Today’s journey will take me from north Bucharest to Dragasani, one of Romania’s prominent wine regions and home to several of the most regarded producers in the country. I’ve got a three o’clock appointment at Crama Prince Stirbey, a winery focused on making wine from and celebrating indigenous Romanian grape varietals. I’ll meet with Stirbey winemaker Oliver Bauer who also bottles wine under his own Bauer label. Oliver’s wife, Raluca, kindly offered to help find and make reservations for a nearby hotel.
The ride north to Dragasani should take about three hours. Once I am out of the mayhem and madness of Bucharest and its endless traffic circles, I follow my GPS prompts to the busy route E81 and onward to Pitesti, a busy commercial-industrial center tucked up next to the Arges River.
After winding through more traffic circles, my GPS guides me out of Pitesti and onto a smaller secondary road, route 67B. Traffic thins and soon I’m on a smaller rural road. The pavement desperately needs repair and maintenance. Though I’m relieved to be about the only one traveling this route today. And while I don’t have to battle cars, trucks, and traffic, for the next hour, I must wage war with the potholes and cracks in the road.
After a bone-pounding ride, I cross the Olt River and cruise into the tiny town of Dragasani. It’s hot, and I’m sweating. So I find shade and pull over to check my messages and cool off. There’s an urgent message from Raluca informing me that all accommodations in the town of Dragasani are fully booked. Fortunately, she knows the owner of a guest house just twenty minutes away. She also arranged for a driver to take me to the winery so I can taste wine without worrying about riding my motorcycle back.
The ride to the guest house in nearby Lungesti takes me down narrow roads and through a couple of tiny villages. After about fifteen minutes, I realize the GPS hasn’t prompted me to turn—or do anything. By my calculation, I should be close. A few moments later, I come to the end of the road, and my GPS is silent. I pull over and yank the phone out of my jacket. Sure enough. The phone is toasty hot and shut down, only the heat warning symbol on the screen. No wonder the phone never prompted me another turn.
I take cover in a compact building that I assume serves as a bus stop. Every minute I wait feels like five. After ten minutes, the phone reboots, and soon I’m retracing my route back to where I thought I should have turned. No worries. Soon I’m parking my bike in the back of Pensiunea Codrii Mamului. The owner’s son greets me, shows me to my room, and tells me he’ll drive me to the Prince Stirbey Winery when I’m ready. The place is clean and seems like new construction. Even better, I’ve got the place to myself this evening. There are no other guests.
After I go through the ritual of unpacking the bike, getting out of my riding gear, showering, and changing into fresh clothes, I’m off with my driver. We pass through the town of Dragasani and then climb up a hill and motor down a dirt road to Crama Prince Stirbey.
Oliver Bauer greets me, and we walk into the winery. Sporting a calm smile accented by well-groomed salt and pepper hair and a neatly trimmed beard to match, Oliver speaks with a German accent colored by a tinge of Romanian. It’s a clue to his more than fifteen years living in Romania. As he tells me about the history of Prince Stirbey, I can’t help but wonder what catalyst pushed a young German guy to pull roots from his native land and move to the Romanian countryside.
As Oliver guides me into the iconic building, he explains that Prince Barbu Alexandru Stirbey built the winery in the 1920s. Yet the Stirbey royal connection dates back much farther. He points out that even today, Stirbey royal blood still flows through the estate. Ileana Kripp, who, along with her husband Jakob own and operate the winery today, is the great-granddaughter of Prince Stirbey. But the story is much more thorny and romantic.
The Stirbey family’s history in this region dates back to the 15th century. After the failed Wallachian revolution of 1848, the Ottoman’s awarded the throne (Domnitor) of Wallachia (Țara Românească) to Prince Barbu Stirbey. Reforms brought about by Prince Stirbey brought prosperity to the region. Years later, around 1895, Stirbey’s grandson Prince Barbu Alexandru served as a king’s counselor and, in 1927, became Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Romania. During that time as a nobleman, he not only amassed fame and wealth but also hundreds of hectares of vineyards throughout Romania, including 20 or so here in Dragasani. He also built a winery on this spot overlooking the Olt River and bottled wines under the Stirbey label. Oliver explains that “at the time Romanian wines were famous, appreciated throughout Europe, and considered quite fancy.” In fact, they served Stirbey wines on the infamous Orient Express.
After Prince Stirbey’s death in 1946, his eldest daughter, Princess Maria Stirbey, inherited the estate. Though the princess never had a chance to carry on. The Stirbey family lost its empire and estate in 1949 when the communists expropriated private property and other assets. The totalitarian regime imprisoned or sent to forced labor camps anyone considered hostile to the communist party, including many from the Stirbey family. Thousands died in the camps and prisons because of famine, disease, and torture. In 1969, when she was just 15 years old, Ileana escaped with her family to France. She acclimated to French culture, learning to speak French, and never thought about returning to Romania.
Years later, after the Romanian revolution of 1989, Ileana still had no intention of returning to her homeland. But while touring vineyards in Germany, she met Jakob Kripp. The two fell in love and soon married. Intrigued by his bride’s noble past and the country she had fled, he convinced Ileana to spend their honeymoon in Romania. So twenty-eight years after her escape, in 1997 the couple spent a month exploring Romania and the former Stirbey estate. Tempted by the idea of reclaiming Ileana’s inheritance, Jakob and Ileana returned to Romania two years later. Even if they couldn’t recover the property, the couple were ready to buy back the property and vineyards.
They filed a restitution claim and by 2001 the new government returned the legendary Prince Stirbey estate to Ileana and Jakob. The couple returned to Dragasani and set out to bring it back to its historical glory.
As we step down into the cellar, Oliver explains that when the Kripp’s returned to the property, they found the vineyards were in better shape than the winery. Restoring the property would be more costly than building a new winery. So the Kripp’s demolished the old winery and went about rebuilding and meticulously reconstructing the original architecture of the former winery as it was in the 1920s. Oliver points out that the only thing different is the shade cover on the outdoor terraces that look over the vineyards the Olt River—making the outdoors more comfortable during the heat of Dragasani summers.
Amazingly the gentleman who tended to the vineyards when the state-owned and managed the property, Dumitru Nedelut, tended to the vines from the fall of the regime and still tends to them today. So the Kripp’s purchased new vineyards and hired Dumitru to restore, replant, and revitalize the estate vineyards.
“From the beginning, the focus was on indigenous varietals,” Oliver explains, “and single varietal and single-vineyard wines.” With Dumitru tending to the vines, the Kripp’s still needed a winemaker.
“We met for the first time at a beer garden in a town near Munich,” Oliver explains, referring to meeting Jakob and Ileana. “Enjoying a nice beer and dining on some nice dishes, we discussed the issues and possibilities of making wine in Romania.” As the beer and food flowed, they discovered they shared so many ideas and passions. “We both agreed that given a choice, we would choose Burgundy over Bordeaux—with the diversity and finesse of Burgundy over the power and punch of Bordeaux.”
So in 2003, Oliver moved to Romania to lead winemaking for the Kripp’s now resurrected Prince Stirbey winery. “Making wine from indigenous varieties and focusing on single varietal and vineyard wines was a novel approach at the time,” he says. “Back then, people considered us to be crazy and nuts.” Prince Stirbey promoted wine made from Cramposie Selectionata, Feteasca Regala, and Tamaiosa. I have a hard time with the pronunciation, and I try to ask questions about the grapes. Oliver looks at me with a smile, “Don’t worry—it took me over a half a year to learn to pronounce these things.” We laugh.
Many Romanians associated these indigenous varietals with the tragic past of state-owned industrial wineries and co-operatives.
Oliver believes the Romanian people are now more accepting of indigenous varietals. “Back then, it was risky. I don’t think I would have left Germany if they wanted to produce international wines,” admits Oliver. “But today there is national pride—for national varieties and national products—with quality.”
Since the beginning in 2003, Prince Stirbey produced Cramposie Selectionata. Yet Oliver points out that they can trace the roots of the varietal in the region back 2,000 years or more. “Today, Stirbey is well known for this wine, and customers see a relationship between the varietal and the Prince Stirbey winery. This is pretty cool,” Oliver is now more animated, moving his hands and speaking passionately. “This is an enormous achievement for me, and it’s an excellent sign for both the local varietal and Prince Stirbey.”
Prince Stirbey produces about twenty different wines, half white and half red, but production is higher for its white wines. They make sparkling wines, rose, dry whites and reds, and sweet whites. “We have a wide range of wines,” Oliver points out. “The estate has the capacity to produce more, but we are using only the best grapes—the sirloin—so I decide what I want to make.”
As we squeeze through the cellar, we pass a stack of cages with bottles awaiting labeling. “I’ve worked in more than seven or eight wineries in my life, including my parents. It’s the same in every winery, there is never enough space.”
Depending on the vintage, Stirbey produces between 80,000-120,00 bottles each year. “Even if we wanted to grow bigger and make more, I don’t think it’s possible because we don’t have space.” He’s proud to note that they tend to all of Prince Stirbey’s vineyards by hand.” In the future, I don’t know if we can keep up production,” he says with worried eyes. “My ladies, the professionals working in the vineyard, have been with us since the beginning.” He knows they are getting older and worries about finding quality labor as they retire.
“All my workers have gardens and vines in their home,” he says, “they know plants, they live and breathe agriculture, and I love working with them. I want to keep it as personal as possible and less mechanical. But this will get more difficult.”
To maintain production, Stirbey must find capable professionals to work the vineyards. “I can feel the heat already,” says Oliver. “I could use double the quality labor force I have today. And I’m not the only one. Last week I traveled the country, securing grape contracts for Bauer. Everybody says the same thing. And it’s not only viticulture. Other industries here from IT to retail to agriculture are feeling the same labor pinch.
The brain drain he speaks of is symptomatic of a more significant problem throughout the eastern European countries now in the EU. With salaries higher in western Europe, the younger generation is fleeing their homelands in search of more comfortable living and more prosperity. With the older generation staying put, there is a hole left by the younger generations. They need the energy that drives change, innovation, and growth. There are exceptions. Just not enough.
“The younger generation isn’t interested in, for the most part, the hard work necessary for working the vineyard,” he says. “It’s not that they’re not willing, but they can find easier work that pays more elsewhere.” He notes that even the less educated agricultural workers can get paid for the same work in other EU countries.
“We pay our workers well,” admits Oliver, “but I cannot offer the huge salaries as the Germans.” He concedes that Romania also has a much less cost of living. “That’s why I left Germany,” he admits, “It’s funny, many smart and educated Germans leave Germany in search of a future elsewhere. And people from poorer countries move to Germany where they think it will be easier to make a living.”
There are opportunities to study viticulture, agriculture, and winemaking in Romania. But Oliver believes the best education comes from hands-on experience. “Agriculture functions have other rules, and we have to respect these rules,” he says. “I’m happy I can work here at Stirbey with experienced professionals.” He speaks of the Dumitru Nedelut, the vineyard manager who’s worked the vines for more than 35 years.
“Can you bring the best students from the university and achieve the same results at the same time?” His eyes squint as he shakes his head. “Mr. Nedelut will just smoke them into a pipe. They need time in the vineyard and in the winery.”
While the labor issue won’t go away anytime soon, Oliver admits that, for now, they are doing okay. He reveals that the winery never sought funding from the European Union. “Everything you see here we paid for by what we made—our earnings.”
“I think of myself more as a wine guide, than a winemaker. My wines are like kids. Normally they are good kids.”
Even with some twenty different wines, Oliver tells me Stirbey is one of the very few Romanian wineries who market only one range of wines. “We have just one wine, Prince Stirbey. Not a bunch of labels with different quality ranges.” He explains that they don’t sell bulk wine, bag-in-a-box wine, or entry-level or premium brands. “This is something we decided at the start,” he explains. “A lot of larger operations sought funding support from the EU or took on debt to plant 100 to 300 hectares of wine.” According to Oliver, these wineries are deluded if they think they can sell 300,000 bottles of premium wine for 20 euros. When they can’t, they look at other markets.
Oliver points out that several years ago, vineyard owners and wineries used the entire production of their vineyards. “If you offered to buy grapes from someone they’d say ‘no, no, no, these are my grapes.’ they are not for sale.” Today there is a secondary market for grapes, but not enough buyers. “So they make another range, and then another range. After a few years, they find themselves with so many ranges or levels of wine.”
Sometimes, these vineyard owners plant grapes that Oliver feels should never be planted in a particular region. “For me, the best wine comes from places where the plants feel at home. This is where you will always find excellent wine.”
“I love Riesling,” he continues. “But I cannot grow Riesling here. I would love to grow it, but not here. But I can find it in Transylvania,” Oliver admits, referring to the northern part of Romania near the Carpathian Mountains.
We walk up to a big bin filled with dozens of bottles of pink colored wine with no labels. I sense Oliver has much more to say, so rather than ask about the wine, I talk about Dragasani.
“It’s so beautiful up here,” I say, “it looks like Tuscany.
“Think about, Allan,” Oliver leans against the bin and talks about life in wine country. “The best thing about winemaking is I don’t know one ugly wine region, has terrible people, anything brutal. Where there’s wine, there is always excellent food, relaxed and laid back people, and a rich culture with history. That’s what for me is pretty cool. And this is my job. It’s a lifestyle, it really is a lifestyle.”
We’re deep in the Stirbey cellar and talking about lifestyle and the Stirbey and Bauer philosophy for making wine. At Stirbey, they don’t pick the grapes all at once. Instead, they handpick in several rounds. “I’m never picking unripe or overripe. I like to be as precise as possible.” He is letting a little of his German heritage show. “I only pick the grapes when they are ripe in the way I like them.”
“I pay attention to the wines and value doing everything by hand,” he continues. “I want every plant to be treated like a personal character, a personality. If one plant is weaker, we have to help. If others are too strong, we know somewhere else the vines are losing energy. So we adapt to each plant with canopy management. It’s important to me that we do everything by hand, no machinery.”
During harvest, they gather the handpicked and selected grapes in 12-14kg plastic boxes and truck them to the winery. Inside the winery, we go through another sorting and selecting process. For the whites, Oliver macerates and presses them directly into stainless steel tanks. He ferments the red grapes on the skins and, depending on the varietal, in either Romanian oak or stainless steel tanks. “After fermentation, I leave the wine on the skins for another four to six weeks.” He insists that the extraction of tannins, color, and aromas be accomplished only by “time, alcohol, and temperature.”
“I don’t treat the grapes mechanically at all. I don’t want to press it out; I want it to dissolve,” Oliver explains. “This smooths out the tannins and doesn’t give it as much color. Wine should not and does not have to be inky. We want a nice red wine color that shines and has good acidity and not too much alcohol.” Oliver admits this is difficult. “It’s hot here. We are always fighting too much sugar. We don’t want to add water to the must like it’s possible in other regions—it’s illegal in Romania, anyway. Our wine should not exceed 14.5 or 15 percent alcohol. This is my limit for reds, while for whites it’s 14 percent. Otherwise, it’s difficult to find balance in the wine.”
After fermentation and maceration, they age the red wines in Romanian oak. At Stirbey, Oliver uses three sizes, including the classic 225-liter barrique, and 300- and 400-liter barrels. The size of the barrel determines the tannin structure of the wine. “So for soft and lighter tannins we use bigger barrels and for stronger tannins, as you have with Merlot or Cabernet, we. use the smaller barriques.”
He ages the wine in barrel for 12-14 months and two-and-a-half years for the reserve wines. “I keep them on the lees the entire time and rack the barrels just once,” I question the minimal racking and ask if he ever has problems.
“I’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years and have yet to have a problem,” he says. “If the wine is healthy, and the yeast is healthy, it’s all good. Sure, I have had wines that I wasn’t satisfied with, so I didn’t bottle them, but not because of defects.” He walks up to one barrel, “knock on wood.”
Several of the heads of the Romanian barrels show cracks and wine stains. Oliver explains that he sees quality worsening every year. The quality sucks,” he points to a barrel. “Look, this is a new barrel. Today people don’t seem to care. Nobody would’ve accepted these barrels twenty years ago.” He shudders while informing me winemakers use the barrels for two to three years and then throw them away. “I am completely against this legal theft of natural resources. It often takes more than 100 years to care for a tree so it will provide high-quality wood. To throw away a barrel after two to three years after all mother nature gave to you, it’s ridiculous. It’s complete bullshit.”
We walk over to the stainless steel tanks where Stirbey has many sizes, from 500 to 8,000 liters. Oliver explains they have so many sizes because they harvest each lot in the vineyard separately. He ferments each lot individually, so the grapes remain separate until after fermentation—through the first racking. “I do this so I can determine quality, identify problems, or find something really cool.” After that first racking, he then blends the different lots to achieve a uniform single varietal wine.
As we walk back to the bin of pink bottles, he cannot resist pointing out that the blending of different lots is called a Cuvee. “This is the nasty thing about us Germans,” he says, smiling, “We are very precise all the time, and it’s really annoying.” He feels I must know the truth: wineries labeling varietal blends are doing it wrong. “We don’t do any blends here,” he assures me, referring to a multi-varietal mix. “A Cuvee is a blend of one varietal. An assemblage, as they should label it, is a blend of multiple varietals.” He confesses that they do one blend at Stirbey—a field blend of mixed plantations.
For the Stirbey wines, Oliver aims to achieve balance and equilibrium in everything they do. “I love how we can combine ancient traditional winemaking methods and enrich and improve them with modern technology and knowledge.” He pauses for a moment and laughs.
“I can bet you that if the first winemakers in Persia or Mesopotamia had stainless steel, they would have never used clay or terra-cotta amphoras.” He smiles as he speaks of “crazy biodynamic” winemakers making orange wines and using amphoras. “I was at a wine fair in France and asked this famous French winemaker who makes biodynamic wines if he used amphoras. I’ll never forget his answer.
“Look, I’m not going to put my wine into flower pots,” Oliver smiles. “I couldn’t agree more!”
Of course, he recognizes they’re not flower pots and respects the reluctance to using wood. Yet he understands where modern technology can help avoid spoilage or degradation of quality. “We can take advantage of modern technology by investing in tanks, a good press, and a high-performance filter that is soft and filters gently as possible—and a quality bottling line. “For me, everything else is controlled laziness. I only intervene if it’s absolutely necessary.
“I think of myself more as a wine guide than a winemaker. My wines are like kids. Normally they are good kids.” He lets out a roar of a belly laugh when he says, Sometimes we have to give these kids a bit of discipline.”
“I don’t want my wines to be the same every year. Sure, I want them to go in the same direction, but I want them to show and express the unique and particular characteristics of each vintage. For example, a hot year will differ from a cool year. I want to make hand-crafted wines. Without craftsmanship, you have the Coca-Cola-ization of winemaking. So craftsmanship is critically important to me.”
He grabs one of the pink bottles from the bin, an unlabeled 2013 Prince Stirbey sparkling wine made in the traditional méthode Champenoise from the Romanian Novac grape. I notice all the bottles in the bin still contain yeast and are sealed with crown bottle caps. At Stirbey, they let the sparkling wines sit for at least three years after completing the secondary fermentation in the bottle. This bottle has already seen almost six years of aging.
As with all wines made in the traditional way, when it’s time, they will place the sparklers in this bin in individual holders that hold the bottle upside down. Then they will manually riddle the bottles (regularly rotate them slightly), so the yeast gathers at the top in the bottleneck. The yeast is then frozen just before Oliver opens each bottle, allowing the pressure in the bottle to push the frozen yeast out. Instead of using a dosage or liqueur d’expedition as the French call it, Oliver adds a bit sulfur, tops it off with the same wine, and then seals it with the traditional cork and cage (muselet); in otherwords, it’s dosage-zero for all Stirbey sparklers.
We walk upstairs and outside to the terrace; the view is beautiful, but it’s too hot to taste wine, so we sit inside the cozy retail tasting room. Our first wine is the 2013 Prince Stirbey Rose Sparkling Wine made from Novac. This one has a label, and Oliver just disgorged it in April, four months ago.
He pours the bubbly wine into a white wine glass. It’s pale in color like a pink rose and shows aromas of strawberry, dried apple, raspberry, and cherry blossom. On the palate, its crisp acidity and beautiful structure give the wine a perfect balance. On the palate, I get lively fruit flavors that finish with creamy Marcona almond.
“This is the first and only sparkling wine in the world made from Novac,” Oliver explains. “The 2013 is the current release, but it’s only recently disgorged.” He explains why a sparkling wine should remain on the lees for an extended time. “Anybody making a serious sparkler must respect it must set on the lees for more than three years. Otherwise, it’s a sparkler without the maximum benefit of autolysis—and that’s what I’m after. This way, the wine evolves and developers character, complexity, and texture.” I am impressed that they don’t disgorge all the sparkling wine at the same time. Instead, disgorging only when inventory drops and they need more. The wine retails for about 95 lei in shops or about 19 dollars.
Swirling the glass and watch the tiny bubbles stream from the bottom of my glass and upward, I remark how happy I am he served me the sparkling wine in a regular glass and not a flute.
“I hate flutes for sparklers,” he’s happy to agree, “a sparkler needs space.”
Next, he pours me a taste of the 2018 Prince Stirbey Cramposie Selectionata, Dragasani. “This is the backbone of Stirbey, he tells me. “This is the varietal where we can trace its roots back some 2,000 years ago to the Dacian time.” He points out that the ancient grape Cramposie was poor at flowering because it required pollination from another grape. So they always planted Cramposie in mixed vineyards. It would take six to eight weeks to flower. This resulted in uneven ripening.
“Imagine clusters of grapes where one berry is overripe, and another is green and hard.” Because it was impossible to get uniform ripening, Romanian researchers set out to create a forced but natural hybrid. Back in the 1970s in a research center here in Dragasani using a controlled vineyard, researchers kick-started a natural hybridization by selecting vines that flowered on their own and thinned out those that did not. The result of this forced hybridization was Cramposie Selectionata. Oliver is quick to point out that “this is not a crossing, it’s a hybridization.”
“Cramposie Selectionata is very fleshy with big berries and very strong skins,” Oliver explains. “So we macerate them from four to twelve hours on the skins, fermenting half of them with natural yeast from the cellar and half with selected yeast.” He does this to ensure the wine is very dry with less than two grams of sugar. He then lets the wine sit for a minimum of six months on the lees.”
“We normally won’t bottle before March to April,” says Oliver. “If you bottle immediately after fermentation, you can clean and clarify it, but if you don’t grant the wine some time, you end up with a one-dimensional wine. Sure, you get fruit, but only fruit. If you do this, you’re killing the backbone. With time, the wine develops a backbone. Without that, after six months or a year, the wine is on the way down—you’ve killed its potential.”
The 2018 Prince Stirbey Cramposie Selectionata, Dragasani is light straw in color and exhibits a lovely bouquet of aromatics, including floral notes, citrus, and honey. And on the palate, it’s crisp, with good acidity and a welcome minerality given the hot climate. The wine packs a punch of fruit in the mid-palate and finishes long with a lingering flavor of lemon zest and honey.
Sitting inside the historic winery and sipping wine made from ancient grapes, on one wall, I see an illustration of the Stirbey family tree. The framed print shows the family’s royal roots from Ileana’s grandmother dating back to the 15th century and beyond.
I feel honored to be tasting wines with a German winemaker who’s dedicated his life and passion for making wine in Romania. Oliver honors both the legacy of the Prince Stirbey Estate and the importance of using traditional Romanian varietals. I hoped to also meet Jakob and Ileana Kripp. But after I reached out to them, I discovered he and his wife are out of the country. This just gives me an excuse to come back to meet them and spend more time with Oliver.
Grabbing a larger glass off the shelf, Oliver pulls the cork off another Prince Stirbey white wine and pours me a taste. The label design is a departure from the classic Prince Stirbey designs with its crown and coat of arms. Instead, it’s a vintage illustration of a youthful woman peering through an opening of a wine barrel wearing a crown of grapes on her head.
This is the 2015 Prince Stirbey Feteasca Regala Fata din Butoi (barrel fermented and aged on the lees with six months of battonage). Feteasca Regala translates to the “Royal Maiden” grape. The illustration adorning the bottle is from a pre-communist advertisement for Stirbey wines and could very well be a Royal Maiden. I swirl the glass, and the aromas jump from the glass. This is the most aromatic wine so far, showing floral notes wrapped around fruity aromas of melon, lemon-line, and green apple. On the palate, the deep structure and fine tannins follow with complex tropical fruit and finishing with nut and almond. The wine is balanced, viscous, and beautifully rounded.
What makes Feteasca Regala so different, Oliver tells me, are the tannins. “I don’t know of another white wine that has this enormous amount of natural tannins. The tannic structure comes from the grape,” he says. “It just has lots of tannins. “We crush the berries and sue only free run must and age it over two years on the lees in neutral barrels that are more than four years old.”
The fruit comes from an old vineyard, forty or more years old. “The old vineyard has very low yields,” he explains.
He tells me that they sneak this into white Burgundy tastings where the wine is up against great French chardonnay from Montrachet, Pouilly-Fuissé, Meursault, and others. “They like the wine, but nobody has ever identified this wine with the correct varietal or country of origin. Most people don’t have Romania on the map of the wine world.” I take another sip and think, in time, this will change.
In another glass, Oliver pours the next wine, 2016 Prince Stirbey Novac, which he calls a “Pinot Noir substitute.” To ensure the wine has finesse and balance, Oliver simply de-stems the grapes and then overpumps the wine, a process where the juice from the grapes on the bottom of the barrel or tank is pumped over the cap—the solid grape skins that collect at the top—during fermentation.
Once again, he tells me, “I want to extract tannins, color, and aromas only by time, alcohol, and temperature. The only pigeage is over-pumping to reduce the mechanical movement of grapes as much as possible. I’m not cooling the tanks during fermentation, and I’m not crushing the grapes for this wine. I prefer to keep it elegant. This is the most feminine red wine we have. It’s like a Pinot Noir.”
In the vineyard, Oliver refers to the Novac grape as his Diva. “It’s susceptible to disease and sensitive to rough conditions during the growing season.” The biggest problem with Novac is its thin skin and size of its berries and the compact and large clusters. It just takes one heavy rain when its ripe to tear cracks in the skin and then rot easily takes over.” He says when this happens its nearly impossible to find a single healthy berry. “In the cellar during vinification, we have to further take care of our Diva Novac,” he says. “It requires patience and more aging before its ready; unlike Negru de Dragasani.”
The ruby-colored 2016 Prince Stirbey Novac spent 18 months in 400-liter barrels, about 20% new. On the nose, I get aromas of meat, toast, bacon fat, almond, and tertiary notes of dried cherry. On the palate, the very velvety smooth mouthfeel shows beautiful balance, finesse, and yet still has structure and complexity. The dried herb and cherry flavors flow through the mid-palate with very soft tannins and finishes with a hint of black tea and chocolate.
Oliver insists he wants the Novac to clock in at 13.5 percent or less in alcohol. “I try to keep the wine in balance and with no overripeness which would give Novac a jammy, marmalade taste and smell. The wine should go well with food,” he says.
“For me, wine should accompany good food,” he continues. It’s funny, so often the notion is food should accompany wine. He continues, “A wonderful meal is only half as good if you don’t have a glass of wine,” he says, smiling.
“Or two or three,” I add.
“Do you know how many bottles of wine it takes to cook a coq au vin,” he asks me, referring to the classic French dish of roasted chicken braised in red wine, mushrooms, and garlic. “It takes three bottles,” he points out. “You need one for the coq au vin. You need another for the chef to drink while cooking. And the third bottle is served at the table with the completed coq au vin.” We all laugh.
He pulls the cork out of another Prince Stirbey red wine. “This is the brother or sister of Novac,” he says. “To create the Novac grape, Romanian researchers crossed the Georgian grape Saparavi with Negru Virtos,” he says. He places the bottle of the 2017 Prince Stirbey Negru de Drăgășani Reserve on the table. “Most believe they created this grape using the same crossing,” but he’s not convinced this is accurate. “The Negru is everybody’s darling,” he says. “It’s much more successful because it’s more approachable. It’s easy and profound at the same time, and if you want, you can make it jammy.”
“The two wines are profoundly different,” he points out. “Novac has stronger character and is the underdog of the two grapes. Nobody else yet makes a 100 percent Novac,” he reminds me. “Novac is like an unwanted kid. It’s difficult and a pain in the ass in the vineyard. I like Novac, perhaps because I like underdogs.”
I swirl my glass and take in the aromas of the 2017 Prince Stirbey Negru Dragasani Reserve. It’s got much more red and dark fruit than the Novac, showing blackberry, cherry, and a bit of baking chocolate and mocha. On the palate, it’s wildly seductive with dark black cherry, anise, and chocolate flavors. It packs a bigger punch and doesn’t have the elegance of the Novac. I can see why it’s more accessible than the more delicate and complex Novac. Both wines tell their own story of Romanian wine—and each wine is appropriate to drink at different times.
As we discuss the nuances of the wines and Romanian varietals, nearly two hours have passed. We could continue tasting and discussing Romanian wines from Prince Stirbey, but lunch will soon be served at Crama Bauer or Bauer Winery. We will continue the conversation over more wine made under the Bauer label just a few hundred meters down the road.
Mentioned In This Post
Crama Prince Stirbey
Drăgășani 245700, Romania
+40 751 252 272
Strada Dealul Olt Nr. 10
Drăgășani 245700, Romania
+40 757 098 940
Pensiunea Codrii Mamului
Nr. 223 Comuna Lungesti, sat
Lungeşti 247325, Romania
+40 763 691 222