I ride down a dirt road to Crama Rasova—the Rasova Winery. Just beyond the guardhouse, a vast green lawn slopes down to the bluffs of the Danube River and to a modern building. Considering the rural neighborhood, the building at first seems out of place. Yet a closer look reveals it seems to fit into the natural landscape. A long concrete pathway with tall walls carves through the lawn until it meets the patio at the front of the glass windows of the winery.
I pull up the guardhouse and tell the security guard I’m here to meet Zoe Ghiuri, one of the winery owners. He doesn’t seem to speak English, yet waves me inside to the parking lot. That’s when I notice the pathway. It’s wide and slopes right up to the winery. So I twist my throttle and ride down. At first, it feels like a tunnel, but the walls descend as I pull up to the windows and park my bike.
I pull out my camera gear and set it on the ground. At that moment, I hear the frantic shuffling of feet from the pathway. It’s the security guard. He’s waving his finger and shaking his head. Uh oh! I’m not supposed to park here, that path is for pedestrians. I motion I’m sorry, and a few moments later, ride up the walkway to the parking lot and park my bike there.
I’m laughing. He just smiles.
Welcome to Rasova. Inside the main doors, the receptionist who greets me tells Zoe will arrive shortly. I walk around the minimalist space that opens to more windows looking toward the Danube and the Anghel Saligny Bridge (formerly King Carol I Bridge). After five years of construction, the railroad truss bridge was completed in 1895 and designed and built by Anghel Saligny, a Romanian engineer and student of Gustave Eiffel. The Anghel Saligny Bridge was the first permanent contemporary bridge to cross the Danube, and at nearly 4,100 meters (~13,412 feet), it was the longest in Europe at the time. The bridge still stands, but since 1987 after the completion of the new Cernavoda Bridge, it is no longer used.
Walking around the tasting and reception rooms, I notice the incredible attention to design and detail. From the bottle and label designs to the display of them on shelves, tables, and walls. The large white walls are absent of any artwork; in this space, the wine and its packaging serve as art. A long table with seating for 16 or more dominates one end of the tasting room. Above it float a dozen lights made from cut-glass wine bottles. At one end of the room, a wooden bookshelf adorned by more wine bottles frames counter height cabinets and a flat-screen video monitor. At the other end is a tasting bar and retail display, both with floor to ceiling windows looking onto the property and the Danube.
Moments later, Zoe dashes into the room, introduces herself and suggests we tour the winery and continue our conversation over lunch. With her sandy blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, and wearing jeans, a print t-shirt, and a colorful scarf, she just returned from the vineyard. I grab my camera bag and audio recorder as she whisks down the hallway leading to the working winery. Passing a storage room, she points out racks full of the Rasova Craft sparkling wine which is awaiting labeling
“We use much fewer sulfites,” she explains, “and we do the riddling by hand.” Rasova doesn’t disgorge nor filter the wine, keeping it fresh and crisp.
“We have very good grapes,” Zoe explains, “our soil is important. It’s calcareous, chalky and sandy.” She notes that their location, the Murfatlat DOC in the Dobrogei region in Western Romania near the Black Sea and Danube River, sits on the 43rd parallel. “The same as Bordeaux. In 1970 when they established the Murfatlat DOC, the region measured 2,300 to 2,400 hours of sunlight per year. “It’s probably more today,” Zoe concedes, “but nobody is counting anymore.”
They also benefit from its proximity to the Black Sea. They get very little rain, but plenty of wind. “Our vineyard has amazing terroir. We have it all. Soil, sun, and wind.” Though the clouds are hanging low today and we expect rain, this is unusual.
“Drought can be a problem,” she explains while explaining they are struggling with the decision to incorporate an irrigation system. “It’s good for the vines to struggle, but if it struggles too much, the fruit suffers.”
Though the winery isn’t certified organic, or BIO as it’s referred to in the EU, Zoe wants to go in that direction but acknowledges there are some problematic plots in the vineyard.
We walk past a sorting table and de-stemming machine. “We do everything manually,” Zoe says, referring to the work in the vineyard and winery during harvest. “For the first sorting of grapes, we do in the vineyard, and then we bring the grapes to the winery.
Next, we walk into a sizeable temperature-controlled room she calls the ‘fridge.’ “We bring the grapes by van and chill them down in the fridge. Only after they are chilled do we start the fermentation.” She tells me they do the second sorting on the table by Rasova’s female staff, who then send the bunches to the de-stemmer for the third sorting. “We use women because they are more patient than men,” she says, smiling.
As I take a few pictures with my camera and sun hat in one hand and my backpack and recorder in my other hand, I’m struggling to keep from dropping anything. Zoe looks at me with a face stricken by anxiety.
“Do you want me to help you with something?” I decline, but she cannot watch me struggle further. She organizes my hat, so it drapes down my back, and insist I place both hands through the backpack straps and close the chest strap.
“This is my problem,” she reveals, “I try to organize everything. Everybody tells me I’m a control freak. This is why I cannot watch you without organizing.” We laugh. And she’s right. At some point, I’d probably drop or leave something behind.
I hand her my audio recorder. “Here then, you are now my assistant. I can have both hands to take photos.”
Today, Rasova Winery has fifty hectares of vineyards. The land came with 20 hectares planted, and in 2010 they planted an additional 30 hectares. Rasova Winery began as a project Zoe’s husband, George initially wanted to invest in. While the couple didn’t have direct winemaking or agriculture experience, they operate a thriving wine, spirt, and beer distribution business out of nearby Constanta. Soon the investment evolved into a bigger operation requiring more hands-on. So the couple brought their managing experience to the winery and vineyard and brought on a team of experts to work on the project.
So Zoe, the organizer, took a more hands-on role in managing the project. She negotiated a multi-million euro funding deal with the European Union but admits the process was a source of stress and frustration. The agreement mandated the construction of the winery be completed in just one year.
“I was responsible for working with the EU. Plus, I had to manage the relationship with the architect and construction company. It was stressful. I had to work with the authorities for approvals. And twice a week, I had to manage the technical experts on all aspects of the winery.” She looks at me with tired eyes. “We had only one year. We could not manage this fast, and I was very stressed about this—anxious to complete the building. I felt it was out of control.”
The Rasova winery project started in December 2014 with the construction of the restaurant and reception areas. The EU funds became available, and the one-year deadline began on the 30th of November in 2015. They had to complete the project by December 2016. Nobody knew what would happen if they didn’t finish the project on time. This added to their worries.
“We didn’t know until some time in December that we could get an extension by paying a fine—if we had known, we could have saved all that stress.”
Even though the winery was still under construction, they managed to produce and market the first vintage of Rasova wine in 2015—their first vintage.
Zoe pulls open a large door revealing a vast room packed with stainless steel storage and fermentation tanks. The layout of the room differs from most wineries. As we move inside, I realize we are walking on an elevated catwalk, and the ceiling is just above our heads. The catwalks winds around the perimeter of the room and the storage tanks, while another in the center provides access to tanks on the right and left sides. At most wineries, I must crane my neck to look up to the top of the tanks. Here at Rasova, we can look down and inside the tanks from the top.
“This is a gravity-fed design,” Zoe explains. “Red berries go directly into the tanks while grapes for rose or white go into presses fitted with a nitrogen balloon for a more gentle pressing with no oxidation.” The room is very well organized and clean. I notice on either side of the tanks in the center of the room are two long rails, like tracks. Zoe tells me this is for a pneumatic press that automates punch down of the caps and pumping over of the juice. She points to the blue coiled hose that runs along next to the rails. “This is for nitrogen. To protect the wine from oxidation, we top off the tanks with nitrogen.”
She points out that while all tanks appear to be the same size and have the same capacity from this perspective, they do not. “We have 10,000, 7,500, 5,000 and 2,500 liter tanks.” She explains that they worked with an Italian producer to design tanks with different wall thickness and lets so that they would all stand the same height and have the same diameter.
Looking above, she calls me attention to the roof. “The architect didn’t want any columns in this building. It was challenging but worth it.” A local architect from Dobrogea, Bruno Andreşoiu of Igloo Studio, designed the winery complex. He wanted to use natural elements, including white stone representing the chalky soil and oak and black iron from the winery’s use of barrels. All of the details would follow as best as possible the concept and metaphor for the design of the building: where the stones and rocks are coming out of the Dobrogean soil.
“The winery is a tribute to the Dobrogean, wavy and often arid landscape: stony, with little vegetation and tormented. For this, we could not imagine a trivial form, an easy composition, but rather an (apparently) irrational agglutination of simple, adjacent, intersecting, juxtaposed volumes, like a bunch of white rocks, coming out of the ground.” — Bruno Andreşoiu, Igloo Studio
We descend down a stainless steel winding stairway to the cellar floor. Now the tall tanks tower above. But Zoe leads me to a few petite tanks, which she calls tiny tanks. “We use these to experiment and for micro-vinification.” She points to the tanks while telling me they are double-wall insulated. We use software to control temperature; she explains to me after we walk past a wall panel of dials, switches, and LED displays. “We also use negative temperature, tartaric stabilization,” referring to the technique used by winemakers to prevent the accumulation of tartrate crystals, also known as “wine diamonds” from forming in bottles and on corks.
Now on the lower level, we walk down a hallway and past a room where several ladies are operating a bottling machine and hand labeling the bottles with individual DOC labels. As we continue our tour, we pass through another door and into the barrel room.
“Mostly we use French barrels,” she says, explaining that they use a lot of different cooperages because each has its own flavor. Rasova uses a mix of barrels, and after three years, they rotate and bring in new barrels. She tells me they are experimenting with integral vinification, a barrel fermentation process where they put whole berries in a barrel and let them spontaneously ferment. Afterward, they press the berries and transfer the juice to another barrel.
The flow of the winery seems natural and organized. Exiting the barrel room, we climb another set of stairs to the restaurant. The smell of wine and barrels shifts to the natural smell of passing rain. It seems it rained while we were wandering around the tanks and barrels downstairs. The Rasova restaurant doesn’t operate regular hours; instead, it’s designed to accommodate larger groups who schedule in advance. The sizeable space keeps with the minimalist design, the use of natural materials, and where bottles of wine serve as art and design pieces. Large floor to ceiling windows looks onto a covered terrace which is now dotted by puddles and wet tables. Inside, there is one table set where Zoe, I, and several of her colleagues will enjoy lunch.
While we wait for the others to join us, Zoe takes me through some of Rasova’s wines, beginning with two white wines made from rare and nearly extinct varietals. The first is the Rasova 2017 Columna, a white wine made from Columna grapes, a varietal made in 1985 by crossing Pinot Gris with Grasa de Cotnari. Columna means column and its name so because the vines grow tall and upward. Zoe says the varietal has enormous potential, but as of now, there is just a single 2-hectare vineyard with only 3,000 plants. They must purchase the grapes. The 2012 Rasova Columna shows aromas of citrus, lemon zest, and flower. On the palate, it’s crisp with good acidity, body, and mouthfeel with flavors of grapefruit, banana peel, and flowers.
Just as she’s about to pour me a taste of the Mamaia, her colleagues show up, and we all sit down for lunch. We start with a traditional Romanian dish of an eggplant salad, where they grill the eggplant on an open fire, then remove the peels, squeeze out the moisture and chop it up, add oil and salt. The salad is creamy and delicious.
Most of the guests at the table speak only Romanian, except Leone, who is a viticulture consultant from Italy. He is helping Rasova in the vineyard, including identifying and mitigating any pests or disease that threaten the vines, as well as canopy management and harvest indicators. He is not only an expert in vineyard management, but he also rides a BMW GS motorcycle. Plus, his company consults with several wineries in California. Just last spring worked at Harlan Estate, one of the most prestigious Napa Valley wineries. As a fan of Harlan wines, I’m impressed to learn Leone worked with my friend and Harlan winemaker, Cory Empting—also a BMW GS rider. I could never have imagined finding such serendipitous coincidences in a remote part of Romania. We exchange emails and promise to connect again either in Italy or California.
Next, they serve us vegetable soup, and a traditional Balkan dish of green bell peppers sautéed in tomato sauce and served with cheese and ricotta.
Zoe pours me a glass of the Mamaia, which is another rare and endangered varietal. Like Columna, scientists created Mamaia in 1991 by crossing Muscat Ottonel with Babeasca Neagra and Merlot. Zoe laughs. “It has three parents, a menage a trois,” she says. Zoe laughs and tells me it’s the first time she explained Columna’s origin that way. I tell her there is a popular California wine called Menage a Trois. Like the Columna, Rasova doesn’t own the tiny half-hectare vineyard with only 3,000 vines planted with Mamaia. Zoe and the team at Rasova love Mamaia and Columna. She tells me they plan to plant several hectares of these grapes to ensure the varietals thrive.
The 2017 Rasova Mamaia is intensely aromatic with sweet tree fruit notes of Bartlett pear, melon, and jasmine. On the palate, it’s dry with medium acidity, good texture and fruit, and herbal notes.
After lunch, I taste through more Rasova wines, including a lovely Pinot Grigio and a Chardonnay that fooled me. I also taste the unfiltered Craft sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Mamaia.
The branding and label designs are unique and well thought out. Zoe brought on Daniel Negrescu, a talented marketing professional, to lead design and branding efforts. But it all started with the Rasova brand and a graphic of the sun and its rays. Because here in Dobrogea, where the vines receive perhaps more sunlight hours than anywhere else in Romania, it seemed appropriate for Rasova to represent the sun in its brand. Though they have much more production capacity, today they produce about 150,000 bottles under the Rasova Brand, as well as a bag-in-the-box program.
Rasova produces an entry-level line called La Plage. With a white blend called La Plage Alb, a red blend—La Place Rosu, and a rose made from Pinot Noir. The La Plage wines are marketed in distinct squatty bottles and sell for just 31 lei or about seven dollars.
The Rasova premium line features single varietal wines including the Pinot Gris and Chardonnay I tasted (45 lei/$10), plus a Cabernet Sauvignon (48 lei/$11), Sauvignon Blanc (45 lei/$10), and a Rose made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Feteasca Neagra (39 lei/$9).
As I gaze out the big windows, I see a crew with squeegees pushing water off the patio and wiping down tables and chairs with towels. There’s a display standing at the edge of the terrace. It’s made of iron and bamboo and decorated with hanging wineglasses of solid white and yellow plastic. Shaped in the iconic branded typeface of another Rasova line called NUD, the display is whimsical and fun.
Zoe tells me NUD, pronounced like nude, is a line targeted to a younger and clubbing audience. Instead of bottling it in a traditional wine bottle, they bottle it in a pyramid-shaped bottle typically used for a spirit like cognac. When Daniel presented the unique bottle, both Zoe and her husband rejected it. But when they asked their kids who are in their twenties, they liked it. So Rasova gave birth to the NUD brand.
The unusual NUD bottle challenged Rasova’s production and engineering team. The Italian firm that manufacturer Rasova’s automatic bottling line didn’t offer an accessory to support the unique bottle shape. It would be too hard to bottle it manually. However, one of Rasova’s maintenance team came up with a fix so they could use the automatic bottling machine.
Rasova offers two clubby and chill-able wines, a white called NUD Alb and a rose called NUD Roze. Both retail for 58 lei/$13 and are designed to be served chilled.
We walk out onto the terrace. It’s huge and seems designed to accommodate events, weddings, and parties. In fact, every year since Rasova opened its doors, the winery has produced and promoted events that pair its wines with music and food. Each year they hold several events called AER, pronounced like air, Zoe explains they are “Fresh Air events, Air for the eyes, Air for the soul, and Fresh Air for the brain. Everyone comes here. We have superb wine, food, and tomorrow we have one of the most famous musical artists in Romania.” The events start in the early evening and go long into the night. There is a stage, lighting, and sound.
I walk to the edge of the patio and try to look down to the Danube. Pointing to the bridge and then toward the horizon, Zoe says, “It’s beautiful when the sunsets and then the new bridge has beautiful lights. It’s so nice out here.”
Back inside the winery, we taste two wines from another of Rasova’s premium brands, “Imperfect.” She holds up a bottle of the 2018 Imperfect Feteasca Alba, a wine made from a native Romanian grape. Feteasca Alba means “white maiden.” She repeats the brand name, reading it off the label, “I imperfect.” it sounds like I’m perfect.”
The 2018 Rasova Imperfect Feteasca Alba is aromatic with intense floral notes on the nose showing white flower, hibiscus, peach, and pear around an herbal core of thyme. It’s got good acidity and flavors of peach, pear, and fresh herbs. To bring out these aromas and flavors, they blend three vinification techniques: skin maceration, natural pressing, and barrel fermentation in 225-liter French oak barriques. The wine seems fresh, and I only get a hint of the barrel on the nose. Production for 2018 was a scant 3,000 bottles and costs about 11 euros—a price I think is too low for this quality and limited production.
We finally move to Rasova’s red offerings with the 2016 Rasova Imperfect Feteasca Neagra—made from 100 percent Feteasca Neagra, another indigenous Romanian grape varietal. The now sold-out wine earned Rasova a gold medal from the Berliner Wein Trophy 2019 winter tasting. On the nose with plenty of dark fruits and on the palate, it has delicate balance, good structure with sweet tannins and a lovely finish of caramel and anise. They made just 3,000 bottles of the 2016 Rasova Imperfect Feteasca Neagra and sell it for 90 lei or about twenty dollars.
Zoe explains that 2016 was a very dry and challenging year. Though the red wines they made that year are stellar and two received gold medals in Berlin. Because of this arid dry climate in Dobrogea, and the threat of climate change, the consultants are taking a hard look at the possibility of selected irrigation. It’s not something they want to do, but the climate may force them to use irrigation—especially in troublesome years.
Zoe shows me the Rasova brochure with pictures of the vineyard. One photo shows a turtle basking in the sun and soil. “We have a lot of turtles in the vineyard,” she tells me as she pours me a taste of the next wine. That’s why we named this red blend Tortuga, the Spanish word for turtle.
The 2016 Rasova Tortuga is a blend of Syra, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Feteasca Neagra. On the nose, the wine exhibits aromas of cured meats, dried lavender, and earth with a hint of blackberry. It’s weighty, meaty, chewy, and bold on the palate. The wine is complex and finishes long with earth and herb notes. I love this wine. Production of the Rasova Tortuga is also low at about 3,000 bottles and costs about 86 lei or just under twenty dollars. Rasova also produces a white Tortuga, the Rasova Tortuga Alb which is a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris.
Rasova is just starting to export its wines abroad, and the UK is a solid market so far. Though Zoe tells me a tearful story where an importer submitted an order for the sold-out 2016 Tortuga. To fulfill the order, she gave up her personal allocation. Sadly, the wine never made it to London—the shipping company “lost” the shipment.
While sipping a glass of the Rasova Craft unfitted sparkling wine, I wander the terrace and restaurant and snap pictures. Zoe sits down with some of her staff and goes about her business—and organizing. The 2018 Rasova Craft is fresh with floral, honey, and yeast notes. Great acidity and the mid-palate packs lots of fruit with a tin of minerality and salinity—all because of the Calcareous soil, which prevents the vines from absorbing potassium in the soil— and it’s that potassium that consumes the yeast.
Zoe and her team of experts and consultants are focused on making terroir-driven wines. Rasova has the vineyard with many of its vines are now mature at about ten years old, and new vines are coming online each year. Rasova is an ultra-modern winery with innovative marketing, state-of-the-art equipment, and a drive to produce quality wines at excellent value. They offer a solid entry-level line up that appeals to both new, young wine drinkers. And they create limited edition and single varietal wines that pay tribute and honor Romania’s native grape varietals that appeal to more sophisticated wine-lovers.
Plus, with new experimental vineyards planned, Rasova is committed to rescuing and reinvigorating old and nearly extinct varietals such as Mamaia and Columna. The latter blended in this Craft sparkler I’m sipping. I look forward to returning to Dobrogea and Rasova in a few years to see how its vineyards continue to mature, and the winemaking continues to improve.
For the 2019 vintage, Rasova began working with noted Romanian winemaker Razvan Macici. Razvan served as head winemaker for Nederburg, the legendary South African winery where he developed the official wines for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. In addition to his work at Rasova, he still makes wine south of the equator for Ormonde, a boutique winery in Darling on the Cape West Coast in South Africa.
With the threat of rain on the horizon and a long journey ahead to Bucharest and then Dragasani over the next two days, I must pass on ending the AER event tomorrow. I cannot make Dragasani before dark, so Zoe suggests a hotel and reserves a room for me. We say our goodbyes, hugs, and handshakes with the team. I suit up and make my way back to the parking lot where the security guard gives me a thumbs-up as I motor away.
In the end, I guess he wasn’t so upset about me riding my bike up and down the sidewalk. At least I know better next time.
Alas, it’s nice to be in Romania.
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