Wine is nothing new in Romania. In fact, wine was literally born there – or at least Dionysus, the god of wine was born there if you believe the legends. And yet, in spite of this (albeit tenuous) pedigree and its (less tenuous) 6,000-year-old winemaking heritage, wine is not what many people think about when they hear Romania – that honour goes to a certain count. But now, there are ambitious plans in place to attract wine-loving tourists to the country with new and improved infrastructure; state-of-the-art wineries; and – most importantly – the world-class wine, to back it up.
Shaking off the past
When it comes to winemaking, Romania is a country of superlatives: Not only is it one of the world’s largest producers, but it also has one of the world’s oldest winemaking traditions. However, much of Romania’s natural viticultural potential was squandered during the 40-year communist rule, when winemaking became nationalised and quantity trumped quality. Even after the fall of communism in 1989, Romania’s reputation for producing sub-par, cheap wine has been hard to shake; however, in the last decade, the next generation of winemakers have managed to do just that by investing in their wineries and using EU funds to make more premium wines, that are still relatively affordable.
Both international and indigenous grapes flourish in Romania, but it’s the numerous native varietals that offer a point of differentiation and promise. ‘I think the increasing emphasis on quality wines from local grapes will play a strong part in the future of Romanian wines,’ says Caroline Gilby, MW and author of The Wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova. ‘Negru de Drăgășani, Fetească Neagră, Fetească Albă, Fetească Regală, and Grasă, for example, can all produce high-quality and even exciting wines with the right attention (as well as adding a local touch to blends with famous international names) and are uniquely of this region. That will help connect visitors and tourists to the place.’
Turning tourists into tasters
It takes more than good wine to become a wine destination, and even with its hard-won, improved reputation, Romania still has much to do to appeal to the international market of wine-loving tourists, but the ambition is certainly there. ‘[In Romania] there are over 200 new wineries [that have] opened in the last 10 years, many of which are banking on wine tourism,’ says Philip Cox, founder and commercial director of Cramele Recaş, Romania’s largest exporter.
Based in western Romania in the Banat region near the buzzy city of Timișoara, there’s Cramele Recaş, a pioneer on the country’s wine-tourism front. In 2019, Cramele Recaş welcomed over 30,000 tourists to its massive 15,000,000-litre winery, and now, there’s a new visitor centre and wine shop in construction on the grounds, as well as a new boutique wine store in the works in the centre of Recaş town, but business wasn’t always booming. ‘There was no wine tourism in Romania until the mid-2000s,’ says Cox, who established Cramele Recaş in 1998. ‘We built our first guest facilities in 2003, and at the time, our business was the only tourist destination in our immediate region, but obviously, that is changing now with more new businesses, not only one with wine but with horse riding, hiking, etc.’
Both domestic and international tourism has been on the rise in Romania with arrivals increasing by approximately one million every year since 2015. The main marketing tactic for wineries has been to piggyback wine tourism with the country’s other major draws, like its UNESCO-protected villages and natural attractions of the Carpathian Mountains; Black Sea coast; and Danube Delta. Cox says: ‘Romania can offer wine tourism that is better value for money than the big traditional regions like Bordeaux or Napa Valley and also a distinct element of back-to-nature rural tourism in unspoiled regions with low industrialisation, traditional food, and unchanged traditional culture, which is rare in Europe.’
Other wineries are relying on the common Romanian reference point of vampires to turn tourists into tasters. With an impressive winery and wine gift shop featuring a collection of wines called The Dark Count of Transylvania and The Maidens of Transylvania, Budureasca in Romania’s renowned Dealu Mare region, is not subtle in its approach. ‘It’s something we’re trying,’ says Budureasca’s vineyard manager, Gheorghiu Serban. ‘If someone sees Fetească Regală, people don’t know what it is, but this is something they know.’
At Domeniul Bogdan, the location is very much part of the promotion strategy. Set in Medgidia (with vineyards in Murfatlar, about 10 kilometres away), this sleek new biodynamic winery is within easy reach of the favourite tourist hotspot of Constanța on the nearby Black Sea coast, which is filled with hotels. ‘The tradition of winemaking is very old in this place,’ says Domeniul Bogdan’s sommelier, Vlad Burugă, ‘but on the oenotourism map, we are new. It’s essential for wine tourism to have more accommodations at or near the winery.’
Defining a destination
While there are notable outfits throughout the country, Romania has no focused wine destination – yet. The southern wine region of Dealu Mare seems to be the best bet though. ‘Dealu Mare has three major advantages,’ says Dan Burlacu, commercial director of Viile Metamorfosis winery. ‘We’re near Bucharest; we have diversity because there are about 40 cellars inside a very compact region; and there’s the quality. If you look at the total number of medals in Romania, over 60% were obtained by wines of this region.’
Red wines are the stars of Dealu Mare. Compared to the country’s other regions, Dealu Mare gets an average of 15-20 additional days of sunshine per year and is also blessed with the iron-rich soil of the Southern Carpathians foothills, which is ideal for local red varieties like Fetească Neagră and Negru de Drăgășani and international workhorses like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.
Yet the region isn’t just focused on making superior wines, which — for the record — it does exceedingly well. There’s a multipronged business plan in place to turn Dealu Mare into a major attraction by targeting a younger clientele. ‘The consumer is becoming younger and younger,’ says Burlacu. ‘They’ve begun to go abroad and discover new wines. [After] they came back into the country and changed the quality standard by choosing not to buy not-so-happy wines.’
With their collection of award-winning wines, Metamorfosis and the whole of Dealu Mare are working together to target 18- to 35-year-olds by syncing their winery opening hours; hosting events; and joining forces with local tour operators. There are also new local roads in construction with cycle paths; new accommodations being built (including a 100-room hotel under development in nearby Ploieşti); and — most ambitiously of all — plans to create Romania’s largest music festival in Dealu Mare in the next three years. ‘Because of what we’re doing here, people are beginning to discover the region. My bet is Dealu Mare could become a model for all the other wine regions. We just need to be discovered and to organise ourselves,’ says Burlacu.
Six wineries to visit in Romania
Situated in the heart of Dealu Mare, Marchesi Antinori’s Viile Metamorfosis makes high-quality Romanian wine with an Italian soul, care of winemaker and co-owner Fiorenzo Rista. This boutique winery is filled with character, from light fixtures crafted from old barrels to communist-era photographs adorning its walls. Stock up on the ruby red 2018 Cantvs Primvs, a rich and elegant Fetească Neagră (black maiden) with notes on the nose of ripe plum and dark chocolate.
Known both domestically and internationally for its good-value wines, Cramele Recaş near Timișoara is the biggest exporter in Romania. Visits are by appointment, and guests can book meals in the vineyard with views over vine-carpeted hills extending all the way to Serbia and Hungary. Cramele Recaş has around 60 wines in its portfolio, but for an entry-level introduction, try Wildflower Cuvee Blanc. A nod to The Cult song of the same name, Wildflower is an easy-drinking, young, aromatic blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Ottonel, and Fetească Regală, a widespread native variety, whose name poetically translates to royal maiden.
Romania’s first accredited biodynamic winery with vineyards in Murfatlar in the Dobrogea region between the Danube and the Black Sea, the modern new Domeniul Bogdan looks more like the secret lair of a Bond villain than a winery (in a good way). Slated to open for tourists at the end of 2021, Domeniul Bogdan has both youth and style on its side. ‘One of my favourite wines is Pătrar Merlot,’ says sommelier Vlad Burugă. ‘It’s the first biodynamic wine from Romania’s 2017 vintage, and yet it’s very young. This wine reflects my collaboration with Domeniul Bogdan: It was released in my first year on this team and, with patience, I’m gladly observing its evolution.’
Prince Stirbey winery
Set in Drăgășani where wine-lovers can also find the humble Museum of Vine and Wine, there’s the Italianate Stirbey estate, owned by the noble Stirbey family for three centuries and recently reclaimed by descendant Baroness Ileana Kripp-Costinescu in 1999. Besides sipping Novac and Negru de Drăgășani (both indigenous to Drăgășani), afternoons can also be whittled away wandering the estate’s postcard-pretty vineyards and fairytale oak forests.
Romania is studded with ancient castles, so visiting one is practically mandatory on any trip to the country. Make the most of your time with a diverse Jidvei wine tasting on the estate’s turreted Bethlen-Haller Castle, which dates back to the sixteenth century and serves as the emblem of the brand.
Another pick from Dealu Mare is the quaint, picturesque winery of Davino. One of Romania’s earliest private wineries, Davino made a premium product right from inception and is regarded by Caroline Gilby as ‘Romania’s wine royalty’. Her recommendation: ‘Davino Rezerva, a truly amazing wine…It’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Fetească Neagră, matured in Romanian oak; a wine that is both world-class and truly Romanian, and it ages beautifully too.’