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ROMANIA: A date with the maidens

Its wineries have long been neglected and Romania is a long way from its vinous potential. However, the Romanian Winegrowers, a collective of producers, is hoping to renew the category, focusing on native grapes and terroir, writes Rupert Millar.

Lest anyone jump to conclusions about the nature of the drinks business’s latest wine trip, the maidens of the title are not the girls one might assume them to be.

Rather, they are the translated name of Romania’s native grape varieties, Fetească Albă, Neagră and Regală – the white, black and royal maidens – and very attractive they are too in their own way.

A group called the Romanian Winegrowers is keen that they and other native grapes are at the forefront of what they hope will be a renewed interest in the country’s wines.


The watchwords of these individuals are innovation and investment. The scale of their financial ventures bears witness both to the realisation of where the country’s wines need to go to compete in such a crowded market and also to the decades of neglect under communism.

On paper at least, Romania should be the fourth largest wine producer in Europe. One-hundred-and-eighty thousand hectares are registered as being under vine, but in reality only 60,000ha are properly tended and capable of producing the world-class wine that is the goal of the Romanian Winegrowers. Other vineyards languish uncared for and overgrown, their owners unwilling to sell their land to the estates and many are the subject of conflicting family claims yet to be settled in the courts.

However, the uprooting of tired, overworked old vines to be replaced with new plants and introducing better clones from France and Italy, especially for the international grapes, continues unabated. Making better wines, which can be real contenders on the world stage, is the goal for each of the eight producers that currently make up the Romanian Winegrowers.

The EU is this year subsidising vine replanting in a scheme that finishes in 2013, for Romania, this comes to the tune of €4.2 million (£3.8m). Although the majority of that has to be split among smaller producers, substantial funds still find their way to the larger internationally focused winemakers too.

As an example of private funding,  Senator Winery is replanting 80ha on one of its properties and in 2011 it will start its €3.5m project to refurbish the cellar and winery, while another of its cellars is already undergoing a €4m overhaul.

Cramele Reca has been replanting its 850ha since 1999, having invested €20m since that time and recently announcing a €4m investment scheme to buy new fermentation tanks and presses. Domeniile Sahateni, in the region of Dealu Mare, secured a €1.5m EU grant earlier this year to build a storage tank warehouse and increase its cellar capacity.

Paul Evans, director of Rumpus Communications in the UK, who has been working with the Romanian Winegrowers for several months, says: “These new producers are really seeking to get a return on their investment as millions of euros have been ploughed into production and new vineyard plantings to improve the quality of the wines.

"Our job in the UK is to partly readdress the misconception that Romania only produces cheap wine. The recent investment from these companies now ensures that larger volume production does not mean a reduction in quality.”

Grapes and terroir

Winemaking in Romania is over 4,000 years old, but the Old World tradition sits comfortably alongside New World winemaking styles.

The nationalisation of the country’s vineyards and the reliance on high-yielding varieties and bulk wine production under the communists came at a price. As with other countries that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain in the 1990s, revising the best way to vinify both the native and international varieties and rediscovering the terroir are part and parcel of the producers’ goals.

Pinot Noir in particular, having been largely ignored or badly handled before, is one variety the Romanians are determined to win back and develop.

Guy de Poix, founder of The European-Romanian Society for Exquisite Wines (SERVE) winery, says: “We must rediscover the Romanian terroir but that will take a long time yet. Pinot Noir in particular has great potential here. More important right now, though, is to concentrate on making good wine.”

The Stirbey estate of Baroness Ileana Kripp-Costinescu produces wonderful wines true to their Romanian roots, particularly Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

This is a situation the cellar master, Oliver Bauer, is keen to perpetuate. “I do not want to copy an existing style, I want to let the grape express itself,” he explains. “We are looking to rediscover the terroir or, more, what the native varieties are capable of. Fetească Neagră has gigantic potential but what people are doing with it is a problem. In Romania we have to start showing a certain level of consistency.”

This notion of consistency is a relevant one. Experimentation among the newer but by no means smaller wineries is far from uncommon, especially when vinifying the native grapes, and it is no bad thing for quality and diversity. However, the producers are keen to put the days when a wine tasted different from bottle to bottle behind them.

As Cornelia Anghel, director at Domeniul Coroanei, admits: “On the UK market there were mistakes made during and immediately after communism. Quality was not good, production methods were wrong but things are changing”.

Domestic tastes

Romania has seen something of a boom in wine drinking. In the 1990s, export accounted for roughly 80% of production, today that is the amount that stays in Romania.

The first quarter of 2009 saw a total of 60,661hl exported, worth €7,084,437 (£6,042,914) and of this the UK took 4,305hl with a value of €657,821. This was slightly down on the first quarter of 2008, but the UK did achieve 11% of the export share.

Germany’s share saw the biggest rise from 27% to 34% in the first quarter of 2009 and was worth €2,070,084, only slightly down on €2,315,531 in 2008.

China and Russia both fell to 5% of the export share in the first quarter of 2009, despite 13% and 11% shares respectively the previous year, the biggest fall for any of the main export markets over this period. For example China’s 5,078hl imported in 2008, worth €1,457,106, fell to 1,769hl and was worth a mere €301,087 in 2009.

Germany’s share is also likely to fall as old contractual obligations for selling bulk wine are unlikely to be renewed beyond this year, as stricter EU regulations on wine exports and production take hold. Russia by contrast, having banned Moldovan and Georgian wines from its market for rather colourful political reasons, is increasingly looking to Romania and Bulgaria to fill the gap left behind in the market for affordable wines.

Some producers, though, still regard Europe as their primary market, followed by the US and Canada, and are content to leave Russia and China for later.

The future

Evans, after creating an internet site ( for the group, is lining up initiatives designed to further raise the profile of Romanian wine in the UK.

One way of ensuring this will be the selection of what are judged (by a panel of UK experts) to be the top wines to lead the way in the UK market. These will also be available online in a move that Evans describes as “getting past the gatekeeper and straight to the consumer”. 

Philip Cox, owner of Cramele Reca, sums up the situation: “We need to give people in the trade an idea that something is happening in Romania. I’m sure there are plenty of independent retailers that, if they knew what we did here, would be interested. It [Romania] has a story to tell; it’s something different, it has new varieties that English people don’t know and international varieties done in interesting ways and they can be competitive too.”

Romanians by and large show a great desire to push their native grapes first, seeing the market as already awash with varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Evans, though, remains grounded on the topic of native grapes, he knows that the image of Romanian wine is far from august over here and the struggle is likely to be an uphill one from the start: “Domestic varieties are great but how do you communicate Tamaioasaă Romaneascaă (an aromatic grape related to Muscat) to consumers? That’s why we need independents. From a UK perspective we need to push international varieties first,” he says.

“I think the wines are fabulous, they’ve spent a lot of money and I think people will be very surprised. For me the objective is to get people to taste and be pleased and the only way is to start off small and just keep growing.”

The producers themselves are keen to export more, and acknowledge the need for explanation, particularly of their native grapes. The competitiveness of the UK market will be a challenge but Evans is hopeful: “We have eight good ones [producers] that want to do something,” he explains. “Some of the new wines show real promise; however, it will not be an off-trade, supermarket thing. I think it will be more on-trade and independents looking for something different.”

The variety of wines available, coupled with good quality-to-price ratio is likely to be one of Romania’s key assets on any market.
“At the entry level, the key Romanian companies are offering an excellent price-quality ratio. In fact, for Romanian wines to be successful they will have to over-deliver on quality versus price point to gain shelf space,” he says.

Even if there are companies within Romania that have the potential to produce wine at a lower price point, Evans stresses the higher potential of the Romanian Winegrowers.

“The price points coming out of Romania are actually on an upward trend as prices are being influenced by emerging boutique wineries that have experienced new global demand over the last five years.

“Romania has a lot to offer at a higher level with the introduction of indigenous varieties alongside the internationally recognised varieties, which will appeal to the adventurous wine purchaser.”

There is still much to do in preparation: press trips, round-table tastings, attending international competitions, constant exposure and unflagging commitment will all be necessary.

Evans and the producers know they are not looking at overnight success, but by gradually building on what they have and beginning their own quiet revolution they are looking to go on to bigger and better things.

Rupert Millar, April 2010

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