Eastern promise

Romanian wine barely survived dictatorship, but it’s on its way back

Nicolae Ceausescu, president of communist Romania, was obsessed by traditional forms of life, and determined to destroy them. He therefore devised a scheme, more comprehensive than any that has occurred to New Labour, for the final extinction of the countryside. His idea was to raze all the villages to the ground and to gather the natives into concrete towers, in which they would be shut up at night under the eye of urban policemen and from which, at sunrise, they would be released in docile convoys into the fields.

Ceausescu was bumped off before he could accomplish this enlightened plan, and the Romanian villages remain as they were – streets of adjacent courtyards on either side of a stream, with fields stretching behind them into the flower-strewn, bird-filled forests. Horse-drawn traffic scatters the chickens in the roadway, cows wander from the courtyards to drink at communal troughs, and food is exchanged by barter. Wine and plum brandy are put on the table at mealtimes: both of them home-made and harsh.

Here and there people are reclaiming ancestral vineyards and planting them with commercially viable grapes. And there are local varietals that well deserve the great effort required to export them: the white Cramposie, the red and white Feteasca and the white Tamâoiasa. The white Feteasca, with its aroma of lychees and powerful citrus flavours, deserves to be properly vinified, and here and there it is coming into its own as a progenitor of great white wines. White Feteasca is now exported under the Prince Stirbey label, from estates in Dragasani in the south of the country, and it is an aromatic and lively aperitif (visit www.stirbey.com).

The familiar French varietals have also found a place in the Romanian vineyards, and their fermented products are exported under the La Cetate and Prince Mircea labels, both bywords for well-made, affordable wines. A couple of weeks ago I drank a bottle of the Cabernet Sauvignon from La Cetate with one of our protégées.

It was in a Bucharest restaurant, from the window of which you could see only the vast TV screens that desecrate the façades on every thoroughfare. My thoughts reverted to Ceausescu, and his schemes for modernising Romania, one of which involved bulldozing the old quarters of Bucharest and destroying the churches.

This time-consuming and labour-intensive project was entirely typical of someone brought up on the communist “five-year plan”. Ceausescu could have destroyed Bucharest at no cost, and in no time at all, simply by allowing free reign to the multinationals. The Securitate got the point before he did, saw to his assassination, privatised the economy to themselves, and handed over the city to the developers and the advertisers. It took another bottle of La Cetate for us to swallow this thought.