The world of wine is so complex and cultured it takes an entire degree to master. Sommeliers and wine fanatics will spend years learning about wine and grape varietals around the world and how to refine their palates to identify them. The usual suspects - Mediterranean wines like French or Italian, for example - are easy enough for most wine novices to recognise, at least by name. But what about the lesser known ones? Case in point: Romanian wines.
While Romanian wines might sound like a new thing, Romania is actually part of the 'old world' of wines alongside France, Italy, Spain and Germany, to name a few. In wine terminology, the old world refers to the countries considered to be birthplaces of wine (and who make them according to more traditional methods), compared to the new world like South Africa, Chile, and Australia, which were once colonies of the former and developed viticulture and wine-making as a result. Today, Romania is one of the world’s largest producers of wine and ranks fifth in European wine-making countries and thirteenth in the world, with 187,000 hectares of vineyards. Boasting more affordable vineyards and wines, the eastern european country has been an attractive and lucrative place for businesses to invest.
Romanian wine-making traditions date back more than 6,000 years. Its most famous claim to fame was a sweet wine similar to Sauternes called Grasă de Cotnari, known across Europe in the 19th century. Up until the phylloxera crisis of the late 19th century, each Romanian wine region boasted it’s own grape varieties which made for highly localised drinks. Unfortunately, the crisis wiped out most of the indigenous grapes and more common French grapes had to be planted to restore viticulture in the country. The communist era also took its toll on the industry as quantity was prioritised over quality, and its subsequent fall and the hyperinflation that followed meant that mass-produced, cheap wine was solidified as a profitable export. Since Romania became part of the EU in 2007, big efforts and investments in wine-making technology and quality maintenance have been implemented. Smaller, independent wine-makers have begun to make strides, experimenting with what would be considered new world approaches to an old world tradition and terroir. Dry whites are being made from grapes usually reserved for sweet wines for example, and they tend to be much more affordable than their French or Italian brethren.
A gentle climate and healthy soils have made hilly Romanian landscapes perfect for viticulture. With the same latitude as Bordeaux, the Romanian climate is drier and closer to continental, making it ideally suited for grape growing. The Carpathian mountains provide shelter to hills which moderates the temperature and protects the region from storms, much like the Alsace region in France. And a long and gentle autumn means that grapes ripen more slowly and results in more concentration in the flavours. All of these factors contribute to quality grapes and make for fantastic wines as a result.
Romanian Wine Regions
There are several different Romanian wine regions: the largest are the Moldovan Hills in the east (home of the famed Cotnari), where sun is plentiful and the climate fairly moderate. Dobrogea is the only coastal region boasting volcanic soil and is where the Danube Delta - an important archaeological site showcasing ancient wine culture - is located. A warm and dry climate makes it more suitable for organic viticulture, and a lot of natural wines are coming out of this part of the country. The famed Transylvania is the highest altitude wine region and home to fresh and highly acidic white wines, with flavourful aromas. Other regions to note include Oltenia & Muntenia at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, the cooler Banat region, and minerally rich Crisana & Maramures.
Romanian Grape Varieties
There are many classic French and European varieties of grapes used in Romanian winemaking, largely due to the necessary restoration of the industry after the phylloxera epidemic devastated indigenous grapes - you’ll certainly see Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, and Merlots on Romanian wine bottles. Welschriesling is another reputable variety from which Banat Riesling is made, for example.
But certain local grapes remain, making for interesting and different wines. Fetească Regală is native to Transylvania and only discovered in the 1930s. It makes for dry and fresh wines that can be aged into high quality ones. It’s similar to Chardonnay and when barrel-aged it develops notes of wild flowers or dried apricots. Fetească Neagra is another common one and makes dry reds and rosés with medium tannins and a lot of body - these are the oldest Romanian grapes, grown by the Dacians 2,000 years ago (considered to be the fathers of the Romanian wine industry). Wines made from Fetească Neagra have notes of stone fruits like plum and red berries. To close out the Fetească family is Feteasca Albă, a white grape variety with notes of citrus and hay that produces well-balanced wines with lovely ageing potential.
For sparkling wines, Crâmpoșie Selecționată is the variety to go for. It’s origins can be traced to the Dacians although it was then an auto-sterile grape. That meant it needed to be cultivated next to another grape - usually Gordan - so that it could be pollinated. The modern-day grape used today was bred by researchers to deal with that issue, and the resulting grapes boast high acidity and sugars, making it perfect for sparkling wines.
Tămȃioasă Romȃnească, meaning 'frankincense grape' and commonly known as Romanian Muscat, is a clone of the well-known Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains. It makes for incredibly aromatic and perfumed white wines.
It isn’t only white grapes in Romania, however. Negru de Drăgășani is a red grape developed as a cross between Romanian Negru varieties and Saperavi, a Georgian grape. It makes for wines with softer tannins with notes of cherry, blackberries, and spices. There is also Băbeasca Neagră, a variety that’s approximately 600 years old and makes for lighter wines with high acidity. And we couldn’t forget Grasa de Cotnari, one of the most famous Romanian grape varieties. These grapes are large with a thin skin, and versatile enough to make a variety of wines ranging from dry to fairly sweet wines. The eponymous Cotnari is made from both Grasă and Tămȃioasă Romȃnească.