Courtesy Villa Melnik Winery

How to Drink Your Way Through Bulgaria's Ancient Wine Region

The valley along the Struma river is home to several indigenous grape varieties that have been cultivated here for thousands of years. A new crop of boutique wineries is committed to exploring their full potential.

Wine producers in Bulgaria’s Struma Valley (named after the river Struma that passes through it) like to say to visitors that the panoramic views in the region will remind you of Tuscany while its wines taste much like those in the Rhône Valley in France. And it’s easy to see the similarities. The picture-perfect sun-drenched rolling hills of the Struma Valley, located in the southwest of the country, are dotted with boutique, family-owned wineries, scenic patches of vineyards, and sleepy villages—a landscape that bears a striking resemblance to Italy’s picture-perfect province. And, yes, just a sip of any of the region’s bold, peppery reds may certainly bring back memories of Rhône Valley’s elegant and spicy wines. But equating the Struma Valley to other wine regions—however famous and picturesque they may be—would be grossly misleading and misrepresenting this area’s unique culture, history, character, and certainly that of its wines.

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When it comes to winemaking, Bulgaria may not be a household name the way New Zealand or Chile are, but it’s worth mentioning that the country was one of the world’s biggest wine exporters in the 1980s and, in 2018, it was among the top 22 wine-producing countries in the world—not a small feat for a country roughly the size of New York state. The soils, geography, and climate types allow wine producers in the country to grow a number of international grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay, but also a lot of indigenous ones—mavrud, rubin, misket, kerazuda, just to name a few.

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And while Struma Valley is not large—it borders Greece on the south and northern Macedonia on the west and is surrounded from all sides by multiple mountain ranges—it has a unique, more Mediterranean-like climate and sandy soils perfect for growing two of the most important indigenous grape types—Melnik 55 and broad-leaved Melnik (or shiroka melnishka in Bulgarian).

Andrey Andreev/Courtesy Villa Melnik Winery

The latter is truly emblematic for the region—it was brought here by the Romans from Syria 2,000 years ago and despite many attempts by producers to cultivate it in other parts of the country, the broad-leaved Melnik seems to only thrive in the hot and dry climate of the Struma Valley. Melnik 55 is actually a hybrid of the broad-leaved Melnik and the French varieties durif, jurançon, valdiguié, and cabernet sauvignon. The wines that these two grape varieties produce are rich, aromatic, have a deep ruby color, and are so tasty that even Winston Churchill was a fan.

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Winemaking has been a part of this region’s history for thousands of years. Artifacts found here show that an ancient Thracian tribe called Maedi inhabited the area along the Struma River as early as the 3rd century B.C. Wine played a major role in Thracian civilization as people used it in religious rituals. Hellenic authors write that Thracians drank wine un-diluted which was unheard of at that time. It is also believed that Spartacus, who belonged to the same tribe, was born in the area (there is a monument of the famous Thracian warrior in Sandanski—one of the bigger towns in the region).

And even though, much like the rest of the Balkan Peninsula, the Struma Valley has had an incredibly tumultuous past—throughout different periods of history, it has been ruled by the Romans, Byzantines, and later Ottomans—people didn’t abandon their winemaking traditions.

Related: How to Choose the Perfect Bottle of Wine While On Vacation

It is still completely normal for individuals of all walks of life to produce wine for personal consumption from their private vineyards, but there have also been many small, family-owned wineries that have opened their doors here in the past 20 years. Most of them have taken it upon themselves to show the full potential of the indigenous grape varieties of Struma Valley—namely Melnik 55 and the broad-leaved Melnik—but some of them are also growing international varieties and then blending them with the indigenous ones that result in unique tastes and aromas well worth the trip here.

Here are five of the best wineries that should be part of your itinerary next time you’re in Bulgaria’s wine country.

Villa Melnik Winery

Villa Melnik is perched on a hill overlooking the small village of Kapatovo (where its founder Nikola Zikatanov was born) and a beautiful rolling patchwork of vineyards. But the stunning views that open up before your eyes are just one reason to pay a visit to this boutique winery managed by the Zikatanov family (Nikola’s wife Luybka spends most of her time here and she may even greet you at the door). Another reason? Villa Melnik was just ranked one of the best vineyards in the world for 2020 alongside the likes of Château d'Yquem and Maison Ruinart.

The Zikatanovs have focused their efforts on producing excellent wines made primarily with the local broad-leaved Melnik and Melnik 55 varieties. Highlights include the winery’s signature red Aplauz Melnik 55 Reserve 2017 made from carefully selected grapes aged 18 months in oak barrels, Bergule Melnik, and 2015 Pinot Noir—an elegant red with a medium body that brings out aromas of cherries, sour cherries, and herbs. 

You can’t leave without tasting Villa Melnik’s signature, award-winning Orange Wine that has been a staple here for the past four years. It is produced using a traditional technique that was extremely popular in Bulgaria in the past—it is essentially white wine that has been left to ferment without removing the skins of the grapes that give the wine its pale orange color.

To find out more, visit: villamelnik.com

Orbelus Organic Winery

Inspired by a local legend according to which wine barrels are God’s gifts that have fallen from the sky, the owners of Orbelus decided to build the winery in the shape of a colossal barrel partly buried in the soil. Of course, there’s a lot more to Orbelus than its peculiar architecture—or name, which is how Thracians called the land where the winery is located.

Founded by two families in the early 2000s, it was the first certified organic winery in Bulgaria. Thanks to the dry climate and lack of city pollution in the region, it is relatively easy to grow high-quality grapes without the use of synthetic chemical products.

Courtesy Orbelus Organic Winery

The winery owns about 54 hectares of vineyards with mostly indigenous grape varieties as well as some international ones such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, pinot gris, viognier, and petit verdot.

Some of their must-try wines include the award-winning getika, Melnik, and prima, made from the Melnik 55 grape variety as well as the wines from their experimental hrumki series.

To find out more, visit: orbelus.bg

Zlaten Rozhen Cellar

The name of this winery means Golden Rozhen—Rozhen is the name of a local village where the winery also owns a small boutique hotel—and it is one of the biggest vine owners in the region. Merlot, cabernet, syrah, Melnik 55, and wide-leaved Melnik make up the majority of its grapevines. 

The winery and tasting room are located in the village of Kapatovo where Zlaten Rozhen produces all of its wines.

Its White Sand white wine is actually produced from red wide-leaved Melnik grapes—a technique known as blanc de noir—and the result is a medium-bodied, almost see-through wine with an intense aroma and spicy notes.

To find out more, visit: zlatenrozhen.bg

Rupel Winery

If in addition to great wine, you’re also after killer views then Rupel Winery is an absolute must-visit. Located on a hill in the village of Dolno Spanchevo, the chateau-like building of the winery sits on a hill above the vineyards and offers panoramic vistas of the lowlands as well as sunsets you definitely won’t forget.

Asen Tulilov/Courtesy Rupel Winery

Rupel owns about 74 acres of vines and specializes in growing a number of indigenous and international grape varieties such as broad-leaved Melnik, rubin, tamianka, pinot noir, marselan, viognier, nebbiolo, and sangiovese. Try some of their Philosoph Reserve reds, made from a blend of Melnik 55, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and marselan, that have aged for 18 months in French oak barriques.

Gramatik Ekzarh is another award-winning dry red that should be on your radar—a medium-bodied, smoky wine with notes of licorice, sweet spices, and vanilla.

And finally, Rupel’s Gramatik Melnik 55 reserve 2015 is a single varietal wine of Melnik 55, which has a medium-light body with notes of cherries, sour cherries, and delicate spices.

To find out more, visit: rupel-wine.bg

Orbelia Winery

Orbelia is so committed to preserving the wine-making traditions of the region that a tour of the winery feels like a journey through time where you not only get to taste their wines but also do so in a traditional Bulgarian setting. Even the winery’s name originates in ancient times—Orbelia is the Thracian name of the mountain where the winery is located.

Exposed wooden beams, stone-covered walls, and various antique household objects add to the tasting room’s historical ambiance.

Orbelia’s Via Aristotelis Merlot 2016 was awarded a gold medal at the prestigious Concours Mondial de Bruxelles contest that ranks the world’s finest quality wines. It has a rich ruby color and a fruity aroma with notes of plums, cranberries, and chocolate.

If you are ready to put your winemaking hat on, the winery will let you blend your bottle of wine as a keepsake. 

To find out more, visit: orbeliawinery.bg

What to Do

When you are ready to walk off the wine, head to Melnik—Bulgaria’s smallest town (and yes, that’s an official title). While the town’s population is somewhere in the couple of hundreds, you may find that fact hard to believe since it is quite a popular tourist destination. The main draw of Melnik is the unique architecture of its houses (all of them have been designated cultural monuments) as well as its location—it is surrounded by the Melnik Pyramids, a geological phenomenon, and a natural landmark. The unique rock formations—that look somewhat like the Grand Canyon but on a much smaller scale—were formed millions of years ago and are home to rich flora and fauna.

Dea/W. Buss/Getty Images

Next up, get in the car and drive about four miles to the Rozhen Monastery built in the 13th century. It is the biggest monastery in the region and consists of several (all of them functioning to this day) buildings that flank a beautiful yard. The incredible frescoes—described as a masterpiece of art—in the church date back to the 16th century and are a must-see.

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If you are the outdoorsy type, you’re in luck—this part of the country has plenty of hiking trails. Check out Pirin National Park that spans an area of about 155 square miles. The park is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site while Melnik and Rozhen Monastery are on the organization’s tentative lists.

Visiting in the winter? Bansko, a small town and a popular winter resort, about an hour away, offers excellent ski and snowboard conditions and 46 miles-worth of slopes.

Where to Stay

Courtesy Zornitza Family Estate

Bulgaria’s only Relais & Chateaux property is located in the heart of Struma Valley. Zornitza Family Estate is a stunning property that spans over 740 acres and includes vineyards, an animal farm, an orchard, and two gardens where a total of 500 oak trees and stone pines, have been inoculated with truffles.

Courtesy Zornitza Family Estate

The architecture of the resort resembles that of an ancient Italian village with a plaza and a tower. The property includes an outdoor pool, two restaurants, 15 houses and suites, a wine cellar, a tasting room, and a spa with a gorgeous indoor pool. Zornitza’s fine dining Aestivum restaurant offers “terroir cuisine” and over 400 wines to pair it with. And since the estate is surrounded by vineyards and wineries, gorgeous views and dreamy sunsets are a given here.

To find out more, visit: zornitzaestate.com

How to Get Here

Bulgaria’s capital city, Sofia, and Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki are both great fly-in options. The former is located about 113 miles north from Struma Valley, while the latter is about 83 miles south of it.