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Alastair Marshall's Wine Adventures in Romania

By Alastair Marshall, also posted in News on

River OltAdnams Senior Wine Buyer, Alastair Marshall, travelled to Romania last month to explore the wine regions of Romania. A country with a rich tradition of grape growing, archaeological evidence suggests a staggering 6,000 years of winemaking history.


Arriving at 8pm, in the dark, does not give you much of an impression of the capital city of Romania. Only when we swing by Ceausescu’s palace (second biggest building in the world after the Pentagon) on the way to the hotel do we see something that does not belong in any modern city. It is colossal. An edifice of over 4000 rooms standing on an elevated rock. Even a brief drive past leaves you aghast at this massive folly. As a guest of the Romanian government I go where I am taken, and I am taken to a beer Keller! Caru' cu Bère has being going since 1879 and is delightfully old fashioned and full of people.  Tripe soup, plates of sausages and kidneys later, and it is back to the hotel for a 9am start the next day. I can recommend the Hotel Epoch as a well-placed central hotel that is hidden in a quiet cul-de-sac. They have bikes that you can borrow and go cycling off in the local park. Wild dogRomania, or at least the countries that now form Romania, has made wine for thousands of years. It is a either a Latin country influenced by Slavs or a Slav country with a strong Latin influence, I am not sure which. During the communist era wine growing was dedicated to mass production which was, in a great part, pre-sold to the Russian army. In the mid eighties they dedicated themselves to serving the needs of supermarket chains and ruined their reputation all over again. With a thriving home market the current day vignerons of Romania are setting about reviving their international markets. I asked a vineyard owner how they intended to do that and his reply was, “we now need to over-deliver”. This is what has brought me here. I ran into a delicious Pinot Noir some eighteen months ago. We imported it and at £5.79 per bottle it does just what the vineyard owner says it should do. I am now looking for the next step. If you can get it so right at the bottom end of the market, then what else can you do? First impressions: Lots of Romanians smoke and there are lots of dogs around.


We drive north to the Dealu Mare region to visit SERVE. This is a medium-sized vineyard of 100 hectares that was founded in 1993 by Frenchman Guy Tyrel de Poix. Guy already farmed vineyards in Corsica but was so captivated by both the land and the potential of the Feteasca grape that he decided to branch out and start another business in Romania. Up until 2000 he had to rent parcels of land but the fall of the Ceacescu regime made direct purchasing possible and so parcel by small parcel he built up his estate. He considered the land ‘uncorrupted’ as the farmers who previously owned it had no money to buy expensive fertilisers and herbicides. Standing in the vineyards with his successor Louis Herade de Breuil we are surveying a large plot of newly planted Cabernet Sauvignon, inevitably stray dogs pop up from nowhere to investigate us. Most of the grapes grown in Romania are familiar varieties as they have taken a strong lead from French pioneers but they do have several of their own, chief of which is the Feteasca grape which comes in several shades. The word Feteasca means maiden, and you have three distinct types: Feteasca ‘Neagra’ or 'black' which is red wine, Feteasca ‘Regala’ or 'royal', which is white, and Feteasca ‘Alba’ another white. I liked two of their whites; Terra Romana Millenium which is a lively blend of Sauvignon, Riesling and Chardonnay and their Terra Romana Chardonnay. A half hour's drive and we are in Urlati which is home to Halewood Romania’s Dealu Mare vineyards. We stop here for a tasting of their local wines and also of some of their wines from the Murfatlar region eastwards near the Black Sea. We are welcomed by the genial Dan Muntean, Halewood's director in Romania. As the name implies Halewood is an English firm. They are one of the longest established foreign investors in this country and have been selling Romanian wines since 1987. They have a vast range of wines drawn from their own 300 hectares of vines located in three different regions along with grapes purchased from other growers. There are some excellent value wines made here and among my favourites were a full flavoured dry white of a Viognier and Tamaioasa Romanesca blend and a spicy and fruity dry white Feteasca Regala.


BrasovWe leave this region and head north to the Transylvanian mountains to the small town of Azuga where we visit the sparkling wine producer Rhein & Cie. 1892 (another Halewood branch). We stay at their renovated winery/mountain lodge and have a tasting of their sparkling wines and over dinner meet Bello Russians who have come all the way over from the Macin region in the Danube delta to present the wines of the winery they have invested in, Curtea Regala. The wines are very interesting and I particularly liked the Sauvignon Semi-Sec (off dry) and a dry Muscat of Ottonel. The evening is noted for a big outside bonfire with buffet and plum brandy which is the preamble to a lengthy dinner. Romanian food is best described as ‘hearty’. There are many local specialities most of which seem to be either deep fried or smothered in sour cream. You are not going to loose weight if you are entertained by Romanians. Bonfire In such a forested country as this it was not surprising to hear that wild boar and deer were a problem to vineyards, but new to me was the bear issue. These woolly pests can enter a vineyard at night and eat their way through a lot of grapes. Bear hunting is perforce a common pastime in this corner of the world. The next morning we drive into the town of Brasov. The old name for this town was Krönstat and the German influence on the buildings and the whole town is striking, you could be in Germany. Just to add to the international confusion we eat in an Italian restaurant! Before the meal we taste through a range of Halewood wines made in the Transylvania region. It would seem that the cooler climate here is good for making white wines as I am impressed with a Fetasca Alba, a pure Chardonnay, and a remarkably tropical Sauvignon.


Autumn colours in the Transylvanian mountainsWe now move to a completely different region, and this involves a 5 hour drive over the mountains which puts you in touch with Romania in several ways. It is not so much a car ride as a prolonged massage - the roads are basic. The best course of action is to drive in the middle of the road where there are less potholes, this is, of course, the tactic employed by the oncoming traffic as well. Add to this a fair amount of loose wildlife which consisted of lots of dogs, the odd cow and at one stage a lone horse trotting along the road. This was quite notable as the horse is still a valued tool and you see many pulling low slung carts or caravans and so to see one loose was to see somebody’s wealth cantering off down the road. At one point the road suddenly changed into a wide, smooth, well-metaled highway where we were overtaken by small modern cars being driven highly erratically. We were near the Dacia factory and this bit of motorway doubled up as their test track! Most notable was the scenery. The autumn colour of the trees in the steep valleys and low mountains is superb at this time of year and comparable to the magnificence of Fall in New England. As the light fades we arrive in the village of Samburesti to visit Vinarte. This is an old winery of the communist era now under private ownership.  It is situated on the side of a valley looking down on the river Olt below. A spectacular setting, especially as the sun sets. We stay the night in the nearby town of Dragasan and enjoy the curiously located Hotel Max which sits on top of the local supermarket. Prices for food and drink are ludicrously cheap and the room is but £35 per night. The next morning finds us visiting the vineyards of Prince Stirbey. This is a close neighbour of Vinarte and is situated on a hill just a few miles away. The location of the big houses on the tops of the hills in this steeply rolling countryside gives it the impression of Tuscany. This is a property started 300 years ago by the  Stirbey family who lost it in the communist take over and who have recently had it restored to them under new laws. Illiana is the current descendant and her German husband Baron Jacob Krip, a Tyrolean lawyer, helped her through the legal minefield to get the property back. They have installed their own winemaker from Germany, Oliver Bauer, who runs an immaculately clean winery which is a joy to behold. The wines reflect the care put into them in vineyard and cellar. A deliciously crisp Feteasca Regala and a crisp, pure Tamaioasa Romana, a grape that because of its smokey perfumed aromas derives its name from the incense smoke ‘Tamaioasa’ in church.


We leave the misty surrounds of this mini Tuscany and head for the local airport to ‘hop’ several hundred miles to the Recas region. That was the plan, but fog keeps us airport bound for several hours meaning that the planned visit to Petro Vaselo has to be put back and squeezed into the next and final day. Eventually we land at Timisoara and get driven through fog, up dirt tracks in the middle of a dark nowhere to a modern copy of an old beamed hunting lodge, the Stejarul, which turns out to be extremely comfortable and serving some of the best food that we have had. We are joined at dinner by the mainly Italian team from Petro Vaselo, and Hartley Smith, the Aussie winemaker of Cramele Recas. The wines over dinner are from the Italians and are seriously impressive. They show us a Pinot Noir that would stand alongside many a top Burgundy. Regrettably not cheap but very, very good. Up early the next day and off to what marketing manager Ariana Negru describes as the ‘hobbit house’. Cramele RecasThis is the winery of Petro Vaselo (in the village of Petrovaselo) which is a high tech creation sunk into the hillside. This is owned by Italian businessman Nello dal Tio who has made a more than comfortable living manufacturing and distributing Italian coffee machines worldwide. He came across this place by accident while looking for a site for a new factory and decided to indulge a long harboured fantasy. This is 4000 square meters of well designed winery, where the two winemakers from Veneto lack for nothing in the way of equipment. Apart from their Pinot Noir they also make a pink Fizz ‘Bendis Brut’ which is of note. Next is Cramele Recas - a complete contrast as we move from ‘boutique’ to ‘big time’. Englishman Philip Cox first came to eastern Europe selling Heineken beer to a post communist market eager to drink something that did not go off in a few days as the local unpasteurised product was wont to do. He saw that there was plenty of wine looking for a market and tried, unsuccessfully, to sell it to merchants in the UK until he ran into one wine buyer who was looking for inexpensive wines for a German client. Philip then worked for the Germans for 7 years, until, in the year 2000, he went out on his own and rented the Crameli winery and vineyards. Over the years he bought the winery and 600 hectares of vines to which he has since added another 400 hectares. All of which are within 4 kilometres of the winery. He now employs 240 people, receives 20,000 visitors to the winery shop and restaurant and makes one million cases of wine. His winery is a cathedral of stainless steel tanks and high tech equipment where he processes 17 different grape varieties working to several different quality levels for each, giving him over 200 separate products to sell. Looking at the complex filters and cooling equipment he says, “All this stuff is not much good unless you can get a good guy to use it.” His good guy is Hartley Smith, an Australian winemaker who spends half his year making a well known Australian brand and the other half here. Philip and his wife Elvira (known as Elfie) who looks after the export business are very successful. Adnams started importing their wines in 2011 and we now have to plead for allocations. What they do best of all is good quality at really good prices and it is small wonder that their recent vintage of Pinot Grigio was sold out on the second day after the harvest. If you have not tried their simple, juicy Pinot Noir then start drinking Romanian wine right here. Roadside wine and cheese for saleThese are still early days for this country as an international exporter but there is much promise in the diversity of their soils and uniqueness of their native grape varieties. Officially there are only 22 wineries registered with the ’Wine Exporters Group’ promotional organisation. There are probably another 33 others of any notable size so you can see that this is the very beginning of developing an industry. Of all the wineries that I visited in my four day trip, one was French owned, two under English control, one under German influence another Italian owned and only one Romanian controlled outfit. That Europe sees value and potential in Romanian wine is evident and with the relaxing of laws on who can buy land there will definitely be more foreign investment. As this moves forward, Romania will develop its own home grown experts and diversity will ensue. The future looks good for Romanian wine and the sooner we get used to seeing the word Feteasca on a bottle the better off we will be. It is said that more than 70% of Romanians know how to make wine and still do for their own private consumption. It is common to see a small table set up beside the road covered in plastic bottles filled with home-made rotgut for sale. Winemaking time is a great family occasion when relatives gather to put in a bit of work and a lot of carousing. Wine is in their blood and they are more than willing to share it with us. Why not try a range of wines from Romania, Turkey and Hungary in our Wild East Mixed 12-bottle case (2 bottles each of six wines) £85. You can view a selection of images from Alastair's trip to Romania on Flickr.  


Alastair Marshall