Today we are visiting Villa Melnik in the Bulgarian village of Harsovo, awarded in the top 50 of the best wineries in the world. The owners of the wine cellar Nikola Zikatanov and his wife Lyubka welcome us and tell us the story of how they have managed to turn their love of wine into a family business.
How a dream comes true
Nikola was born in the nearby village of Kapatovo in a family of hereditary winemakers. He is a mechanical engineer by profession, but a few years ago he turned his back on everything he had achieved so far in order to make his dream come true – to build a small winery with a vineyard. Between 2000 and 2005 he bought land in the vicinity of his native village and planted vineyards with the help of experts.
Melnik region is a land of paradise, surrounded by mountains on all sides – Pirin, Slavyanka, Belasitsa, Ograzden. For centuries local peoples have been using its natural resources – mild climate, sandy soils and rolling hills and as a result, they have developed rich traditions in growing vines and making wine.
The ancient Thracian tribes – Medes and Sinti, inhabiting the valley of the river Struma, created a cult of wine and raised its status to a divine drink, participating in rituals in honor of the god Dionysus. 2100 years ago, the Romans passed through here and made a winery – owned by the Roman Senate. When the region was under Byzantine rule, it was used as a place of exile for political prisoners. I can imagine how severe their exile was, given that they had been pouring wine all day and there was evidence that they had brought a sense of good food and wine to the locals.
The mission and the local grape varieties
The Zikatanovi family embrace the mission to popularize the Melnik region around the world and to preserve its centuries-old viticultural traditions. In 2011 they built the winery, and in 2014 they had the first harvest. They planted 70% red and 30% white varieties. Of both groups, more than half are local varieties: Bulgarian – Mavrud, or typical mainly for Melnik – Shiroka Melnishka and its children – five red varieties – Melnik 55, Melnik 82, Melnik 1300, Melnik Rubin and Ruen and one white one – Sandanski Muscat.
At first, the owner was not very convinced if it was worth planting Mavrud, because beforehand nobody in Melnik used to do that , but he took the risk and did not regret it. Ironically, this is the first awarded Bulgarian bottle at an international wine competition and one of the most awarded bottles afterwards.
The winery loves experimenting and the results are not late – they always return with medals from world competitions. The award of Villa Melnik from 2020 in the ranking “50 best wine destinations in the world” is also a great recognition for the Bulgarian wine community, puts the wine cellar on the map of world wine tourism and ranks Melnik among popular wine destinations such as Bordeaux and Tuscany. The criteria are based on the overall tourist experience – wine, vineyards, wine tour and tasting, traditions, hospitality and more.
Wine tour and tasting
In Villa Melnik the personal attitude towards tourists is highly valued and someone from the family usually leads the tour. We were lucky that Nikola Zikatanov took us around the winery. We first visited the industrial premises which were completely subject to the force of gravity in order to save additional resources and to have minimal pressure on the fruit.
We met the technologist who told us what indicators are monitored during the tests. We looked at the cellars where the wine matures and the bottling hall. We also tasted different types of wine, and for the first time we tried orange wine.
It sounds quite exotic and modern as a name but it has existed for many years as a technology. Before our grandparents learned to separate the juice to ferment separately from the seeds and crushed grains they made white wine this way. The condition is that the wine spends some time in contact with the grape skins.
The most fun part of the whole experience for me personally was the sommelier exercise to capture specific aromas. There were several small bottles of essences of fruits, flowers and spices in front of each of us that we had to recognize. I totally failed because I couldn’t recognize two of my favourite scents – cinnamon and rose. It was not an easy task but it was very pleasant and a good warm-up for the senses so that we could then find the different notes in the wine more easily and make associations.
In the end we picked grapes from the vineyards at sunset and said goodbye with a desire to come back again.