A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
Five weeks before writing this I was jam packed in the Georgian library of The Travellers’ Club on Pall Mall in London, desperately trying to push my way between the elbows and backs of a dense crowd of wine tasters towards bottles of Romanian wine ranged round the perimeter of the room. We were not just breathing on each other, we were practically doing the tango together. In our current era of social distancing, this Romanian wine tasting seems almost incredible.
There were other notable aspects to it – perhaps particularly the identity of the organisers. Nicholas de Roumanie (aka Nicholas Medforth-Mills) is the grandson of Michael of Romania, who sat on the throne for a few years as a young boy and then reigned as King in the 1940s before being forced to abdicate soon after attending the wedding of his cousins Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. My invitation to the tasting was issued by Nicholas’s wife Alina-Maria de Roumanie.
Nicholas and Alina-Maria have taken on the mantle of promoting what the country has to offer, including being ambassadors for Romanian wine. They seemed to have taken expert advice in choosing the wines to show at this London tasting. Representatives of 16 different private estates were pouring their current wines, overlooked by the club’s extensive book collection. No dangerous splashes observed.
The young couple had also assembled a guest list of particularly thirsty and talkative private wine enthusiasts, who obediently fell silent for short speeches by Nicholas of Romania and Romanian wine distributor Mihai Diaconu. Most importantly, the wines showed rather well.
I visited Romania briefly in 2015 (remember when you could just fly in and out of distant lands?) and felt there was considerable, if not fully realised, potential for Romanian wine. Wine is almost as important to the nation’s culture as it is to Georgia’s. Within Europe, Romania has more vineyard than any country other than Italy, France, Spain and (just) Portugal. It’s a Latin country, surrounded by Slavs, and its per capita wine consumption is relatively heroic – even without counting the large amount of wine made on a small scale and drunk on a larger scale by private individuals. (As I drove around Timișoara in the south-west of the country, I was struck by how many households seemed to grow their own vines.)
Overall I was impressed by the progress made by wine producers in recent years. Apart from one bottle that seemed excessively volatile, all 46 wines I managed to taste despite the throng were remarkably clean and fresh. If there was a common fault – perhaps not regarded as a fault in Romania itself where there is a long tradition of making wines, red as well as white, a bit sweet – it was that many reds struck my western palate as a bit too sweet to be appetising. A few wines still seemed a bit late twentieth century with too much evident oak and alcohol, which is true virtually everywhere in the wine world. But there were several that, for what such numbers are worth, I scored 17 out of 20 – high praise from me.
Only 13 of the wines I tasted were white. There were a couple of very respectable Sauvignon Blancs (not, admirably, copies of Sauvignon made elsewhere), but by far the most thrilling of the whites were made from one of Romania’s dozen indigenous grape varieties, Crâmpoșia Selecționată. Both of them, one still and one made sparkling in the same way that champagne is, were made on the recuperated aristocratic wine estate Prince Stirbey. (The UK’s Wine Society buys wine from this estate but neither of these wines.)
Two whites from another Romanian grape from different estates – one still, one sparkling – made from the new, vaguely grapey crossing Sarba were also interesting. More widely planted local white wine grapes are the Romanian Fetească Regală and, slightly less common and possibly finer, Moldovan Fetească Alba. Tămâioasă, or Tămâioasă Românească, is the Romanian name for the popular Muscat.
At this tasting, for whites and especially for reds, local varieties definitely triumphed over the international ones that have long been grown in quantity in Romania – perhaps because the country has had strong cultural links with the French, even if much recent foreign investment in the Romanian wine industry has come from Italy.
Every single one of my favourite reds listed below was made wholly or partly from Fetească Neagră, a Moldovan variety that fell out of fashion in Romania in the late twentieth century when international varieties seemed more exciting, but one that is very clearly at home there. It makes lively wines with good acidity and good fruit that hovers somewhere on the spectrum between damson and plum. Some sense a certain smokiness about it. One thing is certain: it has a strong and distinctive personality that seems to blend pretty well with the principal Bordeaux red wine varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
The Gitana winery, in the far south-east of the country, demonstrated that Romania can also make a fine example of the deep purple Georgian grape Saperavi. Gitana also showed a very decent example of Rară Neagră, another name for the indigenous Băbească Neagră that is generally associated with high acidity and pale colour. But, yet again, this light red was just a bit too sweet for export markets, I felt.
Mark Haisma, a winemaker who trained in Australia and is now stationed in Burgundy, initially advised on the new Dagon project in Dealu Mare in the south-east of the country, encouraging the locals to pick earlier when the grapes were fresher and more expressive. ‘These boys have talent, and now a nuance and sense of they want to do’, he told me by phone from his locked-down bunker on the Côte d’Or. ‘The first vintage at 12.5% alcohol was a bit confusing for them when the norm had been 14%. But once they realised how good the wine was, they got very excited.’
Dagon’s owner Mihnea Vasilache is excited about the potential of oak from Romania’s own forests, whose seven million ha (17.3 million acres) cover more than a quarter of the country, even if Romanian coopers need a bit of encouragement to age the oak as long as necessary for wine barrels.
Once the many new wine estates that have sprouted since Romania joined the EU in 2007 run out of Romanians to drink their produce, they may have to make rather drier wines for export markets. That aspect apart, there is no reason why Romanian wines shouldn’t be welcomed. […]
In my new year’s resolutions, I said I would try to taste more eastern European wines, so I made a beeline for a tasting devoted to Romanian wines, not long before such gatherings were banned.
At the end of January I received this email from someone called Alina-Maria de Roumanie:
My husband, Nicholas of Romania, and I are ambassadors of RoWine, the International Wine Festival of Romania and with this came the opportunity to discover the amazing world of wine and to especially slowly understand our national wines, the Romanian sortiments.
We are proud of our producers, although there are just a few which can really challenge the international markets through their unique grapes and quality.
Since my marriage with King Michael’s grandson, my life has changed and I was given a special gift, to be able to make a bigger difference for our country. After a period of time spent in the UK working, we returned to Romania with the mission to help and promote quality products and talented people. Through our involvement in the wine festival, we started promoting Romanian wines and trying to change our image internationally so we selected a few producers who respect the grapes and, most importantly, respect themselves as people who concentrate on quality and not quantity.
We saw a demand abroad for discovering Romanian wines and we started organising Romanian wine tastings. Saying this, we would like to invite you to our wine tasting in London, on 28 February at the Travellers Club.
We will also bring wines which are not yet on the market, freshly bottled, kept in wooden barrels and ready to be tasted at the end of February.
Below are the notes I took at this tasting, which was one of the most crowded I have ever attended. It seems extraordinary in these self-distancing times to think of how closely we were crammed together. Below is the crowd in the library of The Travellers’ Club listening to a speech from Nicholas de Roumanie, pictured at the top of this article with his wife Alina-Maria and Hugh Johnson.
Dagon, Clan Jar Sr 2016 Dealu Mare
Blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Fetească Neagră and Merlot.
The tannins have nicely melded, leaving sweet but not sickly fruit. A well-balanced red that would be fiendish in a blind tasting. Definitely ready to drink.
Drink 2018 – 2022