Our first stop on our trip was the two-hour drive from Sofia to Villa Melnik (in the Melnik region in the south-west of the country), the winery most likely to be familiar to our members, as we've sold their wines for a couple of years now.
After a scenic drive past green mountains and wild, winding rivers, we arrived at a tall, white winery perched on a steep hill, with vineyards stretched out in front of it, and a mixture of wild herbs and fruit trees stretched behind.
It's a family affair, owned by Nikola Zikatanov, with his charismatic, force-of-nature daughter Militza doing a great job as the winery's sales and marketing manager. We'd been fortunate enough to enjoy dinner with Militza in Sofia the night before (she generously made time to see us even though she had a huge speech to memorise before flying out to Miami for her friend's wedding the next day!), but this was our chance to meet the equally charming, twinkly eyed Niko, who was a very entertaining host. He grew up in a village across the road, and, after many years investing in and planting vineyards, he established Villa Melnik in 2012.
Wild, welcoming vineyards
He clearly loves his grapes, and showed us through every variety he grows here (which is many!), a mixture of international varieties like cabernet sauvignon, syrah, chardonnay, sangiovese and viognier and local varieties, including broadleaf melnik, melnik 55, mavrud, tamyanka and keratsuda. We were very amused when Niko told us that legend has it, Bulgaria's broadleaf melnik vine leaves are so much bigger than other countries' native varieties because they represent the size of a certain part of a Bulgarian's anatomy, as vine leaves were historically used to cover one's modesty...
The beautiful surroundings even have an effect on the wines - an extinct volcano in the distance influences the soils - and Niko also likes to give back to nature. Among the vines, he also grows table grapes, which he doesn't pick, allowing them to grow sticky in the sun so the birds and insects have something to eat, explaining: 'We have to be generous enough to let all creatures enjoy our grapes.' Sustainability and environmentally friendly practices are key here - even the dried grape skins are composted and used to fertilise the vineyards.
Nearly all of the whites had been picked, but a lot of the reds still hadn't as melnik is such a late-ripening variety - we were there 14th-18th October and some weren't going to be picked for a couple of weeks yet. Niko explained they were also growing fig trees, pomegranate trees and even a banana tree, plus wild herbs like rosemary. The whole place smelled amazing.
Tasting Villa Melnik's wines
The winery is entirely fed by gravity, so the grapes go in at the top of the building (after being sorted outside) and work their way down. On our tour, we also visited the huge caves dug underneath the winery where wines are aged and stored, and you can see the different soil types reflected in the varied shade of the rocks overhead.
We tasted wines at Villa Melnik's lovely, bright and airy tasting room with gorgeous views over the vineyards. Stand-outs for me were their strawberry-and-peach scented broadleaf melnik rosé (which went deliciously alongside some local juicy, spicy salami), their rich, spicy mavrud and of course their fresh, full and cherry-scented broad-leaf melnik.
All in all, this visit was one of the highlights of the trip for me, and I'd love to return some day.
We arrived at our last winery stop on the second day of our trip in the early evening, after a very long drive. We were outside the village of Karabunar, in the Thracian Valley about an hour's drive from Plovdiv in central-southern Bulgaria, where we'd be staying the night. Via Vinera is a very remote winery surrounded by gorgeous vineyards, and we were met by the world's most hopelessly friendly guard dog, Jinka (who I fell in love with almost instantly).
We were shown around by the winemaker, Geno, and the export manager, who were both friendly and knowledgeable and full of passion for their wines. The winery was quite big compared to most of the ones we'd seen so far, but as well as putting their heart and soul into winemaking, they also make a fruity brandy called rakia - a Bulgarian speciality - and a couple of other spirits. By the time we walked up the stairs to the beautiful tasting room with views all around over the vineyards, the sun was setting, and it felt pretty special to be there.
Falling in love with orange wine
This tasting was a chance to get to know the local misket grape (not muscat!) which makes lovely fresh white wines, as well as the dimyat grape which they had used to make an orange wine by vinifying it as a red wine (leaving it in contact with the skins). I had always thought these quite gimmicky, but this one was utterly delicious!
After the tasting, they took us downstairs and offered us a shot of their chilli-infused rakia! We were pleasantly surprised – it was very hot indeed, but the chilli heat had been masterfully controlled so that it built up slowly and ended in a lovely warming way, so even a chilli-wuss like me could enjoy it. It would be great in a hot chocolate.
Afterwards, we went out to the courtyard and it transpired the winemaker Geno lived in Plovdiv (which is where we were headed for the night) so we gave him a lift! While we waited for him to get his stuff (and, as it turned out, prepare us gift bags with a bottle of orange wine to take as a memento), we stood out in the now dark courtyard, surrounded by shadowy, whispering vines, watching stars appear in the sky and playing with Jinka. It was a lovely end to a long but rewarding day.