What’s Ahead for Romanian Wine?

cotnariSue and I did our best to learn all we could about the Romanian wine industry during our visit to participate in the International Wine Competition Bucharest in Iasi, but inevitably we only scratched the surface. Romania is a diverse country with a complicated wine industry. Impossible to understand with confidence on the basis of just a few days.

A Wine Region in Motion

So we are operating on first impressions, not detailed analysis, but first impressions can be important. One strong impression was of dynamism. It was hard to resist the enthusiasm of the people we met and their sense that Romanian wine is on the move, reaching new and higher levels.

Indications of this ambition were all around us, but perhaps most clearly visible when the competition crew took a break to visit the Cotnari region. We got a late start getting out of Iasi because the morning’s judging session had gone into over-time (one of the juror groups — mine! — moved much slower than the rest). So the light was fading by the time our coach rolled into Cotnari.

S.C. Cotnari S.A. is one of Romania’s largest wineries and we saw its name everywhere during our visit — on the wines, of course, on banners at lunch, and as sponsor of a wine, food, and music festival in the square in front of our hotel. The big sign above the winery shined like a beacon as night fell.cotnari

Cotnari was founded in 1948, during the collective era of Romanian wine, rebuilt in 1968, and then taken private in a management buyout in 2000. Cotnari dominates the region it is named for, with 1360 heactares of vines. Several ranges of wines, focusing on native grape varieties, are produced starting with box wines and ending with library selections of Grasa de Cotnari wines called Vinoteque.

Thinking Big

The winery was impressive for the breadth of production as well as the sheer scale (our hosts were proud of the rows of big stainless steel tanks we saw). The visitor facilities, which seem to cater to groups, caught our attention. The restaurant was buzzing when we arrived, with live traditional music and generous servings of local dishes (sarmale — yum!) to pair with the Cotnari wine.

The people at Cotnari clearly think big, which is important. But we saw more evidence of dynamism before we entered the restaurant door. Our first stop was actually another winery with a similar name: Casa de Vinuri Cotnari . The Cotnari House of Wine is much  younger than its big brother — founded just a few years ago in 2011 — but represents the next generation of wine here. I say this not just because it focuses exclusively on quality native-variety wines, but also because it is a project of the next generation of the family that runs Cotnari — founded and developed with their parents’ support.

tanksCasa de Vinuri Cotnari is a work in progress, with modern facilities build over and around an old cellar where the barrels are still stored. Walking through the construction site, the ranks of huge stainless steel tanks glimmered in the moonlight. There is scale here, too, with 350 hectares of vines, but clear focus on upscale market opportunities.

Sources of Dynamism

Sue and I were fortunate to learn about several other wineries — Domenile Averesti, Licorna Winehouse, LacertA Winery, Davino, and the exciting Mierla Alba project — that are leaders in various ways of the dynamic movement we sensed. Based on the wines we tasted and the people we met, it is hard to resist the feeling that Romanian wine is on the move.

What accounts for the dynamism? No single factor, of course. Clearly there is a sense that there are opportunities to be seized among those inside the wine bubble. But there are also important investments coming from ambitious individuals and firms outside the domestic wine scene and outside of Romania, too.

Romanians and Italians have a lot in common (you can hear it in the language) and that extends to wine. Vitis Metamorfosis, a leading Dealu Mare region premium wine producer, is an Antinori family wine project.

The European Union is also an important part of the story.  We were frequently shown shiny new tanks and bottling equipment, for example, and our hosts said simply “EU” and smiled. Money from the EU, meant to help modernize the Romanian wine industry and make it more competitive, has funded a fair number of these projects.

Inevitable Headwinds

What factors could push back the rising tide of Romanian wine? Based on first impressions, here is a briefly list of things that I would worry about. The domestic market is intensely important for Romanian producers and it is never easy to guide consumers to more premium products. The fact of high consumption of home-produced wine combined with increased imports makes the local market a tough competitive environment (no wonder Cotnari makes sure their name is everywhere!).

I am not sure how important exports are at this point because the domestic market is so large, but eventually they will be a factor and then Romanian producers will need to be even more concerned about establishing “Brand Romania” and making sure that there is a high overall level of quality since one bad bottle can ruin reputation for everyone.

I won’t open the subject of what “Brand Romania” could or should be, but it is fair to say that building it will require a good deal of cooperation and teamwork. And this is one area where there are obvious challenges. Indeed, every time we asked about teamwork among wine producers or regions we were met with a sad shaking of heads. Hasn’t happened. Not going to happen. It is a shame, they said.

Everyone knows that it is important to work together, but making it happen is still a problem, we were told. Why is cooperation so difficult? It is hard to say and I am sure it is a complicated situation that goes beyond first impressions. Some have written that the stubborn independence of Romanian wine producers is an understandable reaction to the bad old government collective days. But no one we talked with saw that as the source of the problem.

If everyone looks out only for themselves, who looks after the big picture? That’s a question still seeking an answer, but not a uniquely Romanian question. We’ve visited many wine regions where producers are still trying to figure out how to work together toward a common goal instead of arguing over what that goal might be or just turning their backs.

Sue and I are optimistic about Romania’s success. Excellent wines, smart, determined people. We raise our glasses to the future of Romanian wine!

5 responses

  1. My general impression of the the wines coming out of Eastern Europe into the U.S. is the wines underperform their price points. They are not competitive to Western European wines in terms of QPV (quality, price, value) on U.S. shelves. At least not yet.

    Another analysis to dig into (and I haven’t) would be to take a look at the economic freedom factor in a country. The OECD and Fraser Institute do a yearly ranking of countries’ rules, regulations, taxes, etc. and Romania ranks 37th in economic freedom. Not bad. But Georgia (the country) ranks 16th. Mike, have you visited and or written about the Georgia wine industry yet?

    • Many of the export wines you are likely to encounter come from very large producers and are different from the wines we tasted at the IWCB, so I can appreciate your comment, Tom.
      We’ve visited Georgia and written about it here — use the search field at the top of the page. One of my former students lives and works in Georgia and says that it is an entrepreneur’s dream in terms of the ease of starting a business.

  2. Not surprising, since Georgia ranks 7th and 8th in *freedom to trade internationally* and *regulations* respectively. The USD/GEL exchange rate shows low volatility as well, doubtless making export plans predictably doable. As you know, economic freedom and currency volatility are important factors in export success.

    Separately, I started an export wine business in New Zealand in 2002 when the exchange rate was 1 USD = 0.40 NZD. Lucky me. Plus, at the time, NZ ranked third in the world in the economic freedom. Your Georgian former student may be in the right place at the right time if he’s involved in entrepreneur ventures.

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