A Pocket Guide- Red Romanian Grapes- Negru de Dragasani
This year Romania celebrates 100 years as a unified county, but for several centuries before the region’s historical provinces spoke a common language and shared similar customs and traditions. These included a talent for viticulture and passionate appreciation for wine. Today, the passion persists, and viticulture is still practiced throughout Romania, and several regions are certified DOCs. This is the localized version of Frace’s AOC or Italy’s DOC/DOCG. It is a system ensuring wine quality, harvested and made in a delimited area under specific regulations.
At the heart of the south-west of the country is Oltenia, which gets its name from the river Olt which flows from central Romania to the Danube. The region is known for the feistiness of its people (I should know, I have some family roots there) and home to grape varieties with equally strong characteristics.
Before getting into the details about the grapes, if you want to get into the right mood, try listening to some music. The Romanian folk is full of songs related to wine. This piece by Maria Tanase, probably the most prominent native Romanian singer, is about the pleasure of drinking wine and it is specific to Oltenia. The lyrics praise bright red wine, just like Negru de Dragasani. It’s all about the experience, drinking it with beautiful people makes it taste even better. On the other hand, drinking it with the wrong people feels like the wine just gets stuck in your throat.
Within Oltenia, and bordering close to the impressive Olt river, is Dragasani. This is home to Negru de Dragasani and Novac, two grape types which are “siblings”, descending from two old grapes the native “Negru vartos“ (strong black), no longer cultivated, and, some sources say, Georgian Saperavi. There is some debate here, as in some researchers, including Jancis Robinson, replace Saperavi with another native grape, Babeasca Neagra.
As the expressive names suggest, these two red grape varieties produce wines that are full of character. This post is about Negru de Dragasani, which is the more stable and mature sibling. Soon, we will also discuss the Novac.
Negru de Dragasani- A short description
Dragasani, both a town and region is home to several wineries that take full advantage of the right climatic conditions. Located very close to the 45th parallel, like Asti and Bordeaux, it benefits from a moderate continental climate with hot summers and cold winters. The sunny days are great for high sugar accumulation. Until recently, Negru de Dragasani was only grown in locally, but new plantings emerged in other DOCs most notably Dealu Mare and The Danube Terraces. Usually harvested in mid-September, traditionally it is a high yielding grape, sometimes twice as productive as the Feteasca Neagra, reaching up to 16 t/ha.
When youthful, Negru de Dragasani displays hues of intense ruby red, with violet reflections, aromas of black fruits, in particular, black cherries, sour cherries and forest fruits, complemented with spices of black pepper, cinnamon, and cloves. Higher quality wines express greater depth and complexity with hints of dark chocolate, tobacco, and vanilla. With bottle aging, dried fruit aromas are more present, mainly dried plums.
On the palate, you will find a dry, medium to full-bodied wine. If the wine is from a good vintage, you can feel intense fruit flavors and a good acidity which contributes to structure, helped by round tannins. You can expect higher alcoholic content, around 14% ABV, because of the warm climate, but when the wine is well made the alcohol is balanced by soft, round, fruit flavors and a long velvety finish.
Inspired by the global preference for rosé, it has also been turned into pink wine which displays typical fruity, fresh red fruit aromas and flavors, supported by citrus notes such as pink grapefruit.
It is also part of some great red blends, either with native grapes such as its sibling, Novac, with Feteasca Neagra or with international varieties like Merlot.
International ”Cousins” of Negru de Dragasani
If you are already a fan of elegant, velvety reds with delicious, intense black fruits and delicate spices, then it is easy to be seduced by Negru de Dragasani with hints of black and forest fruits. As most producers use some wood, you can expect to enjoy this if you love vanilla, dark chocolate, and tobacco in your wine.
Depending on the winemaker’s philosophy, Negru de Dragasani comes in a variety of style depending on the winemakers’ approach – from daring, bold fruit-forward wines to more restrained and subtle expressions with a restrained use of oak
Carmenere – The signature grape of Chile, but also planted in Bordeaux, and you can expect the same notes of dark fruit with hints of spices such as cinnamon and chocolate. Compared to Carmenere, most likely you will miss the more intense spices. Negru de Dragasani is more on the fruity side and often has subtler notes.
Cabernet Franc- This variety shares in common soft tannins and some rich and elegant notes. Expect to find similar traces of tobacco, leather with black cherries in more complex wines, which will also have the ability to age well ( 5-10 years) due to high acidity and well-integrated tannins.
Montepulciano- Good scores in the black fruits department, can have similar traces of dried plums. When the winemaker chooses a bolder and stronger style for Negru de Dragasani, you can feel the similarities to the Italian variety.
Food Pairing for Negru de Dragasani
More often than not Negru de Dragasani is an elegant red wine. It is medium to full-bodied with soft tannins and this texture pairs well with more delicate meats as well as mature cheeses such as blue cheese. With a starter, I would see it with some canapées with chicken or goose pate.
This is not just for special occasions, you can bring it to an international night with friends, and it will be a great companion to a spicy pizza or next to Thai Beef.
The spicy notes work well with succulent red meat like veal or lamb cooked in the oven. More expressive wines, with earthier notes, pair successfully with wild game and can be the perfect companion for wild boar sausages or roast venison.
If you want to go for the true Romanian experience, try it with some spicy sausages, like Carnati de Plescoi or ”Babic”, which is half pork half beef dried sausage. The fruitiness and subtle spicy notes in the wine pair beautifully with the spicy flavors in the meat, while the tannins cut through the fattiness.
The chocolate notes are also a good match for more sophisticated desserts. Personally, I love to kill my diet and drink it next to a dark chocolate mousse or a chocolate ganache cake, just be sure to choose the more bitter versions, with at least 75% cocoa.
I would like to offer my kind thanks to Oliver Bauer for taking the time to answer all my questions about Negru de Dragasani and Novac and suggesting wonderful food pairings and other friends in the wine industry for making excellent observations and comments.