Features 31 January 2020

Romania: a winemaking country in search of its identity

It has one of the world's oldest winemaking traditions, but a 40-year hiatus during the Communist era means that, some 25 years later, Romanian wine is still searching for its identity

Words by Laurel Bibby

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Philip Cox produced a massive 22 million litres of wine and sold over a million bottles in more than 25 countries last year. With these figures, you’d be forgiven for thinking he sits at the helm of a premium wine estate in a classic region like France or Italy, but it’s actually Cramele Recaş in western Romania that has made Cox his fortune.

He runs an impressive operation. Romania’s largest winery by profit and turnover, Recaş  produces 68 different wines, from entry-level to premium, using 21 grape varieties from the classic Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to indigenous grapes such as Feteasca Neagra, Tamioasa and Muscat Ottonel.

The vineyards span 1200ha on the main site just outside Timişoara – a charming city in western Romania – and a further 300ha in Arad County 60km northwest. Last year, more than €3.5 million was invested into the winery, as well as a further €4 million in two new crush wineries near the Black Sea.

Philip Cox at Cramele Recaş

Romania’s not just about mass-produced wine, though. There are many smaller, artisanal producers throughout the country who find it difficult to compete with the international market on grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Many favour local varieties instead, where they have the opportunity to present something unique.

“It’s not news if you’re doing a good copy,” says Oliver Bauer, the charismatic winemaker at Prince Ştirbey, a family estate which lies on the west banks of the River Olt at the heart of the Drăgășani wine region, a four-hour drive northwest of Bucharest.

Originally from Germany, Bauer arrived in Romania in 2004 after meeting the owners of Ştirbey. He initially planned to stay for just a couple of months to help out but ended up staying indefinitely after falling in love with Romania’s local grapes.

“I want to make originals,” he says. “Nobody comes to Romania to try Bordeaux blends. They come for something different.”

Oliver Bauer
Vineyards at Prince Ştirbey

As such, Ştirbey’s portfolio has a special focus on indigenous varieties. It produces up to 20 different wines made up of eight varieties – two thirds of which are indigenous, including the exceedingly difficult-to-pronounce Cramposie, Negru de Drăgășani, and Tămâioasă Românească – with each wine produced from a single variety to bring out the individual character of the grape.

“I fight the temptation to make Riesling like in Germany,” Bauer says. “I am not a German winemaker; I am a winemaker from Germany. I want to make Riesling from Romania. Hopefully my wines are authentic and reflective of the region.”

We try a range of wines in the few hours we spend there, and while I’ve developed a taste for the elegant, aromatic white wines made from Fetească Regală, it’s Bauer’s Novac – a local variety not dissimilar to Pinot Noir – that stands out. So it should: Bauer is the only person in the country making a wine solely from Novac grapes. The wine is deep and elegant with fresh, juicy acidity – but it begs the question why no other winemaker in Romania is making the same thing.

Nobody comes to Romania to try Bordeaux blends. They come for something different

It seems the main issue is that, to most wine consumers, Romania is still an unknown quantity.

“We’re trying to get into America, but it’s harder than I thought,” says British winemaker Stephen Donnelly, who runs Budureasca winery in the Dealu Mare region in the southeast of the country, one of Romania’s most important wine-growing regions. Budureasca currently exports around 15% of production to Japan, Belgium, and Canada.

“They love the wines, but they’re not willing to take a chance on something they don’t know. They don’t know where to place us.”

Bauer agrees: “It’s difficult to export,” he says. “We have to be three times better than a wine of the same price in France because we are unknown.”

Indeed, while Romania is one of the oldest winemaking countries in the world, a 40-year hiatus during the Communist era when vineyards were collectivised and production massively increased at expense of quality, means that the oldest wineries in the country today only date back to the mid-1990s.

The wines at Budureasca
Stephen Donnelly

It’s taken almost 25 years, but things are looking up for the Romanian wine industry as the demand for wines from emerging regions and indigenous varieties is growing rapidly. Now, winemakers are starting to use their indigenous varieties as a way of coaxing customers in.

“It’s hard to convince a consumer to try a Chardonnay from Romania,” says Silviu Rotarescu, second generation winemaker at Crama SERVE in the Dealu Mare region. “But maybe once they’ve tried our indigenous varieties, they’ll be more willing.”

The case is the same at Budureasca. “We’re planning to replant local grapes because people are more interested in those in the export markets,” says Donnelly. “Everyone makes Cabernet Sauvignon.”

The quality of wines coming out of regions like Romania is also vastly improving year on year. In 2019, IWSC (a sister company of Club Oenologique) introduced two new trophies celebrating indigenous grapes and up-and-coming regions, and a record-breaking nine Romanian wines were scored 90 points or above by IWSC’s expert tasting panels.

Overlooking the vineyards at Avincis, another Drăgășani-based winery (see also main pic)

The end goal is for Romania to take full control and train up its own winemakers. Currently, the majority working in the country have come from abroad because there’s little training in Romania and few wineries big enough to offer opportunities for young winemakers to gain experience. There’s also no generic body for Romanian wine, which could help wineries with sales and marketing to boost the profile of the country – though it’s not for lack of trying.

“It’s very difficult,” says Cox. “I think I’ve tried more than anyone else to promote Romanian wines outside of Romania, but I find it hard to get a consensus about what should be done. There isn’t a significant movement from enough wineries to go in any one direction.”

The producers are hopeful though, and – most importantly – believe in the quality of the wines they’re making. “I think Romanian wine can be a perfectly viable commercial alternative to Chilean wines, for example, and even French wines,” says Cox.

Bauer agrees. “We have the quality and diversity to survive as a winemaking country,” he says. “The main problem is that Romania is still searching for its identity.”

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