from Militza that they were used traditionally to thicken meals to make them more filling but are rarely eaten with meat.
Early Dinner at Aleksova Kashta Restaurant in Melnik
Hungry after sampling wines and with our appetites opened, we took the 10-minute drive from Villa Melnik into Melnik town for an early dinner.
We went to Aleksova Kashta restaurant, one of the best traditional Bulgarian restaurants in Melnik.
Luiza, the chef and owner, welcomed us. She has had her restaurant for 18 years and she sources her fresh produce and meats from nearby farms.
Bulgarian Appetizer Platter
As we talk and learn more about this family owned restaurant, a waiter brings a huge platter of Bulgarian appetizers to get us started.
On the platter was an eggplant and red pepper dip, Tzatziki, a popular yogurt sauce, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, red onions, lettuce and more. Topping the platter were heaps of Bulgarian yogurt and cheese.
We enjoyed the succulent tastes of the fresh vegetable and dips. Everything on the platter was crisp and bursting with flavors. Accompanying the platter were slices of homemade bread.
Traditional Bulgarian Soups
Carrying on in the appetizer theme, we sampled two different kinds of Bulgarian soups. Soups are very popular in Bulgaria and you’ll find regional differences throughout the country.
Luiza prepared two different soup specialties for us to try.
The first was Papuda, a bean soup made with small white beans with black dots on them. This soup, we learned is specific to the Melnik region.
Made with peppers, garlic, thyme and a variety of spices, we enjoyed the delectable flavors and textures.
The second soup was a green bean soup with pork and topped with a dollop of Bulgarian yogurt. What surprised us the most was the size of the green beans.
We were expecting the typical string green beans that we find in the U.S., but were pleasantly surprised.
These beans were thicker in size and heavier in texture. When eaten with the slices of pork, it made for a rather filling soup. Unlike the papuda soup, this green bean soup with pork was savory and hearty.
Classic Bulgarian Desserts
At this point in the evening, we were stuffed and our stomachs happily content. However, as soon as the waiter brought the dessert plate, we suddenly had the urge to make more room.
On the dessert plate were four classic Bulgarian desserts. Green figs, traditionally from the region, dotted each corner of the plate.
One each side of the plate were Palachinki, which are similar to French crepes, filled with seasonal strawberries and blueberries.
Also, on the plate were slices of cheesecake and chocolate tart. The final dessert was a creamy rice pudding, centered on top.
While we enjoyed all the different treats, we each had our favorites. Claire could not get enough of the rice pudding and I loved the palachinki filled with wild blueberries.
As the evening was winding down, Nikola and Lyubka left to go back and close the winery
Meeting the passionate and hospitable owners of Villa Melnik was a real treat. The high quality wines from Villa Melnik were especially impressive.
We loved discovering the traditional wines like Melnik 55, Ruen and Jubilee 1300.
This experience reminded us of tasting wines made from traditional grapes in Portugal’s Douro Valley region. The potential for Melnik wines is high, especially those made from Broadleaf Melnik.
Villa Melnik’s commitment to producing high quality wines is helping increase the prestige of the local wines.
Currently, wineries in the Struma River Valley are working together to get protection designation status. Once this happens, we can look forward to finding Melnik wines more easily.
In the meantime, the best way to taste Villa Melnik wines is to visit them in the Struma River Valley.
Visiting Villa Melnik
Villa Melnik is opened every day of the week from 9:00 am to 6:30 pm for wine tours and tastings. The tours are offered in English, Spanish, Greek and Russian.
There are several tour packages available. The most basic is a tour of the winery and welcome drink for 3 BGN (aprox $1.71USD).
For an immersive experience, you can enjoy a tour of vineyard, six wine tastings and local treats, as well as a tour of winery for 30 BGN (aprox $17.10 USD).
Visit the Villa Melnik website for more information. Pease note advanced reservations are recommended.
If you are taking a day trip from Sofia, book a Melnik Wine Tour and see the region while exploring Villa Melnik winery.
Hotels in Melnik – Where to Stay
Melnik is one of the most fascinating towns in Bulgaria. It holds the distinction of being the smallest city in the world.
While in the area exploring the wines, book your stay at any one of the charming places listed below.
Hotel Rechen Rai Melnik
Hotel Rechen Rai is located right after the exit of Melnik is this gem nestled in nature. Enjoy the relaxing gentle stream that passes by the hotel and the beautiful views of the surrounding countryside.
The hotel offers spacious apartment-like rooms with large sitting areas to spread out. Superior rooms feature a spa bath or hot tub, while regular rooms are equipped with a private shower.
If you are traveling with children, you will enjoy using the outdoor playground.
Enjoy tasty traditional Bulgarian dishes on the outdoor patio. And a wonderful breakfast buffet.
Double rooms start at about $30.00 per night.
See more prices, read reviews or to find similar hotels check: Booking.com
This cozy hotel is located in the heart of Melnik, above the city center. From the terrace, you can enjoy sweeping views of the picturesque town and the nearby Melnik Sand Pyramids.
Hotel Melnik is designed in a Bulgarian renaissance style and offers all the modern amenities you would expect. Access high speed internet, spacious rooms, air conditioning and comfortable beds.
The restaurant offers traditional Bulgarian dishes and specialties and a wide selection of local and imported wines.
Double rooms start at about $40.00 per night.
See more prices, read reviews or to find similar hotels check: Booking.com
Zornitza Family Estate
This boutique hotel is the only Relais & Chateaux luxury hotel in the area. The Estate infuses luxury and nature in perfect harmony.
Zornitza Family Estate also produces wine, honey and soon truffles. The award winning Melnik restaurant features terroir cuisine,using organic produce and livestock raised on the Estate.
With a deep reverence to Bulgarian traditions and nature, this is the ideal place for a special occasion or celebration.
Read our full review: Zornitza Family Estate: Best Luxury Hotel in Melnik
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Special thanks to the Zikatanovi family for having us on this Villa Melnik tour. All views and opinions expressed are our own. Full bellies and happy taste buds too!
Rosemary, ex-marketing and advertising strategist, is a digital nomad and content creator at Authentic Food Quest. Since 2015, with her partner, Claire, they travel the world in search of the best local food experiences. Their mission is to help you enjoy the best local specialties on your travels or via recipes in your home kitchen. Favorite country for food: Peru. Favorite local dish: Bacalhau. Favorite way to keep fit: Running. Rosemary is the chief content writer and strategist on Authentic Food Quest. She is also co-author of Authentic Food Quest Argentina and Authentic Food Quest Peru, available on Amazon.