Originally published November 2016
Zina Sorenson is a wine enthusiast, small-business owner, sustainable tourism advocate, social media aficionado, travel fanatic and food lover. Besides managing her company Bulgaria Wine Tours, she spends her time trying to raise awareness of Bulgaria as a destination for alternative tourism.
ONE OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST AND MOST PROMISING WINE ROUTES
The Melnik and Struma Valley Wine Region is one of five broad wine regions in Bulgaria. Located in the southwestern corner of Bulgaria, the region is easily accessible from Sofia.
The region offers a wonderful blend of natural beauty, local food and wine, spa & wellness, cultural heritage sites and ancient history.
Gorgeous weather and ideal conditions for grape growing. It is no wonder that this region has been producing wine since the Thracians inhabited the area more than 5000 years ago. The Melnik and Struma Valley area is the region with the highest average daily temperatures in Bulgaria because of its microclimate, which is similar to the Mediterranean climate. This fact, combined with the diverse soil types, provides the ideal conditions for cultivating grapes. It is about a 2½ hour drive from Sofia to the small town of Melnik which serves as a great base for a wine tasting and cultural exploration tour of the region. Rustic cuisine, local wines, a wealth of culture and breathtaking nature. Could you ask for more on a leisurely getaway?
The map of the Melnik Wine Routes is a helpful tool for tourists and highlights wineries as well as historical, cultural and natural landmarks in the region.
The Melnik area is known for its distinctive wines. The region is home to an endemic grape variety found only here – Shiroka Melnishka Loza [Broadleaf Melnik]. Wines from this particular grape variety were the most popular Bulgarian wines in Western Europe in the 19th and 20th century. Even Winston Churchill himself was a big fan of Melnik wine allegedly purchasing 500 litres of Shiroka Melnishka Loza each year. The bluish-blackish grape is a late-ripening variety that can be challenging to cultivate. There have been a number of hybrid varieties developed from Shiroka Melnishka Loza in order to preserve the unique characteristics of this local grape variety, but at the same time make it easier to cultivate. Such hybrid varieties are: Melnik 82, Melnik Rouen and the most famous one Melnik 55 or Ranna Melnishka Loza [Early Melnik]. Native white grape varieties in the area are Sandanski Misket and Keratsuda. In addition to the grape varieties associated predominantly with the Melnik and Struma Valley wine region, other grape varieties grown here are: Mavrud (another native Bulgarian grape variety), Rubin (a hybrid Bulgarian grape variety) and a range of international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Marselan, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, Viognier and Muscat Ottonel. One thing is for certain – you cannot leave the Melnik area without trying wines from Shiroka Melnishka Loza and experiencing the pride that the locals take in this grape variety.
Melnik Wineries: Where to Taste
The glory days for Melnik wines are far from over. The wineries in the Melnik & Struma Valley region produce high-quality, award-winning wines and offer a wide array of wine tasting experiences amidst a peaceful natural scenery. The wineries provide informative, laid-back tours and give you a real taste of the terroir.
The following wineries are must-visit wineries that can easily be visited in 3 days:
Medi Valley is situated in the Struma Valley area that was inhabited by the Thracian tribe Medi up until the Romans conquered the region; hence the name of the winery. The most famous historical figure from the Medi tribe was Spartacus – the slave who led a revolt against the mighty Roman Empire. With similar boldness, Medi Valley set out to produce high-quality wines and is one of the forerunners in wine tourism in the area. Medi Valley is located nearby Bulgaria’s largest monastery – the Rila Monastery, which makes it a natural stop on the way to or from the monastery. Medi Valley has some of the highest vineyards in Bulgaria at over 550 meters above sea level. Tours and tastings are available daily.
Smochevo 2641, District of Rila
+ 359 88 555 2901
Villa Melnik is a family winery located in an area with a long history in winemaking and a number of wineries located in close proximity. Despite its recent establishment, Villa Melnik has boldly entered the Bulgarian wine market. Villa Melnik cultivates a selection of grape varieties ranging from the local Melnik varieties to traditional international varieties. A tasting in their tasting room, or in their spectacular underground labyrinth-like wine cellar, is truly a unique experience. The Zikatanov family and their team are always happy to welcome visitors. Tours and tastings are available daily.
Harsovo 2819, Blagoevgrad Region
+359 884 840320
Orbelus is one of the few 100% organic wineries in Bulgaria. Orbelus has the EU Green Leaf (Eco) label and the construction of the winery also speaks to its eco-vision. The winery is shaped as a barrel, half of which is buried underground. The construction of the winery allows for sunlight maximization, reduction of lighting needs and energy use, and facilitates the use of the gravitational method in the winemaking process. Orbelus is proof that there is a future for high-quality, organic wine in Bulgaria, which is also produced with minimal environmental impact. Tours and tastings are available daily.
Kromidovo 2871, Blagoevgrad Region
+359 295 15495
Orbelia winery is located in the far southwest of Bulgaria, close to where the borders of Bulgaria, Macedonia and Greece meet. Orbelia is the Thracian name of the mountain that surrounds the area and it means “The White Mountain” because of the ever-present snow caps on its peaks. Following the Thracian traditions of the area, Orbelia places emphasis on the local grape varieties such as Shiroka Melnishka Loza, Sandanski Misket and Kerazuda. Orbelia is a new winery but provides an authentic atmosphere reminiscent of rural and traditional Bulgaria. Tours and tastings are available daily.
Kolarovo 2880, Petrich Municipality
Phone: +359 884 667793
Culture, History, and Nature: What to See
There is no shortage of things to see in this region. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the highest mountains in Bulgaria, the smallest town in Bulgaria and the Melnik sand pyramids are a good start to some of the interesting sights this area has to offer.
The largest and most important Bulgarian monastery – Rila Monastery – is located in the region. The Rila Monastery might just be the most iconic and well-known cultural heritage site in Bulgaria. It was recognized as having outstanding universal value and inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983. The Rila Monastery is just 120 km from Sofia and not too far from the Medi Valley winery. Prepare to be drawn in by the beautiful architecture, ornate frescoes and spiritual ambience. The name is taken from its location in the Rila Mountains which are the highest in Bulgaria and on the Balkan Peninsula. The highest peak is Mt. Musala at 2925m/9740ft. For the adventurous souls, it is an absolute joy to hike in the Rila Mountains, especially all the way up to Mt. Musala or to the Seven Rila Lakes – a group of seven glacier lakes spread among impressive peaks and deep gorges.
The Rozhen Monastery of the Nativity of the Mother of God is the biggest monastery in the Pirin Mountains in southwest Bulgaria. It is located close to the village of Rozhen and not too far from the town of Melnik. The charming monastery boasts some of the most intricate and beautiful iconostases and frescoes. The holy icon of Virgin Mary is particularly famous. The serenity of the monastery grounds will leave you spellbound. Wander around the green surroundings. Bring a picnic basket and enjoy a peaceful lunch or visit the nearby Zlaten Rozhen Wine Cellar & Hotel for an authentic meal with some splendid wines from the cellar.
The Town of Melnik
Melnik is Bulgaria’s smallest town boasting a population of 210 residents. The town is a fascinating living architectural reserve. Up towards 96 of its buildings are cultural monuments of which most are traditional Bulgarian revival style houses. The most famous national revival house is the Kordopulov House that was owned by a rich merchant family in the 18th and 19th century. As was typical for all the merchant houses in the area, wine was made in the cellar of the large house and shipped off to wealthy customers in western Europe. The home is now a museum open to visitors and a glass of wine can still be enjoyed in the wine cellar.
A day or half-day is easily spent in Melnik exploring the house-museums, restaurants, wine tasting rooms and taking a walk in the Melnik Sand Pyramids – a natural phenomenon where the sandy slopes are formed as small pyramids.
Food & Accommodation: Where and what to eat
Bulgarian cuisine is one of the country’s best kept secrets. Many first-time visitors are pleasantly surprised by the culinary scene that is characterized by unique flavours, fresh ingredients and large hearty dishes. A throwback to a simpler time where a garden-to-table approach to cooking was not a trend but the norm. The rich culinary heritage of the country is just waiting to be discovered. Savour a taste of Bulgaria in the following recommended restaurants:
A traditional tavern located in the town of Sandanski that serves up typical dishes from the Bulgarian cuisine. Expect soups, stews, salads, homemade bread, homemade cheese and, of course, a fantastic selection of grilled dishes.
Ul. Stefan Stambolov 64, Sandanski
Phone: +359 896 959909
Bolyarka Hotel & Restauarant
A charming place to eat and stay in the town of Melnik. This centrally located traditional hotel and restaurant is a beautiful piece of national revival architecture. The restaurant has an outdoor garden for summers and a rustic indoor dining area for the colder days. Indulge in national and regional dishes such as beans slow-cooked in a clay pot, Melnik banitsa and a number of barbeque specialities such as grilled meat skewers. Why not spend the night at the hotel? Located close to all the major cultural and historical attractions of Melnik, it is a convenient and cosy place to stay.
Ul. Melnik 34, 2820 Melnik
Phone: +35 9888 455045
Guesthouses: Where to stay
The town of Melnik has a wide array of accommodation options such as small guesthouses/hotels like the Bolyarka Hotel. For accommodation outside of the town of Melnik, we recommend:
Zlaten Rozhen is a hotel, wine cellar and restaurant located in the village of Rozhen and not too far from the scenic monastery of Rozhen monastery. The small hotel is a great base in the region with easy access to the wineries and sights in the surrounding area. The food and ambience is authentic and honest. The underground wine cellar is a real gem with superb local wines and an elegant tasting table. Several attractions are nearby and the hotel is wonderfully quiet due to its non-crowded location.
Rozhen Village, 2820 Sandanski Municipality
+ 359 879 801300
Medite Resort Spa Hotel
Splurge on a stay at a luxurious SPA resort in the town of Sandanski. The town of Sandanski is famous for its thermal water springs with healing qualities and is a popular all-year-round spa and recreational destination. The town is still close to wineries and attractions and adds the element of spa and wellness to a trip.
“Polenishki Pat” Str., Sandanski
+359 746 3 32 00
Unique wine tasting experiences await you in the Melnik and Struma Valley Region. Insider tip? Take advantage of the unfamiliarity with the region and visit sooner rather than later.