My Article published in the Circle of Wine Writers’ On-line Magazine.

FOLLOWING A STAR IN THE EAST

With some ‘previous’ under my belt (a visit to help judge the IWCB in May 2017), along with the reference book, ‘The Wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova’, by fellow CWW member, *Caroline Gilby MW, plus having some friends in situ, I recently joined a Clementine Communications Press Trip to Romania – the eponymous ‘Star in the East’.

Feted as usual when judging abroad, my colleagues and I in 2017 were taken to various Romanian wineries as well as enjoying dinners with wine supplied by others. Thus began my interest in wines from Eastern Europe, spurred on by Caroline’s excellent book. Therefore when the Clementine offer came in I jumped at it with some alacrity.

The itinerary took in the wine regions of: Oltenia and Muntenia which includes Dealu Mare and Dragasani, home to two each of the wineries we visited; and Banat, Romania’s smallest wine region which in fact houses the country’s largest individual producer, which we visited first.

Our travels enabled us to meet people as diverse as an ex-pat Bristolian, who, with two partners, established their winery only at the beginning of the 21st Century; through to the aristocracy of Austria and Romania, a Baron and Baroness, no less, whose families between them have racked up 800 years of wine making experience!

True stories of persecution under the Communist regime, including imprisonment, even death, escape, eventual repatriation and restitution, as well as continuing frustration with the lack of political will, punctuated our visit. However the common denominator linking all our hosts was, and is, passion! Passion for their craft, for their wines and for further consolidating the wines of their mother country in the wine markets of the world. I admire them all!

The trip was sponsored by the aforementioned Bristolian, Philip Cox, founder of winery Cramele Recas, which became famous, or infamous, depending on your viewpoint, when they launched a cut price Orange Wine on the shelves of Aldi in the UK market. When defending himself against the torrent of criticism he received from many quarters he simply quoted the philosophy of the winery – their intention is to always over-deliver in terms of their price/quality ratio. Punching above their weight!

Cramele Recas produces 60% of the grapes it requires to make the 24 million litres needed for its 68 different labels. For such a large holding, and considering as well the 40% obtained elsewhere, it’s no surprise to learn that there are many different microclimates affecting their vineyards.

Generally speaking the climate is relatively mild with Mediterranean and Atlantic influences. Soils also vary, of course. There is clay with sand and limestone as well as iron rich soils. Wine making in the area goes back to the Romans and Phillip has a document detailing the purchase of vines from 1447. There is a rich history here, which, as always, has been peppered with wars, land confiscation and political strife. However, Cramele Recas is a success story with export sales booming, along with the home market too.

We tasted a total of 19 wines, from entry level through to flagship, made from young vines to those which have seen 50 vintages. Of those that we tasted, approximate pricing was between 2·50€/bottle to the most expensive retailing at about 20€. I think we all agreed that there were no poor wines and that all did indeed offer very good value for money.

There was a very long drive of approaching four hours the next day taking us to Dragasani, firstly to the immaculate and beautiful Avincis winery, and thence to the charming, Prince Stirbey winery, with the smallest production of all wineries visited.

Our hostess at Avinci, Dr. Cristiana Stoica, along with her daughter, Andreea, were as pleased to see us as we were to meet them and visit their stunning location! It was here, sitting in the perfectly tailored grounds over coffee in glorious sunshine, where we heard about the family history and the first of many sad and tragic stories about the Communist era – stories similar to those which were heard everywhere and from everyone we met!

Those who had been banished and/or forced to leave Romania during these times, their lands, houses etc confiscated by the state, were only able to start returning from the late 80s. The Stoica family, like many others, came back and attempted to reclaim the land and property stolen from them. It was a bureaucratic nightmare which is yet to be fully resolved!

Our tour around the grounds, first purchased over 100 years ago, including the magnificently restored mansion, built in 1905, which contained a ‘message in a bottle (a tradition of the time) commemorating the building and its blessing by a priest, was a delight.

So were the ten wines we tasted, with Cristiana and her Head Winemaker, the 24 years old, petite Madalina, who was as charming as her wines. Madalina led us through, certainly my first taste of the indigenous variety Crâmposie, plus another first for me, the Feteasca Regala, which translates to Royal Maiden! I particularly liked this variety, here, and at other wineries to follow. I think that, were I tasting it blind, I might identify it (wrongly, of course) as Viognier – and for me that is a definite plus.

Head Wine Maker, Madalina – as charming as her wines!

We also enjoyed the opened wines over an excellent, gourmet lunch, cooked on site. We noted that there are also rooms here, with various activities to enjoy, like tennis and others, as well as the wine and dining!

It was a relatively very short drive to the Prince Stirbey winery, where we  were honoured to meet owners Baron and Baroness Jakob and Lleana Kripp-Continescu. The former, from a 500 year dynasty of Austrian winemaking, the latter with a mere three hundred years of their family winery!

Those who have flown into Bucharest will have landed at the Henri Coanda airport, named in fact after the man who, secretly smuggled out the Baroness when it became too dangerous to stay under a Communist regime, intent on expropriation of all private property, and heaven help anybody who stood in their way. Indeed, some of the Baronesses family were imprisoned, one losing his life!

The bucolic winery is the same as when it was built in 1913 and is surrounded by the unchanged beautiful rolling hills, leading eventually down to the river and lake, that are home to the Prince Stirbey vineyards. Stunning!

The contrast between this winery and the first we visited, Cramele Recas, couldn’t be more marked. The production here is a mere 100,000 bottles (a percentage of which, though, are found in the cellars of The Wine Society and Oddbins!). Wines are made exclusively with indigenous Romanian varieties and all of the oak barrels, that’s 225 litres, 300 litres and 500 litres are Romanian too.

It’s true that there is some fermentation done in French oak foudres, but essentially this is a thoroughly Romanian enterprise, excepting also the winemaker, Oliver Bauer, a German who fell in love with the area, and a local girl too! There are also some small stainless steel tanks, from Slovenia.

There is no racking when the wines are in barrel, gravity takes its course during the year that most of the red wines stay in oak. There is as little intervention as possible, with spontaneous fermentation provoked by the home yeasts.

Classy sparkling wines with lengthy ageing on lees, whites, reds and a dessert wine, all made from their own local varieties. A super array!

Next morning, our last full day in Romania we visited the first of two wineries in the Dealu Mare (meaning Big Hill) wine region, whose temperate continental climate and iron rich red/brown soils are behind some of Romania’s finest wines. We were delighted to find that the young winemaker, Silviu, of the S.E.R.V.E. winery was to travel with us from the hotel. It was largely their Cuvée Charlotte (which we tasted!), using Romania’s most famous variety, Feteasca Negra, in the blend, that persuaded critics to start to believe in Romanian wines!

The winery opened its doors in 1994 and is now making 700,000 – 800,000 bottles of wine, 40% of which are for export, to countries such as Canada, Belgium and Germany, with Silviu and his colleagues hoping to break into the ‘very difficult’ UK market too.

International varieties, including Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay, (amongst others) rub shoulders with indigenous grapes, in the vineyards and in bottle. Our tour took us to the hills which eventually climb to form the Carpathian Mountains, which in fact protect the vineyards from the very worst of the weather. When we were there however, and this at the end of October, sun tan lotion was the order of the day, for me at least, and shade was often sought – testimony to the factual reality of Climate Change, postulated Silviu!

After tasting we were treated to a virtual banquet of local dishes for lunch, accompanied by whichever wines we liked most – exceptional hosts, a pleasure to visit.

Finally, to the south of the Dealu Mare region we visited the second largest of the wineries on our itinerary, Budureasca, one of the most modern in all of Romania. A huge investment (that’s 15 million Euros, 9 million of which came from the owners) has put this winery in the centre of the home market in terms of sales. The limestone, Calcium rich soils here give rise to a current 2·5 million litres of wine, with a maximum capacity of 3·6 million with 90+% sold within Romania! The approximate 3% – 8% in export sales is something on which the winery is now focussing.

55% of production is red wine, the rest is white, and our hosts, Dumitru and Laurentiu are pleased with sales of the sparkling wine, started only two years ago, largely because they could see the worldwide rise in fizz sales.

There is a confidence about the whole winery and no wonder considering sales such as these and indeed the quality of the fifteen wines we enjoyed at an impressive tasting, which included the variety Tamaioasa Romaneasca. This variety, thought to have originally come from Greece, has a remarkable likeness, in aroma and taste, to Gewurztraminer, making it, for me, an ideal partner to Oriental cuisine, along with South East Asian dishes.

An excellent, eye-opening trip!

It was interesting that our colleague, Jürgen Schmücking, whose taxi collected him at 03:30 hrs for his flight back to Austria, and I (at 6 am) were rushing back (myself to UK via Dublin!) to make it in time for the same reason, our respective wives’ birthdays. There are some things more important than wine! 

*With thanks to Caroline Gilby MW for her book, ‘The Wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova’, which I have used for reference purposes for this article.

Colin Harkness

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