With just under 180,000 hectares of land planted to vines, Romania is Europe’s fifth largest wine-producing country. Its 4.5 million hectoliters make it the sixth largest by yearly output and, remarkably, the 13th largest globally. Yet, that Romania is rarely mentioned as one of the world’s most productive wine-producing regions should come as no surprise.
Decades of quantity-focused Soviet policies went to the detriment of quality winemaking. Even as wineries gradually returned to private hands following the fall of the communist regime in 1989, the lack of investment and know-how meant that cheap wine production lingered on.
The winemaking landscape changed considerably from the 2000s onwards, particularly as a result of Romania’s EU membership in 2007, which reduced red tape and contributed to some degree of legislative and structural stability. Funds became available to replant vineyards, modernize wineries, and attract foreign investors.
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“After years of chaos, everything started to get a lot simpler,” says Britain-born Philip Cox, who took over Banat-based Cramele Recas in the late ‘90s and turned it into Romania’s largest wine exporter. “Before, we had to import absolutely everything. Now a lot of things are produced here, and whatever’s not, you can get it through proper agencies and importers. The modernization of the supply industry allowed us to expand our business.”
A Changing Reputation
Romanian wine’s image is still battling the legacy of its communist past, but the industry is evolving: “The old perception of a low-quality wine producing country is changing for most foreign consumers,” says Marius Petre, the export manager at boutique winery Domeniile Sahateni. “In Romania we experienced a lot of improvements in know-how, better-quality vine clones, and most importantly, [we have more] qualified people, which results in better wines.”
While Germany and the Netherlands are Romania’s top export countries by volume, producers are now determined to aim at premium markets such as the U.S. and the UK to increase sales value. Wineries are aware of related challenges—particularly in the U.S. with its fragmented market and notoriously problematic three-tier system—but two decades of investments and targeted efforts are gradually paying off. Overall exports volumes are on a steady decrease, while value is experiencing an opposite trend. In 2021, it amounted to €34.2 million ($33.3m), two-and-a-half times as much as its 2011 figure (€13.7/$13.3).
The U.S. is now Romania’s second largest export market outside the EU behind the UK and fifth overall, representing five percent of all exports. With nearly 500,000 liters annually worth circa €1.5 million ($1.46m), the U.S. is welcoming a growing party of diverse Romanian wineries, from the country’s largest wine firm Jidvei Group and Philip Cox’s Cramele Recas, to Domeniile Sahateni and Domeniile Averesti.
“In the past years, … we started to include in our [U.S.] portfolio more premium wines,” says Ioana Benga, the export director at Jidvei Group, “especially for restaurants and higher-end liquor stores … The U.S. continues to be one of the biggest export markets and we are constantly trying to consolidate our presence there.”
Key Grape Varieties in Romania
About half of Romania’s vineyards are still home to hybrid grapes, which have been planted since the late 19th century to replace phylloxera-affected plots and are still cultivated and vinified for home consumption. However, both international and a diverse range of indigenous vitis viniferas are increasingly replacing non-vinifera plantings.
The high-yielding, white-berried Fetească Regală, which translates to royal maiden, is the most planted grape variety, with over 14,000 hectares according to the latest figures. It’s seen as a rather versatile grape, offering good acidity and higher tannins compared to other white varieties. Just short of 9,300 hectares, Fetească Albă, meaning white maiden, is the third most-planted grape. In youth, it makes wines with delicate floral and citrus aromas.
With 3000 hectares, Fetească Neagră, or black maiden, is Romania’s favorite indigenous red grape and second most-planted dark-berried variety behind Merlot (11,901 hectares). Depending on climate and vintage, it can produce medium- to full-bodied wines. The best expressions—such as some from the Dealu Mare denomination in the southern Muntenia region—have good aging potential. Băbească Neagră follows as the second most-planted indigenous red grape with over 2,600 hectares.
Other notable grape varieties include Negru de Drăgășani, Mustoasă de Măderat, Grasă de Cotnari, and Tămâioasă Românească.
Key Regions of Romania
Romania’s climate can be generally described as continental and temperate, but its vastness and diverse landscape mean that there are also significant regional variations. The Carpathian Mountains dominate the center of Romania. There, the climate is cool continental, alpine at times. Temperatures are milder in the mostly flat western and southern regions, and get warmer towards the coast, due to the influence of the Black Sea.
Romania’s wine production is distributed across ten wider wine-producing regions. Located in the country’s mountainous center, Transylvania is the highest in altitude, with peaks of about 6,500 feet. There, production tends to focus on white and sparkling wines from local varieties such as Fetească Albă and Fetească Regală, as well as Pinot Gris, Muscat Ottonel, and Riesling Italico.
Crișana and Maramureș are situated in the northwest, neighboring Ukraine and Hungary. The former is mainly dedicated to white winemaking while the latter produces reds from both international and local varieties. The Banat, also a red winemaking area, follows counterclockwise. Bucovina and Moldova border the namesake country in eastern Romania, and are responsible for a mix of both colors, with more white wine produced towards the north-eastern corner, particularly from Fetească Albă.
Finally, the Southern Sands, Oltenia, and Muntenia are located in the south, while Dobrogea and the Danube Terraces are found in the southeast. These are responsible for a wide array of wine styles, much of which vinified from international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Riesling. Mutenia’s Dealu Mare—likely Romania’s best known appellation—is particularly renowned for its well-structured Fetească Neagrăs.
Moldova, Muntenia, and Oltenia are by far the largest producing regions, accounting for 72 percent of Romania’s yearly wine output. Combined, they also house the majority of plantings (64 percent).
Over the past decade, Romania has been successful in offering international markets clean, honest wines at an affordable price. While it is still struggling to shake off its reputation as a cheap wine-producing region, the country is now gradually upping its premium winemaking game, by betting on its wealth of indigenous varieties and maximizing the potential of its increasingly modern and forward-looking industry.
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Dr. Jacopo Mazzeo is a U.K.-based freelance drinks journalist, consultant, and photographer. He contributes to leading trade and consumer publications including Decanter, Wine Enthusiast, Whisky Magazine, and Good Beer Hunting. Jacopo consults on consumer trends and marketing strategies, is a former sommelier, and judges international wine, beer, and spirits competitions. Before he embraced full-time journalism, he studied musicology at the University of Bologna and took a PhD at the University of Southampton. Follow Jacopo on Instagram @jacopomazzeophoto