Monday 7 December 2015

Our debut in Romania

In Romania for a wedding. Most of our time was spent in the German city of Brasov. The architecture and street names are still German. One of the interesting anomalies of this still very Latin country. Others include the Romanian Orthodox Church (very near to Greek and Russian Orthodox to our eyes and ears), the folk music (still Turkish influenced), the food (anything but Italian) and so forth. It is also recognizably Hapsburg in some respects.

A notice in our hotel room rather re-enforcing a Romanian stereotype?
Nevertheless, it is possible to get the gist of the language both written and spoken if you know Italian and the driving is definitely more Mediterranean than anything else. Bucharest has changed enormously since we spent a night at the Gare de Nord (don't ask) in the Ceausescu era (a scene out of Dostoyevsky). It seems nearer the 'Little Paris' of the pre-war period now it has been cleaned up. There are the monstrous carbuncles of the communist years but in general, it seems like a large Spanish city (Madrid or Barcelona) in the 1950s.

Romanians like to say that under Communism everyone had plenty of money but there was nothing to buy in the shops. Now there is an enormous choice of goods but no money.

Taking advantage of the cheapest taxi fares anywhere, we were able to check out two rather far-flung wine shops, Ethic Wines and Wine Republic. Sadly, Ethic only opened at 12.00pm.

The windows promised the best selection of Romanian wines but we couldn't wait so it was off to Wine Republic on what seemed the edge of town in a shopping centre.

This kind of address is not unusual even in more prosperous countries but being in a rush with the taxi waiting we failed to take any pictures while there which is a pity because the representative was highly knowledgeable and very helpful.

We were on the lookout for some seriously obscure grape varieties;

Tamaioasa Romanesca
Busuioaca de Bohotin

and were not disappointed, except for the fact that Tamaioasa Romanesca actually turns out to be Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains. Busuioaca de Bohotin may be a colour mutation of Muscat Blanc a petits grains or possibly a unique variety. Further work needs to be done. Any volunteers?

On top of these was a rather serious (and expensive) Marselan of all things (successful cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache grown more and more in Provence and it seems elsewhere).

Prince Stirbey himself?

Now to backtrack, before going to Romania we had stopped by the Romanian Wine table at the SITT Wine Fair at Horicultural Halls, London about a fortnight previously. There was very handily an entire table devoted to Romanian wines.

This is a site where as well as praising diversity, we love to overthrow preconceptions. Our preconceptions of Romanian wine has centered around the not always exciting Feteasca varieties, Alba and Neagra and inexpensive but not bad Pinot Noir. An article by Jancis Robinson zeroing in on Prince Stirbey wines made other varieties sound more enticing so approaching the Romanian Winemakers stand, we were excited to see what must have been Prince Stirbey himself; a very tall and distinguished gentleman standing there dispensing his wines.

It turned our that this gentleman is an Austrian lawyer, Baron Jakob Kripp who is married to a lady, (Ileana) whose ancestor was Prince Stirbey.

Their winemaker is Oliver Bauer whose wines were on sale in Romania alongside those he makes for Prince Stirbey. Mr. Bauer is German. He belongs to a long line of German and Austrian winemakers to move to this part of the world. They are particularly evident in Hungary but are percent here too in Romania.

There is even a company called Schwaben Wein who make very decent (Romanian) Merlot among other wines. The term demisec seems to correspond to the German 'halbtrocken' so these wines are 'off dry' rather than semi-sweet. Romanian sweet wines (and there is a fair share of these) are 'dulce'.

Stirbey have a broad range of really interesting native varietal wines:


Feteasca Regala
Tamaioasa Romanesca
Cramposie Selectionata


Feteasca Dragosani

We have managed to take home most of these and look forward to trying them out. Some of the wines are already imported into the UK. We found Feteasca Regala and Cramposie Selectionata and Novac especially good and interesting.

At Bistrot Guxt (No. 1 in Tripadvisor's Bucharest restaurants) we found a 2007 Stirbey Novac with the old label.

This might have been one of the best wines ever produced in Romania according to the marvelous and talented owner of Bistrot Guxt, Radu Popovici. While a wine expert of authority, Radu is actually a beer man with a passion for various styles of beer including English ones being produced locally (Romanian Bitter!).

From what we drank in Romania, we can report that Feteasca Regala outperformed Feteasca Alba and Cramposie Selectionata was a very worthwhile discovery. Among the reds, Novac stood out over Feteasca Neagra. We are not as familiar with Neagru de Dragosani as we would like to be having had just a small mouthful at SITT. It seemed promising nonetheless.

If you think an idiosyncratic pattern is emerging here, you would be right. As with the variegated character of Romania itself, the wine are taking their own course and it is not yet possible to know how the cards will fall eventually.

There were plenty of wines from international varieties but some interesting blends as well as the native grape varieties and surprising plantings (Marselan) mentioned above.

The cuvee here is Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Dornfelder. Original.

The airport at Bucharest is a good place to buy Romanian wine but only with Euros. We found some rarities among the inevitable Dracula Feteasca Neagras and Cabernet Sauvignons.

The first rarity was a Mustoasa de Maderat

Next a Sarba

Then, Stirbey's Tamaioasa Romaneasca. This is pretty good for an Airport Duty Free. Maybe not on the same level as at the Budapest Duty Free but better than any UK Duty Free, let's face it.

So from our short visit, we might conclude that Romania is an extremely interesting place from many points of view including their wines. They might not be as rich in diversity as their neighbour Hungary but pretty good. They certainly have potential, some of which is already being realized. So they merit greater appreciation and recognition. Hedre is a list of some of the indiginous varieties of Romania:

Babaesca Neagra
Busuioaca de Bohotin
Cadarca si Steinschiller (Steinschiller is 'Kovidinka in German!)
Feteasca Alba
Feteasca Dragosani
Feteasca Neagru
Feteasca Regala
Francusa (aka. Mustoasa de Moldova)
Galbena de Odobesti
Grasa de Cotnari
Majarca Alba (ancient Balkan variety producing generally uninspiring whites. aka, Slankemenka
Mustoasa de Maderat
Plavaie (said to be no longer cultivated but still grown by Podgoria Odobesti (bless them!)
Zghihara de Husi

Romanian wine production is both ancient and very modern. As with all the East European countries producing wine, the modern era dates from 1989 and the fall of communism. Since then people have clawed their way back to becoming a great wine producing nation again which is fitting for what was in 2014 the 12th biggest producer in the world, ahead of New Zealand, Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria and only just below the likes of Portugal, Germany, Chile and South Africa in terms of quantity. Now we can see what they can do qualitatively.

Important producers include

Alcovin - Crama Macin
Casa de Vinuri Husi
Casa de Vinuri Nachbil
Casa de vinuri Olteanu
Casa de Vinuri Pietroasa
Casa Isarescu
Casa Panciu
Castel Vinum
Compania viticola Corcova
Crama Apcovin
Crama Averesti
Crama Basilescu
Crama Francu
Crama Liliac
Crama Voievodului
Cramele Halewood
Cramele Minis - Wine Princess
Cramele Rotenberg
Domeniile Anastasia
Domeniile Boieru - Ciumbrud
Domeniile Clos des Colombes
Domeniile Blaga
Domeniul Coroanei
Domeniile Dealu Mre - Urlati
Domeniile Franco-Romane
Domeniile Ostrov
Domeniile Shateni
Domeniile Samburesti
Domeniile Stirbey
Domeniile Tohani
Domeniile Viticole Sara
Domeniul Coroanei Segarcea
Domeniul viticol Saru
Oenoterra Dealu-Mare
Petro Vasel
Podgoria Jidvei
Podgoria Valaha Cotesti
SCDVV Pietroasa
SD Banu Maracine
Senator Wine
Tenuta Odobesti
Valea Calugareasca
Veritas Panciu
Vie Vin Vanju Mare
Villa Vinea 
Vincon Vrancea
Vin Com Copu
Vinterra International
Viticola Sarica Niculitel
WineRo Aliman

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Back in Budapest

On a business trip to Budapest recently we took time to check two serious wine shops, for the wines of Kertesz Pince and Terroir Club, the agents for Oszkar Maurer. We have sung the praises of both these producers already in this blog and the time had come to investigate bottles not stocked by Hungaricum, the Hungarian wine (and food) duty free shop at the airport - winner of the Slotovino best Airport Duty Free.

In the days of our visit Hungary felt under siege by the unfortunate Syrian and other refugees trying to get to Germany so the name Terroir Club had an ironic connotation, especially in view of something almost shocking that happened later.

First things first: after a long taxi ride to Obuda - the third city united with Buda and Pest to form Budapest on November 17th, 1873 (until our visit we had thought this was just Buda with some Hungarian prefix) - we came to an industrial estate and a firmly shut rolling metal door (above). Oh dear, was this one of our goose chases ending at the offices of an online company only?

No, fortunately it was a retail shop, venue for tasting and warehouse all in one. With the taxi waiting, we had a quick tour d'horizon and came out with some Maurer including

a white made from Szeremy Zold (Green of Szeremi) a discovery for us, turning out to be a major one,

and something called Bakator. We weren't sure if this was a grape variety or the name of a blend but we believe Piros Bakator is an old Hungarian variety whereas white Bakator is actually Ezerjo.

Zoltan who had helped us mentioned that there was a tasting at 5.00pm. We were tempted to return on the way to the airport because he said Maurer would be there with further wines from his vineyards which are situated across the border in the Vojvodina province of Serbia where there used to be a sizable Hungarian community, after 100 years down from about 28% to 13%.

We asked Zoltan if he had any Menoir (aka. Medoc Noir or Kekmedoc), a native Hungarian variety from Eger making a truly funky red wine with Muscat flavours, he said not but what he did have was Turan - a Hungarian crossing from Menoir among others (Bikaver 8 x Kadarka/Gardonyi Geza x Menoir). So we took a bottle of that as you would.

In the meantime we went over to which was another interesting stop as it turned out. Friends of the producer Kertesz Pince whose Kiralyleanyka we had so enjoyed at the Kiraly Borhaz (now sadly defunct) we had called ahead to reserve a few bottles and Gabor helped us out with these and our further selection.


The present vintage (12%) was more neutral than the one we had tasted in May 2014 (13%) but it is still a nice wine even if the hopes we had had for this grape will perhaps not be realized. It has a reputation for neutrality which we could not have imagined on that one exceptional showing. Perhaps Kiralyleanyka has to be over 12% to realize its personality?

There were plenty of other items of interest though. One which caused amusement was the marketing of wine from Szekszard as Sexardique and others from this region with an image of the young Franz Liszt. Liszt was a very attractive young man as well as one of the greatest pianists who ever lived and a fine composer. His love life was such that he felt the need later on to take holy orders and became the Abbe Liszt.

It is not known if the Hungarian 'Madmen' were aware of the cockney rhyming slang aspect of his name but there he was, very much harnessed to the promotion of Sex - 'ard wines. Should go down well with the Stag parties and Hen nights of Budapest courtesy of Easyjet, Ryanair and Wizz Air.

Next, we added two whites we had tried previously in the hope of either re-enforcing our prejudices or having them overturned: a Juhfark and an Ezerjo.

Back at Terroir Club at 5.00pm, we found the place already in full swing. That is when we learned that Oszkar Maurer had become a victim of Hungary's tightening of its border controls. He had simply not been able to cross the border from Serbia so we were unable renew the contact we had made in May 2014 at the RAW wine fair.

Our sadness at this news was a little bit alleviated by a heartening discovery though. The wines of Hegyi Adam and Kalo Julia. Adam and Julia are a young married couple who make astounding natural wines including their own Turan with which we fell in love. Julia's father Imre Kalo is by all accounts a marvelous character known various as the wild man of Hungarian wine and Hermit of Szomolyai. Google him and you will see! We are trying to devise ways of visiting him ourselves one day.

HegyiKalo had a Turan of their own: Tiszta Szivvel (Pure Heart). One taste and we were captivated.

Their other wines are known as Oroksegul (Heritage) of which the white is a blend of Riesling, Leanyka and Gruener Veltliner and the red, Turan (60%) and Cabernet Franc (40%). there is another red blend called Cseresznyeeres (Ripening Cherries) from a local crossing Medina (aka Medea), a crossing of Seyve Villard and Menoir.

Over to Hungaricum at Liszt Ferenc Airport with a good hour to check out the Hungarian wines on offer there. An hour is a minimum amount of time for this exercise.

We first laid our hands on Gedeon's Arany Sarfeher. This had been seen last year but here was our first chance to buy a bottle. Arany means Gold, Sar means mud and Feher is white.

Next a very inexpensive but quite marvelous Portugieser from Frittmann

a Siller (pronounced Schiller) from the Szekszard (a pink wine from Kadarka grapes) just to compare with the Austrian Schilcher; a rose from Blauer Wildbacher grapes.

At that point we needed some help as previously we had bought a delicious Menoir at this shop but on this occasion it was nowhere to be found.

Without much optimism we asked the chap in charge and he went to the shelves but returned empty handed. He didn't give up though and had a good old check on the computer. This pointed to there being a bottle in stock but he said it had either been sold or misplaced. Still on a mission, he finally went over to a corner where he picked out this beauty from behind some other bottles. Now that's service for you! Our delight would have been complete if he could have plucked Oszkar Maurer and the poor souls trying to cross the border out from behind the border with Serbia.