Drinking Outside The Box

With Simon Woods – wine for people who have a life

Romanian Rhapsody October 7, 2010 at 9:07 am

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Any wine blogger fancy a trip to Romania? The Romanian Winegrowers office is currently running a competition looking for the best blog entry on the subject of why wine drinkers in the UK should want to embrace Romanian wines, with prize being a trip around the country’s top wineries and regions. Further details can be found here.

Autumn in Romania

I’ve only ever been to Romania once and that was at roughly this time of year back in 1994. I’d spent the weekend at Quinta da Vargellas in the Douro Valley, where they were celebrating the end of vintage. It was one of those classic port trips arriving in Oporto on a Friday lunchtime and then making the fabulous train trip up the Douro accompanied by picnic lunch, salted almonds and of course a glass or two of tawny. Over the next few days, we boated on the river, played boules far too late at night and drank enough port to launch a barca or two. I was even moved by the scenery, the company and the sturdy amount of alcohol to write a McGonagall-esque poem that the nice folk at Taylors said kind words about. The end-of-September weather was quite lovely, and I was assured that it was the same in Romania. Wine writer Giles McDonogh was also in the Douro and he’d been on a similar trip to Romania just the year before. SO what could I expect? ‘Lovely people, very generous hosts – they’ll kill anything for you.’

Arrived back late on the Sunday evening, removed the sweaty t-shirt and shorts from my suitcase and, having been assured by my Romanian hosts that we could expect similar conditions, replaced them with more of the same (minus the sweaty bit). A bad move…

There are several adjectives I could use about the exploits of the next few days – boring is not one of them. As we left the airport in a rather tatty yellow VW minibus, we ran over a dog. It wasn’t our fault. I saw the dog sitting peacefully at the side of the road, and it was as if something about the minibus just got up its nose. It rose to its feet, scratched its balls and then charged headlong into the bumper. We didn’t stop to discover its fate.

Could write much about the legacy of the tyrant Ceausescu. Of the boulevard that was constructed to be just a little bit wider than the Champs Elysée. Of the building in Bucharest that was 1km square and had more levels underground than above it. Of the stark poverty that was still so apparent in the countryside. But it’s a bit passé now, so let’s talk about the wines.

Some of these were excellent. Feteasca Alba (think Godello) and Feteasca Neagra (Nebbiolo-cum-Mourvèdre) are high-class grapes that deserve a far wider audience, while the sweet wines of Cotnari are at their best a match for Hungarian Tokáj. There’s decent Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon too. But like other Eastern European wine industries that came under Communist control, the Romanian wine world was (and many would say still is) in a rather sorry state. It was a case of well-equipped wineries that were struggling to make decent wine purely because of the quality of the raw materials. Where once the vineyards had been under collective control, now no one seemed quite sure who owned them or was in charge of them what, and as a result, quality suffered. Think silk purses and sow’s ears…

Moreover, the weather was dreadful. Forget the sun of the Douro, the second morning brought snow. Our minibus had a heater, but this only seemed to work at the front of the vehicle. If you were there, you regulated it to you liking, while those in the back froze. So too did many of the roads, and this further hampered out travelling. We arrived at one place at 10:30pm at night – for lunch … I’m sure that the sullen faced ladies who offered us speck, salami, sausages and other assorted forms of pork had been standing at their stations since our intended arrival 10 hours earlier. Pity that one of the party was a vegetarian, and that the food she was offered usually had bits of beast floating in there somewhere – Argentina is a bad place to be a veggie, Romania is worse…

It was with mixed emotions that I arrived back in Bucharest for the final dinner. Once again, it was a combination of various pork dishes and wines of vastly differing quality. We struck up a conversation with a man at the next table who was wondering why we were surrounded by so many bottles. We told him why and invited him to join us. It transpired that he was a slurry pump salesman from Todmorden.

So that’s my take on Romania and its wines. I do try and sample new vintages whenever I can, but I have to say that I’ve struggled to find anything that is really good. But don’t let that put off those looking to enter this competition. Whoever the winner is, they’ll have a fascinating time and will hopefully unearth some great wines – just watch out for the dogs, the snow and surfeit of salami…

Categorised in: Romania

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