5 May 2011

Wine of the week: Stirbey Cramposie, from Romania

I have just returned from a few days spent in the vineyards of Romania, where I learnt a lot, met some fine people, and discovered some grape varieties of which I had never heard before and whose wines I had certainly never tasted. I think that wine is, as much as anything, about travelling outside of your self whilst exercising a form of introspection of your sensations. And these sensations emerge on different levels, both sensorial, emotional and intellectual, mixing surprise and recognition (in alternation), memories and awakenings, elation and, sometimes, boredom through repetition.

One thing that you will not encounter in Romania, at least if you stay away from "international" grape varieties, is repetition and boredom!  I am not saying that all the wines made here from international grape varieties are boring. On the contrary, some of them are excellent and could stand well against international competition. I tasted some excellent cabernets, merlots, syrahs, pinot noirs and sauvignon blancs, for example. But travelling to a country for the first time, and especially to a country that has a long-standing wine-making history (older than France anyway), what I hope for above all is to be surprised, to learn, and to discover something different. Here is one of the wines that I enjoyed during the past days and which fits this bill perfectly. There are more to come!


Stirbey is a smallish (25 hectares of vines) family estate in the attractively hilly and wooded Dragasani district that lies about 150 kilometres to the west of Bucarest. It overlooks the broad valley formed by the River Olt, which flows south from the Carpathians into the Danube (see top photo). The estate (apart from the catastrophic communist interruption!) has been in the Stirbey family for centuries, and has now thankfully returned there. The current owners have regenerated the vineyard, rebuilt the winery and are making some excellent wines with the help of Oliver Bauer, a very cheerful and friendly winemaker from Germany.

Oliver works for the Kripp-Stirbey couple and is as conviced as are the owners of the merits of local Romanian grape varieties. They have planted or, in some cases, reclaimed in older vineyard plots, the following local varieties: cramposie, feteasca regala and tamaiosa romaneasca (whites), and the very interesting red novac. Alongside these they also grow sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. All the wines are impressive for their limpid, lifted style (very little and deft use of oak, and only for some of the reds), and their apparent capacity for ageing. The winery only re-opened less than 10 years ago, so it is of course early days to be talking about ageing for these wines. Yet I tasted a 5 year old Feteasca Alba that has taken on an added dimension with regard to its younger cousin.


The wine I want to talk about today is probably not one that will conquer the world. It is called Cramposie Selectionata (meaning "selection"). Cramposie, I was told, is a very old variety that goes back in Dacia to pre-Roman times. For those non-latinists out there, Dacia was the name the Romans gave to this province of their empire, and to which the poet Ovid was exiled. Maybe he drank some wine from Camposie? I hope it will give me similar inspiration! In any case, I would not mind being exiled here, provided that I could live in the country as the local small town is fairly depressing!

The wine I tasted at Stirbey is light (in colour, as in alcohol). Light, crisp and lively white wines are not perhaps the most popular style in today's markets. But this wine is all that one could want on a hot summer's day, or indeed as a refresher after tasting a bunch of tannic young red wines as a substitute for beer (something us winos tend to resort to on occasion). As you can see from the photographs, its colour is so pale that one could almost confuse it with water. Its has a delicately floral nose and it just tiptoes onto the palate with such fragrant delicacy that you feel your body come alive, as after a cool shower. A finely refreshing glass that begs for another one, since the acidity is there but in no way agressive, and the texture has been beautifully handled. No wonder they sell out of this every year!


I will have some more to say about this, and other estates, in a future and more general article on Romanian wines. It should be noted that the domestic wine market in Romania favours white wines over reds, although the latter are increasing their share. I have seen this wine on retail at prices between 7 and 9 euros in Romanian, Austrian and German markets

all photographs by David Cobbold