More than 20 years after communist rule ended in Romania, the country's wine producers are proclaiming their revitalized industry as the next big thing in Europe.
"Romania and Bulgaria are the European Union’s Australia and Chile,” says Walter Friedl, an Austrian who has invested in the Dealu Mare wine region, 112 kilometers (70 miles) north of the capital, Bucharest.
Situated on the same latitude as the vineyards of Bordeaux and Tuscany, this red wine region has gained a reputation for making high-quality cabernet sauvignon, merlot and the local full-bodied red feteasca neagra.
French wine consultant Michel Rolland and other experts predict that wines from around the Black Sea – Romania, Bulgaria, Moldava, Armenia – will provide wine aficionados with their next pleasant surprise.
While Romania is the sixth-largest wine producer in the European Union, making 4 million hectoliters a year, its viticultural heritage was trampled during more than four decades of communist dictatorship. The country is now hoping to re-establish its ancient tradition of making the type of high-quality wines that were praised by the poet Ovid (43 B.C.– A.D. 18).
"The communists collectivized landholdings and focused on the quantity produced regardless of the quality,” says Cristian Preotu, associate director of the Romanian delicatessen chain Comtesse du Barry. "No one was interested in making good wine. Everything went into the same tank, no matter what it was. The image of Romanian wines deteriorated."
But times have changed. Since the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu in 1989, winemakers and grape growers have rediscovered Romania's best sites and embarked on a long-term project to restore the country’s reputation.
Since then, the country has been given a boost by European funding following its accession to the European Union in 2007, stimulating local and foreign investment.
“At the time, Romania was producing a lot of inexpensive, sweet white wine,” says Dan Balaban, one of the co-founders of Davino, a 68-hectare wine estate in Dealu Mare. “So I decided to do the opposite: dry, red, small quantities and sold at a higher price.”
The company only produces wine from 40-year-old vines, preferring to wait for the newer plantings to mature, and harvests no more than 5,000kg per hectare. And the policy is paying off: Davino's output fetches high prices and is well regarded at home and abroad, as a recent order worth 20,000 euros ($25,700) from a private French client illustrates.
Several miles away, Walter Friedl and Mihai Banita have brought another vineyard back to life. With an investment of more than eight million euros ($10.3 million), 40 percent from European funds, they have replanted 82 hectares of vines at Lacerta Winery. A modern and welcoming cellar has been built, along with a tasting room looking out over the hills, and the winery employs 25 staff.
Their product, regarded as one of the most promising in the country, is matured in oak barrels sourced from France, Hungary and the United States, as well as locally.
“You need to have patience but it’s a dream that’s coming true,” says Banita.
While some quality wines have started to win over international markets, producers agree that a major national marketing effort is required to overcome negative stereotypes and achieve prices commensurate with the product’s quality.
In 2011, Romania exported only 3 percent of its wine production.
The answer could lie in its indigenous varieties, which give the country a unique selling point. It grows international varieties such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, but as Banita points out, "Romania doesn’t just offer yet more top-quality merlot."