The White Swallow of Struma
There is hardly any doubt that Melnik and its surroundings are one of the most prominent wine regions in Bulgaria. The millennial history of the legendary local wine can be told for hours and days. However, despite the old traditions and the favorable viticulture conditions the region has somehow left aside from the revival of the Bulgarian wine industry and the appearance of a number of new and very attractive wine producers. Thus, the reputation of the Melnik wine among the tourists in the region for quite many years in a row has been formed mainly of homemade and offered “a dime a dozen” different of kind, variety and quality products.
A peculiar “White Swallow”* in the Struma Valley has flown off the way to change the perceptions for the wine virtues of the Melnik region. Here, nearby the village of Harsovo, the true wine connoisseurs can already find a beautiful new and modernly equipped winery. And not only its excellent wine but also the sincere hospitality of its owners suggest that its appearance is a good harbinger of the future.
“The wine-making was part of my childhood”, tells his story the owner of Villa Melnik Mr. Nikola Zikatanov, who’s been born in the neighboring village of Kapatovo. As a child he spent a lot of time in the vineyards of his grandfathers working along with them and witnessing how the grapes are turning into wine. But his childhood dream wasn’t to continue this tradition since having a private winery in the socialist times was simply impossible. Therefore, he went to study for an engineer and after the collapse of the regime he started a private business. He also studied management in the USA and thanks to his American business contacts brought in Bulgaria several US investment funds whose financial resources he managed successfully in various projects. But the natural cycle of life pushed him to the next challenge. “As you approach your fifties you start thinking about what would you do in the second half of your life. This is how I decided to come back to my family traditions and make my own winery”, explains the entrepreneur.
What additionally motivated Nikola Zikatanov to commence a new wine-making venture was the fact that although the number of visiting tourists in Melnik was on increase in the last couple of years the wines that were offered to them as typical for the region were declining in quality. “The old times fine and densely Melnik wine which I knew from my grandparents has nothing to do with the one that’s being offered nowadays”, says Zikatanov. Thus, the return to glory of the legendary Melnik wine has become his inspiring mission and he started its accomplishment with the work on the vineyards. Patiently, Zikatanov bought separate land spots in different villages in the region as he didn’t know where exactly he would be able to set up a sizeable enough vineyard.
In the spring of 2004 near the village of Harsovo – in the surroundings of Melnik – he planted the first 10 hectares of high-grade vines from the best local and international varieties. Special attention was given to the indigenous red variety Shiroka Melnishka Loza (in English: Broad-Leaved Melnik Vine). The 3 hectares, dedicated for this variety were planted with vines taken from old vineyards left out of the socialist-type agricultural cooperatives. It turned out that the grapes from these vines are darker and more aromatic which allows for making a wine with excellent qualities. The rest of the new vineyard was planted with the varieties of Ranna Melnishka Loza (a.k.a. Melnik 55; in English: Early Melnik Vine), Keratsuda (also a local one), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Another vineyard of 20 hectares is located in the area of the village of Vinogradi which is nearly one kilometer from the first one. The varietal diversity there is even greater: Merlot, Syrah, and the traditional – mostly for the central Trakia region – Bulgarian variety Mavrud. The 3 hectares of Mavrud planted by Villa Melnik are the only in this region grown for the purpose of commercial wine-making.
In the course of the next three years a number of other varieties were added: the Bulgarian red hybrid Ruen; another clone of Syrah; Pinot Noir; Sangiovese. Some whites were also planted: the classic Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc; the increasingly popular Viognier; as well as the indigenous Tamyanka and Sandanski Misket.
“From the very outset I wanted to put more emphasis on the local varieties. However, back then it was quite fashionable to make wine from renowned international varieties. That’s why the indigenous varieties at Villa Melnik are less than I would like them to be although they capture approximately 50% of all our vineyards. The chances to export Syrah to France are not so big even if the wine is perfect. But it is much more realistic to expect an opportunity to export wines of Melnik 55, Mavrud or Tamyanka. That’s why if we plan to expand our vineyards in the future it will be in the benefit of the local varieties”, says the owner of Villa Melnik.
The initial vintages from the new vineyards were vinified at neighboring wineries – first at Vinprom Sandanski, and then at Sintica, where in the hands of the winemaker Ms. Valeria Stoeva the wines of Villa Melnik under the brands Bergulè, AplauZ and Villa Melnik made a very successful debut and won their first prizes from the contests at Vinaria and the Balkans International Wine Competition. In the spring of 2013 the newly built in the middle of the Harsovo vineyard modern winery was put in operation. The building features the typical Melnik architecture and amplifies the allusion to the White Swallow because of its snow-white façade. “I wanted to have the winery among the vineyards and chose especially this place because of the unique view to my home village of Kapatovo. That was my true inspiration over the time”, reveals Mr. Zikatanov. The cellar has a capacity for vinification of approximately 250 tonnes of grapes. It is built on three levels to facilitate the flow of the must to the wine vessels through the gravity force. All the steel vessels in the winery as well as the 250 oak barrels where the mature wine ages are made by Bulgarian manufacturers.
“In the beginning – like many other wine producers – I started with French barrels. But led by the idea to give a local identity of our production I decided that there should be a way to make a good wine from Bulgarian varieties and age it in Bulgarian oak barrels. The wines that aged in Bulgarian barrels were welcomed by the public, won medals, and we even managed to export some to Japan. That’s why I’m confident that the Bulgarian oak is in no way inferior to the foreign ones”, explains Nikola Zikatanov. Nevertheless, one of his Bulgarian suppliers of barrels works also with French and American oak, and thus some foreign oak material plays part in the winemaking process at Villa Melnik. However, all of the barrels are produced here in Bulgaria.
The idea to rely on the Bulgarian identity of every detail in Villa Melnik is central piece of the entire philosophy of the winery. “I don’t think we can conquer the world markets with Bulgarian wine which is from a French variety, aged in French oak, and made by a French winemaker”, shares his view the entrepreneur. Therefore he has put his reliance again on the Bulgarian as it comes for the technology of winemaking though he used the help of the renowned French consultant Mr. Didier Malhe in the beginning. “We need to learn from the others but we don’t have to leave in the hands of the others something that we claim is our millennial tradition”, asserts Zikatanov. The current winemakers of Villa Melnik are young professionals from the region: Ms. Rumyana Stoilova who has studied winemaking in Bordeaux (France), received trainings at French wineries, and worked along with Didier Malhe, as well as Mr. Kostadin Kafferinov who has graduated from the University of Food Technologies in Plovdiv (Bulgaria).
Villa Melnik is one of the still few wineries which count on the wine tourism very actively ever since their inception. The positive results are already there although the cellar opened doors just less than a year ago. A number of tourists have visited the winery – in groups or individually – and besides the habitually curious Bulgarians, there have been many foreigners too. “Meeting so many wine-lovers who come around I am more than convinced that the wine tourism can naturally gain ground here in Bulgaria”, says Lyubka Zikatanova, the wife of Nikola, who pleasurably takes care of the visits to the cellar. She points that a much stronger inflow of tourists is yet to come as new wineries are being constructed on the neighboring hills. “We need to have a critical mass of interesting and quality producers in order to ensure that the Melnik region is no longer associated by the tourists and wine-lovers with inferior wines.
The benefit for all of us will be much greater if the region gains a reputation for its fine wines and hospitality than if just a single wine or cellar can be outlined as high-quality”, adds Mrs. Zikatanova.
The team of Villa Melnik is ready to share with everyone its experience because it knows well that in the winemaking as well as in everything else in this world one swallow does not make a summer. Even if it is the miraculous White Swallow.
* In the Bulgarian folklore the White Swallow is a symbol of hope and a harbinger of prosperity.
© 2013 "VinoZona"