A "crazy pianist" between London and Bulgaria

I am meeting Ivo Varbanov several hours before his flight. He was here for the harvest, a tasting event with his wines and a concert among other things. He has to leave for London in a while and I wonder if it would have been more appropriate to meet him at the airport for an interview and some spy-movie inspired scenes involving envelope exchange under the table and suspicious looks at the direction of the airport authorities. OK, OK! At least I was going to take a picture with airplanes taking off at the background so that you could soak up the atmosphere.

Since it is an early morning (not so early, but early enough for me anyways) I am trying to break the ice with a casual question on how the harvest is going. He replies that it is too early to say. “Everybody brags about the good year but I think that’s not right before all the grapes are in. Work’s first, talk’s later and not vice versa“. Bad news for me! I need not ask him premature questions, which means that I have to paraphrase about 43.5% of what I’ve prepared.

Tell us more about yourself. Where did you grow up, how did you start playing the piano, and what was your life like before you start making wine?

I was born in Pleven in a family of musicians so I started playing the piano from an early age. When I was 9, we left for Italy where my mother played at the symphonic orchestra in San Remo. I grew up there. I studied in Milan under the Hungarian pedagogue Ilonka Deckers and then I was admitted to the Royal Academy of Music in London where I live for almost 20 years now.

How were you introduced to the world of wine?

My “second” life in the field of wine began in Italy, a country with a long culinary and winemaking tradition. I was interested in food and cooking from an early age. Later on, I started getting interested in wine as well. When I left for Great Britain, I realized that wine is not a product limited to Italy and France but is available worldwide. I started searching, reading, and collecting wine and at some point I though of investing in my birth country when the conditions were favorable: to plant a vineyard and vinify the grapes I produce.

What wines are you striving to produce? Can you define their style and tell us how much you are experimenting in your work?

My wines are very personal. Grape is the most important thing to me; it has to be a quality agricultural product. My approach is not industrial but agricultural. The fundamental difference is that grape as every other agricultural product needs to have flavor characteristics that are authentic and as close to nature as possible. You need to find the balance between nature and this particular monoculture. Very often one tries to prevail over nature because of his financial interests, which seldom leads to good results. Globally speaking, this is something that hurts the entire planet. The fact that every industrial grain product contains palm oil for example is disgusting. That’s all in the name of profit. Grape must be authentic, terroir-specific and a true agricultural product. We use it to make wine with as little intervention as possible while trying to preserve its qualities. The end product does not need to be perfect from a technical point of view, but must be expressive and have its own character.

So, your choice of BRATANOV as a winery to vinify your wines is not random?

I know Tanya and Hristo Bratanov since 2011. I think we have established a good synergy in our work and we benefit from each other; our understanding of wine is very similar and I believe that’s the right direction for our region and the product we offer in general.

You spend most of your time outside of Bulgaria but still manage to produce quality wines. How do you achieve that logistically speaking?

I have a guy from the village of Izvorovo named Stancho Bangiev who takes care of the vineyards. We have a lot of equipment for such a small project and a very big part (85%) of the mechanical operations are managed by a single person, e.g. deep-ripping. Currently, we have 150 decares of land. Grapes are grown on 60 of them after the fire on the Marselan lot in 2013, which I need to re-plant. We hire additional works during pruning and other manual operations. At the winery, I rely on BRATANOV’s team and their new winemaker Maria Stoeva. Virtually, she vinifies the wines according to my protocol. I try to be there as much as possible depending on my work schedule. My vinification philosophy is somewhat simple: I try to leave wine alone and make an authentic, terroir-specific product.

Can you tell us more about each of your wines currently available on the market:

  • Ivo Varbanov Chardonnay 2013, Clair de lune, 13.5% Alc.

A classic Burgundy style wine. The vinification was carried out in 600-liter barrels; part of it fermented with wild- and the rest with cultured yeast. Like all my wines it needs to spend some time in the bottle. I never bottle at critical moments, I don't try to hurry the development of the wine. That is why I always recommend decanting my wines (even the whites) if they were purchased close to their bottling. Unfortunately, I cannot afford to age the wines for one or two years before releasing them on the market because my series are too short and such huge time gaps are detrimental.

  • Ivo Varbanov Viognier & Tamianka 2013, La Belle Excentrique, 13.4% Alc.

There’s still a small quantity of this wine on the market. It has a very distinct character but that was the point. Viognier is a favorite variety of mine. In 2013, I experimented with vinification in Hungarian barrels but the result was overoaked so I added some of BRATANOV’s Tamianka. We exchanged wine in order to offer a more balanced product and it turned out to be a very interesting wine. The blend is successful and quite different from what is available on the Bulgarian market. It might not appeal to the local taste but it is very successful abroad. The best option for both white wines is to be drank within 10 years and opened at least a year after their bottling.

  • Ivo Varbanov Ceci N’est Pas Un Rose‘ 2013, Scaramouche, 14.5% Alc.

Personally, I don’t drink rosé wine. I don’t like the Bulgarian trend to produce ugly imitations of Provencal rosé using inadequate varieties and vinification processes wildly differing from the Provencal ones in conditions that are not even close to the Mediterranean climate. My first vintage in 2008 was used for a Marselan rosé wine, which was an emergency decision. The vineyards were young and the year was extremely dry. We had two options: either to pick up very early for a rosé wine or to wait a lot for a late harvest. I was skeptical about this variety because it had a very strong coloration, high alcohol and acidity and rough tannins. The approach was simple: oak aging and no bleaching. The wine was quite provocative from the beginning and found its own niche and fans. This is a wine that I don't make every year; 2013 is the last vintage and I will not make it for the next 6-7 years as we have to re-plant the vineyard after the fire. I have no intention to buy Marselan from other producers. Vintage 2013 is two-thirds Marselan and one-third Syrah. The wine was vinified in stainless steel with red wine yeast and aged in oak. I consider it a good wine.

  • Ivo Varbanov Syrah 2011, Feux d’artifice Best Barrel, 14.5% Alc.

This is a wine made the traditional way form a low yield. It’s a good expression of the variety in our region: concentrated wine with not so low alcohol content. It carries a lot of positive energy and I think this is characteristic of all my wines. They are not so severely structured; we do not plan thoroughly on what they’ll become. They are more of a natural product.

  • Ivo Varbanov Marselan Late Harvest 2011, Arlequin, 14.8% Alc.

An experiment. The wine fermented over a year and a half. The fermentation stopped during the winter and continued anew in the spring. There’s residual sugar of 20 something grams. We needed to test the abilities of the variety and see it vinified as a rosé, red and late harvest wine. This is a variety, which turned our really interesting in all three cases and it is adequate for our terroir. It’s worth working with. In France, they use it in blends only but here we get a really good varietal wine. The interesting part is that Bulgarians like it as well, as strange as it may sound.

Part of your clients are Michelin-star restaurants in Brussels and London. You are among the few successful small producers that export in this price segment to this type of clients. You have a strong opinion on how Bulgarian wineries should present themselves on the foreign market. What are your thoughts on this?

I am satisfied with my work in the past 4 years (I am not counting 2010 because of our really short series back then). We have a strong presence abroad and I export more than 80% of my production. In Belgium, both in Brussels and outside the city, the sales are significant and to restaurants only. My Belgian distributor works this way and he is extremely successful. After Great Britain, I started working with Poland, the Czech Republic, I just made my first export to Germany and I am currently waiting for label approval to start preparing exports to the United States where I’ll be collaborating with a small distributor in Sonoma.

In general, I work with small distributors who have the proper attitude to this type of product and know how to position it. Based on my personal experience, that’s the right direction and I certainly do have a well-established opinion what Bulgarian producers should aim at. Naturally, there’s this clear position of some people in the wine industry that small producers cannot succeed without the big shots but I believe it’s really the other way around. The problem is that big producers in Bulgaria have a proportionally big ego and they don't want to be associated with the smaller players. Hence, most of the difficulties. That was the reason to create BAIW, to show certain philosophy that could benefit the whole industry.

If a sommelier in such a restaurant has present your wine to a client who knows nothing about Bulgarian wine, how should he approach that? Do you have any observations, what is the initial information that you give to consumers?

I can tell you what the approach of my Belgian importer is. His company is called Sexy Winemaker Association Fighting for Overall Understanding (he smiles). He is a great wine connoisseur with 4 published books on the best restaurants in New York, London, Belgium, and the Netherlands called Must Eat London”, etc. He has more than 20 years of experience in the field and his approach is everything but dogmatic. This means that he doesn’t simply decide that the portfolio should necessarily include wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire or Tuscany. He works mainly with people whose concept as producers he likes regardless of their origin. Therefore, he offers many wines from less popular countries.

His approach is the following. He says “I have this great wine made by a crazy pianist from London. Try it out!”. Later on, when people have tasted my wines he adds “By the way, his vineyards are in Bulgaria.” He started with the most popular trend-setting restaurants with 2 or 3 Michelin stars. In places like L’air du temps, which is among the leaders in the Belgian haute cuisine my wines were available from the very beginning. The initial resistance was followed by a snowball effect and the wines appeared in many other restaurants. In two and a half years he sold more than 10,000 bottles of wine. This means that at least 20,000 people interested in haute cuisine in Belgium have tried my wines, which is not a negligible figure. This is the country’s elite in the field.

The approach to the English market was different for two reasons: first, I was personally involved in the process because I live there and second, because I didn’t have the experience and things happened on a hit and miss principle. The personal involvement of the man behind the project and him talking to the decision-makers is very important. I am constantly wondering why so many Bulgarian producers send their sales representatives (often inadequately trained) instead of becoming directly involved in the process themselves. Several days ago I was at a mall and witnessed at least three things that should never happen to a sales representative.

Can you give us an example?

There was this stand offering Marzemino: an interesting, widely unpopular variety from Northern Italy. Passing by, I saw it and said to the sales rep “Well, if that's not Mozart’s wine!” She looked at me quizzically and I explained that a Mozart’s opera tells about Marzemino. She didn’t quite get that. I am aware that not everybody is familiar with this piece of information but it is an example of how an unpopular product can sell well if sales reps are trained to improve consumer’s wine culture. Yes, it is a detail but it’s also a part of the European culture. Then, there were some much worse examples with a wine from Trentino that was presented as Spumante, Moscato d’Asti, but actually was a Chardonnay. A nice Spumante but no Muscato and a totally different region. That’s a problem because there were 12 wines on the table and the reps didn’t know their products. When creating and improving wine culture, one can’t only look for low manufacturing prices, huge margins and other shady schemes. The idea of wine culture is for people to drink more quality wines.

Often, your wines' names are somewhat of an intellectual tease, as in Scaramouche, Ceci n’est pas un rose. Part of the tease informs the client, because this is really not a rosé wine, but there is something else that tickles the mind. What is the personality of your clients?

The idea for this name was born in a conversation with my Belgian importer. Previously, the label said “rosé” and I was growing tired of explaining that it is not. The Belgian painter Magritte is famous for his piece “Ceci n'est pas une pipe”, so that’s how we settled on the name. But, yes, there is an intellectual tease in all my wines because I use musical compositions as names. The criteria are that it should have something in common with the wine itself and be easy to remember.

A series I’ve decided to use only Bulgarian varieties for bears the names of compositions by Bulgarian authors. Currently, I have three wines named after jazz compositions of friends of mine: “Violet Spring” by Rumen Toskov, “Open Mood” by Theodosii Spassov, and “Wandering Shadow” by Hristo Yotsov. That’s a tribute to Bulgarian culture. The type of clients that like my wines are wine enthusiasts looking for something interesting with a unique character. That's the type of clients that can be interested in the story behind the wine.

How did you make it on the foreign market and how did things happen with your first big client?

This project didn't start out with the idea that I will turn into a full-time wine-producer. I continue to practice my profession as a musician. The difference is that in the beginning we didn't know what wine we’ll make and I was not sure if I was doing the right thing. Throughout these 4-5 years I met people who helped me clarify my concept, supported me and gave me advise on what to change. I try to listen to their opinions but I tend to know which information is useful and which isn’t.

Tell us about BAIW (Bulgarian Association of Independent Winegrowers)?

The association was established in 2012 on the initiative of seven winegrowers. In 2011, a friend of mine, an Italian winemaker and chairman of a similar association there named FIVI (Federazione Italiana Vignaioli Indipendenti) explained that CEVI (European Confederation of Independent Winegrowers), the main European association of winegrowers, had problems in Bulgaria. The meeting they held here to create something on a national level didn't lead to any results. Learning about this, I invited them again. The meeting was attended by 9 winegrowers and 7 of them became the first members and founders of the association in Bulgaria. We are currently having 24 members and 4 associated members. We are growing steadily in parallel to our activity.

You will be part of a debate entitled “Swiping right on new countries (How do we successfully match buyers and producers from new and emerging wine producing countries?)“ at DWCC 2015. What is the purpose of this discussion?

Until now, the producers were mainly passive observers of such events. More often than not the concept of wine, in this case the concept of Bulgarian wine, is conceptually created by wine writers. The producer plays a secondary role and that’s confusing because non-Bulgarian media generate concepts based on stereotypes. This is a problem for us as wine producers. Our main concern is the lack of communication and the discrepancy between what wine producers can offer and the actual demand. We need to build a bridge between the two in order to be more efficient in our work. We cannot sell what we don't have. We need better communication between the winegrowers and the opinion leaders. Otherwise, they come up with the wrong impression on what certain country can offer that pushes things in a wrong direction. This wrongness is associated with many of the requirements winegrowers can’t satisfy.

Name one wrong perception about our country in terms of winegrowers?

I will gibe you an example with people’s ambition to work solely with local varieties. Quality Bulgarian varieties are few and there was a significant setback in the scientific work dedicated to those in the past 25 years. We all know that there isn't a good clone selection and our pépinières don't meet the high standards of their French or Italian colleagues. This should be the focus of certain state policies and not something to be taken care of by the producers alone. Obsession with local varieties is interesting but it is just a chimera. We are currently unable to produce our best wines from local varieties only. We can use them in blends and even make pure varietal wines but we must shy away from the dogma. Quality should always come first, regardless of the variety. The terroir specificity is not just about the variety, but it is a combination of many important elements. I think that in the last few years it became obvious that Bulgaria is not a place to grow local varieties only, but a country where you can have many different varieties. We need to let this diversity express itself because that’s the face of Bulgaria and not it’s absence. Historically speaking, Bulgaria has always been a crossroad for many different cultures; our folklore, the fabrics with their specific patterns and colors or the music with its asymmetrical times, reveals the individuality of Bulgarian people. I always say that we are like the understudies of the Italians because we have similar ingenuity and attitude towards life. We were repressed by the communist regime but we still have a similar mentality. We have this sparsely populated area that we can use to produce quality organic wines because Bulgaria is not as affected by plant diseases as other countries popular with their wines. We can make expressive wines and we must concentrate on that.

What are Ivo Varbanov’s goals? How do you define success?

I aspire to make wines that I like. If I happen to encounter external factors that get in my way of doing it, I will stop. Clearly, I have my personal taste and I can’t suit the preferences of the market in general. I know that there will be people who won’t be impressed and won’t find their product among my wines. That’s normal. A product that everybody likes is a dangerous thing. That means that you landed a certain gray zone that I am personally not interested in. In terms of success I’d like to improve on my project a bit further, to start producing more but never go over 30,000–40,000 bottles. I want to build a small winery, which I could visit for longer periods in the summer.

In your opinion, what’s the future of Bulgarian wine on the global market in, say, 10 or 20 years? Let’s be brave. :)

I am not the only one who sells wine abroad. There’s a number of successful producers who sell at reasonable prices. The demand for 1-2 Euro wines is still big. In the past few days many winegrowers have probably received an enquiry from Sweden for 50,000 bottles of Bordeaux blend priced at a Euro and a few more cents, preferably with some oak in it. There will always be a producer who can meet this demand but small winegrowers can’t play this game.

I think our image in the eyes of younger consumers is not that bad. They are not aware of the collapse of Bulgarian wine in the early 90s’. Now, there are new communication platforms, things are much more flexible and faster, so we can expect huge changes in 10 years. To me, the “secret” of small Bulgarian winegrowers should lay in the diversification on as many markets as possible and the accurate targeting of the markets of interest. The choice of importer is essential and we must not forget that in smaller wineries things happen at a very personal, human level.

This is where I had to give my interlocutor the chance to get to the airport on time. So far, the conversations involving Michelin-star restaurants as clients took place during our travels outside Bulgaria. I’ll take this interview as a good sign. I know that such things are happening to several Bulgarian wine producers for several years now and that publicity is important as long as it makes us more confident. Its potential is tempting, but the double-edged sword is integral to the effect.

The goal is not to remain passive to what’s going on around us. It’s OK if not every single winery chooses this particular strategy as a way to conquer new markets but we cannot deny the fact the presence of Bulgarian wine in the wine lists of quality restaurants is good news for all of us. So, should we look at the future through the proverbial rose-colored glasses? Ceci N’est Pas Un Rose… the future is what we make of it.