Romania: you’ve come a long way, baby

© Romania Tourism
| Wine has been made in Romania for over 5,000 years, and now it’s coming back.

Although many Romanians still smoke, they may not remember the Virginia Slims cigarette advertisement from the 1960s and 1970s, but they live up to the hype when it comes to wine.

The last time I visited Romania was two decades ago. Some of the wines were good, but many of the production facilities were dark and the areas offered little attractive accommodation.

Fast forward 20 years and the country’s wine production – and attitude towards tourism – is markedly different: which should help its booming wine industry. Despite the relative lack of foreign tourists, the wine industry is maturing: wine production is becoming cleaner and many wine regions are now ready to welcome tourists.

Another benefit is that producers focus more on “high-quality wines from local varietals”, according to Caroline Gilby, a UK-based Master of Wine who specializes in Eastern European wines. Plus, they excel at making better use of oak and tannin management, with “less emphasis on pure power,” she adds.

An influx of foreign chefs and sommeliers has also accelerated the evolution of the quality of the country’s wines. The trio of positions occupied by the marketing director, the chef and the restaurant manager of the prestigious Marmorosch hotel in Bucharest were all foreigners (one Lithuanian and two Indians). Their wine list is predominantly Romanian, while the food is anything but.

It seems half of the Romanians who once made pizza in Rome have returned to open their own Italian restaurants and have taken to selling – and sharing the stories behind – their country’s ever-improving wines.

The future of this country’s wine industry may well put wines front and center with influential wine experts. Gilby also suggested that Romanian producers should “bring opinion makers to the country to connect with it in a positive way”. She did this for Moldova, on several occasions, organizing media and trade trips there and wine tastings in the United States in the mid-2000s.

Old and underrated

Viticulture in Romania dates back 6000 years. Gilby adds that according to his research, evidence for viticulture dates back to 200 BC to 3500 BC. Although it is a southern European country with moderate exposure to the Black Sea, many of its growing regions are moderated by the 2500 meter high Carpathian Mountains where the northern part of the country shares the 47th parallel with the Loire. However, as it also shares a border with Ukraine and Bulgaria, it clearly has Eastern European influences.

This is why the country is a bit of a mystery in terms of winemaking styles and the producers who make them. There are many semi-dry wines produced that satisfy local plates and formerly intended for Russian plates. Then you have the lush green lung of Transylvania, near the Hungarian border, which has Saxon influences and is a small workhorse producing amazing wines.

big step forward

Romania joined the European Union in 2007. The country then embarked on revising wine legislation and updating labeling and production standards. The country, according to the Association of Romanian Wine Exporters and Producers (APEV), is the fifth in terms of vine and grape production area: after Spain, France, Italy and Portugal. In terms of wine production, it is sixth, behind the aforementioned countries and Germany.

Romania’s wine classifications, according to Gilby, are based on EU regulations and generally date from the country’s entry into the EU. PDO, or Protected Designation of Origin, is the Romanian term for DOC. According to APEV production forecasts, out of a total of 5257.228 hectoliters of must produced, just under a third was PDO, of which 100% of the grapes used must come from the specified region.

The main export countries for Romanian wines are Germany at 28%, the Netherlands at 25% and the United States at the other end of the scale at 5%. Some producers also cater to these foreign markets by using easy-to-understand Anglo-Saxon names on their brands.

Romanian vineyards often combine the medieval with the ultra-modern.

© Avincis
| Romanian vineyards often combine the medieval with the ultra-modern.

One of my favorite wines of the visit was the white Feteasca Regala from Gramofon, a winery based in Dealu Mare, the closest wine region to Bucharest. It is an elegant white with invigorating acidity and hints of stone fruit. It is on the menu of The Great Hill, a Bucharest wine bar that only offers wine from the Dealu Mare region, where the manager is also employed by Gramofon. The cellar also produces a rich and balanced Merlot.

Other favorites were Mierla Alba’s Feteasca Alba and the winery’s Merlot-based rosé, also located in the Dealu Mare. This small winery was bought by the great Romanian producer Tohani and is a short drive from Bucharest. The winery also has a complex and restaurant called Appogeum, housed in the former estate of Prince Nicolae of Romania and focuses solely on Feteasca Neagra, an indigenous red grape.

As a testament to the evolution of Dealu Mare, Mierla Alba charges the equivalent of $10 per tasting to visitors in a country where the average annual income is around $18,000; he seems to have no problem filling out his dance card. The winemaker assured me that it was not even rich Romanians who visited his tasting room, because “they go to France or Italy”.

Challenges

Unfortunately, much of what is seen overseas isn’t the best of what’s on offer domestically. Many of the best wines are also blends made from native grapes, so local production of well-known grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon is likely to help sales.

However, “trying to sell local grapes that no one can pronounce from a country that no one knows is wine country will always be difficult and will require marketing and education efforts. [something that has been lacking in recent years]“, shares Gilby.

“If we want to build Romania’s reputation abroad, we have to work with international and indigenous varieties,” shares Paul Fulea, a well-respected small-scale producer from the Crama Histria label based in the south of the country near the Black Sea. .

Its Ammos range of white, red and rosé blends was outstanding. He uses unusual blends like a mix of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in his white and also makes a great Merlot.

Grapes and trends

Romania has long been home to unique and remarkable local grapes. Two of them most often seen are Feteasca Neagra, a red; and Feteasca Alba, a white: both are crosses made from fairly obscure Eastern European grapes.

They are both named for their color – black and white respectively. There are also well-known Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, as well as Pinot Noir, which raises the country’s viticultural profile abroad.

Another international investor who has settled on Romanian soil also agrees that the country’s native grape varieties – in tandem with international grape varieties – can help Romania emerge internationally. Jonas Schäfer established Valea Verde, a lush resort in Transylvania, in 2007 when he gave up a career as a music director in Hamburg and took the leap to open a 26-room hotel in a village of 200 people called Cund. As a testament to beauty and affordability, Prince Charles owns real estate nearby.

Schäfer believes that the rise of Feteasca Neagra and Feteasca Alba are important trends in terms of the evolution of the country’s wine traditions. He adds that many producers also focus on organic and natural wines, as well as those that are orange and unfiltered. He adds that many winegrowers for a time focused on single-varietal wines, before “understanding that it is better to have a cuvée”.

An interesting mix of traditional and innovative viticultural practices is likely to continue driving this exciting wine destination forward.

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