Villa Melnik has been on my mind for a year. “You must visit”, said a fellow Babson MBA who worked in the food and wine business in Boston and put me in touch with Militza, the head of sales and marketing of Villa Melnik. Work and other trivial pursuits got in the way and despite a warm invitation from Militza, I wasn’t able to visit last year. Then when I made the decision to spend this summer traveling around Bulgaria and developing the travel planning services of Flying Raconteur full time, I knew I had to head south and make Villa Melnik my destination.
Melnik has always been famous for wine. Its winemaking tradition goes back for millenniums and the region is home to several indigenous varietals, the most famous being the Broadleaf Melnik vine. The wine made from it has been the stuff of legends, with stories claiming it’s so thick you can chew it and so dark you can see it passing down the throat of a refined fair lady.
When I last visited Melnik fifteen years ago, the winemaking landscape was nothing like today. The region has changed and I wrote about the transformation in this blog post just a few days ago. There is a great new crop of vineyards and wineries and the vintners of present day are approaching winemaking in a way that is nothing short of impressive.
We arrive at Villa Melnik on an overcast early afternoon, having been delivered there by one of the few local cab drivers, Andon. Andon wears a wife-beater, drives an old Opel in audible need of a new muffler, and dials up as many as two hundred kilometers a day driving around passengers, who are determined to pay due respect to the wines of Melnik without risking a DUI. Andon will become a friend and will see me off the next day with a gift of a two-litter bottle of homemade wine but that’s the subject of another story.
We enter the towering building - a modern day rendition of the Bulgarian National Revival architectural style. We are greeted warmly by the staff and then Militza Zikatanova appears. It’s her dad, Nikola Zikatanov, who started the vineyard and winery as a passionate project that reflects his deep love of his homeland and his family’s over two hundred years’ worth of wine-making history.
Militza first leads us to an overlook point and lets us take in the view - and what a view it is! I learn that one of the hills in the distance is the the remnant of the last volcano eruption in these lands. The vineyard offers a view of the village of Kapatovo, Nikola Zikatanov’s home village. The first vines were planted in 2004 and nowadays Villa Melnik’s vineyards comprise 20 hectares and several varieties - Broadleaf Melnik, Early Melnik (also known as Melnik 55), Ruen, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, and the oldest Thracian vine – the Mavrud. So far, Villa Melnik is the only one in the region to have planted Mavrud.
Next, we walk through the winery. The facilities opened in 2013 and are designed in three levels so the wine making process allows for the wine to flow using natural gravity rather than pumps - that makes it gentler on the grapes and juice and helps retain the wine’s natural structure. As often as possible, the equipment and vessels are made in Bulgaria. This is when we first see Nikola Zikatanov at the level below - and he looks up to us and greets us with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes. He later claims the twinkle is from the wine he was checking on but I suspect it has a lot to do with how much he loves to share his work and the noble final product with others.
As is typical for the region, the winery’s premium vintages age in tunnels in the soft, sandy underground tunnels.
Just before we are ready to walk to the final and most spirited part of our visit - the wine tasting - we walk through a small art exhibit and learn it’s part of a larger art event that supports the works of young artists from the high school in the nearby town of Sandanski. Villa Melnik is a frequent home to art events.
We are now ready to commence the sacred ritual of wine tasting. Now, I am no wine expert but I harbor a deep love of wine. And I know an outstanding wine when it meets my palate! And today, my palate meets quite a few. Militza expertly and without unnecessary fuss takes us through a series of wonderful vintages, culminating with the most exclusive, single varietal Aplauz line. The last one is a limited quantity Applauz Merlot, sold only at the winery. It’s dense and memorable. Its deep ruby hue seems even darker on this overclouded day as I swirl my glass and look out towards the expanse of beautifully trimmed rows of vines and softly rolling hills.
I get distracted by a movement on the other side of the window. Two of the winery’s cats, aptly named Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are fighting playfully. I briefly contemplate what life must be like when you are surrounded by so much beauty and fine spirits. Then Militza offers me another pour. I say yes.