Fifty years of communism left Romania’s wine industry on its knees. But with private wineries on the rise and some intriguing indigenous grapes, the country has some unique bargains for the discerning buyer. Chris Losh reports
The week before I arrived in Romania for this article, the country was hit by a freak typhoon. It flicked over power lines, wrecked houses and knocked down a large road sign on a motorway, crushing an unfortunate motorist below. The sign said ‘Welcome to Timișoara’…
There’s something peculiarly Romanian about this story; a bleak irony that somehow sits well in a country that spent most of the last century being shafted by its own leaders and learned
not to expect too much from life.
This, after all, is the country that Churchill traded to Stalin in exchange for Greece, thereby condemning it to almost 50 years of communism. As one winemaker pointed out, it was particularly harsh since, in language and mentality, Romania is more Mediterranean than Slavic in outlook. A nation of outgoing entrepreneurs saw contact with foreigners banned, and no free enterprise.
‘The state controlled everything,’ says Cristiana Stoica of Avincis winery. ‘It was the owner, the seller and the maker of all the rules.’
Unsurprisingly, for wine this was a disaster. Family vineyards were appropriated by the state and merged into vast wine farms that were block planted for ease of harvest and to maximise production.
Nicolae Ceaușescu, the last communist leader of Romania, even banned the Furmint grape because he deemed it ‘foreign’. For this alone he probably deserved to be shot, though the fact that he condemned his population to abject poverty while he lived in a palace the size of Kettering may have contributed as well.
The collapse of communism in 1989 saw land being given back from the state to the people, but it was chaotic. There were a lot of doubts about who owned what, and since nobody really knew whether they would still be working their newly acquired land in five years’ time, investment was almost non-existent. Tens of thousands of hectares of vineyards were utterly neglected.
It bothers me that we always want to be like somebody else. Let’s not copy famous rivals but do it cheaper
The late nineties, however, saw private individuals properly taking ownership of land for the first time in over 50 years, officially buying vineyards and taking responsibility for them. And it is this that has started the real Romanian wine revolution, albeit one that necessitated a big shift in mentality.
‘It was a big move,’ says Jakob Kripp of the Prince ştirbey winery. ‘After 50 years of communism, people were taught that landowners were the enemy of the state.’
The opportunities, however, easily outweighed the misgivings. Géza Balla had been in charge of the vineyards for the state winery in Minis, and knew where all the best vineyards were. ‘I bought a hectare here and a hectare there,’ he says. ‘The ownership was very fragmented, so it took a long time.’
Rebuilding an industry
Slow the process might have been, but it was undeniably cheap: 500 Deutschmarks for a hectare – around £150. On the downside, the vineyards were a mess, often requiring total replanting. The transformation of Romania from communist basket-case to thrusting modern wine country was not going to happen overnight.
Fortunately, the process received a huge boost in 2007, when Romania joined the EU and was suddenly flooded with money from Brussels to renovate its thoroughly neglected wine industry.
Individuals who were already engaged in a glacially slow process of replanting vines suddenly found that, with the EU funding 70% of it, they were able to get better grape varieties – and better clones of those varieties – in the ground far faster than they’d initially expected, and also patch up their rusting wineries.
Of course, even when it’s possible to trace ownership of land, not everyone wants to sell to gleaming-eyed entrepreneurs awash with EU cash. Visit Cosmin Crăciunescu’s Crama Aramic winery near the spa town of Buziaș and his plans for glass-walled visitor centres and tasting galleries sit oddly next to neighbouring vineyards that look like they haven’t been tended since God was a lad.
The idea of a clock being suddenly and dramatically reset 18 years ago has brought other problems, too. For every Géza Balla with decades of experience and a black book of contacts, there’s a Cosmin Crăciunescu who worked as a dentist and has pooled his family’s savings to enter a heavily-subsidised new industry.
The intentions are clearly good, but inexperience shows and mistakes can be expensive. ‘If I were planting again now, it would be mainly Romanian varieties,’ admits Crăciunescu, whose estate is mostly planted with French grapes. ‘You can find Cabernet Sauvignon anywhere. And when you go to a new country you want to drink the local wine.’
This, in fact, is arguably the biggest question for Romania’s wine industry going forward. Is it a country that is going to concentrate on international varietals or local ones? Cases can be made for both, and most of the wineries have mixtures of the two.
The team at Cramele Recaș (the third largest winery in Romania, run by an affable Brit Philip Cox) has had great success with its Pinot Noir, and understandably so. It’s startlingly good for the money, and the supermarkets hoover up the cheaper expressions of it on an annual basis.
Yet Cox is a big fan of Romania’s most widely-planted red grape, Fetească Neagră. Translating as ‘black lady’, it’s a mid-weight red grape with crowd-pleasing potential and a serious history.
‘It’s been here for three thousand years,’ says Cox. ‘It’s more Pinoty than Cab-like, with a bit of spiciness to it. For me, it’s the local variety with the best chance of promoting Romania.’ Their sole Fetească Neagră/Syrah blend is a well-priced glugger of the sort that demands burgers and blue-collar comfort food.
It’s tempting to think that the blend with Syrah is done for marketing purposes; to provide something recognisable and reassuring for the uncertain consumer to hang onto. But, in fact, Cox points out that in the German supermarkets, where they sell a lot of their cheaper wines, their indigenous varieties are selling better than their international wines.
On the evidence of this visit, it makes sense. There’s little to distinguish a Romanian Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blanc from competitors anywhere else in the world, beyond price. But the native varieties offer something genuinely different.
‘It bothers me that we always want to be like somebody else,’ says Oliver Bauer, the outspoken (German) winemaker at Prince ştirbey. ‘Let’s not copy famous rivals but do it cheaper. The native varieties have been here for around 2,000 years. They’re just naturally better adapted to the local conditions than Shiraz or Riesling ever could be.’
He has a point. Looking back at our group’s favourites from the various visits, we generally found acceptable versions of international varieties (Recaș’ high-quality Pinot being an honourable exception), with the real enthusiasm most often reserved for the local grapes.
It’s hard to get excited by yet another ripe, technically correct Sauvignon Blanc – and difficult to know how (or why) a restaurant would sell it. But the crowd-pleasing peachiness of Fetească Regală, or the balletic mint and apple flavours of Crâmpoșie genuinely do bring something different.
Key Grape Varieties
A Dragusanu white variety, it was used for blending in the communist time so, according to Jakob Kripp, when it appeared in single-varietal form no one knew what it was. White flesh, with a gentle herbal/minty kick, it treads very lightly, often no more than 12% abv. Makes good fizz.
‘Royal Maiden’ is the most widely planted grape variety in Romania, and probably the most underrated. It’s often used to make off-dry cheap wine for the local market, but it has real potential as a dry wine, with an attractive peachy character backed up by a light sage note.
‘Black Maiden’ is the red-wine equivalent to Fetească Regală – a grape that was ‘criminally misused’ under communism. Stylistically, it’s a little like Pinotage. When it’s made well, it has an attractive light- to mid-weight
with a gentle spiciness, but doesn’t respond well to over-extraction. More Pinot than Cabernet.
Negru de Drăgăşani
Pronounced ‘Neg-roo de Drag-oo-shan’ this is a cross between the Georgian Saperavi and local Negru Vartos grapes. It’s capable of some intensity and of taking some time in oak, but it seems to be at its best when making utterly quaffable mid-weight reds with less obvious oak and a charmingly brisk sappiness.
So will the world be beating a path to Romania’s door over the next few years? Almost certainly yes. The 2017 vintage has left the big producing countries of Europe so bereft of crop that supermarket buyers in particular are having to look elsewhere to fill their shelves.
For one year, at least, we can expect to see plenty of Romanian wines in the UK, though they may be ‘hidden’ behind neutral brand names, and it will be interesting to see how many of them retain their place once La Mancha and the Veneto come back on stream.
It’s to be hoped that the country’s wineries receive an export boost from the current situation. It was striking on this trip how hard wineries were finding it to secure representation in the UK.Perhaps the wine trade needs to be a little more open-minded. Bauer tells the story of a famous MW and sparkling wine expert, who didn’t like his rosé fizz (made from Varac) because it ‘didn’t taste like champagne’.
‘I’m tired of this attitude, that everything that isn’t French is bad,’ he sighs. ‘I don’t want to make Bordeaux out of Negru de Drăgăşani; I want to create a wine style so that generations who come after us will know what they can expect.’
The story of Dragusanu (where ştirbey and Avincis are both based) is, perhaps, axiomatic of Romania’s wine story from the last 30 years. Sitting on either side of the mighty Olt river, it used to be the best-known wine region in the country: plenty of sunshine and heat for ripeness, countered by cold air tumbling down from the towering might of the Carpathian Mountains 40km away.
Its folded slopes and varying exposures vaguely reminded this journalist, at least, of a kind of mini Barolo, and its native grape Negru de Drăgăşani (Dragusan Black) has an elegance and perfume to it, when it’s done well, that hints at real greatness to come.
Yet here, the communists planted one side of the valley entirely with whites, one side entirely with reds and created utterly undistinguished blends. For vineyards of such clear potential, it must have been heartbreaking to watch.
‘We were the only ones here at first,’ says Kripp. ‘The whole hillside at night, including the village was pitch black. We were drinking wines by the light of just one bulb – the only light on
the entire hillside.’
But from a (literally) dark place, Romania’s wine regions and native grape varieties are starting to provide the first glimmers of light.
Five to look out for
Availability of Romanian wines in the UK is a real issue. Keep your eyes open for the wines or wineries below that aren’t here yet. Prince Stirbey, I’m sure, will be snapped up soon – they’re too good not to be available over here, while Balla Géza’s Stone wines demand a wider audience, too.
Avincis Fetească Regală/Pinot Gris 2015
A unique blend for Romania and a good one to say the least. The Fetească has increased to be 70% of the total now, and adds an attractive apricot and white-flower kick over the top of Pinot Gris’ general juiciness. Fleshy, flavourful and creamy.
£11.54, Theatre of Wine, 020 8858 6363
Balla Géza Kadarka Stone Wine 2015
Balla Géza’s Stone Wine range is consistently good, the higher, granite-soiled vineyards adding a depth and balance to the naturally high levels of fruit ripeness. This Kadarka shows lots of bright red orchard fruit with a well integrated acidity, overlaid with a gentle kick of spice.
Awaiting importer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cramele Recaș Solo Quinta 2016
A wine that began as an accident, this five-variety blend features Chardonnay, Fetească Regală, Muskat Ottonel, Sauvignon Blanc and the red grape Novac. It is multi-layered, with a melony attack, giving way to a peachy, smoky mid palate with a finish that’s lighter-footed than you’d expect. Real somm wine at a bargain price.
£9.90, Tanners, 01743 234455
Prince Știrbey Negru de Drăgăşani 2016
These guys have half a dozen excellent wines, but even so this red was the pick of the line-up. Plush, juicy red fruit with hints of chocolate, herbs and spice, it is fresh, ripe and lifted with a winsome red-cherry finish. Carries its 13.5% alcohol effortlessly.
Cramele Recaș Alamina Pinot Noir 2015
Recas has a well-deserved reputation for their Pinot Noirs. The cheapest (Paparuda, from Adnams, Tanners and Forth Wines) is a real bargain. But this, from older vineyards, is like relaxing back into a soft divan of strawberries, with integrated tannins, a wisp of acidity and a faintly savoury finish.
£7.29, Alliance Wines, 01505 506060