Soft, juicy and cheap. That’s how I remember Romanian pinot noir. It was one of the best bargains on the shelf when I was a student in the 1980s.
Now after many years in the doldrums, Romania is once again on the wine map, and offering sweet deals.
Since Romanian wine’s golden era in the 1980s, the bloody revolution of 1989 and subsequent economic turmoil left many of its vines neglected.
It is only now finding its feet, having taken years to return vineyards to their rightful owners after communism – and there are a lot of vineyards. Romania is Europe’s fifth largest wine producer, currently with a staggering 174,000 hectares.
The annual e42.5 million of EU funds, which flooded in from 2009 to 2013 to revitalise wine regions are starting to bear fruit. The Eurozone’s economic downturn combined with a slump in domestic consumption of 20 per cent, means Romanian vintners are keen to get UK drinkers enjoying their wines again. The main hurdle is stiff competition from 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.
Vineyards do not get the same level of grape ripeness as in Maipo or Mendoza. Romanian wines are lighter in style, and some might find them too light after the onslaught of super-ripe New World fruit we are used to.
Culturally and linguistically Romania is very close to France. So it’s no surprise to find a host of grapes including sauvignon blanc and pinot gris for whites and pinot noir, merlot and cabernet sauvignon for reds.
However the key to Romania’s future could lie with its native grapes since it has a wine history dating back 5,000 years. Many never survived the onslaught of phylloxera in the 19th century, 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, Romania can offer variety too. Moldova in the north-east has floral dry whites, while there are 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 are both Englishmen. The late John Halewood from Merseyside spotted the potential of first Bulgarian, then Romanian wines. The Halewood Group has become the biggest importer of Romanian wines in the UK.
Philip Cox arrived in Romania in 1992, working for Heineken; his wife is Romanian. He saw potential in the wine industry, joined a German company, Carl Reh, which had invested in Romania and worked with it to learn more about wine.
He then grouped investors together to set up the 1,500 acre Cramele Recas winery in the Banat region in the far west, close to the Hungarian and Serbian borders.
Cox found it difficult to source and buy vineyard land with so many small plots with absentee owners, which involved complicated bureaucracy. The old state companies had no cash and did not know what to do with the land, so Recas investors rented land and have subsequently earned the right to buy it. In the 19th century, immigrants from the Schwabian region of Bavaria moved to Banat – and took with them winemaking expertise. Their skills seem to have survived, as Recas currently offer the best wines emerging from Romania today.
The country’s main wine industry is dominated by five huge companies, including Cotnari, Vincon and Murfatlar. While the focus is moving gradually from quantity to quality, many of the wines sold on the domestic market are still not up to the standards we have come to expect.
The wineries to watch now are smaller boutique operations, like the tiny estate revived by ancestors of Prince Stirbey, run by Baron Jacob Kripp in Dragasani which specialises in native grapes like white tamaioasa and red novac. Also watch the Davino winery in Dealu Mare and the 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 rare 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 the Oltenia region. STAR BUY
• 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 – it 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 a bt or 2 for £12, Wine Rack; Copestick Murray)
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 taut primary fruit; edgy, austere palate and raw tannins to finish. Not popular with our tasters.
• Join Rose’s Island Wine Masterclass in Edinburgh on Wednesday 18 September, £35, www.rosemurraybrown.com