Melnik grape variety grows only in the southwestern-most and warmest corner of Bulgaria, in the distinct Mediterranean valley of the Struma River. According to a very popular story, Melnik wine was Winston Churchill’s favourite – it is even claimed that Churchill had 500 litres of this wine delivered to him annually! Whether this is true or not, it is certain that the Melnik wine has a captivating taste much like that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape of southeastern France, often with tobacco and leather hints.
Two different clones of the Melnik grape exist. The Broad-Leaved Melnik Vine (Bulgarian: Широка мелнишка лоза, Shiroka melnishka loza) is a late-ripening variety which bears all the signs of an age-worthy southern red grape variety. Varietals are often named just Melnik, referring to the picturesque smallest town in Bulgaria, famous for its winemaking tradition.
Early Melnik Grape (Bulgarian: Ранна Мелнишка Лоза, Ranna Melnishka Loza) also known as Melnik 55 is a hybrid between the local grape variety Broad-Leaved Melnik Vine and mixed pollen of the French varieties Durif, Jurançon, Valdiguié and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Early Melnik Grape was created in 1963 by a team of oenologists. Their goal was to create a grape variety that ripens earlier than the local Broad-Leaved Melnik Vine, which ripens in the beginning of October, but at the same time preserving the unique characteristics of the Melnik variety. Interestingly, Early Melnik Grape was not immediately embraced by Bulgarian oenologists and the different hybrids selected from Broad-Leaved Melnik Vine were merely branded as Melnik wines. However, Early Melnik Grape is easier to cultivate and demonstrates significant potential for the production of excellent wines both as a single variety and in blends. This was confirmed after wines from Early Melnik Grape received some international awards which prompted the Bulgarian Vine and Wine Chamber to finally list this hybrid variety as a variety on its own in 2006.
The bunch of the Early Melnik Grape variety is medium-sized, cylindrical-conical, winged, semi-compact to compact. The grapes are also medium-sized, oval and juicy. The skin is thick, dark blue and covered with small spots. Early Melnik Grape ripens earlier than Broad-Leaved Melnik Vine – around September 20-25. It is relatively resistant to low winter temperatures and grey mould. This hybrid grape variety thrives best on lighter, warmer and sandy soils. It is mainly cultivated in the areas around Melnik and Sandanski.
The wines from Early Melnik Grape have deep ruby colour and rich complex aromas of leather and dried fruits. The flavour is characterized by typical fruity freshness combined with more spicy nuances in the aftertaste. Wines from Early Melnik Grape mature nicely and acquire flavours of leather, cherry, chocolate, vanilla.