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What is wine tourism, and is there soil for it in our country? And if we are bolder and dream about spa and wine tourism all in one? Well, dreams come true sometimes – the Bulgarian wine & SPA pearl is called Uva Nestum. And no, let’s not be fooled by the pearls of heading to the Black Sea. Uva Nestum is a hotel spa complex with 33 rooms and suites and also a boutique wine cellar only one km away from the town of Gotse Delchev.

And if the wine was first served in our lands by the Thracians, then the tradition of mineral baths dates back to Roman times. Latin is the thread that binds ancient cultures into one. From it comes Uva – grapes, and Nestum is the equivalent of Mesta – the river in which the complex is located. The name is a meeting of civilizations and succession on the way to the new face of Bulgarian tourism. The project certainly is impressive looked from outside, but also when you have the chance to experience each of its elements. From the moment you enter the small boutique winery to the walkthrough every part of the building of the complex, the view of the vineyards only a few meters from the of the hotel building, the own bird farm, the two ponds and the meeting with the friendly and smiling staff. The seventeen years spent making dreams come true and reflecting on each of these small but essential details are truly worth it.

The word boutique is fundamental to the Uva Nestum concept. This definition is met by a winery with a capacity of 10,000 bottles a year. Such was the original idea – to be small and without the possibility of expansion. Besides producing only 10,000 bottles a year, Uva Nestum’s wines will not be found commercially, but only on the territory of the complex. The choice is entirely up to the guest – whether to try SPA treatments with a glass of wine, buy a few bottles at home or combine dinner with limited wines. There is only one guarantee – the pleasure of the senses and the warm and personal attitude of each of the staff that has not been seen so far. Uva Nestum is the only wine cellar in Bulgaria that can be considered of closed-type in terms of the commercial realization of the production. A bold decision that also requires its victims – the 2014 harvest leaves growers almost without grapes due to severe weather conditions.  The team takes over the defeat and still manages to assemble a rose from Syrah. Due to the challenging year, the best quality of grapes was selected by the winemakers, and at the 2015 Balkan Festival the 100% Syrah rosé was awarded a trophy, this being the first cellar participation in the Balkan competition until then.

Uva Nestum‘s wine novel begins with the planting of Rubin’s first vineyards in 2005, which has so far received special attention from the team as the only local red variety in the complex. How did they decide to be the flagship of the cellar? The owner Ivan Bilarev wanted to have a locally distinctive variety. Because of the cooler climate and the inability to grow grapes from Melnik region, Rubin remains the only option. Well, the Bulgarian red jewel found its home along the Mesta River valley and adapted to the local climate. Step by step, all 22 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah also appear. In 2017, the winery added the last five decares of plantings, but the first with white varieties of Tamyanka and Muscat Ottonel. By the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021, the first vintage of white wine is expected.

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Today, the boutique winery produces limited batches of 1000 to 1600 bottles of blended wines. The one exception is the latest vintage rose, which will provide 2,500 bottles for the customers. Katia Iontcheva, one of the publishers of the Kata Bulgarian Wine Catalog, manages to distinguish the rose of Uva Nestum from every vintage and defines the style as recognizable as a quality, attached to its terror and expressive. Everything that has its own handwriting is memorable. So are the other wines of Uva Nestum – they remain a clear imprint in the minds of all who try them, from amateur to professional. The results are not too late – they annually bring gold, silver and bronze medals from the Balkan Fest, and the red blend from Rubin and Merlot receives three times five stars in the KATA Bulgarian Wine catalogue.

Let’s continue on the vineyards and the climate. Uva Nestum is the only winery in the Mesta River Valley, but due to the lack of clear zoning, it is presented as part of the wine region of the Struma River Valley. The climatic differences between the two areas are significant. Four mountains surround the Paradise corner of the Valley of Mesta river where the winery is located, and there is an incredible Mediterranean influence.  The natural air currents between the river and the mountains lead to high-temperature amplitudes and prolong the ripening season by two to three weeks, compared to Melnik. Spring and autumn colds are also observed here, which put viticulture at risk, and sometimes even the entire crop, as in 2014. Where to without positives, the negative ion content in the air makes the area similar in some respects to that of Sandanski, and it turns it especially suitable for therapeutic prophylaxis.

But back to the wine. The red blends of Uva Nestum are presented in four series. Two are in the upper class and bear the name of the cellar. The ratio in all the blends changes with each vintage depending on the quality of the grapes. One thing is clear – the Uva Nestum team has made a firm decision. A compromise on quality cannot and should not be made. If the year is challenging, the wine will not be produced. The wines in the Uva Nestum series are blends from Rubin and Merlot and also Cabernet Sauvignon / Fran and Merlot. The first listed varieties dominate, with a percentage ratio of 80/20. They spend 12 to 14 months in first use French barrels from the Silven cooperage. When many perfectionists are gathered in one place, everything is thought of, and in the way of exclusion, everything is left in the past inoperative. Over the years, barrels of different origins, including Bulgarian ones, have been tried to stop Silven, who has precisely the same attitude to oak as Uva Nestum has to wine. Scales are in balance – no more, no less.

Viva la libre! This is the story behind the mid-range Uva Libre wine. At one of the annual holiday dinners where the company says thank you to their loyal customers, the people of the Uva Nestum team witness the free performance of the song by the guest group Akaga “Cuba Libre “. From Cuba Libre did not take that long to Uva Libre. Let there be freedom! This mid-range wine shows more freshness as it has aged for six months in a second filling French barrel. In addition to the usual suspects of Cabernet Sauvignon and Rubin, the ethereal and elegant Syrah plays a significant role in the blend.

The entry-level wine is named after Shirtò, a local traditional dance from the area. The last two vintages were rested for a month or two in old French barrel, and afterwards, the wine shows lush, lively, playful and youthful or just like the Shirtò “horo”.

Uva Nestum is a family project. At first glance at the luxurious and modern building with its glossy cleanliness and well maintained green spaces, one would think that this is impossible. The other question you would ask yourself is: “Am I really in the Balkans or Bulgaria?” We owe all the magic to the agronomist Ivan Bilarev and his family. And yes, it takes 17 years to build the complex and get its present appearance. It is no accident that the architect Lilo Popov, who designs the boutique wine complex, defines it as the project of his life, in absolute harmony with the plan of the life of his friend and investor Ivan Bilarev. This mission is fulfilled with the support of the entire Bilarevi family, who to this day may be spotted welcoming dear guests or helping with the work of the complex. Each of the members performs a different task according to their passion and abilities. The younger daughter Tsvetelina is the manager of the complex, prepared to do so by graduating Management in France. Her husband, Zhivko, works as a Food and Beverage manager. Atanas Bilarev’s father is an agronomist-grower and gardener and takes care of the vineyards and gardens in the mansion. Sister Magdalena, along with her best friend Rossi Georgieva, stands by their ideas and skills behind winemaking. There are two other ladies who, although not part of the family, are quickly adapting to the values ​​embodied in the concept and the noble cause of each to do her best in the name of the Uva Nestum project.

On the picture from left to the right: Dimka Medareva, Rositza Georgieva, Ivan Bilarev, Atanas Bilarev and Magdalena Bilareva

One is Dimka Medareva – winemaker in the winery since 2017. She graduated from the Institute of Chemical Technology in the field of Technology of Microbiological and Fermentation Products. After finishing her education, she worked as a technologist in the tobacco industry, but her valid baptism was wine and the Uva Nestum project. Love from the first bunch of grapes to the last drop of wine. It is the exact description of her time spent in the small boutique cellar, which becomes even more welcoming upon her arrival. The harmony and perfection of wine are what she strives for in her daily work. And when Dimka is not in the cellar, she gladly hosts wine tastings and enchants her listeners at the events. And time flies imperceptibly – from one hour to two and three hours, and the local wine lovers happily conquer new wine horizons in her company.

The other lady on a mission “Wine tourism “at Uva Nestum is Ekaterina Hristova, brand manager of the project. Her adventure with the Mesta River Valley began in 2012. Ivan Bilarev’s vision is to create a product that competes globally but also maintains its identity, charm and uniqueness. It is where Ekaterina comes into play. She and the team of 200 people working at Uva Nestum and the second complex in Ognyanovo, Therma Vitae, believe in the most ancient word-of-mouth advertising so they can recreate the divine world they have already touched in their guest’s souls. They strive to convey the genuine emotion of this magical place so that their guests can feel the same inseparable connection with nature and the inspiration from it. For this reason, they do not use intermediaries, such as the Booking reservation system. They participate in tourist exchanges such as” Vacation and SPA” in Sofia and ‘Philoxenia’ in Thessaloniki, where they seek direct contact with future guests.

Visiting Uva Nestum is like entering a paradise garden. Peace of mind, biodiversity and natural harmony reign on the territory of the complex. The gardens grow their eco-friendly fruits and vegetables. Beehives and a farm for pheasants, geese, turkeys, ducks, roosters and chickens complete the idyll. And to make the animal kingdom even more complete, there are rabbits and two ponds with their fish – catfish and carp. More deer and hind with decorative function are a delight for the children.

It is normal to forget about the time when you are immersed in this realm of nature, but if you still decide to travel around the region, the opportunities are many. One real trip in time is the visit to one of the four architectural reserves – Kovachevitsa, Leshten, Dolen and Delchevo. The warmth that the locals welcome in these places is something that has not changed for centuries.

Ekaterina Hristova shares that family traditions are especially important in the region, and every year hundreds of people come back from distant lands in order not to miss the annual family gatherings. She does not remember seeing a longer “horo “in her life than those at fairs in the area. The cleanliness and the ease of the locals are carried in their work, and Ekaterina brags that she does not need to train the staff, composed of residents of the surrounding settlements, on hospitality. Smiles and kind words are sometimes difficult to find in the busy everyday life of big cities, but here they are appreciated and the day goes by without them. Her quest is in other directions – she brings in wine experts, renowned chefs and regularly partners with Dimka Medareva to provide the staff of the complex with knowledge of food and wine. Ivan Bilarev and the team believe in the concept of terroir and strive to use mainly local products to prepare the restaurant’s menu. The wine list consists mostly of Bulgarian wines. Listings from the Greek region of Drama, which is culturally adjacent and close to theirs, are also not missed.

For SPA treatments, they use Pinotage based wine products imported from South Africa by TheraVine. The Wine Therapy package includes immersion in unique tubs that resemble wine barrels. Other applications of the divine drink have been discovered.

From 2018 Ekaterina Hristova’s mission turns from regional to national. The platform www.winetrips.eu, created in partnership with wine-oriented tourism organizations from Drama, Greece and Calabria, Italy becomes a wine ambassador for the three regions, but not only. In addition to the valley of the Mesta River, Ekaterina also includes the twelve wine and culinary destinations of Bulgaria, specially tailored wine routes in Plovdiv, Melnik, the Northeast region and Sofia. Everything that can be experienced in the Bulgarian wine world has been covered so far. Still, the ambitious Ekaterina knows that she will continue to follow everything that happens on the wine scene and will keep the information on the site up to date.

3-4 km from Uva Nestum is the remains of the Roman fortress Nikopolis Ad Nestum, built by Emperor Traian in honour of the victory over the Dacians. Once he has succeeded, Uva Nestum also believes that they will fight together for the success of their project, the promotion of the area and Bulgarian wine tourism. A region is a sacred place from ancient times. It reveals the legend of the Ognianovo Mineral Baths, which St. Pavel has illuminated himself. Since then, it is believed that mineral springs have healing properties. The indirect evidence, according to historians, is that the Episcopal Baptistery Center in Nikopolis Ad Nestum is directing a visit from one of the Apostles.

United, we stand strong. Ekaterina remembers with laughter and joy the conflict resolution training she had with the staff at the complex. Then all the workers sat down together and shared their stories about a difficult situation with the guests of the hotel. Ekaterina is initially cautious and suggests that she can evoke negative emotions, but is surprised by the humour with which everyone recounts past stressful events, realizing the valuable experience they gathered. The team has left more cohesive than ever. Even two female colleagues hugged each other after rethinking a dispute that has split the two best friends for months before.

COVID 19 and Uva Nestum. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has a severe impact on the Bulgarian hospitality industry and the entire tourism industry. Ekaterina Hristova, with enviable optimism, believes that the current situation will contribute to the development of domestic tourism, and this will partly save the industry. We will witness the natural filtering of the quality of our experiences and the search for high-quality proposals. She hopes state institutions will pay attention to internal tourism and support successful initiatives. For her, an excellent example to follow is the encouragement by the German government of visits to local family hotels, which focuses on the power of the owners on the quality of the product offered. Interesting to watch are the so-called social nomads who work from home and travel and live in different countries around the world. Ekaterina discovers that for them, Bulgaria is becoming an increasingly attractive place to visit. She thinks that we will meet more of them in the future. And people around the world are unlikely to stop travelling, but will already be looking for quality experiences such as meeting Bulgarian wine and the people who produce it.

Author

Pavlin Ivanov