It is autumn, 1760. A camel train is winding along the cobblestone road, shaded by arching fig and plane trees. The camel drivers trace the course of the Melnishka river, singing out and clucking at their beasts. Overhead the Despot Slav fortress looks over the camel train and keeps watch. For centuries it has kept vigil for any roving bands that might approach the merchant town of Melnik. Eroded sandstone formations march up the narrow valley. Like giant sentries posted aeons before they stand frozen as pyramid shapes. The pillars huddle over the neat houses of Melnik, large and elegant buildings of white stone and dark wood.
The Caravan’s Arrival
The women on the overhanging wooden balconies hear the calls of the camel drivers down the valley and call to each other. Shouts start to ring out. The trading caravan of the Kordopul has arrived! Bells ring and children tumble out of the yards to run and greet the caravan.
The caravan’s arrival has been anticipated with excitement. Each month or so it brings damask and silk, ivory goods, jewelry, lace, henna, spices and other luxuries. It travels widely to and from Venice, Thessaloniki and the Levant. The camels and their drivers, now puffed up with pride, sway with swinging rhythm through the town. They are thronged by children and watched excitedly by the women and young men. But before the goods can be unloaded and pored over by eager buyers, the Kordopul and his accountant must receive the whole lot. The Kordopul steps down from his grand house and stands above the fray. The inventory must be taken and records meticulously set down in massive leather-bound books. This is his trade. He is not the only wealthy merchant in Melnik but his house is one of the largest and finest.
The Fame of the Kordopul’s Wines
The camels grunt and bellow as they sink to their knees at the base of the wide stone stairs to the Kordopul’s house. In his white tunic and wide embroidered pants, large mustache and fez, the Kordopul folds his arms and admires the fruits of his life’s work. He is known far and wide for the great Shiroka Melnik wines that he produces and exports – resonant and deep wines revered in the best houses of Venice, Milan, Thessaloniki and Constantinople.
Times Change But The Wine Endures
In 2023, the camel trains are long gone and Melnik is perhaps 1/10th of the size it was in its glory days. History has seen a traumatic cascade of events since the long push for liberation from the Ottomans in the 1800’s. War was a staple until the end of World War II – only to be followed by stultifying Communist control until the 1980’s. Wine culture runs very deep however. And you could never take wine out of the blood of Bulgarians, much less the people of Bulgaria’s Melnik region.
Today the wine producers of Melnik are on a roll and pushing out again to foreign lands. They are cooperating to grow awareness of the region and to bolster wine tourism. New wineries are springing up and investment is flowing in. One wine family deserves a lot of the credit for this new energy. The vision of Nick and Lyubka Zikatanova of Villa Melnik has helped to spur a wonderful wine renaissance in this exotic corner of Europe. When they launched their ambitious wine project their neighbours may have been bewildered by the scale of what they proposed to do. But Nick is an engineer and a planner and he had a very clear concept for his masterpiece.
The Ancient and Noble Shiroka Melnik
Nick first and foremost wanted to honour the nobility of the local grape varieties. That meant planting Shiroka Melnik and its variants (plus a few international varieties for good measure). He would plant on the sandy, south facing slopes that are suited to bringing the best expression from the grapes. And he would design a gravity-flow winery where the wines can be processed as gently and respectfully as possible. To cap it off, the entire site would be designed to be a with visitor experience in mind and to accommodate future growth.
With wine tourism on the rise in the Melnik wine region, people are coming from around the world to see the dramatically beautiful location and drink the great wines of Melnik. The Kordopul would still recognize the place. History can ultimately be kind if you allow the traditional culture, food and wine to continue to flow!
Things to do and places to stay in Bulgaria’s Melnik Region
First off make sure you visit the Villa Melnik winery. The guest experience is terrific, the wines are great and the Zikatanova family are wonderful hosts.
The Baba Vanga House and Museum is the home of Baba Vanga in Rupite. Revered by both Orthodox Christians and paranormal enthusiasts, Baba Vanga had a terrible accident when young and lost her sight. However she subsequently gained the ability to foresee the future and to this day.
The Rozhen Monastery is a singularly impressive and impactful place. You can drive or hike there from Melnik and the villages and the views of the Melnik pyramids along the way are astounding.
The Despot Slav Fortress above Melnik makes for a good hike with views of the sandstone formations surrounding Melnik.
Other terrific wine destinations in the region include:
Zornitza Estate is a stunning Relais et Chateaux affiliated boutique hotel. If you cant stay then it is still very nice to go for a meal or a coffee to see the beautiful estate and try the wines.
Orbelus Winery has good wines an iconic sunken barrel architectural treatment.
More Great Articles and Content from The Wine Beat
The Wine Beat Podcast from Villa Melnik – Listen to the companion podcast to this article. The very charming Militza Zikatanova tells us all about the region, the wines and her families fantastic Villa Melnik winery.
Thracian Lowlands wine region article for more general information on this expansive Bulgarian wine region
A Winelover’s Guide to Summer in Greece – if you are in Bulgaria’s Melnik region then you might be popping over the border to Greece. Check out this great post for lots of information on the wines of Greece.