Romania and Its Wines
Romania as a wine-producing country is a conundrum. As a quantity producer, its history stretches back to its position as Dacia, a province of the Roman empire, but as a quality producer, its history must be measured in decades, not centuries. In the 19th century, it suffered the same phylloxera devastation as the rest of the European vineyards, but more than most, re-planted with phylloxera-resistant hybrid vines (almost guaranteed to produce inferior wine). In 1947, the Communists took over. The USSR required increasingly huge quantities of cheap white wine, and in the 1950s and 1960s the area of vineyards was expanded rapidly. Quality was not a concern: it was quantity, and vineyard varieties were selected for their ability to resist frost and to crop heavily. This heritage still dogs the industry, and overall, the quality of Romanian wine is distinctly mixed. What has also remained is a preference for white wine, which constitutes 65-70% of the wine sold in the country.
Overview of Romania’s wine regions
Nevertheless, things began to change after the fall of the Romanian Socialist Republic in 1989 and its succession by a more democratic system of government. The sector was essentially privatised in the 1990s, with the restitution of land to the former owners. One result was that about 180,000 hectares of vineyards were returned in plots of one hectare or less, and there are currently about 894,000 individual agricultural operators working on plots of, on average, 0.2 hectare or less. One might expect that this fragmentation of holdings would be overcome by the acquisition and combination of these plots into larger holdings, but, to a very large extent, this has not happened. The desire to own land, even if it is neglected, in order to tether widespread family members to their roots, overrides economic or viticultural considerations.
Yet it also meant that a number of former owners with larger holdings grabbed the opportunity to take over their land and drive for quality; there are currently about seventy small and medium-size wine producers focusing on this. There has been a significant amount of re-planting and an increasing emphasis on local grape varieties, several of which produce notably good wine. There are also some very large producers, i.e., producing over a million bottles a year, and they do vary a lot, from very good to mostly harmless to dire.
The reader might like to know that much of my up-to-date tasting is based on a very recent (May 2017) press tour of five individual wine producers, plus valiant attempts to widen my knowledge in restaurants. The tour comprised an Anglo-Portuguese and an Anglo-American from the UK and four Russians, all of whom hold quite important positions in the Russian wine and restaurant sectors. It was organised by Cramele Recaş, one of the producers, and the result was enjoyable, illuminating, and full of work.
Romania is not a small country, and visiting three of the wine-producing areas necessitated a lot of travel. On one morning we were collected at 5:30am to catch a flight across the country, followed by a nearly three-hour minibus ride to reach the winery. The alternative was an eight-hour cross-country trip over a combination of good roads and rather more potholed ones, so the flight was a better choice. As a footnote here, Romania has benefitted greatly from EU money, not least in financing the re-planting of many of the vineyards. But it seemed clear to me that rural infrastructure has not received a significant enough share of this largesse, because the state of the roads poses a distinct risk to one’s back. I will never again complain about the potholes in my village in South Oxon.
Click on the map to go to crameromania.ro interactive maps
The first producer we visited was Cramele Recaş (www.recaswine.ro), located in the Banat region in western Romania. The owners, Philip and Elvira Cox, organised the tour. He is from Bristol and she is Romanian, and both are very export-oriented. They grow twenty-three different varieties of grapes, produce sixty-eight different kinds of wine, use 350 different labels, and sell fifteen million bottles per year. They need different ranges for different markets and different importers. For example, the American market likes merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, the UK market pinot noir, and the German market cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc. There is wine for supermarkets – they produce a significant amount of own-label wines – as well as wine for independent wine merchants. As are most wine writers, I am tired of having to admire bottling lines, but theirs is so huge and fast and complicated and amazing that it is practically surreal.
Recaş are keen promoters of Romanian grape varieties, but they are also realistic about the prospect of selling a wine labelled Fetească Regală into many foreign markets. What they do is to produce a lot of blends and use an international variety as a locomotive: a wine labelled Chardonnay-Fetească Regală introduces the local variety to the foreign consumer.
During our time at Recaş, we tasted about thirty of their wines, and I was very struck by the quality of what Philip Cox referred to as their value wines, which mostly retailed for under £7 a bottle, and many for rather less. One example is their Paparuda Fetească Regală 2016, which is sold in Asda under another label for £5; Decanter magazine gave it 90 points. The grape itself is very aromatic, and the wine is fruity and full of flavour, with a nice structure – it is clear why people like it. Mr Cox makes the point that it is harder to make good wine on a larger scale than on a smaller one, and that they work hard to ensure that their ‘value wines’ are indeed good value for money. Certainly their Paramuda Pinot Noir 2016, which at £6 is a very good seller in both the UK and the US (currently £4.50 in Sainsbury’s own label), is probably one of the few pinot noirs in a price range which makes it ideal for wine by the glass. They also sell a lot of their pinot noir in South Africa, and a growing amount in Nigeria. I quite liked their Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2013, which is botrytized. It was barrel fermented, with good structure, and not too sweet. The Wine Enthusiast magazine gave it 92 points, and it is currently to be found at the wine merchant Tanner’s for about £8.50.
Cramele Recas vineyards
I found their lightness of foot in reacting to problems and opportunities very engaging. An example of a problem solved is their excellent ‘Solo Quinta’ wine. A customer in England had wanted a white cabernet sauvignon, but after it had been produced but not yet bottled, went bankrupt. The wine was left on Recaş’ hands, so the winemakers mixed it with four white wines. In its second year, according to Philip Cox, it won the ‘Best White Wine in the World’ title in a Paris competition, and went on to win lots of medal; in due course it was reportedly listed at Gordon Ramsey’s Maze restaurant. The winery changes the red wine component frequently but it always has four whites; about 50% is chardonnay, and it nearly always includes some sauvignon blanc and muscat. The red is not a big part of the blend, but obviously its inclusion is vital to the story. Another of their premium wines is Cuvée Überland 2015, fundamentally their amarone, based on dried grapes, concentrated, and with an alcohol level of 15%. It has quite a big nose and a big mouth, with high acid. In 2015 it was made with 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot; it is not made every year, with its last vintage the 2011. It is, he says, their wine for investment bankers in New York and rich Russians.
An example of their marketing nous is their ‘Bat’s Blood’ wine. Produced for an importer in Nottingham, England, it has an appropriate label and is sold in coffin-shaped boxes; it is a prime favourite with the Goth community, the importer utilising social media to sell an arresting amount of it. I suspect that it is not widely available elsewhere.
In short, Cramele Recaş is a huge producer of a very wide variety of wines at different quality and price levels. Curiously, in Hungary they sell only the premium wines, whilst in the UK they primarily sell their cheaper wines. Based on the wines we tasted, they do a remarkably good job of providing very drinkable wines at very affordable prices. They are continuing to expand, and here is a danger: where is the crossroad between the desire to maintain quality and the need to lower it to meet market requirements? It would be a real shame if it was perceived primarily as an industrial producer rather than as a large winemaker.
The next winery we visited, the Agricola Prince Ştirbey (www.stirbey.com), is in Drăgăşani, a dynamic DOC in the Muntenia and Oltenia Hills region, found in the lower central part of Romania. The Prince Ştirbey, a pioneer in leading Drăgăşani to become one of the top wine-producing areas, is an example of the restitution of a larger estate. Baroness Ileana Kripp-Costinescu is a granddaughter of Princess Maria Ştirbey, and her husband, Baron Jakob Kripp, whose family had been making wine for 500 years, is Austrian; they divide their time equally between their two homes. In 1999 she returned to Romania for the second time in thirty years – the first had been two years before on their honeymoon – and decided to restore and renew both the buildings and the vineyards. They now have twenty-four hectares, six of them new. The Communists had decided that the whole area of Drăgăşani should be mainly white, and this the estate mostly remains, but they now also have five hectares of red grapes. They are not a volume producer, but make 100,000 bottles a year. The estate is biodynamic, a methodology which is helped by the fact that their estate is on a hill and the winds from the east and the west help to prevent rot and mildew. They allow long maceration, without any interference, if necessary – virtually never shorter than four weeks – and for all of the reds and some of the whites, they use spontaneous fermentation. Although they have some Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, they decided at the beginning to concentrate on five local grapes. The Crămpoşie Selecţionată is their predominant grape, and the white wine has from the first been their bestselling wine. It is well-made but not nearly as interesting as some of their other wines, but it is very popular in Romania and is certainly their bread-and-butter wine.
Vineyards at Prince Ştirbey
They also produce a Fetească Regală, which is the most planted grape in the country. Whilst it has something of a bad reputation for making bulk, ordinary wine, Prince Ştirbey make it a premium wine. We tasted two examples, the 2016, which is unoaked, and the 2013, which is barrel fermented and aged for eighteen months. The 2016 was light and a bit crisp, nice fruit but dry. The 2013 is a bit more complex. The acid emerged slowly but widely, and the wine has a nice roundness. It is one of the best of their wines. I also enjoyed their Tămâiosă Românească 2016, at 14% the heaviest of their current wines. It has lots of fruit, although not as much acid as I would prefer, but is still balanced and of a good length. Prince Ştirbey is the only producer making a single varietal from the deeply-coloured Novac grape. Their Novac Sec 2013 looks rather like a pinot noir in the glass, and has a nice red fruity nose, wide integrated acid and low but nearly balanced tannins.
They have what they call their peasant vineyard, which remains planted in the form and with the grape varieties that existed when the Kripps took over the estate. The wine is called Cuvée Genius Loci 2012, and is made up of 30% Novac and 70% Negru de Drăgăşani; the two varieties are vinified together, as in the olden days. It is then aged for fifteen months in two-year-old Romanian oak barrels. It is an alluring red wine, with a very nice scented nose, nice lively acid and balanced tannins, and with a good length. They also produce a sparkling wine, Vin Spumante 2011, from the Novac grape, which is aged for four years on the lees. The dosage included 8-9 grams of sugar, added, I was told, to try to calm the acidity. In general, the winemaker, Oliver Bauer, intervenes as little as possible in the winery. He has his own estate and winery down the road, but I was unable to taste any of his wines, and they do not appear to be available in the UK. (I was later told that his Crămpoşie Selecţionată 2013 is excellent, and I look forward to trying it.) In general, Prince Ştirbey produces a range of wines, from everyday wines to wines of high quality. I especially admired their devotion to the local grape varieties, not least because it can be difficult to sell abroad wines whose grape varieties defy pronunciation by the uninitiated. They will never be supermarket wines – amongst other reasons, they produce too few bottles – but for those who are looking for quality wines which are a bit different from those ordinarily available, they will find these very interesting.
Avincis Vinuri (www.avincis.ro), also in Drăgăşani, is another premium producer whose estate is based on restituted land. The owners, Christina and Valeriu Stoica, are lawyers; her mother received back the house with its twenty-six hectares in 1999 (it is now fifty hectares). By the time the owners decided to return in 2006, everything had been abandoned, and they had to re-build both house and vineyards. They decided from the outset that in order to develop and maintain a style and personality of winemaking, they would appoint a young winemaker, presumably so that they could grow and develop together. He is an Alsatian, Ghislain Möritz, trained at the university of Dijon and with experience in Burgundy and Portugal. He was only 25 years old.
The estate comprises a range of grapes, both international and local varieties. Part of the land is heavy clay, which retains water in the dry summer and reduces stress; other areas combine clay plus strips of limestone. The estate is on the Drăgăşani hills on slopes of about 350-400 meters, with white varieties planted on the east side and red varieties on the west, with the exception of Pinot Noir, which is planted on the north. Their first harvest was in 2010, with 10,000 bottles; it is now 100,000, having given them, according to Ghislain Möritz, time to grow their consumer base.
They take great care to keep oxygen from making contact with the wine. They use a nitrogen bag with the pneumatic press so that no oxygen hits the must and, when they bottle the wine, nitrogen goes into the bottle first, then the wine, and then more nitrogen on top. (Of course, the must gets oxygen during the pumping over, which helps the colony of yeast to develop.) They work with four coopers, three French and one Transylvanian. After the bottling, in order to mitigate bottle shock, they keep the bottles in the cellar for three months before labelling them.
They have two ranges, Vila Dobruşh for their supermarket or everyday wines and Avincis for their better wines. We only tasted the latter. Their Crămpoşie Selecţionată has a bit more acid than does the Ştirbey wine; the nose is pretty mute, but it had only been bottled three months before and was still in shock; we were promised a more aromatic nose in due course. The grape is big and fleshy, and half of their crop is sold locally as table grapes; there is a lot of tannin in the skin and some of this is invariably found in this wine. We were recommended to drink it young, and in any case within five years. Möritz takes a Burgundian approach to his blend of Fetească Regală (70%) and Pinot Gris (30%). We tasted the 2015, which comes in at 14% alcohol. It has ten months’ ageing with regular battonage, and has a nice structure, roundness, and length of finish. It is a good food wine, with enough acid to cut through any fat.
A white wine which I thought very nice indeed is the Cuvée Petit Sauvignon Blanc 2015, also 14% alcohol. It’s fermented in big oak barrels, with 25% aged in 500-litre barrels with eight months on the lees and the other 75% aged in stainless steel tanks for eight months; the two are then blended together. Battonage makes it buttery to balance the acidity. It is not in the Sancerre style, but is a local and food-friendly wine. The final white wine that we tasted was the Cuvée Amélie Tămâioasă Românească and Muscat Ottonel 2015. This was a medium-dry wine, with fairly mild acid, but enough to keep it from resembling syrup. It had been fermented in barrels for three months – you could catch the vanilla on the nose – and aged eleven months. It was not a profound wine, but one which should go nicely with crèpes Suzette.
We turned to the red wines, beginning with the Pinot Noir 2013. The nose was nice restrained fruit and a touch of spice; there was still quite a bit of acid and tannin on the palate, along with a touch of smokiness. 35% of the must went into barrique for fourteen months and 65% in stainless steel, and then the two were blended together. This was their first year of production of pinot noir, and the wine needs another year or two before it is drunk. The next wine provided quite a contrast with the pinot noir. This was the Negru de Drăgăşani 2013, which comes in at 14.5% alcohol. This grape was created at a local research station in the late 1980s and is a cross between Saperavi and Negru Virtuos. Curiously, it can’t be ripe before 14%. There is a lot of dark fruit and quite a lot of acidity. It’s quite a big, alcoholic, acidic wine and a full-bodied mouth-filler, and it sells out very quickly.
Cuvée Andrei 2011 is another single varietal, in this case Cabernet Sauvignon. 40% is aged in barrels for 14 months. There is quite a lot of acid and tannin; it is pretty concentrated, but not unpleasantly so, and smoky on the finish. I wondered whether it needed more time, say two to three years, or whether it was not going to moderate. Möritz’s explanation was that it had a long adolescence. The final wine that we tasted was the Cuvée Grandiflora 2015, made up of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot and 20% Negru de Drăgăşani. The alcohol level is 14.5%, and 50% was aged in barrels for sixteen months. It’s a very dark wine, almost opaque, and is concentrated, tannic and acidic. It is not yet on the market. At this rate, it will be as old as a Rioja Grand Reserva before it’s released to the public.
The view from Avincis
Avincis is a very interesting winery. It is big on wine tourism, with up-market accommodation, activities for all the family, and wonderful views. The winemaker Ghislain Möritz has made wonderful strides in his seven years there, but he decided that in July 2017 he would return to Alsace and create his own estate. He has trained up a winemaker to succeed him, Alina Profir, and there is no reason to fear a drop in quality. It is a winery to watch.
Our fourth winery was Cramele Halewood (www.halewood.com.ro). Unlike the four others visited, it is part of a huge commercial enterprise, Halewood International Holdings PLC, the UK’s largest drinks manufacturer and distributor. Its first contacts with Romania took place in 1987, when it began importing some of the local wine; ten years later, it opened their first Romanian subsidiary, now one of five. It is the largest wine export company in Romania, exporting five million bottles a year to more than thirty countries. They have about one hundred wines in their portfolio, because (as for Recaş) every client wants a different label and blend. Questioned about closures, we were told that they produce screwcaps for the UK and China and corks for Romania.
The subsidiary we visited is the Rhein Azuga Cellar, located in Dealu Mare, historically one of the primary quality areas in Romania, and located on the western edge of Muntenia and Oltenia Hills region. Rhein Azuga Cellar is where the Rhein sparkling wines are made, for which they grow only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in their local vineyards. We tasted three of them standing up, which I do not find conducive to taking notes; or, rather, I take notes but grumble about it. Two of the wines were non-vintage and made by the charmant (tank) method whilst the third, their first vintage with a date on the label, was made by the traditional method. Rhein Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs 2013, which was bottled in 2014, had a long, slow fermentation and three years on the lees in bottle. The tiny bubbles were nicely persistent. The wine had an attractive flavour, with a touch of brioche. Rhein Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs NV was bottled in 2015, after lying on the lees for eighteen months. It was a touch fruitier than the vintage and a touch less Brut. Finally, the Rhein Extra Brut Rosé NV is based on the Pinot Noir grape. It lay eighteen months on the lees, has nice persistent bubbles, and a slight raspberry flavour on the palate. I thought that this range was quite good and, in fact, I thought that Halewood’s sparkling wines were the most impressive of their wines, of which we tasted another twenty.
It would be tedious if I mentioned all of the wines that we tasted, and I will therefore confine myself to several which struck me for one reason or another. The Rhea Viognier 2015 was one of the nicer wines. Halewood were the first to plant Viognier commercially in Romania, and they’ve treated it nicely, fermenting it in stainless steel but maturing it for four months in barrels. It’s quite fresh, and sells in Romania, China and Germany. Their Surprisingly Good [sic] Pinot Noir 2016 has a very fruity nose, and is both fruity and smoky on the palate. It goes to Morrison’s supermarket chain in the UK. Their Kronos Pinot Noir 2017, of which 6,500 bottles a year are made, is aged in French barrels for ten months. It has a nice nose, balanced acidity and tannins, good fruit, and a good length of finish. It’s made for the on-trade and sells in Romania, China and the Benelux.
We ended the tasting with arguably their top wine, the Hyperion Chairman’s Cuvée Roumaine 2013, which is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Fetească Neagră, and is the closest they come to a Bordeaux blend. Assemblage took place before it was matured in new French oak barrels for fourteen months. There was lots of fruit on the nose, and some dark fruit and chocolate on the palate. It had a good length, and my Anglo-Portuguese colleague Armando really liked it. It’s a new release and destined for the on-trade.
Riddling is done by hand
Halewood was an interesting place to visit, not only for its wines but also for a reason not connected with their current wine production. This is their room with a small collection of old machines used for the making and bottling of sparkling wines, which the winemaker demonstrated for us. They still riddle their bottles, and as we walked through the cellar, she demonstrated how one person could riddle 30,000 bottles a day by showing how quickly a row could be done. Dead impressive.
The final wine producer of the visit was S.E.R.V.E. (Societatea Euro-Româna de Vinuri de Excepţie), (www.serve.ro), the first independent wine-making company in post-Communist Romania. It is in Dealu Mare, notable for its red wines, and this is appropriate, because it was a red variety that apparently convinced the founder, Count Guy Tyrel de Poix, to remain in Romania. The story goes that six lines in Hugh Johnson’s The World Atlas of Wine brought Romanian terroir to his notice. He already ran the fifty-hectare Domaine Peraldi in Corsica, which was owned by his family, but once he arrived in Romania in 1993, he was completely taken by the wine made from Fetească Neagră by a young winemaker, Aurel Rotărescu. The new owner had latched on to a difficult grape: it’s challenging to grow, with too much vigour, and it can go bad very quickly. Mr Rotărescu has remained the winemaker, and, indeed, S.E.R.V.E. has had the same team for twenty-five years. During the 1990s they worked with Waitrose, from whom they learned a lot, but S.E.R.V.E. was not making supermarket wines and thus was not competitive in the UK market; the two organisations went their separate ways.
The total estate is made up of 120 hectares, seventy in Dealu Mare and another fifty near the Black Sea. They have had to build up the estate piece by piece because, as noted above, people seldom want to sell their land. S.E.R.V.E. is a medium-size winery, producing 700,000 bottles a year, 40% of which is exported, especially to Canada, the US, France, the Benelux, Poland and Cyprus. (Taking all together the export markets of all five of the wine producers whom we met, Canada seems to be a significant market for Romanian wine.) They have several levels of quality and price: the Vinul Cavalerului Selection (which was translated as Knight’s Wine), all single-varietal early-drinking wines primarily for the off-trade, selling at €5.50-6; the Terra Româna Selection, both single-varietal and blends, which are their finer wines for the on-trade and export, with a menu price of about €15; and finally, their finest wines, the Milenium Alb and Milenium Roşu wines and their top cuvées.
We began with the Vinul Cavalerului Rezerva Contelui Alb 2016, made up of Sauvignon Blanc, Fetească Albă, and a little Chardonnay. The nose is soft Sauvignon Blanc. I commented on the low acidity, and was told that there was not much acid in Dealu Mare, and they tried to pick early to retain as much as possible; they don’t acidify. Altogether, it is an aromatic and very soft wine. We then tasted the Terra Româna Milenium Alb 2016, made up of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling de Rim (the name for the Alsatian Riesling, which they imported; I was told that there is a lot of bad Riesling all over Romania), and Chardonnay (the Chardonnay alone is fermented in barrels). There was still not much acid, even with the Riesling, although what there was was more persistent. It was quite full in the mouth – it’s 14% – and was certainly more complex than the previous wine. I should mention their Terra Româna Fetească Albă 2014, which is their only single-varietal amongst the better wines. It had an interesting nose, different from the others, and a touch hard to pin down. There was not much acid showing, but enough slowly emerged to provide a very nice structure to the wine. There were both fruit and minerals on the palate, and a good length. Altogether, it was a very interesting wine.
S.E.R.V.E. was the first winery in Romania to make a dry rosé, and their Vinul Cavalerului Rezerva Contelui Roşu 2016 is made up of Fetească Neagră (aka Black Maiden) and Cabernet Sauvignon. It is pale pink with a nice nose of integrated fruit, and, curiously, it ended with more structure than it began with. It’s an entry-level wine for restaurants, with a menu price of €10-12. If one goes up a step, the Terra Româna Rosé 2016 is a bit stronger, 13.5% alcohol compared with the previous rosé at 13%. Made of 55% Fetească Neagră and 45% Merlot, it’s very fruity, especially on the nose, but has less acid and therefore a weaker structure on the palate than the previous wine.
They take a great deal of pride in their Cuvée wines, of which we tasted several. I want to comment on two of them. First of all is the Cuvée Charlotte 2011, named after the first daughter of the Count, and which combines Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Fetească Neagră into a medium dark, complex wine, combining savoury and fruity notes with a long length. It will probably be even better in two years, but it is already a quite wonderful wine. The second is a more sombre wine, the Cuvée Guy de Poix 2012, with 15.5% alcohol; it’s the first vintage. Guy de Poix had died in 2011, and this wine, which is dedicated to his memory, is made entirely from Fetească Neagră, the grape which had fascinated him from his first visit to Romania. Only the best grapes go into the mix, and a maximum of 6,000 bottles made. It is a very big wine, with dark fruit and stones and lots of integrated tannins on the palate, and just about the highest alcohol level I saw in Romania. At €50 it was certainly the most expensive, but it is a memorable wine.
S.E.R.V.E. is a family winery, with family members making up the Board and Mihaela Tyrel de Poix, Guy de Poix’s widow and partner in the enterprise, acting as the C.E.O. The atmosphere is one of seriousness and some intensity, and it certainly produces some of the most impressive wines that I tasted. Sadly, three of the Russian writers had had to leave, and thus only three of us were there to enjoy tasting and talking about the wines. We three could not linger for long once we had finished, because we had to travel to Bucharest to catch our plane to the UK or to Russia. Certainly, by the time I’d made it to Stansted and then King’s Cross station in London and then Paddington station to catch my train out to deepest South Oxon, my palate memory had begun to fade a bit.
This was stimulating, illuminating and marginally exhausting trip to a wine country about which I knew relatively little: I had not drunk any wine from Romania since my students days, when it suddenly appeared in the shops at a price impecunious students could sometimes afford. At that time, all the wine which emerged from the country had been made with an idea to quantity rather than quality, and it is probably a blessing that I have no memory of its taste. Things are now changing, and have been for some years. There is now good and sometimes excellent wine to be had at all price levels, and for the questing wine-drinker, Romania is ripe for exploration.