In the cemetery of Beltiug, in Transylvania, as night falls
Answer yes to any of these 3 questions and you should definitely read what follows. Yet the case I am about to describe is not a unique example of the good things happening to wine in Romania, one of Europe's oldest wine-producing countries. It is however quite exemplary and, hopefully, will help create emulation and put Romania back on the world wine map where it should have remained but for the stupidity of human politics.
hand work to finish the new plantings
Planting a vineyard involves numerous constraints and obstacles, like most other human endeavours. But just try to imagine re-generating a vineyard destroyed by 50 years of destructive stupidity when you are living and working in another country and having to give your instructions mainly by telephone. This was the way that Johann Brutler, who comes from the village of Beltiug, just 20 kilometres into Romania from the Hungarian border, started his Nachbil winery on ground his family had owned prior to the rampant communist catastrophe.
an early start in the vines of Nachbil
Beltiug, in north-western Romania, is one of a series of villages in the province of Satu Mare that used to have, before the communist episode, a flourishing wine-producing activity going back at least to the early 18th century. At this time, German- speaking Swabians were given tenure in this and neighbouring villages by the Austro-Hungarian emperor. The Brutler family were part of that, so Johann has made a return to some deeply-set roots. Time seems to have stood still in this village where only a few of the small houses that front the old underground cellars have been restored, and where horse-drawn carts on the roads do not cause any heads to turn.
entrance to a traditional cellar in Beltiug, Romania
Despite all this, Johann Brutler has not set out to re-create a vineyard purely out of nostalgia for a bye-gone era. The approach of this very likeable man whose eyes shine with intelligent energy forms a coherent blend that incorporates all due respect for the past and its best practices, whilst thinking in step with the times, and often out of the box. He has planted a wide range of grape varieties, some of which are local, others coming from Austria, France or Germany. The vines are organically farmed but plantings resort to the latest mechanised and laser-abetted equipment from Austria. The reclaimed strips of land are ploughed and manured, but their natural topography is left well alone, to avoid modifying the hillside landscape and destroying the sub-soil structure. Wine-making techniques follow a similar path, eschewing heavy interventionism but using modern equipment according to available means. Brutler and his business partner now have 16 hectares in production, with another 9 currently being planted, and he is living next to his cellar with his wife Katherine, both fully engaged in this activity as artisan vine-grower and wine-maker. Yet when he started, back in 1998, he did so with just 0,2 hectare whilst living and working in Germany, where he and all his family had gone to escape Ceaucescu and the paranoic havoc he had created.
Means are often the name of the game for a budding but modestly endowed fine wine producer like Brutler, as banks do not lend cheaply in Romania. And acquiring land here is both complex and expensive, since individual holdings are tiny and often bereft of any legal documents, which inflates the bank accounts of solicitors but is of no benefit to the seller. So expansion has been organic and steady, despite the vision of this man who has in his pocket all the plans for a modern winery alongside the old one that will remain as an ageing cellar. Yet he does not want to grow further than what will be an estate of 25 hectares of vines (and almost as many grape varieties). For the moment, the beautifully designed labels of the Nachbil range can only be seen on Romanian tables, but I will hazard a guess that this situation will shortly evolve, so impressive are the wines I tasted.
Johann Brutler and his son Edgar
Johann, who is aided by his son Edgar, who studied at Geisenheim and has a full-time job as cellarmaster of the Leo Hillinger winery in Austria’s Burgenland, has developed a range of wines that are in perfect phase with this relatively cool climate and whose style is both personal and modern, in the best sense of both terms. I particularly enjoyed his delicate and stylish whites that sell locally for prices between 5 and 15 euros, and, of the reds, all of which could easily speak for themselves at international levels, his Trei Gratii (meaning three graces, but one can also read grape varieties, of which there are also three) and his Syrah, whose character varies deliberately from one vintage to another according to the weather pattern.
I don’t expect that Brutler, whose connection with wine started as a wine lover (he is a great fan of German riesling), will ever stop experimenting and learning. His latest venture is to plant 2 hectares of sylvaner, which he says has a local origin. I really wish there were more people like him, as they bring life and energy back to a place without destroying it.