by Rose Murray Brown MW
Published in The Scotsman 27 July 2013
Soft, juicy and cheap. That is how I remember Romanian Pinot Noir. It was one of the best bargains on the shelf when I was a student in the 1980’s. Now after many years in the doldrums, Romania is back again on the wine map and still offering sweet deals.
Since Romanian wine’s golden era in the eighties, the bloody revolution of 1989 and subsequent economic turmoil left many of its vines neglected. Twenty years on it is only just finding its feet, having taken years to return vineyards to rightful owners after communism – and there are a lot of vineyards here. Romania is Europe’s fifth largest wine producer, currently with a staggering 174,000 hectares.
The annual E42.5 million EU funds, which flooded in for five years (2009-2013) to revitalize wine regions, are starting to bear fruit. Now with eurozone’s economic downturn and domestic consumption down 20%, Romanian vintners are keen to get UK drinkers enjoying their wines again. The hurdle to overcome is stiff competition from booming New World countries – and when it comes to Romania’s calling card – Pinot Noir – it is Chile they need to compete against in price and quality.
Romania is not another lookalike-New World country, but can it offer something different? Its continental climate, with hot summers and cold winters, is moderated by the Black Sea in the east and the high Carpathian mountains. So vineyards do not get the same level of grape ripeness as in Maipo or Mendoza. Romanian wines are lighter in style, but some might find them too light after the onslaught of ripe New World fruit we are used to.
Culturally and linguistically (its second language is French) Romania is very close to France. So no surprise to find a host of French grapes like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris for whites and Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for reds.
The real key to Romania’s future could lie with its native grapes; let’s not forget it has a wine history dating back 5,000 years. Sadly many never survived the onslaught of phylloxera in C19, but white Tamaioasa (Romanian Muscat) and red Feteasca Neagra (aka The Black Maiden) grapes which make delightful wines are being revived.
With vineyards all over the country from northeast Moldova, central Translyvania, southerly Oltenia to westerly Banat – Romania can offer variety too. From floral dry whites in Moldova, ripe succulent reds in Muntenia and Oltenia (Dealu Mare) on the south facing slopes of the Carpathians – and sweet late harvested whites in Dobragea near the Black Sea.
Romania’s two wine pioneers responsible for bringing wines to the UK are both Englishman. The first was recently-deceased Merseyside-born John Halewood who spotted the potential of first Bulgarian, then Romanian wines. Halewood Group are now responsible for many of the Romanian wines in the UK, some better than others (try La Umbra Merlot (Waitrose) and La Catina Pinot Noir (The Wine Society).
The second Englishman Philip Cox set up the new Cramele Recas winery. Cox arrived in Romania in 1992 working for Heinekein; his wife is Romanian. He saw potential in the wine industry, joined a German company Carl Reh who had invested in Romania and initially worked with them to learn more about wine. He then grouped investors together to set up the 1500 acre Recas winery in the Banat region in far west close to the Hungarian and Serbian borders.
Cox found it difficult to source vineyard land with so many small plots with different absent owners. The old state companies had no cash and did not know what to do with the land, so Cramele Recas investors rented land and have subsequently earned the right to buy it.
In the C19 immigrants from the Schwabian region of Bavaria moved to Banat - and brought with them winemaking expertise to this area. Recas currently offer the best wines emerging from Romania today, including the Paparuda, Calusari and Sole brands made by their Australian-Spanish winemaking team.
Romania’s main wine industry is dominated by five huge companies, including Cotnari, Vincon and Murfatlar. Whilst the focus is moving gradually from quantity to quality, many of their wines are still not up to the quality standards we have come to expect.
The wineries to watch are smaller boutique operations like the tiny estate revived by ancestors of Prince Stirbey, run by Baron Jacob Kripp in Dragasani who specialize in native grapes like white Tamaioasa and red Novac. Others to look for include Davino winery in Dealu Mare and resurrected royal estate Domeniul Coroanei Segarcea in Muntenia for promising Cabernet Sauvignon based reds.
Tamaioasa Romaneasca Sec 2012 Prince Stirbey
(£9.95 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
From the rarely seen Tamaioasa Romaneasca grape (aka Muscat). Intriguing floral grapey fragrance and light refreshing palate - grown at this tiny boutique estate in the foothills of the Carpathians in southerly Oltenia region.
Calusari Pinot Grigio 2012
(£6.99 Henderson Wines; Drinkmonger; Bon Vivant; Penicuik Wines)
Our tasters enjoyed the light crisp fruitiness, but it does not seem inherently Romanian – could have come from anywhere in Eastern Europe.
Umbrele Sauvignon Blanc 2012
(£6.99 The Fine Wine Co Musselburgh; Bon Vivant)
Less attractive due to its confected sweetness; not a patch on Sauvignon from elsewhere in the world.
Calusari Pinot Noir 2012
(£6.99 Henderson Wines; Drinkmonger; Bon Vivant; Penicuik Wines; Waitrose)
Don’t expect this to be like Burgundy or even Kiwi Pinot. It is just very soft, light, very easy-going, extremely gluggable – and fabulous value. STAR BUY
Paparuda Pinot Noir 2012
(£6.95 Adnams www.adnams.co.uk; £6.99 bt or 2 bts for £12 Wine Rack)
Another winner from Cramele Recas – soft light red fruits, silky smooth, so approachable. STAR BUY
Umbrele Merlot 2012
(£6.99 Vinos; The Fine Wine Co Musselburgh; Bon Vivant)
Too much primary fruit and raw tannins to finish: not popular with our tasters