The 3Vs of Cotnari: Vine, Volume, and Vision
Cotnari is located in the eastern part of Romania. It is almost at the end of the grape-growing band of the Northen hemisphere, around 47 degrees, like Tokaji and Champagne. The designation “Cotnari” is the name of a village, a PGI, a traditional winery and part of the name of another younger winery. These instances, together, they tell a story of generations and speak about cherishing a legacy.
The name was most famous until now in the wine world for the “Grasa de Cotnari”, a white wine, usually sweet or medium-sweet, with an intense floral and honey blossoms perfume. Classic Grasa de Cotnari is low in alcohol (11.5%) and offers attractive notes of toasted almonds and ripe apricot but usually lacks acidity. Some wines are created from botrytis-affected grapes making the wine a dessert delight. This native grape can also be turned into dry, elegant wines, showing its versatility. Also home of the more modest Francusa which is a white grape with high acidity suitable for subtle, light wines or even sparkling ones.
Before exploring deeper the taste of the wines, let’s take a look at the history of the place, the giant company Cotnari SA and the young sprout named Cotnari Wine House (Casa de Vinuri Cotnari).
The Heritage of the Vine
The name of Cotnari comes from the traditional craft of making barrels (“cotnarit”). Therefore, it is safe to assume that people have been making wine in this area for as long as they can remember. The first mention of the town comes from the XV-th century and the history of the place in closely linked to Moldavian rulers who loved the wines created in this area. Exports were doing quite well in those times, as Grasa de Cotnari, most likely the sweet type, was highly priced in Venice. The legend continues through the centuries, as it is said the royal wine blend created from native Cotnari grapes (Grasa, Francusa, and Busuioaca) impressed the Russian Czar Peter the Great. If this could be considered a story, there are clear historical documents regarding the International Exhibition from Paris from 1889 (the one for which the Eiffel Tower was created) where the Cotnari wine gets the Grand Prix. There is little information about what happened to the vines until the communist regime came into force.
The Volume-Generating Mammoth Cotnari SA
In 1948the communist regime established a state-owned winery at Cotnari. This was a time when centralization polarized the production so much that the name of the area became the name of the winery and extended also to designate the style of the wine and, therefore define the geographical indication. In the early 90’s it was privatized by MEBO, thus giving decisional power to employees.
Currently holding around 1400 hectares, which is roughly the equivalent of equally as many rugby fields, it can store up to 20 million liters of wine in its tanks and barrels and has a collection of over 1 million bottles of vintage wine in its cellars, the oldest dating back to 1956.
Here everything is about volume and production optimization. Cotnari SA (Iaşi), had in 2017 a turnover of about 30 million euros and net revenue of approximately 4.9 million euros. Just one of their bottling lines works at a speed of 6000 units per hour. And that happens in shifts to meet the demand. The management even built apartments for the workers very close to the plant premises and provides them with free meals to keep them happy and loyal. The human resource is the most valuable, even if a lot of the production is fully automatized using the latest tools and machines.
If you find yourself on the premises, you will feel like you are in the trenches of a well-coordinated war. You can see the “generals”, the agronomist engineers looking at the management boards, drafting the orders and then checking the details. They say they don’t follow a lean approach, but they do it flawlessly. Daily, huge stacks of pallets with bottles are all filled, labeled and packaged, ready to be enjoyed in the next days in a supermarket.
Everything here follows tradition, but without saying no to technology and improvements. For example, they are currently removing all the oak barrels from the 60’s which are unusable and replacing them with stainless steel vats, constructed directly in the cellars due to the sheer size.
The Vision of the Second Generation
Casa de Vinuri Cotnari is the young sprout, managed by the second generation of the families behind Cotnari SA. Although in Romania such a decision is controversial, in countries with a long-standing tradition in winemaking it is customary. The young generation is expected to walk in their parents’ footsteps, take over the business and grow it further. They have already achieved some recognition through their Colocviu (Colloquium) line, including premium still and sparkling wines. This year they have just launched a daring bet under the brand of ZAZ, a crazy approach to wine for the youngsters.
The goal of the company is to create a premium division for the wines with the Cotnari PGI focusing exclusively on Romanian grape varieties. The total surface is about 350 hectares, with 100 for red (Feteasca Neagra), 75 hectares of Busuioaca which produces rose wines, and the rest for whites. Their approach is focusing on quality, with low, controlled yields, about 70-80% of the PGI’s allowance limits, which ensure top quality. They strive to create memorable wines in their two cellars: Crama Axinte for whites and Castel Vladoianu for reds. Making Feteasca Neagra here is a bold move for this area where reds were never a traditional choice, but is a bet that George Malutan, the oenologist has won so far.
Casa de Vinuri Cotnari bought Crama Axinte as a strategic move. They use it for white and sparkling wines. It is an investment deemed to protect the PGI and is currently undergoing a massive transformation and modernization process. The goal is to meet EU standards of quality while remaining profitable. At the moment of my visit construction work was in full swing. The ambition of the owner, Victor Deleanu, is to create here not only a modern production facility but also an exquisite tasting hall, complete with an outdoor place for parties. I am very curious about the outcome, judging by the amount of detail-orientation Victor has in more mundane aspects of the business, like creating color-coordinated cellars (gray for tanks, brick and natural tones for barrels).
I saved the best for last, as Castel Vladoianu, which is also the name of their premium Feteasca Neagra will most likely become the Crown Jewel of the company. This Belle Epoque mansion needs a facelift before it will be ready to receive a selected clientele. The plan is to turn this into a 5-star boutique hotel, complete with underground cellars and a breathtaking view of the surroundings. Although this project doesn’t have a deadline yet, is it probably the most intriguing to dream about. Most likely, in a few years, it will host extravagant parties where they serve the sparkling wines which are now maturing on the lees.
Special thanks to the management team Casa de Vinuri Cotnari for the tour, the patience to answer all my questions and the openness to share inside info about the future strategy.