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The Land Beyond The Forest: In Search of Romanian Wine


Stunning Scenery in Transylvania

Romania. I’m not too proud to admit that before I began looking into it, I couldn't have pointed out Romania properly on a map (other than somewhere in Eastern Europe) and my associations were: Dracula, and Romani Gypsies. Terrible I know. But what are your connotations of Romania?

As part of the WSET Diploma in Wine, for our sins, we have to write an essay on a global business topic, and for each cohort, a new topic is set. The briefing arrives by email. Cue hundreds of Diploma students around the world opening the email trepidatiously… Will it be something rather dry like Appellation systems, or packaging?

The topic is Romanian Wine, and its future on export markets. Cue a sigh of relief; at least it’s not corks and closures.

But then… a blank look. Romania? Do they even make wine? Cue downloading a Kindle book about Romanian wine… Cue a quick scout of flights on Skyscanner….

And so it began…

This was to be a trip beginning in a city I’d never even heard of, through the wine lands of Transylvania, through the Carpathian Mountains, out to the vineyards of Dealu Mare, and finishing in Bucharest (finally, somewhere I’d heard of).

THE CITY OF CLUJ NAPOCA: HIPSTERS, HAUNTED FORESTS & HAUTE CUISINE

Cluj (pronounced Clooge) as it turns out, is a pretty happening city. Lots of students come here to study, to take advantage of the cheap prices, and flourishing arts and culture scene. (The only person I knew who had already been here is a Contemporary Arts specialist; go figure). It has the hipster-friendly feeling of a gritty but gentrifying Eastern European city.

It’s also not very far from Hoia Baciu, a forest that repeatedly makes it onto lists of the World’s Most Haunted Forests, thanks to a combination of local folklore stories, UFO sightings and some strange (apparently unexplained) growth patterns in the trees.

I’m not really into frightening myself, but I was curious to see the strange trees and learn about the folklore stories, and so we planned a daytime tour with Alex, of the Hoia Baciu Project (named for the Blair Witch project; a film I still have no desire to see).

Alex is something of a celebrity in Japan after a documentary about ghost hunters and he is the perfect person to be running these tours. As a young bloke, he's not superstitiously religious, (apparently like some older Romanians), and as a Physics graduate, he has a healthy scepticism; “The forest is only haunted if you bring your own ghosts”. But all of this is tempered with a healthy imagination and curiosity… After all why would you set up a company doing tours into a haunted forest if you weren’t slightly curious yourself?

A Beautiful Tree With A Spiral Trunk

THE ORIGINAL VAMPIRE SLAYERS: THE MYTH OF THE STRIGOI

Where did the legend of vampires begin? In the Disney animation studios of Anaheim? In fact there's a basis in Romanian folklore, but they're not called Vampires; they are known as Strigoi.

The story varies as you travel around Romania, and as Alex said “They believe in Strigoi’s the further away you get from an internet connection”. The belief goes that when you die the spirit separates from the body. But sometimes there is a problem, and the spirit doesn't fully separate. These restless spirits will haunt a village with bad happenings. The milk will go bad. Some people will suffer from fatigue. Baby animals get ill and die, children will get sick. When these symptoms are noticed, the community has to take action. The restless spirit has to be set free, and laid to rest. How? The most recent people to have died will be dug up. A wooden stake will be plunged through the heart, setting the soul free, once and for all. Alex explained the Strigoi-slaying method varies according to local tradition; one more extreme example is to entirely remove the heart, burn the ashes and then drink the ashes mixed with water.

The real problem comes when one of these newly-freed spirits decides it doesn't want to leave; it wants to stay on this earth. In which case, they go into the forests, where the other Strigois live, and come out after dark. There are people in Romania, Alex said, who will tell you not to go into the forest at night, and be very serious about it.

(In fact, many people thought he was a but crazy when he set up his business, proposing to do exactly that, taking tourists into the forest at night).

Walking through the forest at Autumn was more a beautiful, peaceful experience than a scary one. Bright orange leaves were falling gently in the most picturesque way, lit brightly in the incredibly strong sunlight, even in late October.

THE CLEARING: THE IELE AND THE UFO'S

After a short walk we reached a clearing. It was here that in 1968 a military technician photographed what he believed was a UFO. Bear in mind that during the communist era, this was a kind of social and professional death. He lost everything but stood by his claim. Other strange lights and sightings have been reported over the years, with varying degrees of veracity.

So how did the clearing come to be?

The folklore answer lies in the iele - powerful female spirits. Something between a banshee and a siren, they are beautiful women who will lure men to their ruin.

Where these iele gather to dance a hora, a traditional dance, the vegetation doesn't grow. Some believe this lies behind the clearing.

HE'S BEHIND YOU! GREENERY OR GHOST?

Alex showed us a picture on Facebook taken by another guide, as she was sitting in the clearing. When it went online, the hive mind were quick to point out a ghost-like figure in the background, seemingly lurking at the edge of the clearing. The slightly creepy thing is the impression of the clothes this apparition is wearing… a baggy-sleeved white shirt, a tunic with an embroidered border across the bottom. I dare you to now google “traditional Romanian male dress”. A trick of the light on the tree leaves surely, but the impression especially when zoomed out, is certainly convincing...

ECTOPLASMS & STRANGE SHRIEKINGS

He also showed us pictures of so called ectoplasms - most likely to be reflected infrared light from a camera flash (invisible to naked eye but picked up in a camera lens).

The crazy screams that have terrified people to death? The gekkering of foxes. Something which Alex experienced first hand - though unfortunately for him, at the time he’d never heard a fox so he was more terrified than his Swedish visitors, who knew exactly what it was. (Knowing how much a fox call can sound like a woman’s scream I can’t imagine how terrified he must have been in those moments!)

TWISTED TREES & TECHNICAL FAILURES

However, it’s not all explained away. For the trees twisted in strange shapes, and those whose trunk’s spiral clockwise (always clockwise) there seems to be no clear explanation.

And could it be that one particularly distinctive tree on the edge of the clearing has only recently twisted? One of Alex’s acquaintances seems to think so, and says he has photo evidence to prove it… Alex himself was skeptical, (he hasn't seen the pics) but admitted he’s been doing these tours for several years now and only noticed that tree when the guy pointed it out, despite its relatively prominent position. (Perhaps this is simply the definition of the phrase, can’t see the wood for the trees?)

Of the reported strange paranormal energy, Alex told us how he’s experienced situations where people have come with filming equipment only to find them malfunctioning, batteries dying for no reason. Despite his cynicism, you get the sense he desires there to be something inexplicable about the forest; a childlike desire to believe in something extraordinary.

Mostly we enjoyed a peaceful walk, soaking up the beautiful colours and the satisfying sound and sensation of the fallen leaves underfoot.

BEFORE YOU GO....

As we left the forest and returned to the car we got to talking about all the interesting people he must meet, given the type of people the forest would attract. Indeed, people with ‘sensitivities’ as Alex put it. He said he likes to ask the people who claim to have these ‘sensitivities’ whether they sense any particular energy in certain places, especially around the clearing, (being careful not to lead the witness). Apparently a shaman and two self-proclaimed American witches, amongst others, have identified the spot where the supposed ghost in traditional clothing stood. The Shaman identified a masculine energy, an energy that didn't want him near there, while the witches identified a certain strong energy, though they hadn’t seen the photograph at that point….

Whatever I beleive about the forest I was really glad when it occurred to me that Alex had waited until after we’d left the forest to tell us that. And I was also glad when we were back in the distinctly worldly hustle and bustle of Cluj a short while later.

 

WHERE TO EAT & SLEEP IN CLUJ NAPOCA

As well as being host to one of the world’s most haunted forest, Cluj is also home to Romania’s best restaurant, by many accounts.

Baracca is a fine dining restaurant serving up some seriously imaginative, seriously delicious fare. If you’re ever anywhere near Cluj at any point, it’s worth making a pilgrimage to. World-class cuisine priced in Lei = major bargain.

Wine, Coffee and Brunch

Meron Coffee

Meron, right by the Hotel Plantinia for excellent coffee (and brunch looked good too).

Central Park Simion Bărnuţiu had a really lively vibe, especially Carrousel restaurant, though we didn't eat there, it looked like the perfect place for a summer drink. Followed by a walk up to Piața Muzeului (Museum Square) where there were lots more bars and restaurants and a lively, fairy string lit vibe.

Bruno’s Wine Bar - a sweet little wine bar with vaulted ceiling and good selection of Romanian varieties, right on Muzuelui Square.

Enigma Cafe - the steam punk vibe is a little outdated but I noticed they had an entire page of hot chocolate options, so might be fun if you're visiting on a cold day!

Having only been to Cluj once I can only recommend the place we stayed: the brand spanking new Hotel Platinia; Not in the Old Town, but would recommend. A huge, comfortable suite for only £120/night and free parking.

 

INTO THE TRANSYLVANIAN WILDERNESS

“Welcome to the Transylvanian Wilderness!” a very friendly Jonas Schaefer bellowed as he came to greet us at our lunch table.

Wilderness indeed - rough roads, and many a horse and cart punctuated our 3 hour journey from Cluj through beautiful rural scenery and crumbling, but pretty villages. It is one of Europe’s last truly rural areas, surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains - one of Europe’s last true wildernesses.

Did you know Prince Charles has taken quite an interest in preserving rural Transylania? Many of the renovation projects and UNESCO sites have the Prince of Wales to thank. You can in fact stay at the Prince of Wales Guesthouses, where he comes to stay once a year. They are a set of restored Saxon cottages, that look like taking an airbrushed step back in time.

“The Prince of Wales hopes that his guesthouse will encourage more people to visit Transylvania and in this way promote sustainable development,” with proceeds going to the Prince’s trust.

Scenes around Valea Verde

WHAT TO DO AND PLACES TO STAY IN TRANSYLVANIA

VALEA VERDE AND THE TRUFFLE-HUNTING CHIHUAHUA

What Jonas and Ulrike have created with Valea Verde is very clever.

They have cleverly capitalised on exactly the type of rustic chic that fair-weather travellers like me are looking for, it’s the perfect pastiche of the Transylvanian wilderness experience: folksy, cosy but also a little bit luxe and a big focus on fine dining and wine.

The activities on offer give you the picture: truffle hunting, artisan cheesemaking, horse riding, massage. “We can arrange for wilderness lunches in a wonderful forest clearing or on a great ridge-line with amazing views of the Carpathian mountains!”

Absolutely genius. Hence, I was delighted when we discovered we could squeeze in a lunch and a truffle hunt on our drive towards Biertan from Cluj.

Valea Verde

Lunch at Valea Verde

Lunch was a dish of tender Mangalica pork in a red wine sauce - (a type of pig that is a crossing between domestic pigs and wild boars, which grows a sheep-like woolly coat) - all paired with some lovely Romanian wines from producers Petro Vaselo and Lacerta.

As were finishing our dessert, we heard a commotion on the other side of the gate. A very lively little chihuahua escaped under the fence and started greeting everyone like he owned the place. His master, making sales out of the boot of his car, was dressed in head-to-toe camouflage, a pony tail, a huge creased smile - and a T-shirt emblazoned “Truffle Hunter”. He was everything I wanted him to be and more!

THE TRUFFLE HUNTING CHIHUAHUA

He spoke no English so we got by with our rudimentary French, at times no doubt talking at completely crossed purposes, but we had a whale of a time nonetheless.

We set off in the car with Sandru and his trusty truffle-snufflers, Dick and Mucki, and soon arrived at a patch of sloped forest.

Sandru The Truffle Hunter and His Chihuahua

For truffles you apparently need a good mixed forest - Hornbeam, Beech and Hazel are ideal, and it seems, a slight slope. The dogs, incentivised by a constant stream of dog treats, were constantly pawing at different spots and barking to signal they found something. Dick, the larger of the dogs seemed to have a penchant for truffles himself; Sandru was frequently tussling with him to prize a truffle from his jaws, while Mucki, the Chihuahua, seemed to get away with it while Dick was creating a distraction.

The Truffle Snuffler

Sandru also identified various mushrooms and edible plants including parasol mushrooms which he said are good to eat raw and he was not wrong, with perfectly white gills and a snakeskin pattern on the cap, they have a surprisingly delicious nutty flavour.

Incredible forest setting for our truffle hunt!

Despite how widespread they seemed to be, truffles are not actually part of Romanian traditional cuisine. If we understood correctly, they are also not regulated in Romania in the same way they are in Italy and France, so it’s easier, and cheaper, to go hunting for them. No licenses to pay I assume?

Before long our pockets were full of truffles, mushrooms and leaves that Sandru had foraged, much of the information as to varieties and uses entirely lost in translation in the beautiful chaos of the two lively dogs and our total elation at the whole experience. I can’t recommend it enough!

The Truffle Hunting Experience was arranged though Valea Verde Resort. Ask for Sandru!

Truffle Treasure!

Truffle Haul

COPSAMARE GUESTHOUSES

That evening we checked into the Italian-run Copsamare Guesthouses, another rustic chic get-up near the UNESCO world heritage village of Biertan with its stunning fortified church.

The traditional Saxon houses have been renovated very stylishly, and if I were a better photographer I could have done it greater justice.

The owner Simona is an excellent cook and makes a beautiful 3 course dinner with wine, served in the lovely, light-filled kitchen where everyone gathers for breakfast and dinner, looking out onto beautiful scenery and their kitchen garden. The rooms are stylishly simple but cosy, with a traditional fireplace and little traditional touches.

Copsamare Guesthouse

Copsamare Guesthouse

Copsamare Guesthouse

Copsamare Guesthouse

SUPERB PLACES TO STAY IN TRANSYLVANIA

A quick recap for you:

 

MEET THE THREE MAIDENS: ROMANIA'S NATIVE WINE GRAPES

Before we dive into the wine regions, let's talk grapes. A big barrier for consumers in English-speaking countries when it comes to wine is pronunciation. While having new, exotic varietals for consumers to discover is a strength for Romanian wine, the seemingly impenetrable language, with its many vowels and confusing glyphs, are not.

Helpfully, three of the key native grapes are, at least, linked by a memorable idea / word:

Feteasca - meaning lady, or maiden, and pronounced simply: Fet-as-ka.

So we have:

Fetească Albă - White maiden (Fet-as-ka Alba)

Fetească Regală - Royal Maiden (Fet-as-ka Regala)

Fetească Neagră - Black Maiden (Fet-as-ka Negra)

Easy really?

But then we have the floral Tămâioasă Românească (Pronounced something like Tam-oy-asa Roman-esca),

Crisp, fruity Cramposie.

Dark and spicy Negru de Dragasani.

Fetească Regală was given the regal name to try to elevate perceptions, whereas actually traditionally it’s been a workhorse grape, grown for its ability to produce massive yields, and many producers don't believe it has much quality potential. Villa Vinèa a notable exception, grown at extremely low yields.

Fetească Albă, merely ‘the white maiden’, much less exciting than a Royal Maiden, is actually the variety in which producers see lots of quality potential!

Fetească Neagră is tricky to grow, a little like Pinot Noir in being rather pernickety, but has a high quality potential. It was off the back of his first experience with this grape that the Count Guy Tyrel de Poix was convinced start a vineyard in Romania… Dark, spicy and powerful.

 

SCENES FROM TRANSYLVANIA

THE WINE LANDS OF TRANSYLVANIA

The Transylvanian Plateau, shares a similar latitude to Italy’s Alto Adige and at 1,500ft above sea level, favours fresh, crisp aromatic whites.

The scenery of this region is absolutely breathtaking. It’s genuinely some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.

Stunning scenes from Jidvei DOC

The Vineyards of Jidvei DoC

The Vineyards of Jidvei DOC

The Vineyards of Jidvei DOC

Our first winery visit was to be with the General Manager of Villa Vinea, Mircea Matei.

VILLA VINÈA

Villa Vinèa is a winery that wants to put Transylvanian quality wine on the map. Their first vintage was produced from this terroir in 2012, after a long journey from communism to private ownership, soil analysis and some serious relandscaping and replanting for quality viticulture.

Villa Vinea

In terms of grapes they grow the three maidens: Feteasca Regala - Royal Maiden, Feteasca Alba - White Maiden, Feteasca Negra - The Black Maiden) as well as many international varieties: Pinot Noir, Muscat Ottonel, Sauvignon Blanc, Kerner, Gewurtraminer, Zweigelt, Riesling, Chardonnay.

Winemaking is taken care of by a local winemaker who’s family has made wine for generations, in partnership with an Italian winemaker... A smart combination. They make a traditional method sparkling from 50% Feteasca Regala plus Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling. It spends a full 3 years on the lees in bottle, which represents a real investment in quality. Very few sparkling producers will have the bottle (sorry) to leave them that long before cashing in.

Villa Vinea

Fetească Regală, despite its regal name, has traditionally been a bulk wine grape, with not a great potential for quality. Villa Vinèa have amongst the lowest yields per hectarage in Romania, in search of quality (2 - 3,500kg/hectare) and to show the potential that this Transylvanian native has when treated like the lady she is.

When we tasted it, it was certainly one of the best, if not the best, we tasted, with a high acidity level at 6.5 g, but still surprisingly full bodied with lots of citrusy fresh, fruity, green apple, elderflower notes and a touch of peach. Unsurprisingly, it won 6 international gold medals - the most for any Romanian winery - at the International Wine Contest of Bucharest. The retail price in the winery shop? 30 Lei… just over a fiver.

This underlies the huge potential of quality wine in Romania - at the moment, if you choose carefully, you get much, much more than what you pay for.

Around a quarter of their production is exported but none to the UK yet. “People expect if it’s Romanian it should be cheap. But we don’t make cheap wine”. A theme emerges...

The country brand of Romania really stands in the way, and it will take time to shift perceptions and build more positive associations. Authentic, quality focused brands like Villa Vinea are going to be so important on that journey.

JIDVEI

Ask any Romanian about wine and there is one name they will surely know: Jidvei.

It’s Romania’s largest producer, producing a whopping 35million litres under the Jidvei house of brands, most of which is soaked up by the domestic market. They’re also custodians of Europe’s largest single vineyard area. They have 2,400 hectares of land, surely some of the most stunning land under vine in the world, with grapes vinified across 4 cellars, employing around 1,000 people.

I had the pleasure to meet Sorin Burnete from the winemaking team, and Professor Daniela Popescu from their research team to learn about this ambitious operation and their continual drive for quality.

From 1999 it has been under private ownership, with investment every year (from the owners and the EU) in more hectarage, cellar space and improved technology. They produce 45 labels under the Jidvei house of brands, including 5 sparkling wines (3 Traditional Method, 2 x Charmat [Prosecco] method) with 15 million bottles sold