The town of Melnik, Bulgaria holds two superlative distinctions. With a population of a mere 208 inhabitants, it ranks as the Eastern European nation's smallest city. On top of that, the town's long tradition of viticulture is responsible for what is considered the country's most famous bottle of wine.
Farmers grow grapes all over Bulgaria, from the mountains in the west all the way to the Black Sea, and the diversity in landscape and climate results in a wide range of wines. Everyone has their favorite, but the grapes grown in the Melnik region are held in especially high esteem.
Perched in the southern slopes of Bulgaria's Pirin mountain range, Melnik enjoys a moderate, Mediterranean-style climate. A certain broadleaf red grape variety, officially called Shiroka Melnishka, grows only in this specific area. Legend holds that Winston Churchill was fond of the Melnik grape and would have cases of its wine imported for his enjoyment.
My first encounter with the grape came in a small cellar bored into a limestone cliff near the back of the town. The cellar, a traditional way to store wine barrels because of the steady temperatures and low humidity, was set in front of the Kordopulova house, which as the largest house in town makes an easy landmark. The building was constructed in the 18th century by a wealthy wine producer and currently serves as a museum.
Mitko Manolev welcomed me inside the cellar, charging a nominal entrance fee that included a glass of wine in the price of admission. Inside the enclosed cavern, the walls were lined with barrels and cheerfully decorated tables and chairs beckoned to guests. Bulgarian folk music played from a sound system while a friendly tabby cat walked up to demand affection. Manolev said that his family has been been cultivating grapes for 120 years, and produces about 15,000 liters per year. In the past, the family stomped grapes by foot, although they now use more modern production methods. "This is homemade wine," he promised. "All local, organic."
I tried first a white, made from a mix of less-celebrated local grapes. It smelled like rose and was very dry, with an aftertaste similar to that of liquor. Next, I asked for the iconic red. "This is the most typical wine of the region," Manolev said proudly, pouring a glass of the 2015 harvest directly from the cask.
It smelled soft and velvety. The initial taste was very dry, perhaps with a hint of apples. Then the second wave hit like a dagger, reminiscent of stale cigarette smoke, or rotten carrion. (The Melnik grape often produces tobacco and leather flavors when the wine is aged in oak.) The aftertaste lingered for minutes. Ensuing sips were no easier. Some customers stopped in and filled up giant jugs to drink later in what I could only assume was a masochistic challenge. I left the cellar and ventured toward the main area of the town, searching for a more palatable drink.
Out in the town, small churches and ruined walls dot the hillside. Most of the activity stretches along a solitary street, with displays in front of every store offering a variety of wines, liquors, jams and other locally made products.
The history of Melnik dates back millennia. Ancient Thracians were the first known group to settle the land, followed by Romans and eventually Slavs. It was subsequently conquered by the Turks, then the Russians, then became a major destination for ethnic Greeks. The population rose as high as 20,000 people, but constant turmoil and an early 20th century exodus of Greeks eventually whittled it away to its current levels. Residents today report that a lack of employment outside of tourism and winemaking keeps inhabitants away.
The area around the town itself is well worth exploring, before or after enjoying the fruits of the town's labors. The Rozhen Monastery, set on a hilltop a few miles away, is a spare stone Orthodox structure with components that date back to the 13th century. Beautiful frescoes line the inside and outside of the sanctuary and a fuzzy monastery cat patrols the grounds. A trail from the monastery runs along bluffs among a spectacular range of sand pyramids, featuring large boulders perched on top of spires like mushroom caps as the sand continues to erode away underneath. The trail descends through a forest and emerges in Melnik.
Fortunately for the local grape's reputation, other producers make drinks that are not quite as bold as my first sample. Inside another wine museum on the town's main thoroughfare, a series of displays demonstrate how grapes have been cultivated and processed over the centuries, starting with naked Thracians pounding them by foot. Here, tourists can sample from several types of local wine, and bottle and cork a souvenir themselves if they desire.
During my visit the museum offered a chardonnay, a red blend, a traditional Melnik red, and a fruity, sweet variety which hadn't been allowed to ferment completely, leaving a certain amount of sugar in the drink. The Melnik wine still had a distinctive dryness but lacked the particular, shall we say, dynamic aftertaste as the glass I'd tried back in the cellar. To each his own. Wine from Bulgaria's smallest town makes a fine gift for friends and family—just make sure you find a label that is forgiving to your taste buds.