- Premium awakening as Romanian wine moves beyond its reputation for bulk wine production.
- New wave of smaller producers debunking stereotypes as they craft natural wines from local varieties.
- Horses, grape-revivals, modern facilities and know-how from abroad forge new directions.
- Organic certification for natural wines is desirable or not depending on the destination market.
- Story rather than size matters as Romanian natural wine enters the world market.
The development of an emerging wine country or region often follows a similar course: In the beginning there is mass production of inexpensive wines. In the years and decades that follow, more serious producers appear on the scene; well-trained winemakers produce serious wines, mostly according to international models, which are sold at home and abroad. Little by little, the cultural heritage of the country is remembered, smaller - then later, larger - producers focus on local varieties and winemaking traditions, which attracts more and more wine connoisseurs and specialists. Eventually, when natural wines, pet nats and biodynamic philosophies have taken hold and nerdy winemakers are making wines with a lot of (sometimes experimental) signatures, the gastronomy scene also jumps on the bandwagon. This is where Romania stands today.
For now, however, Romania is and remains in many eyes - and palates - a country of mass wine production. 4.5 mill. hl of wine was produced in Romania in 2021, with about 190,000 ha planted with vines. This makes Romania the largest Eastern European wine producer, and ranks 6th within the EU, 12th in the world. Romanians drink much of their own wine; almost everywhere in the country it is still common for families to produce their own wine for home consumption. Around 7 percent of production was sold abroad in 2021. 47,000 hl of this went to Germany - much of which can be found on the shelves of local supermarkets and discounters.
However, as is the case everywhere in the wine world, Romania no longer stands for industrial mass-produced wine. Romania's producers work according to international standards, their cellars are well equipped and international varieties are grown as naturally as Fetească Neagră, Alba and other local varieties.
New Opportunities through Organic Wine
While premium producers are trying to place their wines next to those from France, Spain and Italy, natural wine producers are now setting out to help Romania, a wine country, achieve new fame.
Grünspitz: Revival of Autochthonous Varieties
Edgar Brutler is one of them. And one who has a long history with his second homeland. In the village of Beltiug in the northwest of Romania, about 50 km from the Hungarian border, his family has been growing grapes for generations. In 1982, the family emigrated to Germany. Inspired by his grandparents' winemaking roots, Brutler decided to study viticulture in Geisenheim in early 2000. By the 1990s, his family had already reclaimed vineyard land expropriated by the state in the 1960s.
First the Nachbil vineyard was established, then in 2018 the current Edgar Brutler estate. Today, Brutler farms 4 ha of vines, all of which were still planted by his father and grandfather. Here you'll find native Romanian varieties, mostly planted in blends, including mainly the spicy white wine variety Fetească Regală, also known as Royal Maiden Grape, and Welschriesling.
Particularly popular because it is so unusual: Grünspitz, an almost disappeared variety that the Brutlers themselves propagated and planted by means of massive selection. It ripens late, an advantage in times of climate change, and delivers good yields for its fruity-herbaceous wines. The vines are planted on cool clay soils that retain a lot of water but are difficult to work: they become hard in dry conditions and muddy when wet.
Horses in the Vineyard
Brutler is not alone. About 700 km as the crow flies to the southeast, in Romania's Danube Delta, lies the Crama Delta Dunarii - La Sapata winery. Behind it is the Italian winemaker Roberto di Filippo. Together with his friend Roberto Pieroni, an Italian in exile who lives in Romania, di Filippo focuses on natural viticulture. Founded in 2011, they now grow grapes on 24 ha, partly using biodynamic principles.
Di Filippo sees his winery as explicitly Romanian, despite its Italian origins, and relies on a local team - including horses for tilling, which is more soil-friendly than using heavy machinery. Native varieties such as Fetească Regală, Fetească Neagră, and Băbească Neagră are grown - but also Riesling, Merlot, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Aligoté.
"Romania has rather negative connotations. There one thinks of Dracula, criminality, Ceaușescu - the country is not an appealing destination, so it is difficult to move the origin into the foreground."
Struggling for a Better Image
Convincing customers, however, is not so easy explains Holger Schwarz, a German natural wine specialist. His Berlin wine shop Viniculture has 600 wines in its portfolio, including from origins still considered relatively exotic such as Czech Republic and Denmark. in addition:
"Romania has rather negative connotations. There one thinks of Dracula, criminality, Ceaușescu - the country is not an appealing destination, so it is difficult to move the origin into the foreground". Where Romania appears as a mass wine supplier, there is no need for an origin character, however, for the natural wine trader, the story around the origin plays an immense role. Romania does not work in this case.
For entrepreneur Edgar Brutler, the situation is different. He currently produces 20,000 bottles a year, sold in Germany,U.S., Canada and Japan: "I'm amazed at how well it's going. I sell in Germany exclusively through distributors to the restaurant trade, because I don't want my wines to end up in numerous different online stores." Yet he also agrees that Romania has a negative image: "But I only produce natural wine, and in that scene, it can never be too wacky."
Small vs. big?
Both Brutler and La Sapata are certified organic - and also see this as an important prerequisite for natural wine, in addition to not using filtration or any additives in vinification, including a low sulfur content in bottling, which is exactly the definition of natural wine from large-scale producer Cramele Recas, Romania's largest winery, which currently produces wine from 1,250 of its own plus 1,700 purchased ha of vines.
Can such a giant producer offer authentic natural wine? CEO Philip Cox says it can. "I strongly disagree with people who say that larger wineries can't make this or that types of wine. I say that because the work in the vineyard is exactly the same whether you have a large vineyard or a small vineyard, and the work in the winery is also exactly the same - just in bigger tanks with bigger equipment - but the principles are identical. In fact, I would say that a large winery very often has more resources and therefore can do the job better than many small wineries."
What About Certifications?
In Germany, the distribution partner Mack & Schühle sells about 10,000 bottles per year of Recas's "Solera Orange Wine" made from Sauvignon Blanc, Tamaioasa Romaneasca, Fetească Albă and Chardonnay. The price is 6.90 euros, and the company says that the absence of additives and organic certification play an important role in their communication.
In other markets such as the UK, organic certification is renounced: "The customers there consider natural wines to be produced free of rules." Hence, certification is undesirable in those markets.
Something is happening in Romania, something that may give an urgently needed drive to bring the country out of the - supposedly - unsightly wine corner and into a new age. Whether this trend should be fueled by a large producer or by artisanal boutique wineries remains a philosophical (wine) question. Economically, an interplay between the two players may well make sense, as all parties involved would benefit from an increasing demand for more individually styled Romanian wines. However, economic aspects have always come second in the natural wine debate.
Romania needs to find its own way to play a role in the big, wide wine world, going beyond the bulk wine segment. Whether this means that craft wineries will seek to join forces with large producers remains - understandably - an open question.