​Ivo Varbanov, Feux d’Artifice Syrah 2011 Bulgaria


From 38 lev, £22.95, €27.50, $23 

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I choose wines of the week on the basis of how they taste and whether I could sincerely recommend them as good buys. Such is the case with this Bulgarian Syrah, which I originally intended to feature as convincing evidence of the huge progress made in eastern Europe in the last few years. But since I asked its maker, concert pianist Ivo Varbanov, for some background details, I realise it is the product of the most extraordinary story.

Ivo was born in Bulgaria, the son of a professional cellist. They moved to Italy when he was nine and he completed his training as a concert pianist at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he has lived since 1994. Quite how he combines his starry life as a performer all over Europe and the US and a fully signed up recording artist with that of a vigneron in Bulgaria, I do not know.

It would be extraordinary enough just to produce such good wine from an area not always associated with top quality, but also to play such an important role in European wine production in general is quite remarkable. See this extract from his bio: ‘He is founder and president of the Bulgarian Association of Independent Winegrowers (www.baiw.org) which presently counts 30 members chosen among the most representative small estates all over the country. These strong-minded wine producers, together with their president, have kindled a revolution of the entire concept of Bulgarian wine. In 2012 BAIW became a member of CEVI, the European Confederation of Independent Winegrowers (www.cevi-eciw.eu), of which Ivo has been vice-president since 2013.’

Blend this with the fact that Ivo spent almost a year in London’s Hammersmith hospital in 2009/10, just after the birth of his son Jacopo, waiting for a bone-marrow transplant to rescue him from the ravages of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and you have a heart-rending biopic in prospect.

Apparently, even when he was ill, his vines were tended by his viticulturist Stancho Bangiev and the wine was made by friends Amedeo Albano from Italy and Hayden Penny of William Murdoch, New Zealand.

He began to look for suitable vineyard land in Bulgaria in 2003 and, helped by Professor Marin Penkov, who was then in his late seventies and had drawn up the wine map of Bulgaria in the 1960s, he settled on the South Sakar Mountain in the south east of the country, not far from the Greek and Turkish borders. He describes it as, ‘a former submerged volcanic area; the soil types are very varied with some key indicators suitable for viticulture such as granite, quartz, fossilised sea shells, clay and the presence of iron. The climate of this region is hot and dry, but the subsoil at 60-100 metres has enough water reserves due to the clear distinction of the seasons as well as rainfall in autumn and winter.’

In 2005 Ivo and his wife Fiammetta bought 9.7 hectares (24 acres) of land and the following year planted their first plot of 4.8 hectares of Syrah and Marselan. In 2007 one hectare of Cabernet Sauvignon and 1.5 hectares of Chardonnay were added and the following year they bought a further 3.4 hectares of land. In 2008, his first vintage, he produced 1,500 bottles of Syrah and 1,500 bottles of rosé. Today they have a total of 15.6 hectares of land, of which 6 hectares are planted with Syrah, Marselan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. In 2017 and 2018 he plans to plant Viognier, Petit Manseng, Tamianka, Fiano, Aglianico and Gamza.

Julia tasted a couple of his whites last year and gave them 16 out of 20. I tasted his Feux d’Artifice Syrah 2011 in September, gave it 16.5, suggested a drinking window of 2015-2020 and wrote:

‘A wine aged for 36 months(!) in 225- and 500-litre barrels in the Bratanovi winery in Harmanli for Bulgarian concert pianist Ivo Varbanov, who is a massive wine enthusiast. Very dark purple. Almost black. High-toned with notes of balsam. Lovely round texture and great intensity. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the northern Rhône; it is a noble expression of warm-climate Syrah but is savoury rather than sweet. Great balance. Really very special! Very vibrant and long. Drinking beautifully now. It may last longer than I suggest but is an unknown quantity. ‘

Now that I know more of the back story, I suspect that long ageing period may have had something to do with Ivo’s health, or lack of it, but three years in oak, remarkably, does not seem to have done this wine any harm. The fruit must have been amazingly concentrated in the first place, and the wine is 14.5% alcohol. But it can still offer some surprising subtlety. The official appellation from Bulgaria's rapidly evolving wine map, by the way, is Thracian Valley. 

According to Ivo, he has sold his wines in Bulgaria, the UK, the US, Germany, Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic. He also cites an impressive list of top restaurants that have his wines on their list. According to Wine-searcher, this particular wine is currently available retail in the UK (Berry Bros & Rudd, The Good Wine Shop), the US (Amazon.com, Bulgarian Master Vintners), Bulgaria, Germany and Belgium.

Altogether, a fascinating wine and story.

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