Wine of the Week – a winter warmer from Greece

Domaine Skouras vineyards - photo courtesy of the winery.

Domaine Skouras vineyards – photo courtesy of the winery.

I know what you are thinking. More Greek wine. I know, I know, but I showed it in a tasting and it was so well received and it is so good that I couldn’t resist having yet another Greek Wine of the Week.

The Temple of Zeus in Ancient Nemea - photo by my friend Ted Lelekas - © Ted Lelekas 2016

The Temple of Zeus in Ancient Nemea – photo by my friend Ted Lelekas – © Ted Lelekas 2016

My involvement and love of Greek wine goes back a long way. Well over 20 years ago I was involved with marketing Greek wines in the UK and we did very well from a small base, but even now Greek wines have never really broken through onto the UK market. However, there are very, very good wines and this one – and last week’s Wine of the Week –  is a case in point. I loved it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view

st_george_2011_1024x10242012 Saint George Aghiorghitiko
Domiane Skouras
PDO Nemea
Peloponnese
Greece

100% Aghiorghitiko aged for 12 months in second fill 225 litre French oak barrels.

Nemea is the largest and most important wine region of southern Greece, perhaps in the whole country, although at just 3000 hectares of vines it isn’t huge in world terms – Bordeaux covers 42,000 and Rioja a whopping 57,000, so Nemea compares more in size to Sancerre’s 2600 hectares of vines. It’s is situated in the north west Peloponnese – not far from Argos and the archeological site of Mycenae – and is only an hour or so from Athens and very near the lovely seaside town of Nafplio, so makes an excellent place to visit while in Greece. Wine has been made here for thousands of years and Nemea was famous for being where Heracles killed the Nemean Lion. During the struggle the lion bit off one of his fingers, so locally the wine was known as ‘the blood of Hercules’.

vineyard-2

Domaine Skouras nestling amongst the vineyards – photo courtesy of the winery.

Nemea is always red and is made from 100% Aghiorghitiko, or Saint George – it mean’s Saint George’s grape, which is Greece’s most planted grape variety. In terms of style it produces all sorts of different wines from soft, easy everyday plonk to complex and structured versions. The better wines have lots of dark fruit and firm tannin, not entirely unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, but with less acidity than Cabernet. As a consequence the better wines come from higher vineyards where the air is cooler and preserves some of those essential acids and freshness – Nemea is around 500-700 metres above sea level.

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Vineyards in Nemea – photo by my friend Ted Lelekas – © Ted Lelekas 2016

As well as being used on its own in Nemea, Aghiorghitiko also blends very successfully with Cabernet Sauvignon to produce sort of ‘Super-Peloponnese’ wines – Skouras’s Megas Oenos is one of the leading examples and it is superb.

Very roughly you can think of Nemea as being the Bordeaux of Greece and Naoussa the Burgundy – Chianti for Nemea and Barolo for Naoussa  would also be suitable comparisons and give you some idea of the respective styles.

George Skouras was born locally, in Argos, but studied wine making at Dijon before working as a winemaker all around the world. He eventually returned home ready to help lead the Greek wine revolution and created Domaine Skouras in Neamea in 1986, although his current state of the art winery was not finished until 2004. The focus is on the reds made from Aghiorghitiko, but he also makes some excellent whites from the local aromatic Moscofilero grape together with some Viognier and Chardonnay too.

A deeply coloured wine with a lifted, aromatic nose of rich black fruit – blackberry and cooked strawberry – together with clove and cinnamon spice and a touch of coffee notes and earthy minerality. The palate is pretty full-bodied with rich mouth filling fruit, smooth, but firm tannins and rich savoury, earthy characters. This wine is utterly delicious and would be perfect with lamb, roasts, casseroles or steaks. Right now the tannins are quite firm, in a lovely way, but will soften in a year or two if that is what you like. If you like Claret, Chianti or Rioja, you are bound to enjoy this wine – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from The Wine Society for £10.95 per bottle and from The General Wine Company for £13 per bottle.
For US stockists – click here.

If you have never tried a Greek wine, but want a good, rich dry red with a nice meal, then this will certainly hit the spot. It is a serious bottle of red wine and any serious wine drinker would love it.

New Wine of the Week – a delicious and very drinkable southern French white

When thinking of wines from France’s deep south – I am talking Languedoc-Roussillion here – most people automatically think of the reds. Picpoul de Pinet  is really the only white wine from the region that has managed to carve out a niche for itself.

Which is understandable as the reds are often very fine indeed and frequently underrated. However, many of the whites from these regions are really excellent and deserve to be more widely known. I tasted a wine recently which is a case in point. It is a white wine from Corbières, which is a PDO / AOC in the Aude department, which in turn forms part of the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region. It’s a big and important part too, producing just under half of all the PDO wine of the region.

I have always liked Corbières wines as they frequently offer great value and often very high quality too – see my article about Château Haut-Gléon here. I have yet to visit the region, which I intend to put right soon as it appears to be very beautiful. What’s more, excitingly it is Cathar country and is littered with the ruins of castles destroyed during the crusades against this obscure Christian sect. The local speciality dessert wine – actually more correctly called a mistelle  – is called Cathagène to honour the Cathars, so readers of the The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code should make sure they keep a bottle handy.

Anyway, this white Corbières impressed me so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

The winery of Cave d’Embrès et Castelmaure.

The winery of Cave d’Embrès et Castelmaure.

Blanc Paysan
2014 Blanc Paysan
PDO / AOC Corbières
SCV Castelmaure / Cave d’Embrès et Castelmaure
Embres & Castelmaure
Aude
Languedoc-Roussillon
France

Cave d’Embrès et Castelmaure is a co-operative that was founded in 1921 and serves two hamlets that have been joined together to form one village. Embrès et Castelmaure is a about 25 km north of Perpignan and sits roughly on the border between Languedoc and Roussillon. As a consequence their website offers both the Catalan (as spoken in Roussillon) and Occitan languages, as well as French itself. The website also plays some very Spanish sounding flamenco music to you which then morphs into some very French jazz. It’s an interesting combination, give it a listen by clicking here.

They farm some 400 hectares and although clearly forward thinking and ambitious, they cling to old ways. They still use the concrete vats installed in the winery in 1921, as they regulate the fermentation temperatures very well. They also have very cannily used all the old perceptions of their problems to their advantage. The region is hot, wild and rugged, so gives low yields, while the slopes are inaccessible by machine and tractors, these things held them back in the past when the only game in the Languedoc was the production of bulk wine. Today the wines have to be good, concentrated, terroir wines and so all that works to their advantage. They farm sustainably and harvest by hand.

This white wine is an unoaked blend of Grenache Blanc with some Grenache Gris, Vermentino (aka Rolle) and Macabeu (aka Macabeo and Viura).

I love the label as it shows a Renault 4 climbing a near perpendicular slope. It seems that the Renault 4, while never the icon that the 2CV was, was actually the main car of French farmers in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and many more of them were made than the more famous and more loved Citroën. The label made me smile as I have memories of being driven up similar slopes in the back of a beige (who else remembers beige cars?) Renault 4 by a Spanish builder in the early 1970s.

The wine is crystal clear and lemony to look at, while the nose offers wild flowers, herbs, pithy grapefruit and a slight, attractively waxy note. The palate is a lovely mix of rich and fresh, with wild herb flavours mingling with citrus and more succulent stone fruits. There is plenty of acidity – from the Vermentino and Macabeu I assume, while the Grenache gives that richness and herbal quality that are so delicious and evocative. A lovely wine with lots of tension between the zestiness and the richness and loads of flavour too. Delicious, refreshing and very easy to drink, this could help wean addicts off Pinot Grigio I think. What’s more it is an utter bargain – 87/100 points.

Try as I might I cannot think of anything that this would not be good with. It is delicious on its own, with fish, chicken, charcuterie, spicy food, cheese – you name it. I loved it with baked camembert.

Available in the UK at £6.50 per bottle from The Wine Society.

 

New Wine of the Week – a fine red from Portugal’s Douro Valley

The beautiful terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley.

The beautiful terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley.

Portuguese wine is so underrated. The country is awash with wonderful wine regions, fabulous grape varieties and winemakers with real ability and passion. It troubles me that so few Portuguese wines are generally available in the UK, it suggests that there is very little demand and that is a shame.

However, for those of us who are open minded enough to enjoy them, the few Portuguese wines that are available are real stars and really reward the dedicated – try this great value gem here as an example. How they turn out such quality at that price amazes me.

Recently I tasted yet another great wine from the Douro – two in fact as I also tried the magnificent and beautifully mature Duas Quintas Reserva which is available from the Wine Society for £25 a bottle – and it reminded me how much I love the wines from this exciting region.

The Douro rises in Spain where it is known as the Duero River, it serves as the border between the two Iberian neighbours for quite a way, before heading West and cutting Portugal in half. In Portugal the rugged, hot, slate slopes produce the grapes for Port, but in recent years the region has become one of the most exciting for un-fortified wine too. Although mainly red, although there are some lovely whites as well – I wrote about the region’s development here.

s_2116_7

Bruno Prats (left) and Charles Symington (right), wine makers – photo courtesy of the winery.

The wine I tasted was produced by Prats & Symington and it was so good that I decided to make it my Wine of the Week.

PS2012 Post Scriptum de Chryseia
DOC Douro
Prats & Symington
Portugal

The Symington family are the pre-eminent growers in the Douro Valley and own many of the famous Port houses – Grahams, Dows, Cockburns – as well as the great Quintas – or wine estates – that produce their grapes. In 1998 they decided to get serious and ambitious about their non-fortified wines as well. To this end they went into partnership with Bruno Pats who is the former owner of Château Cos-d’Estournel in Saint-Estèphe (also click here) in the Médoc area of Bordeaux. Because the Douro is such a famous and old established wine region, it is amazing to realise that this only happened in 1998 – non-fortified wines are a newish thing here. I must also mention that the Symington family produces some brilliant table wines with no Prats involvement too, Quinta do Vesuvio is one of the very best red Douro wines that I have tasted – it’s available here -, while its second wine the Pombal do Vesuvio is nearly as fine. For stylish moire everyday drinking I am a huge fan of their Altano range – especially the superb Organic Quinta do Ataide and Quinta do Ataide Reserva.

The wine they produced was called Chryseia (US stockist here)- it means golden in Greek, just as Douro does in Portuguese – and it was made from Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca grapes, grown at Quinta de Roriz and Quinta da Perdiz and it became an instant classic, highly prized and much in demand.

In 2002 they launched Post Scriptum, which while it is described as a partner, really acts as a second wine and uses a second selection of the fruit. I have tasted many vintages of it though and the wine is always first-rate.

The vineyard, clearly showing the wonderful decayed slate, or schist soils.

The vineyard, clearly showing the wonderful decayed slate, or schist soils – photo courtesy of the winery.

The 2012 is 53% Touriga Franca, 45% Touriga Nacional and a little dollop of other Douro grapes, most likely Tinto Roriz – which is Tempranillo. After a rigorous selection, the grapes undergo a cold fermentation and the finished wine is aged for 13 months in 400 litre French oak barrels.

As soon as you sniff it you can tell this is a rather special. There are rich black fruit notes, floral notes, spices, warm, rocky mineral notes and a light dusting of smoky tobacco.

The palate is full, but velvety smooth with the tannins giving just a touch of firmness. There is black cherry and black plum a plenty, together with liquorice and eucalyptus characters. It is concentrated and rich, but beautifully balanced with a lovely seem of fresh acidity and the wonderful salty minerality that is the hallmark of the Douro – 92/100 points.

This is a great value fine wine and a real treat. The quality is superb and it goes brilliantly with all sorts of food, especially stews, casseroles and roast meats – I had it with lamb and it was superb.

Available in the UK at £17.50 per bottle from The Wine Society.
The equally fine 2013 vintage is available from Tanners for £20.90 per bottle.
For US stockists, click here.

Wine of the Week 64 – A is for Albillo

Those of you who read these pages regularly will know that I love finding new things, whether that is new wine regions, new wines styles, new grape varieties or producers. So, I am very excited by my new Wine of the Week.

It is a Spanish white wine – Spain seems to be turning out really exciting white wines right now – made from a grape variety called Albillo. I actually tasted it a while ago, but had failed to tell you all about, so I am rectifying that today.

Albillo is pretty rare, only being planted in Ávila, Galicia, Madrid, Ribera del Duero (where currently it is blended into red wines although the DO is about to start to make whites too) and Burgos Province. I actually mentioned the grape 6 years ago in my piece about the wines of Madrid here.

As with so many Spanish grapes, we have to be very careful as the same name can be used in all sorts of places for different grape varieties. Albillo is no exception as Albillo Real and Albillo Mayor are actually different grapes. My wine of the week is made from Albillo Mayor, which just to muddy the waters a little more and to show how confused wine names can be, is also sometimes known as Turruntés (in Rioja), Túrruntez, Abillo, Blanca del País. And if you were wondering if that means that it is related to Torrentes, well it isn’t. It seems that none of the Spanish grapes called Torrontes, or similar names, are related to the Torrentes of Argentina, although it just might be related to the Albillo Criollo grown in the Canary islands.

Excitingly though, it does seem that Albillo Mayor is one of Tempranillo’s parents, the other being Benedicto, an obscure grape that is no longer grown commercially.

Anyway, whatever Albillo it is, I love this wine so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of Spain showing approximate position of Ermita dl Conde - click for a larger view.

Map of Spain showing approximate position of Ermita del Conde – click for a larger view.

The Roman Theatre theatre at Clunia Sulpica.

The Roman Theatre theatre at Clunia Sulpica.

Ermita-del-Conde-Albillo-2011-640x6402013 Ermita del Conde Albillo Centenario
Bodegas Ermita del Conde
Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León
Burgos, Castilla y León, Spain

Ermita del Conde is a small estate that was created in 2006 by Marta Gomendio, but new though it is the secret here is that they largely use very old vines, which give wines of more depth with lower yields. I am also told that old vines ripen at lower sugar levels than younger vines, so give better balance and often slightly lower alcohol too.

The winery is in the little village of Coruña del Conde, which is outside the Ribera del Duero DO and so the wines have no DO, but have to be labelled as Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León, the equivalent of the French Vin de Pays. Coruña del Conde is roughly 60 km east of Valladolid, 60 km south west of Logroño and 40 km west of Soria. The estate takes its name from the medieval chapel, ermita or hermitage next door.

Just 2 km away are the magnificent ruins of the old Roman city of Clunia Sulpica, which was briefly the capital of Rome and for a long time the most important Roman city in northern Iberia. In fact the whole area is steeped in history, with Roman bridges, medieval churches and castles dotted about the landscape – this area was for long a defensive frontier, so castles are everywhere.

Marta now owns 16 hectares of old vines that she has purchased off the local farmers and nurtured back to a productive life, this story by the way is replicated across Spain – and elsewhere. Most of the grapes are Tempranillo, or Tinto Fino as it is known in these parts. I have not tasted the red wines, but hope to do so soon.

Apart from the age of the vines, the other thing that makes for great quality here is the height. These vines grow at over 900 metres above sea level. This altitude tempers the extreme summer heat ensuring the wines retain their natural acidity and delicacy. Also, everything here is done by hand with the utmost care, and it shows, what’s more the winery is incredibly well appointed with the most modern equipment that treats the grapes very gently.

This wine is made from vines that are over 100 years old – Albillo Centenario. It is fermented in 3000 litre French oak vats or foudres. Fermentation is spontaneous using the wild yeasts and once complete the wine is aged in the oak on the lees for a further 6 months.

The nose is pretty gentle and clean with delicate aromas of nuts, cream and lemon curd. It is on the palate that you find the excitement. The texture is so lovely that you find yourself smiling and looking around to see what others think as you drink it. It is creamy, yes, but also silky and suave. The flavours are mouth filling too, with apples, lemon, lemon rind, nectarine, almonds and a little butter. I swear there are hints of more tropical pineapple and coconut too as well as a beautifully balanced seam of acidity and mineral characters. The oak is very subtle and beautifully integrated.

I originally tasted the 2011, which was more developed, honeyed and nutty, while this is fresher and more lightly creamy. I like them both, but this wins for sheer drinkability, buy lots as the bottles empty very quickly indeed – 92/100 points.

This is a serious white wine of great quality and deserves to be much more famous. I drank it with pork, but am sure that it would be equally good with poultry or a pice of fish.

Available in the UK for around £11 a bottle from The Wine Society.

 

Wine of the Week 56 – a delicious and refreshing Godello

I know that Albariño gets all the fame and much of the plaudits, but in the general run of things I am much happier drinking that other great white grape from Galicia, Godello.

Albariño is a wonderful grape, but I often find that it disappoints unless it is very fine and costly. For a grape variety whose reputation is for high acidity, poise, elegance and being crisp, the cheaper versions can frequently be a bit soft and nondescript. Godello however is much more reliable and produces attractive wines at many different price points. I have always been drawn to Godello, but at the moment I seem to be liking it more and more.

What’s more, we are fortunate to have the grape at all, as Godello very nearly went extinct as a consequence of Franco’s agricultural policies – his government guaranteed prices for agricultural goods, wine amongst them. One result of this policy is that as vineyards were replanted they replaced quality grapes with grapes that produced quantity more than anything else. I assume that Rioja and Tempranillo avoided this potential fate as it already had an international market.

Godello is principally grown in the Valdeorras region of Galicia and Bierzo in Castilia y León – the 2 regions were historically both in Galicia and use the same grape varieties and have broadly the same conditions. Godello is also grown in Monterrei and Ribera Sacra to great effect.

Given that it has survived and we can now enjoy Godello, I would love for it to be more popular – and Spanish white wines in general actually, which are often very good quality indeed.

Anyway recently I tasted an excellent Godello that was delicious and great value for money, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of the Wine Regions of North West Spain including Galica – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Map of the Wine Regions of North West Spain including Galica – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Las Médulas

Las Médulas, a World Heritage Site in Bierzo that was once the most important gold mine in the Roman Empire. Valdeorras, the Valley of Gold, gets its name form these gold mines.

bolo2014 Bolo Mountain Wine Godello
DO Valdeorras
Galicia, Spain 

This wine is made by the great Rafael Palacios, whose brother Alvaro is one of the movers and shakers in Spain’s great Priorat region. Rafael fell in love with Godello in 1996, when it was incredibly rare – I think I am right that there were only 7 producers of it in the world by that time – and went on to piece together a 21 hectare estate of Godello grapes in the beautiful Val do Bibei high in the mountains near the village of Bolo. What he fell in love with was the bright, cool Atlantic influence, but also the extra depth and weight that Godello has over the region’s other grape varieties. He was also fortunate in that the vines he managed to get his hands on include some seriously old material, some of it nearly 100 years old. The Bolo Mountain Wine is his straightforward , unoaked take on Godello, he makes 2 more serious examples, but I still think it is a lovely wine.
A supremely fresh and lively dry white. It is light and easy to drink, even with a slight petillance on the palate, which I find very enticing.
The nose is honeysuckle and gentle peach, while the palate is soft and fresh and reminded me of some of the Swiss wines I was tasting near Montreux the other day. The acidity doesn’t dominate, so there is a softness and creaminess, but it is still very fresh with a core of minerality that gives the wine real poise and elegance. Overall the wine has a real mountain feel, there is a purity about it that I love and what’s more is is sinfully drinkable – 89/100 points.
Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from The Wine Society. More stockist information is available from Indigo Wine.
Available in the US for around $12 a bottle, stockist information is available here.
I would urge you to try this wine, it is superb quality, great value and very versatile indeed. It is lovely as an aperitif, but equally good with fish, poultry, pork, creamy cheeses and spicy food. I think that I will drink a fair amount of it this Summer.

Wine of the Week 54 – Coyam, a fine Chilean red

I love Chile, it is a very beautiful country, full of wonderful things to see Everything is dramatic and exciting, especially the mountains, lakes, desserts, glaciers and volcanoes, as being the most fantastic place to observe the night sky. Do visit if you get the chance, but if that is something that you have to put off for now, then you can always treat your self to a bottle of exciting wine from Chile.

Colchagua Valley vineyards - photo courtesy of Wines of Chile.

Colchagua Valley vineyards – photo courtesy of Wines of Chile.

Chilean wine gets better all the time, more styles and more variety seems to be available with every passing year, so if Chilean wine has passed you by recently, it might be a good idea to give them another look. Not so long ago Chile was regarded above all as a safe place to buy a reliable bottle of wine from, now most people know that Chile can produce wines of world class standard that can compare to anybody else’s. I was leading a tasting on Chilean wines the other day and I showed this wine that is so delicious and so wonderful and so different  that I just had to make it my Wine of the Week.

Coyam, the animals help to create biodiversity and balance in the vineyard - photo courtesy of Wines of Chile.

Coyam, the animals help to create biodiversity and balance in the vineyard – photo courtesy of Wines of Chile.

Map of Chile – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Chile – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Coyam2011 Coyam
Los Robles Estate, Viñedos Organicos Emiliana
D.O. Valle de Colchagua, Chile

Coyam is the brainchild of superstar Chilean winemaker Alvaro Espinoza who is the head winemaker at Viñedos Organicos Emiliana. Almost all Emilian’s vineyards are farmed organically, with the rest in transition, but the Los Robles estate is biodynamic too – Robles means oak in Spanish, while Coyam means oak in the native language. The wine is a blend, which changes every year as it reflects the vineyard, this vintage is 38% Syrah, 31% Carmenère, 19% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Mourvèdre and 1% Malbec. The grapes are harvested by hand and go through a triple selection process to ensure only the best grapes get into Coyam. Only native yeast is used for the fermentation and the wine is aged 13 months in oak barrels, 80% French and 20% American, it is only very lightly filtered.

Everything is done to make sure you get the whole wine and it shows as Coyam is a wonderfully expressive wine. The grape varieties used are a mixture of extremely fruity ones and seductively spicy ones and that is how the finished wine seems too. The colour is opaque purpley black, while the nose is vibrant and full of blackberry, rich plum, black cherry, herbs, soft spices – pepper and liquorice – vanilla, smoke, cedar wood and a touch of prune. All these aromas and more follow onto the palate, giving a barbecued meat and mushroom character, together with vivid black fruit and even some red, together with tobacco, mocha, caramel (from the oak), wild herbs and peppery spice. This is mouth filling and full-bodied, with beautifully integrated oak, loads of flavour and concentration. I love this wine and think that anyone whole likes big reds will too, however it is elegant and refined too. It isn’t just a monster and the tannins are supple and round – 91/100 points.

This is a big wine that could well repay some cellaring, as the tannins will soften – although they are quite approachable already – and the the fruit will fade allowing the complexity to develop, so there is no hurry to drink it, but it is delicious now. Try this with hearty stews, pies, roasts and strong, hard cheeses.

Available in the UK for around £18 a bottle from Tanners, Slurp, D & D Wine and Virgin Wines, while the 2010 vintage is available from The Wine Society. Further stockist information is available here.
US stockist information is available here.

 

 

 

 

 

A Romanian road trip

Like many of us, a huge part of the pleasure I take in wine is discovering new things. New regions and new grape varieties always excite for me. So when the chance came to go on a trip to Romania as a guest of the Romanian Winegrowers, with fellow wine educators and writers, I jumped at it.

From what I saw Romania is a very rural country and it often seemed like stepping back in time 40 years. Most of the places that we passed through seemed to provide little more than subsistence farming for the local people. Of course for an outsider there is a huge charm in that. Within seconds of stepping outside our hotel on the first morning I had seen my first horse and cart and almost every house had a clutch of chickens pecking away outside on the grassy verge. We travelled vast distances and most of the time we were on small country roads whose surface was not always of the best and even disappeared every now and again.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Romanian traffic in the countryside - taken through the windscreen of our coach.

Romanian traffic in the countryside – taken through the windscreen of our coach.

Although we do not see that many Romanian wines  on UK supermarket shelves, although there are more than you realise, the country has great potential and actually has more vineyards than any other Eastern European country. What’s more because of their Latin roots, and unlike the neighbouring Bulgarians and Hungarians, Romanians actually drink a lot of wine as well as make it. In fact it is still normal for Romanians to make their own wine at home either from grapes they grow themselves, or buy from vineyards. Romania is roughly at the same latitude as France and the climate is continental, except for the grape growing area near the Black Sea, where the hot summers and cold winters are tempered by the maritime influence.

Sketch wine map of Romania – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Sketch wine map of Romania – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Cramele Recaș
The first visit was to the Recaș Cellar near Timișoara in the far west of the country. Recaș is run by Englishman Philip Cox who has lived in Romania since 1992 and he and some partners bought the local state cooperative in 1999. He had actually started out as the Romanian importer of Heineken, which was very successful. However he was unable to change the currency into something more useful, so hit upon a scheme of producing wine in Romania that he could export for hard currency.

Philip Cox, Commercial Director, Cramele Recaș.

Philip Cox, Commercial Director, Cramele Recaș.

Originally they started with 600 hectares and now farm around 1000, which makes them a very big player in Romania, where many of the producers are much smaller estates. Legend has it that Bacchus spent his childhood in this region and there is evidence of grape growing here going back to Roman times and vineyards were thriving here in 1447, so the area’s potential has long been recognised.

Philip aims to make clean, well made, fruit driven wines that sell and as such he provides a perfect introduction to modern Romanian wines. What’s more they are widely available in the UK under a plethora of labels; Bradshaw and Wine Atlas in Asda, Lautarul in Marks and Spencer, Sole in Waitrose and the widely seen Paparuda amongst many, many others.

All the Recaș wines are very drinkable and the visit gave me my first ever taste of some of Romania’s indigenous grapes. I enjoyed the citric Fetească Regală (Royal Maiden) and the first of many cherry and plum rich wines made from Fetească Neagră (Black Maiden).

They also produce some very good premium wines at Recaș and their Solo Quinta, a white blend based on Chardonnay (the 2014 also includes little dollops of Fetească Regală, Muscat Ottonel, Sauvignon Blanc and even Cabernet Franc) is a delicious and attractively aromatic white that well deserves its £12 price tag from Tanners.

Similarly I was impressed by their Cuvée Überland, which is a wine from a single vineyard site – German names are common round here, as long ago the Hapsburgs recruited Saxon settlers to guard this distant border of their empire. They left after the Second World War, but until then the area had been mainly German, or Schwab and the Überland hill was the most prized site for wine production. Made predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot and Fetească Neagră, the ripe grapes are dried for 2-3 weeks on the vine to concentrate the sugars. The result is a deliciously intense wine that carries its 15% alcohol very well.

Time Warp
That night we stayed in a renovated Communist era hotel by the banks of the Danube in the small city of Drobeta-Turnu Severin. It was like going back in time to the 1970s when the Cold War was at its height. Despite being on the drinks menu, the concept of a gin and tonic seemed alien to them, luckily the local Timisoreana beer was very good indeed. Once we sat down in the restaurant, we were handed menus and were all happily choosing what we wanted to eat when the waiters started bring out our unordered food! The whole evening was so reminiscent of the 1970s that it felt like a live version of Rates of Exchange, Ray Bradbury’s comic masterpiece set in a fictional Eastern European country called Slaka.

Viticola Corcova

Vineyards at Corcova.

Vineyards at Corcova.

The next morning we visited Corcova in the Mehedinți region. This is a boutique winery 30 km or so from the Danube down in a valley, while its 60 hectares of vineyards occupy the nearby slopes. Like everyone else we visited, Corcova had entirely replanted all the vineyards they bought from the government, as the Communist era plantings were not considered to be good quality and they want to plant with higher density than was common in the 1940s.

The winery here is rather lovely as it was built in 1915 with amazing concrete tanks that are integral in the design and so cannot be removed, they have therefore renovated them and brought them back in to use. Rather astonishingly the tanks were installed and the winery was built by an Austrian firm, which just goes to show that commerce continued even when people were fighting ‘the war to end all wars’. These tanks are very thick, which controls the temperature perfectly without the need for refrigeration.

Robert Marshall (left) and Şerban Dâmboviceanu (right) of Corcova.

Robert Marshall (left) and Şerban Dâmboviceanu (right) of Corcova.

Around here, in the south west of the country, there is a slight Mediterranean influence, which helps with ripeness and enables them to have success with Syrah. Everything is very modern and impressive, with a commitment to work in the vineyard that echoed the property’s past. Back in 1907 the original owner had employed a winemaker from Alsace and today they have Laurent Pfeffer, a French wine maker with a somewhat Germanic name.

Everything is done here to produce subtle, but concentrated wines. Viticulture is very carefully done, but stops short of being organic and they only use the indigenous yeast for their fermentations.

The focus is on international grape varieties, although they also produce Fetească Neagră. I was completely bowled over by the wines, they are of a very high standard, especially their excellent, very elegant and restrained Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet-Merlot, while their late harvest Sauvignon was the best sweet wine we had in Romania. These are fine wines, so I cannot understand why UK agents are not beating a path to their door – they are missing a trick.

Domeniile Ştirbey

Vines at Ştirbey.

Vines overlooking the River Olt at Ştirbey.

30 km or so further east found us in the Dragasani region climbing a narrow ridge overlooking the River Olt. Here we were visiting the Ştirbey estate whose story goes back over 300 years and whose wines were considered to be some of the country’s finest in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries – they still have some fascinating advertising material from the 1910s and 1920s.

Baron Jakob Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

Baron Jakob Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

From 1873 to 1946 it enjoyed particular success under the control of Prince Barbu Ştirbey. His daughter, Princess Maria Stirbey, inherited the estate shortly before the new Communistic regime nationalised it and the family fled to Austria. Then in 1999 her granddaughter, Baroness Ileana Kripp, rediscovered the property and together with her Austrian lawyer husband, Baron Jakob Kripp, set about reclaiming her family’s long lost property. They were successful and by 2001 were producing wine, with the help of Oliver Bauer a modest and jovial winemaker from Germany. They are a charming couple who entertained us wonderfully and accompanied us to dinner in Bucharest the following evening.

Baroness Ileana Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

Baroness Ileana Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

The vineyards are immaculate and the views down the slopes to the river are breathtaking. It all comes together in excellent quality wines, mostly made from local grapes and some of which are stocked by The Wine Society and Oddbins. I enjoyed their aromatic, dry Tămâioasă Românească (a local Muscat) and their richly fruity red Negru de Dragasani Rezerva. Excitingly they are the only producer in the world to offer a single varietal Novak, and very good it is too. They also produce a field blend of Novak and Negru de Dragasani called Cuvée Genius Loci.

The real excitement though came from the Crâmpoşie grape which only grows in this part of Romania. Ştirbey put it to good use, making a delicately creamy still white called Crâmpoşie Selecționată and a very fine traditional method sparkling version called Prince Ştirbey Vin Spumant Extrabrut. It spends about two years on the lees, is riddled by hand and has no dosage at all – try it if you can, it is world class.

A big range of Prince Ştirbey wines is available through their German importer, Wein-Bastion.

Vinarte
On the way to Bucharest the next morning we stopped at the Vinarte winery. They were established in 1998 by buying vineyards and former cooperative facilities from the government. They farm 350 hectares or so spread over three estates in different parts of the country, but we were visiting the one at Samburești some 100 km north west of Bucharest.

The vineyard is 60 hectares and forms a sort of lieu-dit called Castel Bolovanu. It enjoys a south east facing slope at about 260-300 metres above sea level and whilst we stood there we could certainly feel the cool breezes.

9

Justin Uruco handing out cask samples.

Although Vinarte is a large producer, at this site they only craft two premium wines, the Soare Cabernet Sauvignon and the second wine of the estate, Castel Bolocanu Cabernet Sauvignon. We tasted cask samples of the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon that had been aged in Romanian oak and in French oak barrels. It was marked how the Romanian oak delivered intense mocha and cherry chocolate characters, whilst the French was more delicate and restrained with subtle vanilla. The finished wines are a blend of the two. The chief winemaker here is a very nice Italian called Justin Uruco, who clearly knows his stuff as these are well crafted wines with excellent concentration.

Romanian Wine Laws
I had been peering at the labels all trip trying to understand the appellation system and Justin was able to explain it perfectly. Most of the wines we had seen had DOC / Denumire de Origine Controlată staus which specifies the geography of where a wine originates. So you might have a wine labelled as being a DOC Recaș or DOC Dealu Mare. There were other letters after the DOC as well though, as in Romania they not only control the geography, like an appellation, but the sugar in the grapes at harvest, similar to Germany’s Prädikatswein system and that is what these additional letters refer to.

DOC – CMD is made from fully ripe grapes, DOC – CT is from late harvest grapes and DOC – CIB is from late harvest grapes with noble rot.

Bucharest

The Palace of Parliament.

The Palace of Parliament.

That afternoon we briefly stopped on our way into Bucaharest to see the enormous Palace of Parliament. This is the second largest building on earth after The Pentagon and was originally named the People’s House (Casa Poporului) by Nicolae Ceaușescu. I know it is what most people have heard of in Bucharest, but I could see nothing impressive about it apart from its size and wish Bucharest was known instead for all the other, much nicer things that I saw later. When you realise that a whole section of the old city was demolished to make way for this eyesore it is especially sad that the Romanians have been lumbered with a hideous building on such a scale.

Downtown Bucharest, it wasn’t known as the Paris of the east for nothing.

Downtown Bucharest, it wasn’t known as the Paris of the east for nothing.

Later we strolled through Bucharest on our way to a restaurant for dinner and so were able to take in some of the sites of the old city. Parcul Cișmigiu (Cișmigiu Gardens) is a delightful city centre park complete with boating lake and a rather attractive looking café. There are run down areas too, but the old city centre is a delight of winding lanes and restaurant lined cobbled streets. A real highlight is the Hanul lui Manuc (Manuc’s Inn) which is a beautiful Ottoman inn that was built in 1808 – Romania was a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1878.

The amazing Manuc's Inn (Romanian: Hanul lui Manuc, an Ottoman inn and market complex dating from 1808.

The amazing Manuc’s Inn (Romanian: Hanul lui Manuc, an Ottoman inn and market complex dating from 1808.

The dinner at the Lacrimi si Sfinti restaurant was very good, traditional Romainan food, with starters of Telemea cheese, salată de icre (taramasalata made of carp roe – carp is rather wonderfully called crap in Romanian!), alată de vinete (smoked and roast aubergine dip), pârjoale (meatballs) and all manner of sausage, followed by lots of meat, potatoes and polenta, all washed down with local black beer and wine. We rounded off the evening with steins of rather good beer in the Caru’ cu Bere. This is a vast, beautiful, Germanic beer hall that was founded in 1879, so is as old as Romania itself. Touristy it might be, but it was great fun.

Some of the starters.

Some of the starters.

The meaty mains.

The meaty mains.

One thing that makes Romania a good country to visit is that because the people are not Slavs, Romanian – as its name implies – is a Romance language and it has much in common with Spanish, French, Italian and Catalan. In truth I found it much easier to make sense of it when written down rather than spoken, but that means that most of us wine types can read the shop signs and the wine labels without too much effort. Take a look at the map, I don’t think I could do that in any of the neighbouring countries!

S.E.R.V.E.
The next morning we headed off to the Dealu Mare region some 40 km north of Bucharest. S.E.R.V.E. (which stands for The European-Romanian Society for Exquisite Wines) was founded in 1994 by Frenchman Guy Tyrel de Poix. Sadly he died in 2011, but Mihaela Tyrel de Poix, his charming Romanian wife, has kept the winery going from strength to strength.

Mihaela Tyrel de Poix CEO of SERVE.

Mihaela Tyrel de Poix CEO of SERVE.

Most of their 142 hectares grow in the Dealu Mare region, but they also farm 42 hectares in Babadag near the Black Sea. Standing in the vineyards was quite an experience, they are on south facing slopes and although they don’t look high we had wound up and up from the valley floor and the cool wind was blowing directly onto us and the vines.

Vineyards at SERVE.

Vineyards at SERVE.

It was interesting standing up there looking around at the vines. Just as we had seen elsewhere, there were as many rubbed out and derelict vineyards as tended ones. This is for two reasons, firstly the rules for accession to the EU mean that all the hardy, productive hybrids have to be grubbed up by 2014 and secondly with the former mass market of the Soviet Union just a distant memory, quality not quantity is the way forward. So fewer vineyards, but on better sites and using better clones is the way Romania is going – and it shows.

S.E.R.V.E. produce two ranges, the entry level Vinul Cavalerului wines which sell chiefly on the Romanian market and the premium Terra Romana. Both were good, in fact I think the Vinul Cavalerului Pinot Noir, Riesling and Fetească Neagră were the best everyday wines I tasted on the trip.

The premium wines were good too. I especially enjoyed the the lees aged Terra Romana Fetească Albă (White Maiden) with a delicately creamy palate and citric acidity and the Terre Romana Cuvée Guy de Poix, which is a very fine Fetească Neagră that feels a little like Grenache, but more tannic. Some of their wines are available in Calais.

Halewood
Our final winery visit was to Halewood, whose importance cannot be underestimated. John Halewood was a well known wine trade figure in my youth, he created his company in 1978 and in 1987 started importing Romanian wines into the UK. It was a very successful venture and Halewood was for a long time the major name in Romanian wine. So much so that within ten years of that start they had created a Romanian subsidiary and were making their own wines for export. Today they have vineyards in Dealul Mare, Transylvania and near the Black Sea in Murfatlar.

Lorena Deaconu (left) Senior Winemaker at Halewood and Diana Niculescu (right) Export Manager at Halewood.

Lorena Deaconu (left) Senior Winemaker at Halewood and Diana Niculescu (right) Export Manager at Halewood.

In Dealul Mare they have a lovely manor house where we tasted a huge part of their massive range together with Lorena Deaconu, their bubbly and modest senior winemaker. All the wines were clean and sound and are widely available at very good prices, for instance these from Waitrose and this single vineyard Pinot Noir from The Wine Society. Lorena was very keen to show us her premium wines though and this is where the excitement was to be found. Their Neptunus Shiraz and Hyperion Cabernet were particularly impressive, but are sadly not yet available in the UK.

Rhein and Cie
A few years ago Halewood also bought Rhein and Cie, which is a specialist sparkling wine producer based in the small ski resort of Azuga in the the Carpathian Mountains. This is where we went next and it was a fitting finale to our trip. Rhein and Cie were founded in 1892 by a German called Rhein and have always focussed on making traditional method fizz, indeed the wonderful old posters they have in their museum call it Şampania Rhein!

Remuage still carried out the old fashioned was at Rhein & Co, part of Halewood.

Remuage still carried out the old fashioned was at Rhein & Co, part of Halewood.

Disgorging still carried out the old fashioned was at Rhein & Co.

Disgorging still carried out the old fashioned way at Rhein & Co.

The base wine is produced by Lorena at Halewood and then brought up to Azuga for the second fermentation, remuage and disgorging, all of which is done by hand. It is a beautiful winery, nestling in the snow covered mountains, so the whole experience was quite magical. The wines were impressive too, especially the Rhein & Cie Brut Rosé which is made from Pinot Noir grown in the Sebeș Alba / Alba Iulia region of Transylvania.

Azuga, Prahova a ski reswort where Rhein & Co are based and we spent out last night in Romania.

Azuga, Prahova a ski reswort where Rhein & Co are based and we spent out last night in Romania.

The magnificent Peleș Castle near Azuga in the Carpathian Mountains.

The magnificent Peleș Castle near Azuga in the Carpathian Mountains.

Conclusions
I loved this trip. Everything was excellent and I experienced many new things and saw some wonderful sights. The wines exceeded all my hopes, let alone my expectations. I didn’t taste anything that was bad and only a few wines that were not to my taste. In truth I have still not tasted enough or travelled widely enough in Romania to really get to grips with the differences between the regions and I realise that I only scratched the surface of what is available, but on this showing Romanian wine has a very bright future.