Sometimes I am brought up sharply by the realisation of just how much change has gone on in Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism.
My children (13 and 14) are very used to rubbing shoulders with tourists from all over the world, including Eastern Europe, on trips to London. So when I tell them that, until the 1990s, for citizens of Poland, Latvia, Romania and elsewhere, free travel to Western Europe did not exist, they have a look of blank incomprehension. The idea that a government could forbid its own people from visiting whichever country they liked is beyond their understanding.
Travel was only one area of life that was state-controlled in the not so distant past. The wine industry was too - and industry it certainly was, with no reward for quality but a utilitarian focus on maximising production, just like any other agricultural product in Soviet-era Eastern Europe. In Romania this meant planting vines on unsuitable land and planting low quality (but high yielding) hybrid varieties.
Now these countries are working hard to re-build their wine industries, based on quality this time - and on making wines that people actually want to drink.
Romania has been one of the most successful in the new, open era and remains the biggest wine producer in Eastern Europe. The vineyard area may be 20-30% smaller now than it was under Communism, but there is an undoubted ambition and pride in what is made there – though we see very little of it here in the UK, as only 3-4% is exported.
Romanian wine producers in recent years have tended to rely on producing good value versions of international style wines from internationally recognized varieties, most notably Pinot Noir. Now, however, more producers are emerging who are also intent on building a reputation for their store of native grape varieties, which represent around half of all plantings in Romania.
Cramele Recas, one of the country’s biggest and most forward thinking wineries, straddles both these camps, and with some success. They are responsible for producing attractively labelled, consumer-friendly wines made from both international varieties and native Romanian ones – as well as more ambitious wines.
Bradshaw Pinot Noir 2014 - £5 from Asda
Recas make some of the most appealing (and almost bizarrely cheap) Pinot Noir in Romania. It has lightweight, cherry fruit with real Pinot character. Don’t expect Grand Cru Burgundy at this price, but it certainly over delivers for the price.
The Wine Atlas Feteasca Regala 2015 - £4.97 from Asda
Another clever Recas label (this one makes me think of inter-war film posters) with a neat wine in the bottle. You can see why Romania’s native varieties will not be troubling the likes of Chardonnay and Shiraz on the global stage: Feteasca Regala, a white grape, is never going to trip off the tongue quite so easily. However, I like the juicy, ripe, fruit and crisp finish of this, another absolute bargain.
Prince Stirbey, by contrast, is a producer determined to champion the native varieties of Romania.
Prince Stirbey Tamaioasa Romaneasca 2015 - £9.50 from The Wine Society
Tamaioasa, (often known as “the frankincense grape”) is a local clone of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, a variety known primarily for making lusciously sweet wines with floral, grapey aromas. This, though, is a dry wine, with just hints of exotic rose petal and spice aromas. It is dry and quite fleshy, without being flabby.
Prince Stirbey Feteasca Regala 2015 - £12.50 from Oddbins
Meaning “royal maiden”, Feteasca Regala is Romania’s most widely planted grape variety. It too has some Muscat-like aromas, with a lovely textured palate and a pleasantly dry finish, thanks to the variety’s natural tannins.