Romanian wine might not be the first thing you associate with this Eastern European country. But Romania is the sixth largest producer of wine in Europe. After the disastrous 2017 harvest more and more wine lovers are looking to ex-Soviet states that offer excellent wines at unbeatable prices.
Many British and Western European supermarket chains have already secured contracts with Romanian wineries. Chances are you have already sampled Romania’s finest without even knowing it. Here is your guide to choosing and knowing next time.
Romanian lands have the perfect climate, soils, and relief for growing grapes. Historically, the most popular grape varieties were for white wines and this remains true to this day. Viticulture here dates back 6,000 years but it was sadly neglected during Ceausescu’s dictatorship.
The communist regimen did not allow any private property and land in wine-making regions was the first to be nationalised. They stripped the entire wineries with centuries of experience and tradition from their rightful owners. The new elite proved to know very little about managing the winemaking process. It wasn’t until the dictatorship ended in 1989 and lands returned that Romania started gaining its’ competitive wine-making edge back.
After a freak weather hit France, Italy, and Spain during the spring and summer of 2017, the harvest was at an all-time low. Spring frosts destroyed Western European vines. In addition, one of the worst summer heat waves also played a part in the destruction. The International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) said global wine production was to fall down to 247m hectolitres for 2017. It’s the worst harvest since 1961 but it hasn’t hit Eastern Europe.
Romania emerged as a possible saviour of cheap wine lovers everywhere. The country is in the European Union but it has not adopted the euro. The living standard is quite low and the price of labour is one of the cheapest in the continent. This, along with the centuries-old wine-making traditions, allows Romania to offer excellent wines at an unbeatable price.
But there is more to it. The 2017 harvest in Romania was one of the best ever. Some wineries haven’t had better in decades. This year they are not only exporting wine but also grapes and juices to Western Europe. Italian winemakers, in particular, buy large quantities of Romanian grapes for their own production. So a lot of the wine you will be drinking in the next couple of years will have the Romanian trace.
With a greater area of vineyard than any other in Eastern Europe, Romania boasts an excellent variety of grape sorts. They have more Cabernet Sauvignon than Bulgaria (although Romania’s Southern neighbour has so far had more success exporting their Cabernet) and plenty of Merlot and other red grapes, too. Romania’s true forté, however, is white wine.
Local Fetească, and the newer Fetească Regală crossing yield sweet, aromatic white wines. They also serve as an ingredient for sparkling wine production. Fetească neagră is Fetească’s red variety, often mixed with Shiraz to produce a rich and flavourful red—the perfect wine for a winter night. There are also considerable acreages of Welschriesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris.
If I had to rank them, the country’s most popular grape varieties are as follows:
Romania’s huge variety in landscape, winemaking tradition, and foreign influences make for some striking differences between different regions. Although the climate is pretty much the same throughout the country—classic continental with hot summers and very cold winters, the difference in taste, even in grapes of the same variety is ginormous.
When it comes to foreign influences, the general rule is that in the West it was Austro-Hungarians that brought new varieties. In the North, the influence is Germanic with a lot of Rhine varieties also grown in Romania. Riesling grapes yielding crisp and enormously aromatic whites are what you need to look out for.
Although not as northerly as German vineyards, their Romanian counterparts share many of the same characteristics. For instance, the majority of white wines are still dry, as historically no techniques to stop fermentation were known to Romanians.
Even at high ripeness levels, Riesling and other white grape varieties in the North retain a lot of acidity. That, combined with the lower temperatures which make reaching peak ripeness virtually impossible, make for some characteristic acidity in the wines of the North.
Some winemakers add extra sugar to their grape juices, a practice that has recently been condemned but it still happens among smaller producers. Romanians themselves prefer sweeter wines while the wine for export is often on the drier end of the spectrum.
So you are in Romania (or presented with a choice with Romanian wines elsewhere). Their whites are excellent but how do you know the good ones to the ones that were artificially sweetened and flavoured? Easy, it should say so on the bottle—not so fast. Although Romanian law states that all alterations to an already-produced wine should be noted on the package, this is rarely the case. Lack of any strict control over wineries is currently a major problem of Romanian wine-making.
If you don’t mind the extra sugar, go ahead and pick at random. But I am guessing you clicked on this article because you are more or less a connoisseur. Here is everything you need to know about picking the best Romanian white wine for your next dinner party.
We already talked about the most common grape varieties. When it comes to white wine if you want indigenous local sorts you are looking at Fetească albă, Crâmpoșie and Fetească regală varieties. These are often mixed with other international grapes but I wouldn’t advise you to go this way. Although the local grapes make for some excellent wines when combined with Pinot Gris or Riesling, you want to try them on their own at first.
These are the grape varieties best suited to the local microclimate. Wineries tend to stick to what tradition has taught them. This means that they have the most experience cultivating and working with them. Getting a local white wine variety is a better way of evaluating the winery than choosing an international sort.
One of the first lessons of picking out good wine is it should have a decent alcohol percentage. This is not just important to cheap and alcohol-loving college students. Choose a wine with a lower alcohol content than normal and I guarantee there will be something wrong with it.
The alcohol percentage you should expect from Romanian whites is low to moderate. You are looking at around 11.5 to 12%. Anything below 11% is not acceptable. White wine should not be too alcoholic, either. Percentages of over 13 are best reserved for reds.
There will be a higher acidity in Fetească albă and Fetească regală wines, while Crâmpoșie is lighter and fruitier. All three contain the freshness and floral aroma. Crâmpoșie tends to feature some fruity notes, too, while Fetească regală can sometimes have a nutty aftertaste to it. You can use these ingredients for sparkling wine production as well. In some regions, they make the sparkling wine in actual caves. You usually can not purchase these wines at a supermarket or even a specialized wine shop. If you do see them, make sure you get your hands on a couple of bottles.
Pairing will play a huge role in your appreciation of Romanian wine. The general rules apply. Light dry whites go great with vegetables, both fresh and roasted. More supple varieties call for a cheese. Try to stick to softer cheeses with a subtle flavour that will not overpower the wine. If in doubt, you can always serve them with pasta in a cheesy sauce rather than along a cheese platter. The carbs in the pasta will soften the taste of the cheese and allow you to taste the wine.
Crâmposia wines tend to go great with dessert as well. If you want to go all fusion on your guests, try serving them with some tiramisu or even affogato. It may be an unpopular opinion, but white wine does seem to be complemented by the coffee flavour.
Remember how I told you Romanian wineries now work with major supermarket chains? Well, if you are curious to see what Romanian wine tastes like before ever setting foot in Bucharest, both Aldi and Lidl have some excellent selections. Are they a bit tacky? Maybe, but Romanian wine comes out cheaper than any Western European variety. Meaning that it lets you get the most bang for your buck. I suggest looking for some Fetească next time you are in one of these discounters!
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