Monday, June 27, 2011

BULGARIA & ROMANIA: Cradle to Grave to Cradle

Recent orientation on this page seems to be alphabetical by wine region(country?), and as I was hesitant to dive into the wine pool that is regal Burgundy, I decided to go back to wines cradle.  What was found in my survey were two wine countries of great promise.  Bulgaria, a mountainous land of many rivers that opens eastward to the Black Sea, had grown grapes and made wines in its fertile flatland's and rolling hills for more than 1000 years prior to the arrival of the Romans.
From the late14th century, more than 5 centuries of Turkish Islamic control of its lands did not kill grape growing here, just its wine-making. What viticulture remained, saw the ravages of the vineyard louse phylloxera, as did most of Europe, in the late 19th century. Fortunately, replanting efforts brought in international varieties prior to the decades of war and global recession that were to follow.  Small family farms organized cooperatives to strengthen their fortunes and the new state ushered in Vinprom as its wine-grape monopoly.Yet once again Romania was to fall under the authority of a foreign power. This Soviet satellite's post-war economic development was to be in the form of an agri-industrial complex, modernizing farm equipment to feed a new empire. International varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, were introduced in the1960's, along with mechanization that combined to help build success in western wine exports. For a brief period, Bulgaria was Europe's fourth leading exporter of wines. It was all about state-driven quantity.
Thracian Lowlands
A Soviet campaign to curb domestic alcoholism in the 1980's resulted in many of Bulgaria's vineyards replanted to subsidized agri-crops. Early in the 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR, many free market reforms were initiated, as well as the disbanding of Vinprom. Although increasingly industrialized, Bulgaria today struggles to modernize its agri-business and its winemaking, as they now produce only about 2/3 of the agricultural crops harvested in 1999-01.  The state is divided into five(5) large viticultural regions, and its wine industry is currently lead by small and inconsistent private companies, rather than large corporations. Now an EU member, the best wines of Bulgaria are designated DGO, or quality wines from a specific region.  A superior Controliran sub-classification regulates lower yields and generally higher sugar measurements at harvest.  These wines can be labeled "Reserve" or "Superior Selection", which require one(1) to two(2) years additional aging, respectively.

The northern Danubian Plain, is a fertile, mineral rich appellation that is home to the prominent Suhindol winery and the countries best co-op.  To the East lies the Black Sea region, producing about 30% of the annual grape harvest and known for its high acids white wines. In the center of the country, south of the Balkans is the Rose Valley, known for its production of  rose oils, and the multi-use natives Misket Cherven, with both red and white grape varietal variations. Agriculturally rich and Greek influenced, the Thracian Lowlands to the south is home to the legendary spicy red grape called Mavrud. Having the most Mediterranean climate, the warm Struma River Valley in the southwest is a productive region known for the storybook village and the Melnik grape variety.  Recognizable international varieties remain very important here, as Bulgaria's slow growth continues, as reflected by its increase of more than 10% in wine exports for 2010. But, it remains (for the time being) that consistent quality wines and a national, marketable identity that includes its indigenous grape varieties are largely missing from a potentially great producer of quality wines.

On the North banks of the Danube, there is situated one of Europe's largest wine producing nations, with acreage totals comparable to Portugal's.  Romania sits on the same latitude range as France, and has a similar grape growing history from antiquity as its Black Sea neighbor to the South. It is distinctly shaped by the east to west Transylvanian Alps and the north-south Carpathian Mountains, historically creating environs for distinct cultures of grape growers.Today a united, westward-looking Romania is the world's 9th largest wine producer, harvesting more than 600,000 acres of grapevines.

It too was part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and Romanian viticulture also suffered during this period, only to benefit from its association with France as its late 19th century re-plantings developed. As part of the Eastern Block, Romania saw the evolution of collective agriculture, dominated by its state owned wineries and co-ops, and fueling its development as a quantity producer of recognizable varieties in the 1960's. An open market economy and increasing privatization developed in the freed state in the 1990's with its open arms for international investment.  But, Western investment has been slow here too, even as EU standardization and more positive reforms grew out of 2007. In 2006 Romania harvested only about 37% of the wine grape volume it had in 1997!
With fifty viticultural areas within its eight(8) major, but widely dispersed wine regions, Romania remains a crossroads, a union of the ethno-cultural and historical regions of Transylvania, Moldavia, Wallachia and others. Among the best across its non-cohesive landscape is cool-climate Tarnave, in Transylvania.  Sparkling wines and crisp, high-acid  international whites predominate in this iron age countryside, where Jidvei is an especially important and historical commune. Dealu Mare, south of the southern range is another old wine region famous for its red wines as well as the widely planted native grape Feteasca, with is grown in both red and white varieties.

On the southeastern side lies the Black Sea influenced, fertile farmland plateau of Murfatlar, long known for its sweet Muscat, its reds and increasingly for Chardonnay. Perhaps Romania's most famous wine is found in Moldova in the countries northeast.  Cotnari, also known as Grasa de Cotnari, is a natural dessert wine, once the international rival of Hungary's Tokay. Today, Romania's wine laws show both French and German influences, as the best wines are classified by their defined growing region and their must sugar content(weight).  High quality wines from specific areas are labeled as DOC(VSO), with Romanian wines with higher degrees of ripeness(sugar) are designated DOCC(VSOC) typically, with an additional suffix to designate level of sweetness.
A modern Brasov, Transylvania winery
The current decade has shown increasing economic stability and some sustained but slow growth for Romania. Its diverse cultures continue to be united as Romanians, working together for an improved free market and a diverse society.  Looking forward, it is inescapable not to find great potential in both of these Balkan border neighbors with their long and tested wine chronicles. Bulgaria and Romania have shared histories of small family farms and coops, of the acceptance of established international varieties and also historically indigenous grape varieties. With the support of the European Union and its markets, perhaps we will see these prolific, old world wine producers making wines of consistent quality and come back from the cradle!

Na zdrave ("To your Health") and Noroc ("Good Luck")!

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