When it comes to Romanian wine, Jancis Robinson calls my home country ‘the land of hope‘. But wine is not the first thing most people think of when you mention Romania.
Instead, an unholy trinity typically comes to mind: Dracula, Ceaușescu and the gymnast Nadia Comaneci. Oh well.
Romania is a Latin country, with a charming countryside, surrounded by Slavic neighbours in Eastern Europe. It is also one of the largest wine producers in the world with a growing number of high-quality wine makers.
At Vincarta, we’re champions of Romanian wine and we hope this article will help straighten the facts and, perhaps, change some perceptions.
Fact #1: Romanian wine is improving constantly
With the EU accession in 2007, Romania has embarked on a journey to put Romanian wine on the map. Access to pre and post accession funds translated to:
- investments in technology for wine making
- the removal of low-quality vines
- replanting vineyards with better genetic material.
The last ten years has seen the emergence of quality small Romanian wine producers, who have a completely different approach to wine making than the volume producers. As a result, we believe that premium Romanian wine is no longer an oxymoron.
That said, there is still a lot of low-quality, high-volume production. Eurostat reports that in 2015, only one-third of Romanian vineyards were planted with grapes for high-quality wine, which is the lowest in Europe.
This doesn’t surprise me, as the Romanians started improving quite late. But this has created an opportunity to jump directly to the latest technology and modern approaches to winemaking. In the same way, Romania went straight to internet banking, credit cards and mobile phones without the intermediary steps that other countries went through.
Italy and Greece are other examples of countries with a low-quality grape growing percentage (only 50 percent of plantings are dedicated to high-quality production). But, this doesn’t stop them producing memorable wines.
Fact #2: Romania has the perfect geography for wine
The Carpathians Mountains are Romania’s greatest natural gift. A variety of soil compositions form in their foothills, which suit vines well. In addition, the mountains give shelter to the hills and moderate the temperature, just as the Vosges mountains protect Alsace.
Other countries that grow grapes in the foothill of the Carpathians are Hungary (Tokay) and Slovakia (north of Tokay and Malé Karpaty Hills on the Czech border).
Romanian autumns are long and gentle, allowing grapes to ripen slowly and concentrate good flavours. Situated on the same latitude as Bordeaux, the climate is drier and more continental, as the Black Sea does not have the same influence over Romania as the Atlantic Ocean does in Bordeaux. The hilly areas in Moldova and Dobrogea (by the Black Sea) also provide good conditions for grape growing.
The natural potential for the wine industry is clear and well-understood by investors. No wonder the Romanian wine industry is dominated by British, German, Austrian, French and Italian companies.
We fully expect the success of South American wine, Australian wine and New Zealand wine in the last 20-30 years to be repeated with Romanian Wine.
Fact #3: Romanian wine production is the largest in Eastern Europe
OIV statistics place Romania fifth in Europe overall and tenth in the world for the area under vine. Based on 2016 data, with an area under vine of 191k hectares, Romania was similar in size to Chile and Portugal. Estimated wine production that year was 3.3 million hectolitres, making Romania the fifth largest wine producer in Europe and the 13th largest in the world. At its current rate, Romanian wine production is slightly above New Zealand’s.
Unfortunately, the Romanian wine-making industry suffered a lot in the communist era, where quantity was prioritised over quality. After the fall of communism, the country dealt with hyperinflation and hard economic times. Like the majority of Romanians, the wine industry suffered as a result. In this time, mass market wine – a.k.a. cheap plonk – made its way into the majority of exports. Romanian wine now has to battle these preconceptions of low quality (and related price expectations).
However, in Romania, things are changing rapidly every year, driven by new producers and consumer demand for high-quality wine.
Vincarta’s selection of Romanian wines
We’re huge fans of Aurelia Vișinescu and we sell four of her wines direct from the UK:
Fact #4: There’s a new generation of Romanian wine makers
In the last ten years, a new generation of wine makers has broken onto the scene. These are small, craft producers, who took advantage of EU funds to invest in new winemaking technology and replant older vines with better quality clones.
They experiment with the winemaking style, taking a new world approach to the process. Some of them even hire oenologists from France and Germany to help them express the best of the terroir.
These niche producers dedicate an important percentage of their produce to premium, high-quality wine, made from the best grapes and with the highest care and attention.
In response, some of the bigger, well-established producers have started to make more premium wine from their best grapes, reacting to a growing demand for quality wine at home and abroad.
Here at Vincarta, we want to draw attention to these quality producers. The list is not exhaustive, but provides a good example of what to look for on the label. Most of them are found in the Dealu Mare sub-region. Think of this as the ‘Bordeaux’ of Romanian wine.
Look out for the following small producers in your next shop:
- Dealu Mare (Domeniile Săhăteni Lacerta, Davino, SERVE, Budureasca, Basilescu)
- Drăgăşani (Prince Știrbey)
- Drîncea (Crama Oprişor, Domeniile Segarcea)
- Dobrogea/Murfatlar (Alira)
We visited one of them in March 2017, Domeniile Săhăteni, and decided to bring four of their top wines to the UK market.
Fact #5: Premium Romanian wine is great value
The last five years saw the emergence of Romanian premium wine using international grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, and some local grape varieties.
Unfortunately, the UK wine retailers sell a lot of average quality, low-priced wine. At a price below £10 per bottle (including £2.50 in taxes), these wines are unlikely to become a revelation.
Even reputable magazines such as Decanter rarely include the new kids on the block in their annual tasting and assessment of global wines. If you only taste the mass market, you’re not going to find the quality you’re looking for.
For a very good or outstanding quality of wine, you should be looking at bottles priced around £13-15, with the best quality wines starting at around £20 per bottle.
This might sound like a lot, but, for similar quality French wine, you have to pay at least twice, if not three to four times as much.
At Vincarta, we’ve tasted and published our ratings and assessments of all the premium Romanian wines we’ve come across. See our articles about premium Romanian wine tasting, wine of the week Apogeum 2012, wine of the week Anima Merlot 2012, and tasting a Romanian indigenous white.
Fact #6: The best grapes to choose in Romanian wine
Most Romanian wine producers make wine out of a mix of international and indigenous grape varieties. More recently, producers have focused more on making wine exclusively out of international grape varieties. Many top producers replanted their vineyards with high-quality clones, mostly French.
High-quality wine starts with high-quality grapes, so, it made sense to plant a genetic material suitable for this. The most popular international white grapes are:
The most popular red grapes are:
But you don’t stick with familiar names. Romanian local grape varieties can be very good as well, including:
- Fetească – makes dry, fresh, intensely perfumed white wines. It has some body and can be barrel fermented for additional complexity.
- Tămȃioasă Romȃnească (‘frankincence grape’) or Romanian Muscat – a small berried clone of the Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains, one of the oldest grape varieties in the world and the most exquisite of the Muscat grapes. It results in white wines, intensely perfumed, aromatic and quite difficult to make as dry wines.
- Fetească Neagra – makes delicious dry red wines, full-bodied and with medium tannins that become velvety with age. It is the oldest Romanian grape variety. With aromas of spice, black or red fruit, dried plums, it has an affinity to oak, and can produce outstanding wines if yields are kept under control.
Fact #7: Romanian wine is food friendly
We sometimes drink white wine as an aperitif, but most of the time Romanians like to drink their wine with food. Romanians are very hospitable. If you’re lucky enough to get invited to a Romanian meal, expect to see the table close to collapsing from the weight of food and booze. We always put the best things we have in the house on the table. It’s also quite common to spend four to six hours tucking into a proper feast.
I firmly believe that barbecuing should become a national sport and we certainly love meat. The local cuisine is rich, savoury and tasty. That’s why the red wines need to have tannin, to cut through the richness of Romanian traditional dishes.
Fact #8: Romanian wine makers are bending the tradition in their innovative approach
During my interview with Aurelia Vișinescu, I asked her about recent trends and developments in the Romanian wine. She noted that wine makers experiment in two ways:
- Making dry wines out of grapes traditionally vinified as sweet or semi-sweet. Aurelia Vișinescu, at Domeniile Săhăteni is a pioneer herself. She was the first winemaker in Romania to vinify Fetească Neagră as a dry wine aged in oak barrels. She also produces a fabulous, dry Romanian Muscat, with a superb typicity of the Muscat Blanc à Petit Grain aroma profile.
- Experimentation on the winemaking style, with modern styles or old world techniques. Sometimes blends change from one harvest to the next.
This effervescence might be confusing for wine professionals, used to traditional regions obeying a certain style and regionality. But I think it’s crucial to be able to experiment as a winemaker. Great things arise when you use the grapes you want and in the proportions you like. Without the stringent, often silly rules of a regional appellation, wine can be anything you want it to be. Take the controversy of Super Tuscans versus Chianti for example.
It’s like watching a Master Chef competition. There may be speed bumps along the way but I believe that invention, talent and high-quality ingredients will result in something amazing. There are already a few great producers, but give Romania another ten years and see what happens.
Fact #9: Romanian wine regions
Romania has eight wine regions, which are named after geographical regions:
- Transylvania Highlands
- Moldavian Hill
- Muntenia Hills
- Oltenia Hills
- Banat Hills
- Dobrogea Hills
- Crișana Maramureș Hills
- The Danube Terraces
However, knowing the Romanian wine regions is less important than knowing the key top quality producers (the map in fact #4 provides a good indication of what to look for). The sub-regions are also interesting, as they are the ones given DOC status. Romanian wine will have the name of the grapes on the label, making it easier to choose something you like.
Important tip: avoid wine bottles that feature images of Dracula. It’s just a tourist cliché.
Fact #10: Romania’s historical wine
Romania produced one wine that was famous across Europe in the 19th century. This wine is Grasă de Cotnari, a sweet wine with Botrytis character like a good Sauternes, and an ever-present rival Hungarian Tokay. It comes from the Cotnari region and, while it’s still sold there, it needs a bit of a facelift and revival in quality.
Despite its current lull, Grasă de Cotnari proves one undeniable fact: Romania can produce world-class wines. With this in mind, there’s every reason to believe the latest generation will propel the country back onto the world stage.
Ever tried Romanian wine? Share your experience in the comments below.