Friday, June 27, 2014

When things got weird in a Bulgarian wine cave

Melnik is a lovely little village set in the countryside in southwest Bulgaria, near the border with Greece.  There is one main street that runs just outside the center and two small streets that run through the village.  We found a room at the Staria Chinar, named for the old tree in the front yard.  It is an 800 year old Chinar and it's beautiful.  But the town isn't known for it's trees, it's known for it's own variety of wine, the Melnik grape, aptly named for the town (or vice-versa).

It's easy to have a good time in Melnik- there's great food and cheap wine (although we didn't try the plastic jug variety)... And there are hats that say "Bulgaria" available along the street for impromptu photo shoots.  

The town still has the traditional Bulgarian architecture, which we hadn't seen since we were skiing in Bansko.

Another eye catching trait are the sandstone cliffs behind town. 

Nate had visited Melnik about 10 years ago and remembered hiking up to a wine cellar somewhere in town.  As we were walking the small streets in town, we spotted a sign for Shestaka wine cellar- and hoped that it was the same one.  The sign's "100 meters up" literally means straight up a steep rock-lined trail.  

There was a 2 Lev ($1.40) entrance fee which covered 2 tastings of the 5 wines.  I paid an extra 3 Lev for all five tastings.  It was a lovely little cave, only big enough to squeeze in 10 people- but since we're both a bit claustrophobic, we were glad that it was just the two of us.  The cave was dug 250 years ago and has been storing wine ever since by the same family- the Manolev's.

The cave holds 5 varieties of wine.  I missed a lot in the translation but from what I understood, there is a "white", a "rose", a sweet Melnik, a semi-dry Melnik and a semi-dry Melnik/Merlot blend.

Honestly, they were all pretty dreadful, most with a heavy taste of vinegar except for the blend- so we bought a bottle of the blend for 5 Lev/$3.50. It was scortching hot outside so we stayed in the cave where it was cool.

Somehow we got off on the wrong foot with the wine cellar steward from the start.  Since Nate was talking with him in Bulgarian, I was blissfully unaware and snapping photos like this one below...   This may be the owner Mitko Manolev, a.k.a, "six fingers"- a nickname given for a family trait of having six fingers on the left hand.  I hadn't known about this before going- so wasn't looking for it but did think it was odd how his left hand was always shoved in his pocket (see video).  Looks like five below though...  Anyway, this could, or could not be, Six Fingers.  I see all dreams of ever being an investigative reporter slipping through my fingers (five, fyi).

It all became brutally clear that he didn't like us when I asked Nate to translate my question "What is the difference between all of the barrels, is it the age of the wine?"  It was like lighting a match to an explosive.  I had actually done a bit of homework on the local wines and knew that the Melnik wine was not aged beyond a year because they do not use preservatives (or perhaps they prefer the vinegar flavor) so perhaps I should have asked if there was a difference of age "within a year" but that seems like a mouthful to ask Nate to translate.

He immediately began lecturing Nate with a volume that increasingly escalated within the small cave.  I clearly had no idea what was going on- so he switched to English for my educational benefit as well (we had no idea he spoke English up until then).  It went on for quite a while and eventually I decided that I needed to get some on video and excused myself from the conversation.  Unfortunately, I stopped recording right before he started doing a Madonna vogue move (multiple times) while explaining how Americans are short sighted because we age our wines.  In his opinion, there is no reason not drink the wine right away.  Americans, in his opinion, age wine for "prestige" only and for no other reason.  I wonder if he has any idea that Americans are just one country of many that age wine... but it seemed wise not to fuel to the fire.  Poor Nate, he tried to be so patient with the guy- well, right up until the end.

Here's the video-

Maybe because it was clear that I no longer cared, the discussion switched back into Bulgarian for the remainder of the wine lecture.  I felt awkward pointing the camera in his face, so I recorded this next bit while filming my wine glass.  Nate translated- saying that it had to do with developing one's sense of taste for wine.  Since it is in Bulgarian, likely this will only interest my friends who speak it.  

Not surprisingly, the next day we treated ourselves to some great beer instead of going into another wine cave... 

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