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Ivo Varbanov: There’s a Great Potential for Small Family Wineries

vo Varbanov is the Chairman of the Bulgarian Association of Independent Winegrowers (BAIW) which was established in March 2012. A professional musician – concert pianist – with numerous appearances in prestigious concert halls around the world, Ivo Varbanov started his winemaking venture some five years ago. Despite the fact that he lives mostly in London, he owns vineyards in the south part of the Sakar mountains. His wines with the brand ‘Ivo Varbanov’ are already familiar and highly rated not only in Bulgaria but also in Western Europe.

Here’s what Mr. Varbanov shared with us about the role of the small winemakers, the challenges they are faced with, as well as the necessity for uniting the efforts of these winemakers.


What was the reason for establishing the Bulgarian Association of Independent Winegrowers (BAIW)? What are the goals it seeks to achieve and what makes it different to the other unions of winemakers?


The main goal of the BAIW is to protect the interests of the small and medium-sized winegrower and winemaker. Our members currently include thirteen wineries while we expect another six to associate with us in October.


One of the other main goals of the BAIW is the collaboration and exchange of information among the members of the association, as well as the organizing of joint presentations, wine-tastings, lectures, fairs and other exhibitions.


The idea is to work as a syndicate, which could negotiate more easily on political level with all the relevant institutions – national and European. The BAIW is already a full member of the European Confederation of Independent Winegrowers (CEVI), and the fact that I was elected vice-president of CEVI is – in my opinion – a good tool for useful work on European level in the protection of the rights of the small winemakers and setting up of standards for high quality of their production.


The small family wineries are sustainable and widely spread form of business in a number of developed wine markets as well as in many Balkan countries. What are the obstacles to this business in Bulgaria? Should we find a way to help the “home-made wine” become sufficiently better instead of claiming it as something necessarily inferior?


I think that in Bulgaria there is a great potential for small family wineries and this potential is already unfolding. We see more and more new small winemaking projects happening in different parts of the country. The phase of “home-made wine” is still existing but in a given future moment, probably with the next generations, the interest to the “home winemaking” will fade away and much more new small wineries will appear in order to vinify the grapes coming from vineyards of independent winegrowers.


Given the fact that the price of the grapes in Bulgaria is currently unduly low, quite many small winegrowers are beginning to look for professional winemaking in order to sell the wine later on at morе acceptable levels.



BAIW aims at developing the wine tourism in Bulgaria. What are your plans in this direction?


Naturally, part of the BAIW goals includes the development of the wine tourism in Bulgaria. However, it’s fair to say that currently its achievement is faced with a lot of difficulties. Most of them, because of the simple fact that there is not yet a proper government policy for creating of a national product “wine” of high priority. What I would like to say is that the government has not yet declared officially whether the wine is its national product and whether it will be given a higher priority than the others. The truth is that if you want to have a well developing wine tourism you need to deliver all infrastructures at adequate levels. The wine tourism in Bulgaria has a potential but still there is quite a lot of work to be done.

Bulgaria is still looking for its new image in the dynamic and saturated world wine market. What should be the main characteristics of this image?


I believe that generally Bulgaria has its own “face” in the world wine market but in any case it needs an improvement. We know well what used to happen some years ago: where have the Bulgarian wines been positioned in the German, English, Scandinavian, American supermarkets… Naturally, this changes bit by bit and already one can see many more fine Bulgarian wines entering restaurants with Michelin stars, independent wine shops and so on. These are quite necessary steps for the effective improvement of the image of the Bulgarian wine. I think that it’s very important the Bulgarian winemakers to understand that they need each other’s helping hand. In my opinion – not as a Chairman of the BAIW, but as a producer – the idea for competition is too much in-built in the brainwork of the Bulgarian winemaker. However, this is something not very well going with the wine as a product. I know quite a few small wine producers in Italy and France who jointly taste each other’s wines and do not have this feeling of incessant competition and desire to constantly compare with the fellow. The world is interesting because there is diversity in it.

More “terroir wines” with mandatory participation of local varieties or work with established international varieties in the pursuit of creation of the “great wine”?


The terroir wines are exceptionally important for the image of any country. Bulgaria has the potential for making such and I think it is not about whether they would be of local or international varieties. I’d like to stress that the successful vinification of local varieties is dependent on the support from scientific institutes which shall work on the clone selection of certain varieties such as Melnik, Gamza, Mavrud, and others. Thus, the winemakers would have the opportunity to plant new vineyards of these varieties with improved characteristics, which would undoubtedly be reflected in the wines as well. There are still many old vineyards of Mavrud and Gamza, even old vineyards of Rubin and Melnik, and during the past 15 years there is no government support in this direction whatsoever.

It’s good to recall about the project ‘Chianti 2000’ in Italy which totally changed the image and potential of the Sangiovese variety. This project started in the late 80s and more than 15 years there were focused efforts on the selection and improvement of the different clones in the various locations of Tuscany and other regions where Sangiovese is grown. The results of this are quite plain to see.


You are a winemaker yourself. What sort of difficulties you face when making wine in Bulgaria and what are the challenges for its sale abroad?


Yes, besides my profession as musician, I am a winemaker. There are difficulties in Bulgaria but I would not stress that much on them because I believe that everyone has to be a positive thinking person. I would rather pay attention to the good things we have. For instance, the excellent terroir and the ecological conditions for winemaking. These are, perhaps, the two most pronounced elements in our case and we need to take advantage on them.


If wine is a peculiar music for the soul, who is the composer whose character you would like to see in your wines?


Honestly, I would like to see in each wine a different composer or different composition. I’m trying to give a specific character to each of my wines as well as a reflection of the terroir. Therefore, I could not associate all the wines with only one composer. Certainly, they have common signature but generally I would like them to posses their own very clearly pronounced character. .  

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