On 23 – 26 May 2013 I was honoured to be invited as a juror at the International Wine Contest Bucharest, or IWCB for short. IWCB is an annual contest that attracts wines from all over the world (much more on http://www.iwcb.ro), but is a particular showpiece for Romanian wines, which make up about 60% of the entries. I had never been to Romania before, but my brief encounters with Romanian wines in the past had left me curious, so I was very happy to have the opportunity to deepen my knowledge of this country’s wines.
Romania is often said to have the perfect climate for making wine, and indeed in the past, including the communist era, it was a large wine producer with a significant export. There seems to have been a significant contraction of the Romanian wine scene in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War, and new investments on a large scale are mostly fairly recent.
I had previously come across some Romanian wines made from the ubiquitous international varieties, and they had been quite satisfactory, but perhaps a bit unremarkable. However, it was the few past encounters with local varieties such as feteasca alba, feteasca neagra, feteasca regala and tamioasa romaneasca that had left me curious and wanting to explore this country’s wines more thoroughly.
Now, international wine contests carried out under the auspices of the OIV, such as the IWCB, proceed along fairly fixed guidelines, and therefore can all be a bit samey. Wines are judged blind within specific categories, without reference to their grape varieties or area of origin. The wines are marked on a 100-point scale, using a specific sheet developed for the purpose, which – for my personal taste at least – is too technical, with many points available for visual aspects (which, as most reading this should know by now, I consider to be irrelevant), and with most of the rest of the points available for what I would consider structural elements. There is very little in the format that deals with what I consider to be the be all and end all of wine, which is typicity, character, individuality, sense of place. Given that, the tastings conducted for the contests themselves tend to be hard, repetitive work, requiring much concentration, but certainly less rewarding in terms of material for writing stories. One does come across some interesting wines, of course, and these are noted (some will follow at the end of this post), but the greatest satisfaction to be had from these events is outside of the contest programme itself, on trips to wineries, opportunities to taste local food specialities etc.
And so it was at the IWCB. The organizers had put together a wonderful programme of winery visits and dinners that provided the opportunity to go a bit deeper into Romanian vines and wines.
All four winery visits were to the Dealu Mare (literally “high hills”) region. This inland region is noted for its black, so-called cernoziom (spelling provided by a Romanian winery employee), soil. This is a fertile soil type, and one would expect that vine vigour is one factor to contend with here. Here and there there are other soil types in the area, notably I saw some outcroppings of chalk at higher elevations. Most vineyards are in the cernoziom soils, but it is expected that viticulture will also spread to the chalk soils.
From what I could gather, the Dealu Mare area had been flourishing in the period prior to the iron curtain coming down, but the ravages of the post-Cold War period in Eastern Europe had taken its toll, and so much acreage had been more or less abandoned. Certainly, most vineyards that we saw along the way were quite young, frequently no more than 3-4 years, and very rarely above 20 years.
Locally, the Dealu Mare region is noted as a red wine region, This is probably not due to the climate, which is not excessively hot for white varieties, and more likely a matter of the soil. Perhaps this will change once viticulture also moves into the chalk?
We visited the following wineries: Budureasca, La Certa, Ceptura (includes Davino) and Serve. Brief notes in the following:
This is a large, new venture, with vineyards totalling 267 hectares, with a 60/40 split between red and white varieties. Facilities are brand new and laid out in a logical fashion using gravity and the natural cooling effect of the soil as much as possible. Winemaker is Stephen Donnelly from Newcastle (!), who brings experience from California and South Africa, among other places. All wines here are well made, in a fairly modern style, with emphasis on cleanliness and recognizability. I particularly liked their Shiraz 2011, in a somewhat Australian style, and their Feteasca Neagra 2011, a medium-weight, supple red with notes of dark berries, herbs and liquorice. All wines were good, well made and drinkable.
This is a somewhat smaller but also fairly young winery with Austrian backing, started around 2003, and with first sales in 2011. Vineyards total some 82 hectares, with a 70/30 red/white split. The winery is lovely, and built on a hilltop that overlooks a stunningly beautiful landscape some way into the Dealu Mare hills. The views alone are worth the trip. The wines here were made in a modern, quite serious style, emphasising fruit and a dry balance. I particularly liked their Feteasca Alba 2012, with good peach fruit, fresh semi-aromatic hints and lovely minerality, and the Blaufränkisch 2010, which had lovely lively, sappy berry fruit and great drinkability. The Pinot Noir was not far behind.
Another fairly new winery, focused on the higher-end HoReCa market, and with about 60 hectares own vineyards + grapes bought in. Wines come in three ranges, with the Davino range on top. There is high ambition here, and the wines are made in a very deliberate, fairly concentrated style, frequently using new oak, and frequently mixing local and international varieties. These are among the most expensive wines in Romania. All of the wines we tasted were good: Revelatio 2012 is an inspired blend of sauvignon blanc and feteasca alba, where the former provides grassy notes and acidity, and the latter peach fruit and flowery notes; lovely. Alba Valahica 2012 was a 100% feteasca alba with peach fruit, herbs and minerals. Domaine Ceptura Rouge 2009 is a blend of feteasca neagra, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, which render a soft, medium-weight wine with dark berry fruit and spices, unfortunately marred by somewhat excessive new oak. Flamboyant 2009 is a mixture of the same grape varieties, in reverse order, and exhibits dark fruits, spices, and good perfume, in a juicy, elegant package, this time carrying the oak influence much better. These were for me the best wines we tasted in Dealu Mare, despite the sometimes fairly heavy-handed oak influence.
This is a somewhat older investment of some 20 years, with French backing (and outlook). Total acreage is some 120 hectares, with about 65 hectares in Dealu Mare and the rest closer to the Black Sea. Grape varieties are mostly international (French), with only feteasca alba and feteasca neagra making a token local appearance. Wines are some 40% white, 10% rosé and 50% red. Based on what I tasted, oak influence is predominant in the Serve wines, but I rather liked the Cuvée Amaury 2011, a sauvignon blanc and riesling blend with cool fruitiness, minerality and good florality, and while the Cuvée Alexandru 2007 (100% cabernet sauvignon harvested at 25 hl/ha) was certainly highly oak-dominated, there was no denying the quality of the fruit that peeped out from underneath the charred wood aromas.
The tastings in Dealu Mare and at the contest itself left me with the following impressions:
– The Dealu Mare wines more or less all exhibited a clayey, soil-like aroma, which in the red wines provided a pleasing background and supported those red wine aromas that hint of humus, decomposed leaves etc., but which in the white wines could hint at a lack of cleanliness. This latter impression was not completely ubiquitous, and my perception was that the local varieties were less affected, perhaps given their sometimes semi-aromatic nature. But perhaps this phenomenon is the reason why Dealu Mare is regarded as predominantly a red wine region.
– I was quite surprised to find this, but judging from the contest blind tastings pinot noir actually does very well in Dealu Mare. It will be interesting to follow the development once these presumably very young pinot noir vines mature.
– The local grape varieties are really interesting, and for me will have to be what Romania should bet on for the future.
– Feteasca alba is a really interesting white wine grape. It is semi-aromatic, with, when best, lovely aromas of peaches, flowers and a herbal/resinous hint not unlike certain Italian grape varieties, such as verdicchio, and middling acidity. The combination of aromas and the balance between body and acidity ought to secure it its own niche on the world stage.
– Tamioasa romaneasca is not unlike feteasca alba, but seems somewhat lighter of body, more minerally and with cooler fruit. I did not taste enough of this to come to much of a conclusion, but it would seem to have its own place next to feteasca alba.
– Feteasca regala is an aromatic white variety that was previously mostly noted as the basis for some really interesting sweet wines. More recently it has also been used for making fresh dry white wines not unlike torrontes or (fiano) minutolo. I rather liked those wines, which – beyond the florality that such aromatic varieties will always exhibit – had good minerality and acidity.
– Feteasca neagra has its own character, that – handled correctly – could easily see it becoming rather successful outside of Romania. The best examples I tasted were of a lively, fruity, soft medium weight body with notes of red and dark berries, roasted herbs, violets and liquorice; highly drinkable and at the same time interesting and with potential for complexity.
– Romanian wine is on a steep upward curve. The best wines we tasted were from rather large and new investments that are probably still in the phase of finding their style, but which show great promise. As in other areas of the world, we are likely to see a development where these large ventures first make a name for themselves, and where there will then be a sudden appearance of much smaller wineries making wines from small, specially endowed places of particular note. These latter wines, from crazy, non-profit-oriented people madly in love with their own little piece of terroir, will eventually be the wines that put Romania on the map in terms of great wine. Judging from the Development in eg Southern Italy, this may take anywhere between 20-40 years, and I am looking forward to following this development.
In terms of the contest itself, I was happy to note that many of the wines that I scored highest turned out to be Romanian wines from local varieties. The following is a list of Romanian wines that I found particularly good or interesting in the contest (in no particular order):
– Villa Vinea Feteasca Regala 2012 (dry)
– Liliac Feteasca Regala 2012 (dry)
– Halewood Wines Dealu Mare Viognier Rhea Limited Edition 2011 (interesting aromas of citrus and earl grey tea)
– Corcova Dealul Racoveanu Chardonnay Reserve 2011
– SC Jidvei Sy+CS Rosé 2012 (syrah and cabernet sauvignon)
– Domenille Doiero Ciumbrod Dry Muscat 2012 (really interesting citric and herbal nose)
– AMB Wine Company Gewürztraminer Crepuscul 2012
– Pietroasa Veche Feteasca Neagra 2012 (a fruity, spicy, lively number)
– Villa Vinea Feteasca Neagra Selection Tarnava 2011
– Casa Panciu Feteasca Neagra Editie Rara 2011
– Crama Oprisor Feteasca Neagra Caloian 2011
– Terra Romana Dealu Mare Feteasca Neagra 2011
– Villa Vinea Riesling de Rin Selection 2012 (quite full and intense, with good acidity)
– Corcova Feteasca Neagra 2011 (for me the very best feteasca neagra of the bunch, with sweet dark berries, light spiciness and sweet liquorice, enormously drinkable)
– Solo Quinta 2012 (white wine, lovely, slightly exotic fruit aromas, medium body, good supporting acidity; a very unusual, but very accomplished, mix of pinot noir, muscat ottonel, feteasca regala, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay)
– Villa Vinea Pinot Noir 2011
– Serve Dealu Mare Vinul Cavalierul Pinot Noir 2011
– Budureasca Dealu Mare Pinot Noir 2011
– Sole Spumante Rozé 2012 (Romanian sparkling rosé, dry, with a good, tight berry fruitiness)
– Balla Géza Stonewine Feteasca Neagra Premium Collection 2011 (almost on a level with the Corcova, with tight dark berry fruitiness and great juiciness)
– Halewood Dealu Mare Feteasca Neagra Hyperion Limited Edition 2010 (in the soft, spicy end of the feteasca neagra spectrum)
I realize that this is a fairly long list, but that is solely due to the fact that there were many good Romanian wines at the contest. These are wines that I would be happy to see on my table any time.
A few notes in the “other” department:
– I tasted an interesting Azerbaijani white wine from the dzheiran variety; that was a first for me
– Not everything was all bad during the communist reign in Romania: I tasted some old sweet wines from the State Experimental Station at Murfatlar, notably a stellar sweet chardonnay from 1973
– Donnafugata’s Pantelleria Moscato Passito Ben Ryè was drop-dead gorgeous, but apparently sadly misunderstood by some in the jury group that assessed it. The same apparently happened to an Osborne Pedro Ximénez Sherry, but their jury chairman forced them to retaste it after proper instruction in this style of wine!
– People simply don’t understand Lambrusco. We had a fabulous 2012 lambrusco maestri called Torcularia from Carra di Casatico in my jury group, and I was the only one who liked it!
– The Crama Oprisor Winery in the Dealurile Olteniei region had purchased some primitivo/zinfandel vines in an Austrian vine nursery and had tried to make red wine from them for several years, but with dissatisfactory results. Apparently, this variety, which is noted as the first to ripen where it normally grows (primitivo is literally derived from “first-ripening”), for Crama Oprisor is the last to ripen and exhibits very high acidity levels even when picked late. A rosé trial did not go so well either, but then they came upon making a white wine from it. This wine, called Caloian Zinfandel Alb, was actually quite interesting, with a soft, peachy/aromatic appley nature.
– A lot of the best Romanian wine is made by women winemakers. I here single out Lorena Deaconu of Halewood, who has something really interesting going on with viognier, among other things; and Veronica Gheorghiu of Crama Oprisor, who clearly is a very accomplished winemaker. Both ladies were evidently intelligent, curious and open to impressions. Expect even greater things from them in the future.
– The original pastoral culture is alive and well in Romania. We tasted an amazing goat’s milk cheese, which had been fermented in the stomachs from young goats, such as cheese must have been originally made. This was a highly characterful, white, slightly grainy cheese with strong, rather acidic aromas. I had to bring some home!
A final note of thank you to the organizers of the IWCB. If I mention some and not all, I will not be thanked, but you know who you are, and I will be tagging those of you that I have been able to befriend on Facebook. IWCB 2013 was a lovely event, which certainly taught me a lot about Romanian wine, but whose standout impression is one of great human warmth and hospitality. Thank you so much for inviting me to this lovely event.