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Friday, May 8, 2009

DRINK

Sweet wines starting to trickle out of Romania


Special to The Japan Times

Since ancient times, wave upon wave of foreign conquests have washed over Romania, changing — sometimes obliterating — parts of the region's cultural identity.

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Elegant varieties: One of the attractions of Romanian wines is the range of grape styles from the region. MURFATLAR

Romans, Ottomans and Soviets all left an indelible mark on the central-European land, but for wine lovers, it is arguably the Greeks, who introduced wine their making techniques to the region more than 3,000 years ago, who made the most lasting impression. Despite being afflicted by the phylloxera virus, which devastated most of Europe's vineyards in the late 19th century, Romania has managed to cling to the grape varieties that are particular to the country.

Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Romanian desert wine Cotnari was highly prized in Europe, especially by the French. Sadly for Western Europeans, the flow of exported wine during the Communist era was diverted exclusively to the Soviet Union. Since Romania has reopened up to the West, only a small amount of wine has begun to trickle through to the outside world. But people such as Romanian Adela Matsutani, a founding partner of H.M. Wine, are determined to open the floodgates and reintroduce the world to the delights of Romanian wines.

"I always knew that Romanian wine was good, but since I've been in Japan I've never seen any," says Matsutani, who has snapped up the exclusive rights to Cotnari distribution in Japan.

"Cotnari has been making wine since more than a thousand years ago," she says. "We import from the part near the Black sea and the Danube Delta from a winery called Murfatlar, and also from Cotnari in the Moldova region."

On the same latitude as France, Romania enjoys excellent conditions for winemaking. Because of its hot summers, the best winemaking regions remain to the northeast and southwest of the country. The north enjoys the cooling influence of the Carpathian mountains, while to the southeast the breezes off the Black Sea temper searing summer temperatures.

During the Soviet era, a huge amount of vine plantings took place and many central regions produced a sweet red wine that suited the palates of Russian consumers. Many wineries are still struggling to bring their vinification methods up to Western standards.

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"There are still wines that are over-oaked, poorly handled, lack fruit and are often vinified semisweet for the local market," says Caroline Gilby, who holds one of the industries highest qualifications, Master of Wine, and specializes in Eastern European wines.

"Some of the wines from the middle of the country I don't like so much, because they are red and sweet, which is a rather strange combination," agrees Matsutani, who hasn't included these wines in the company's portfolio. Its product lineup does reflect Romania's 70/30-percent split of white to red production, and the whites, true to Romanian style, are mainly sweet.

A fine example is Grasa de Cotnari, a wine that is the product of "noble rot." The 2003 vintage (¥1,800), the product of an exceptionally hot summer in Europe, is a wonderfully frilly confection, rich and peachy with a honey scent. Ice cold, it would be perfect as an accompaniment to choux pastry.

"It's excellent quality and very similar in taste to Sauternes, although a lot more affordable," opines Matsutani. "It's a desert wine, so you obviously enjoy it after a meal, but it's different to a port, which is very rich and a little too sweet.

"In Romania, for big celebrations like weddings, we sometimes have noble-rot wine at the beginning of the celebration instead of champagne."

H.M. Wine also stocks a very rare 1984 vintage of Grasa de Cotnari(¥8,700) that has developed in the bottle to display lovely flavors of caramelized peach and intriguing musk.

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Harvest time: The Romanian vineyard Murfatlar enjoys cool Black Sea breezes during hot summers. MURFATLAR

Though the price of Cotnari is very competitive to that of Sauternes, Gilby sounds a note of warning. "Personally, I think Cotnari is an area that is very much underperforming," she says. But while there is room for improvement, if you're after a reasonable desert wine, you won't do much better in terms of value than buying a Cotnari.

Gilby is enthusiastic, though, about the grape styles from the region, which are one of the attractions of Romanian wines.

"What appeals to me about the best Romanian wines is their European elegance, rather than being huge, alcoholic wines as you find in some (parts) of former Eastern Europe," she says. "I'm a particular fan of blends that include local varieties (both red Feteasca neagra and white Feteasca alba), as these give a real sense of place."

Romania's Cotnari Feteasca Alba 2003 (¥1,700) is a medium-sweet demi-sec wine with muted alcohols of 11.5 percent. Unlike any other variety, Feteasca alba has a unique mix of gooseberry and sherbet flavors, with the sherbet providing a softening fizz to the sharp acidic flavors.

Trei Hectare 2006 Feteasca Neagra from the Murfatlar vineyard on the Romanian coast (¥2,400) features the red of this varietal. The wine has black cherry scents that are reminiscent of Italian wines — but with none the attending heaviness on the palate — and good tannins hint that this would be a nice wine to put away for a few years.

"Feteasca neagra is similar to Cab Sauvignon, but a lot richer," points out Matsutani. "It's a more mature wine that you'd drink with heavy steaks or even something more exotic like bear meat."

In addition to native varieties, Romania also produces chardonnays and cabernets. 2006 Ferma Nova Chardonnay (¥2,400) from Murfatlar is a light wine with a zesty lemon aroma that would be a great companion with white fish. A 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon demi-sec also from Murfatlar (¥1,700 yen) has ripe gamy scent with cherry hits suggesting rounder oaky flavors that have a good bite but are actually soft on the palate.

Though Romania is one of the world's largest wine producers, the country has yet to become a major exporter as neighboring Bulgaria and Hungary have, and, as such, prices are temptingly affordable. "Quality in Romania has improved considerably in recent years due to better equipment and knowhow, and even more importantly, better control over fruit quality through vineyard ownership and management," says Gilby.

So now is a good time to go treasure hunting, before the rest of the world wakes up to the value of Romanian wine.

All wines mentioned can be bought from www.romanianwine.jp/eng; a selection of Romanian wines is also available at the Web retailer Rakuten www.rakuten.co.jp/jizakenoshimaya/647458/709174/


When life hands you spoiled grapes, make noble-rot wine

Sadly, history has not recorded how the serendipitous discovery of "noble rot" came to pass, but most experts concur that noble-rot wines probably originated in Hungary in the mid-1600s.

The Germans, though, who claim to have independently discovered the sweet-wine style almost 100 years later, have the best tale to tell. The legend goes that a messenger who was on the way to Schloss Johannisberg to deliver the order for the commencement of a harvest was robbed, resulting in a three-week delay in the picking of the grapes. During this time, damp weather caused them to become infected with a fungus. When the grapes dried out, they became partially shriveled, leading the estate owner to believe the crop to be irretrievably spoiled. He gave away the grapes to local peasants, who in turn produced a syrupy sweet wine that became highly popular.

The rot is a gray fungus called Botrytis that affects ripe fruit. Thriving in damp conditions, it can destroy whole crops if unchecked. Noble-rot grapes are picked once the infected ones have dried out in the sun. The resulting intensely sweet wine has notes of honey and caramelized peaches and is served cold with deserts.

There are a few countries in Europe that excel in making noble-rot wines. Germans and Austrians call the wine Spatlese, which means "late harvest," and produce two main varieties: Trockenbeerenauslese and Beerenauslese. Both varieties are handpicked and made from the Riesling variety of grape. In Japan, Alzeyer Wartberg Ortega Trockenbeerenauslese is available online from Web retailer Infini Wine (370 ml for ¥2,300; www.rakuten.co.jp/infini-wine/).

The French blend Sauternes is made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle grapes, and can be expensive due to the unreliable nature of the Botrytis infection; not all years produce enough noble-rot grapes. You can try a reasonable Sauternes from Century Trading Company, which stocks the Lucien Lurton Sauternes 2004 (375 ml from ¥2,940; [03] 3208-5581).

Arguably, the most famous country to produce noble-rot wine is Hungary, which is renowned for Tokay, a wine so popular that it is even mentioned in the country's national anthem. Tokaji Aszu 2004 is available from Web retailer Higuchi Wine (500 ml for ¥2,300; www.rakuten.co.jp/higuchiwine/).




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