It has been raided by the Romans, Huns, Goths, Gepids, Avars, Bulgars, Pechenegs, Cumans, Hungarians, Austrians, Ottomans, Nazis and Soviets. It has been terrorised by famine, drought, plague, austerity, Count Dracula, Vlad the Impaler and Ilie Nastase’s haircut.
But nothing hit its viticulture harder than the communist regime that held a vice-like grip over the eastern European nation from 1947-1989.
Nicolae Ceausescu and his loyal secret police slaughtered millions as they seized and nationalised the entire country’s vineyards.
Party workers swooped in, trampled Romania’s viticultural heritage and focused solely on quantity.
But when Ceausescu was toppled in a bloody uprising in December 1989 and vineyards were returned to their former owners, winemakers started to strive for a renaissance.
A generation later, the ugly legacy of communist rule still lingers in the vineyards, from the gentle slopes of the Dealu Mare to the rugged peaks of Transylvania.
Pristine rows of vines owned by forward- thinking producers rub shoulders with desolate patches of viticultural wilderness where nobody has come forward to claim the land.
“Our family started producing wine here 300 years ago and worked on these vines until the communists took it,” says Baron Jakob Kripp, who owns the 25ha Stirbey estate in Dragasani.
“We came back with this old document in 2001 and they were sceptical, wondering if we were the true heirs, but they soon saw we were genuine.
“We have since built it up and The Wine Society now lists two of our wines – a white at £9.50-10 and a red at £13-14.”
Stirbey is one of eight leading wineries that have united to form Romanian Winegrowers, an alliance designed to change the way the world views Romania as a wine-producing country.
It has invested in new technology, developed the land and educated the workforce, and now it strives to re-establish its ancient tradition of making high-quality wines.
Buyers are flocking to Romania in droves, and OLN joined Alastair Marshall, of Suffolk group Adnams, Kenny Vannan, of Scottish off-licence group Villeneuve Wines, and David Kelly, who owns two off-licences in Edinburgh, on a buying trip to get the low- down on a maturing wine industry.
“It seems like a really up-and-coming country – the next big thing,”says Kelly, who plans to stock more Romanian wine as a result of the trip.
“It’s developing, but the potential is enormous. The quality of the wines is excellent and it has a lot of opportunity in the international market.”
Rodica Fronescu, owner of the Vinarte winery in Dragasani, says: “The quality of Romanian wine is improving all the time.
“We think our Cabernet Sauvignon is the best in the world because of the soil.”
Emanuele Reolon, winemaker at Italian-owned Petro Vaselo, which makes ultra-premium wines in the Banat region, adds: “We have some great wine regions in Italy but these are just as good and we think the quality of Romanian wines can now match any in the world.”
Louis Heriad du Buriel, whose Corsican family needed 141 individual contracts to buy just 21ha of land when it was setting up Serve winery in Dealu Mare after the revolution, adds: “The soil hasn’t been corrupted because people couldn’t afford to buy harmful chemicals over the years and we are not buying any chemicals like that. We are keeping the soil pure, so we are confident in the quality of the wine we are making.
“We have invested a lot of time and money to make sure we are putting out a good product.
“The potential is there in Romania, the strength of the terroir is there.”
Vannan says: “There’s New World fatigue in the UK. Everyone is looking for something different and I’ve been impressed by the wines coming out of Romania.
“I might set up blind tastings in-store, and I think some of these wines will do very well against French wines.”
A big player in the market is Halewood International, which recognised the potential of Romania in the 1980s and invested heavily in expanding and planting vineyards with both international and indigenous varieties.
Dan Muntean, managing director of Halewood Romania, says: “Romania supplied the famous £1.99 wines to Tesco and we managed to ruin our reputation.
“We are now trying to claw back our reputation with wine that over-delivers on price. “We have some good listings in the UK and we will never, ever go back to those cheap bottles.
“The investment that members of Romanian Winegrowers have put into developing quality wine production in Romania is now starting to pay off, and this is reflected in the increase in listings.
“The trade has increased confidence in the quality of our wine, and consumers are discovering wines which exceed their expectations and fit their budget. It all points towards a very positive future for Romanian wine.”
Variety reflects the country’s variable climate
Romania has a diverse landscape, with hot summers and very cold winters, and its winemaking regions are similarly diverse.
The Banat region has an Austro-Hungarian influence, excelling in Riesling, Muscat Ottonel, Traminer and Cadarca.
Here Recas creates millions of bottles from a total of 250 SKUs, while boutique winery Petro Vaselo uses cutting-edge equipment to produce small batches of wine that was praised by all the buyers.
Transylvania has a Germanic influence and is home to the coolest vineyards in Romania. White varieties like Feteasca ̆ Alba ̆, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris flourish and Halewood produces an array of Transylvanian whites with good acidity.
In the Murfatlar region on the Black Sea coast Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc thrive. It can produce sweet Chardonnay and Halewood, Serve and Alcovin make the most of this sunny area.
The warm southern Dealu Mare region, where Stirbey and Vinarte are based, shows tremendous promise for red varie- tals such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, but is also starting to forge a reputation for its whites.
The country’s international varieties are competitively-priced, but there is also real joy in local varieties such as Feteasca ̆ Alba ̆, Feteasca ̆ Regala ̆, Feteasca ̆ Neagra ̆, Ta ̆mâioasa ̆ Româneasca ̆ and Novac.
Case study: tide is turning in Romania’s favour
A world wine shortage means the balance of power in the UK market has shifted from supermarkets to producers, according to Romania’s second-largest wine producer.
Experts at the International Organisation of Vine & Wine said global production this year would slump to the lowest level since records began in 1975 and predicted demand would outstrip supply.
“The tide is changing in the UK – exporters have the power now instead of the supermarkets due to a low vintage,” says Elvira Cox, director of export at Cramelle Recas.
Her British husband Philip has built a vast empire in western Romania’s Timisoara region since taking over Recas in 2000.
He took on a ramshackle vineyard and winery and turned it into a well-oiled machine that produces 10 million bottles per year.
Its wines are stocked in most major UK supermarkets. “We sold out of Pinot Grigio on the second day of the harvest this year,” he says. “We have had a big demand for around 2 million more bottles than we actually have.
“I am trying to get some more but I don’t think there’s that much wine in the whole of Romania – it’s going to be tough. I gave one supermarket a quota – they got a bit upset. We think we are going to have to stop selling in one of the supermarkets completely.”
Cox attributes the high demand for Romanian wine to a collective backlash against cheap wine among traditional wine-producing nations.
“There’s no cheap wine anywhere this year,” he says. “It’s quite a big shock. By this time next year there will be quite a lot of fundamental changes.
“A lot of cheap wine that is coming out of Spain, Italy, Chile, Argentina is not going to be cheap any more.
“The French are really shooting themselves in the foot.They are not competitive; they are not upgrading their equipment.
“The thing that’s happened in Spain is the most shocking. They have dug up 50,000ha in the last five years.They have had two smallish harvests in a row.
“You won’t see any £1.99 or £2.50 bot- tles of Spanish wine any more. That’s pushed a lot of buying companies into looking at new supply options.”
That leaves Romania primed to take over, according to Cox, but he is already thinking beyond that.
“It’s better to sell in a lot of small and medium-sized retailers – there we have the potential to sell more premium wines,” he says. “If you get too dependent on supermarkets they get the upper hand. So we are in a good position now – we can choose who we sell to.”
Cox’s rise to power is one of the success stories in Romanian wine. After leaving the University of Greenwich, he took a marketing job at Heineken covering Bulgaria, Slovenia, Poland and Romania, and he went native in the latter.
“It was just after the Romanian revolution and it was so far behind all the other countries,” he says. “They had a nasty form of communism – a bit like how North Korea is today. There was often no electricity or running water.”
Hyperinflation devalued the Romanian currency, so Cox decided he needed to export something.
“I got samples from the wineries and went to England. Most people just laughed at me,” he says.
But he soon found interest from a German company.
“We sold them some wine and then Threshers, Kwik Save and Sainsbury’s very quickly took it too,” he says.
“The Germans decided to set up a company here and I was the managing director for seven years until 2000.
“They didn’t want to invest in vineyards so I left. I said if you don’t own any vineyards you will get in trouble because buying grapes won’t be sustainable.
“People in Romania with vineyards didn’t plan on doing this. All the vineyards were nationalised and then they were given them back, so they didn’t grow up farming vineyards.
“They don’t know what to do with them.
“They all have half a hectare or two hectares and they are very difficult to farm – they don’t have the equipment or the know-how.
“The Recas winery was one of our main grape suppliers. It had 600ha at the time and I thought it was a good potential business.
“The vineyards were in reasonable condition and at a good geographical location. “So we have been busy trying to transform it for the last 12 years. It’s 1,000ha now, all within 4km of the winery.
“That’s what I think makes us better than anyone else: we control what we get, we process it quickly.
“Five years ago we used to sell 5 million bottles a year – 70% in Romania.This year we sold 10 million bottles and only 50% in Romania. We export to 27 coun- tries. Our biggest market is the UK. Two years ago it was the US.”
A recent coup saw Recas take over Copestick Murray’s I Heart Merlot brand, which is stocked in Sainsbury’s.
“It was made from Californian grapes but we make it now, so Romania is taking over from America,” says Cox.