🇬🇧 | After decades of sweet, cheap wine for the masses, Romanian winemakers are returning to the roots with a twist – planting Western European wine varieties and seeking expertise abroad.
Under a cloudy sky, fields of green and yellow stretch in soft slopes to the horizon. Most of the wheat has been mowed, but a different time of harvest will soon come: wine.
In Romania the cultivation of wine is more than two millennia old. The legends around wine and winemaking in the country show how important it has continuously been in its culture. Like that of a king, who – upon realizing the grand wine consumption of his citizens – ordered all vines to be yanked from the earth.
When Romania became a socialist nation in 1947, for many winemakers, life took a perilous turn. As in every country where property, and especially farmland, was communized, knowledge passed down for centuries was often lost or at least diminished. During Romania’s socialist years, mainly sweet wine was produced in large quantities, to be served across the Sowjet Union and its brother states. After the empire was toppled in 1989, politics brought yet another change to Romanian viticulturists: Winemaking, with little market left in the former recipient countries, became less attractive – many vineyards were left behind, nature grew over them, reclaiming the ground.
Now, some winemakers are back in the game and they’re aiming to drive change. One of them is Adrian Madar, who in 2011 co- founded the Transylvania-based winery Crama La Salina in the Durgău Hills, on top of a decommissioned, now turned into a museum and under-world playground, salt mine. Like in many Romanian vineyards today, a lot of the knowledge on winemaking today is imported from the wine-nations of the West, especially France. Adrian Madar explains, that in the 1990ies, and still today, many of the traditional Romanian varieties, like Fetească Bianca have been replaced by western vines, especially Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling for whites. « Historically speaking« , he says, « the Romanian wine landscape today was developed by French experts« . Crama La Salinas winemaker does not hail from France, but from the West nonetheless. Adrian Madar met the Austrian expert many years ago, and together they developed the idea of Crama La Salina.
Today, they mostly plant French varieties, while not losing sight of tradition – a smaller parcel is dedicating the Romanian varieties, like the dark- red and flavorful Fetească Negra. It is a Romanian classic – and until today, mostly grown there. Western European varieties fit the Transylvanian conditions quite well, Adrian Madar explains. The cooler climate is great for grapes like Riesling, just like the acidity and mineral contents of the soil. Many Romanian varieties are better grown in the South, closer to the Black Sea, where it is generally warmer and less wet.
Crama La Salina early on decided on their market niche: High quality wine, and additional revenue through the enclosed hotel and restaurant. Covid, however, has been quite a backlash for their strategy: Guest traffic has slowed down, and even sales have decreased. « Our wines are priced on the higher end for Romanian consumers« , Adrian Madar explains. Buying a bottle from Crama La Salina, and especially their premium brand ISSA, named after the old Roman name of the closest town, Portaissa, is for most customers not an everyday occasion, but meant for special nights and celebrations. With Covid as an overarching party-pooper, the sale of bottles diminished.
In general, the market for dry, high quality wines is still quite small in Romania – which makes for a tough competition among wine makers. Exports are however not a savior. Romanian wines are still quite unknown in Western Europa, demand is low. « Sometimes, wine connoisseurs are looking for something they have not yet tasted, and land on Romanian wine« , Bas van Gijzen explains. In his wine store LAURENZ in the young and trendy Neustadt-quarter in Mainz, he has only one Romanian winemaker listed, who makes Orange wine – another trend in winemaking – which is natural and does not contain added sulfates. « Romanian wine« , he says, « is simply not known enough in Germany« .
Adrian Madar knows the problem: He has been trying to increase visibility of Crama La Salina in the German market. But presenting one’s wine at fairs is expensive, and the Romanian government, he says, simply doesn’t offer enough support. « We need a powerful promotion of our quality outside of Romania« , he states, « this cannot be done by small producers like us. » He adds: « Most consumers choose by label and prize, but don’t actually know what they’re buying » – a theory Bas van Gijzens confirms. Becoming known, becoming a label is therefore integral to success abroad.
Increasing the image of wine from former socialist countries is not impossible: Moldova has successfully established itself as a wine nation in the eyes of many oenophilists worldwide. In order to keep up with the competition, Romanian winemakers need to continuously keep or improve their quality. Crama La Salina is a member of the Transylvanian winemakers association. They support the education of young winemakers at the university of Cluj-Napoca. So that one day, expertise will not longer have to be imported – just like in the past.
📝 Lisa Schneider & Lukas Nickel