Grapevine Archive for Romania
Marcel Orford-Williams reveals the thinking behind The Society’s current offer, From Golden Rhine to Blue Danube, and why now is the time to be exploring these remarkable wines.
Maps have always been a passion for me. When friends would queue up for the latest album, I would be in Long Acre, immersed in charts.One of my interests was studying different map projections or simply looking at maps from different angles. After all why persist in seeing a map with north on top? Why not south, or east? Why see the world with our small islands conveniently placed in the middle and, in Mercator’s projection, unduly large?
And so I looked at the layout of Europe’s vineyards which, typically, are centred on the three most important regions: Iberia, Italy and, in between, France. Without the Roman Empire, viticulture might have remained close to the Mediterranean shore. Instead, Hellenistic culture in its vinous form was carried on the backs of Roman legionaries wherever they went, often following great river valleys such as the Ebro, Rhône or Garonne and as far east as the Rhine and Danube which remained a border of sorts until the Barbarian surge.Borders are contradictory, being both barrier and passage. They have changed and evolved over the centuries after wars and dynastic ties. Transylvania, Romanian today, used to be Hungarian. Hungary used to be Turkish. The Ottomans lay siege to Vienna twice, which was once the centre of Germany, while Alsace, French today, was once part of the Holy Roman Empire.
This is where Europe comes together, and in so many ways. Not least in music, whereby a river cruise might start with Hildegard of Bingen and end on the Danube with Enescu, by way of Beethoven and Bartók. And, of course there’s the wines – a veritable cross-pollination of tastes and styles.
I think it was the late and much missed Barry Sutton, one time general manager of The Wine Society, who amused himself with the idea of a buying trip along the Rhine with grateful growers coming to our barge with samples to taste and maybe the odd refreshing beer. Now, thanks to a recently built canal, our trip can extend all the way from the North Sea to the Black Sea.
The Rhine-Danube basin has become home to a vast number of grape varieties. In modern times, they have been bought in from France or Italy, everything from cabernet sauvignon to sangiovese. Before, though, varieties were often created from happy marriages with wild vines.
Riesling, for instance, almost certainly arose out of crossings between the obscure gouais blanc from France, traminer from Italy and wild vines that would have grown along the banks of the Rhine. Another offspring of the gouais blanc is likely to be Hungary’s furmint.
In the west, maritime influences moderate the climate so that Bordeaux or the Minho are relatively cool and damp. In Central Europe, the climate is distinctly continental with cold winters and hot summers. The Romans loved to plant on hillsides and it’s no coincidence that so many of the best vineyards in Germany, Alsace and Austria are planted on steep valley sides. Long growing seasons and hot summers create certain styles and there is a common feature that links Alsace to Austria and Romania. So many of the wines are fragrant, sometimes heady with exotic scents and many are full-flavoured and generous.One of the loveliest vineyards is the Bacharacher Hahn, steep and south facing and overlooking the ancient town and the Rhine. Close by is the narrowest point of the river north of the Swiss border. At one point a 120m cliff plunges into the water. There are rocks to snare ships and also, so it was believed, the deadly water sprite Lorelei, to lure watermen to a certain death. Mendelssohn was here and began writing an opera for Jenny Lind, and, just down the river, Hildegard of Bingen lived and meditated. Maybe she had a say in the creation of the riesling grape? Her many interests included botany, after all.
She spent some time in the village of Ruppertsberg where she founded the monastery. Tucked into the Haardt are fabulous vineyards, in Ruppertsberg itself and next door in Forst and Wachenheim, that today are the source of some of the world’s finest dry white wines, made of course from the riesling grape. Riesling may have come from here or it may have come from Alsace or even the Wachau in Austria on the Danube.
All three make stunning dry riesling, each in a slightly different style. So good they were that at one time that these dry rieslings commanded higher prices than any chardonnay from Burgundy. The Rheingau then suddenly stunned the world with sweet wine made from grapes affected by noble rot. But these rare delicacies were known about for much longer. Well before the Bishop of Fulda enjoyed the first Spätlese, or late-harvest wine, Hapsburg princes were savouring the immortal delights of Tokaji.
Opposite Bingen, but slightly downstream, as the Rhein faces north again towards the narrows and the mischievous Lorelei, pinot noir, known in Germany as spätburgunder, occupies some of the best slopes. Burgundy’s finest grape (which actually predates riesling) is a red variety of choice and lovers of pinot can expect to pay high prices and the wines are sometimes good enough to stand comparison with Burgundy. Further upstream , the Rhine marks a border between Germany and France. Curiously, pinot noir used to be a major variety in Alsace and its popularity is on the rise, as it is on the German side in Baden. Pinot Noir has good Central European credentials and lovely examples can even be found right at the end of our barge journey in Romania.Austria has become one of the smartest wine countries of Europe, frequently picking up international prizes. It wasn’t always so but in some ways the scandal that nearly destroyed its reputation became its saviour as serious growers were left with no choice but to work for quality. Steep Danubian vineyards produce great dry whites from riesling and the local grüner veltliner while the warm, misty shores of the Neuseidlersee produce great reds and, of course, fabulous sweet wines. Noble rot here is almost guaranteed. And so to the east and real promised land that is slowly rediscovering itself after years under state controls. Hungary stands out as it has a sophisticated wine culture and strongly identified grape varieties and styles, dominated of course by Tokaji. This is so obviously a great wine that as soon as state controls were relaxed, foreign investment came pouring in. Rehabilitation of Romania as a wine-producing country has been slower but is nonetheless exciting with new estates, more western in outlook and far more quality minded.
The future for this part of Europe is surely bright. For so long this has been a battlefield confronting the great European Empires. Irredentist squabbles apart, the vast Rhine and Danube basin is surely destined for peace and its wondrous patchwork of vineyards will be allowed to prosper.
What constitutes an ‘emerging region’?This was the question posed at an inaugural trade tasting of the same name hosted recently by Harpers Wine & Spirit magazine. It brought together wines from countries and regions as diverse as China, Japan, Georgia, Turkey, Croatia, Romania but also Washington, Luxembourg, Chile, England, Greece and Argentina.
The tasting was aimed particularly at importers wishing to add something a little bit different to their wine lists. It presented a mix of countries and regions that already have made gentle inroads onto the UK wine scene, up-and-coming areas of newer wine-producing countries and lesser-known parts of established vineyard areas.
One of the original ‘objects’ of The Wine Society as laid down by our founders was ‘to introduce foreign wines hitherto unknown or but little known in this country.’ This spirit is as alive today as it was in 1874 and with such a wealth of good quality wines being produced in what would previously have been thought of as the most improbable of places, we are spoilt for choice.
The debate that preceded the tasting examined how to get drinkers to try these new wines … how can they compete on already crowded wine lists and shelves? How would wine lovers cope with the linguistically challenging wine names and grape varieties?
Many felt that the challenge is to get drinkers to take the plunge and taste unfamiliar wines felt that if you could just get people to taste the wines then they would be converted. There was talk of using signature wines or grapes to blaze a trail for a country’s lesser-known or more esoteric wines.
Romanian pinot noir was cited as a good example of this approach. Pinot noir is notoriously tricky to get right and often carries a high price tag, but it’s a variety that the Romanians do very well and at a reasonable price and it offers something very different from new world interpretations of the grape. One merchant talked of how one of his clients offered Romanian pinot noir by the glass on their pub chalk-board. The wine didn’t sell. However, the same wine sold as ‘House Pinot Noir’ flew out!
The policy of Wine Society buyer for Eastern Europe, Sebastian Payne MW, is to be ‘loud and proud’ about the wines we list and members have responded enthusiastically.The enchanting Tamâioasa Româneasca white from Prince Stirbey in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps has proved very popular, as did the Turkish kalecik karasi red that we listed last summer and which we will be shipping again soon – proof that challenging juxtapositions of vowel and consonant is no barrier to trying delicious new wines!
I did find the tasting challenging. It wasn’t just the bewildering array of unheard-of wines and grape varieties from countries whose wines I had never encountered before, but also the fact that many of the tastes experienced were so different from what I am used to.
There was Georgia, which with its 8,000 vintages and 500 grape varieties lays claim to being the ‘cradle of winemaking’, and its traditional Qvervi wines fermented in large clay amphorae which are then sealed and buried in the earth.
A whole stand was devoted to the unique Orange wines all made within 100km of each other across three countries in Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. The wines undergo long skin contact during fermentation and are made in a highly traditional and natural way by techniques that have been around long before Rudolph Steiner was born! One of the growers refused to bottle his wine if it was a cloudy day because the wine would turn cloudy…
For me one of the most interesting aspects of the tasting was that it was a real leveller. It put seasoned tasters and experts in the shoes of those that are new to wine or who come to it without the preconceptions that many years in the industry may have given us. Without the usual points of reference by which to judge the wines, it was good to be reminded that what counts is simply whether you like the taste or not.
The good news was there was plenty to like, I thought, and it will be fascinating to chart the fortunes of these ‘emerging regions’ over the next few years.
Oh, and we have recently listed an extraordinarily good-value Romanian pinot noir too. La Catina Pinot Noir, 2009 comes from a single vineyard. With true pinot fragrance and succulent black-cherry flavour, it’s a bargain at £7.50 a bottle.
Read more about the rise of obscure grapes and regions in Andrew Jefford’s article, The weirdos are coming, in Wine World & News.
We will be making an offer of wines from off the beaten track in June.
Our wettest spring in years may have blunted the only green shoots we are likely to see here for a long time. Nevertheless, enough plucky bunches have made it through the rain to get Britain shaking the dust off its steamers and trawling the rack for the right white for asparagus, recalling, perhaps for the first time since last year, how devilishly tricky that can be.
Kiwi sauvignon blanc, a popular choice, often has a leguminous touch, but generally, I find it too trenchant to do anything but clash with the differently green spectrum of the vegetable. Not for nothing is it called a/grass by London?s fruit and veg community, whose members often display it alongside the contrasting glossy purple of a stack of obo?s (sic).
Like English straws, home-grown sparrer grass achieves a unique balance of sweetness and acidity. For that, I want a not-quite-dry, grapy northern hemisphere white. Quirky English wines sometimes work, and dry Alsace muscat is a sublime, if extravagant match. A third option, unveiled too late for last year?s crop and only now put through its paces, is – wait for it, I had to! – Prince Stirbey Tamâioasa Romaneasca Sec.
Tamâioasa (pronounce it támmy-wássa) is an indigenous Romanian variety bursting with the aroma of fresh grapes and punchy on the palate with that vital bit of subtle sweetness in the background. At £9.50 it?s not as cheap as I feel such a tongue-twister should be, but it?s under a tenner, which the best Alsace muscats are not.
It can also absorb the extra ingredients that TV chefdom, in its restless wisdom, deems necessary to help asparagus along. For all I know, the predictable litany of pancetta, parmesan shavings and, Lord help us, blue cheese, tomatoes and anchovies, may transform Peruvian imports. For me, though, anyone who complicates our most glamorous product with anything other than heat, lightly salted butter and freshly ground white pepper deserves banishment to the Tower of London, or, better still, somewhere very gothic and scary in Transylvania.
Janet Wynne Evans
Specialist Wine Manager