Guest Post Julia Scavo: Soliloquy of a multi-polar: thoughts and reflections about the Romanian wine nowadays
The Somm’s voice…
Who is Iulia Scavo? Most think of me as a Romanian Somm, as I have been representing Romania in the most prestigious ASI competitions since 2010. However, I have served too few Romanian wines in a restaurant since the beginnings of my career in 2008, promoting many, nevertheless…In fact, I had served more in the beginning, which means roughly ten years ago, when the public (both Romanian and from abroad) wasn’t ready for a new generation of Romanian wines.
At that time, “somms” weren’t trendy at all in Romania, they were more like circus performers, sabering and decanting whatever passed by their hands. Ten years have flown, I quickly returned to France in 2009, few after trying to serve Romanian wines to Romanians. I was considered an overseer in my country, at a moment when Romanians demanded Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Tuscany Sangiovese, and Stellenbosch Pinotage, although most didn’t care why a Feteasca neagra was flourishing in the Dealu Mare, why Feteasca regala thrives in Târnave next to its birthplace which is Daneş and Cadarca is at home in Minis. Not to mention obscure grapes such as Plavaie or Sarba, as well as the newcomers Novac and Negru de Dragasani.
Source: Jean Bernard
Most of the wine lists in Romania, at that time, consisted of imported wines, everybody wanted international varieties. Our grapes, our terroirs were associated with old times, only nostalgic people drunk them, and that from basic, entry-level producers. “Sprit” (wine mixed with sparkling water) was omnipresent, people who sipped it were omniscient. The sommelier was a worker, a waiter like all the others, reminding a passed era when the proletarian class was powerful. Hard to explain to the guest that I had a degree in Mathematics, that I hold an equivalent of a Masters in teaching and that I also had an engineering background beside my French Sommelier Diploma, as long as I was serving wine in a restaurant.
Things have changed, hopefully, ever since. It’s been at least five years I‘ve been keeping an eye on the Romanian market, and now the on-trade is exploding. Millennials and post-millennials go for a glass of wine, not a “Sprit”, they drink it as a pre-dinner, as well as an after-dinner and even ask for food and wine pairings. This is not everywhere of course, but Bucharest and other key cities, especially in Transylvania, lead the trend.
Wine lists count more and more Romanian wines, and the “somm” community is getting out of the shade. Romania gave me the chance to put it on the international sommelier scene in last ten years; we have somms who follow the Court of Master or WSET programs (myself having recently succeeded in my DipWSET), we even have an MW!
But, do the public really know about Romanian wine, by far? Most Romanian know the brands, the big companies as well some native varietals. Some still drink international varieties produced in Romania, being nostalgic about the time they used to drink them imported from abroad. Unfortunately, there are still people thinking that commercial wine is “confectioned” and they would rather drink home-made grape fermented liquids because it feels more “natural”. Jidvei tried to accompany and put them on a better path by launching a campaign of selling must to replace the taste for hybrid juice…Still, the private buyers should pass at least by Poudlard College before transforming that into decent wine! Some still search the sugar we tried to get rid of after years of Communist Suss Reserve added liquids, which results in over-ripen and over-oaked wines to give the consumers this impression of sweet taste. Some drink because it is cultural, others because it is trendy, a lot do not even think about why and what they drink. I believe this also happens in other countries so that they might be forgiven…
The educator’s voice…
Let’s get back to the initial question, who is Iulia Scavo? I am indeed a Romanian sommelier, but moreover, I am an educator. Even if the “somm” community is moving forward in Romania, there is a critical need for education in the hospitality business, globally speaking. Concerning other professionals, many can pass by the WSET program. A new generation has born so: bloggers, virtual writers, wine sellers, tasters… Other key professions in the wine business have even fewer options, such as oenologists…most of them actually graduating from horticulture! A handful of Romanians oenologists have foreign diplomas, and some faculties in Romania start opening enology departments.
Somms need to be better known and also better paid in Romania, to get more esteem and more motivation to pursue studies and invest in knowledge. There is not enough challenge and being a somm still means sabering, decanting, and wearing special attire.
We, educators, need to create a real curriculum about Romanian wine, including both terroir and marketing optics and also focus on the varietal definition, not only the brand. Somms need to understand better the styles of the leading commercial cellars as well as the terroir definition when it is researched by those who do it. There is a lot to be done about food and wine pairings, either with Romanian food or international. Professional English or French should be mandatory through educational programs so that the main actors in the hospitality business become at ease in promoting Romanian wine for foreign clients too. Romanian sommeliers must taste and learn about international wines, so that they acquire new references to compare with national ones, to better understand the positioning of Romania on the worldwide wine map. Our somms have passed from a proletarian class to a kind of “restocracy”; however, this bridge can fall from a moment to another if pillars are fragile.
Unfortunately, Romania’s population is shrinking, a lot of youngsters leave the country for studies and never come back, workers (including those from the hospitality business) leave Romania in search of a better wedge, medical doctors and engineers also quit. The population is getting older, and there is a broad class of people around 60 years old, the so-called “ceausei” that also feel “too old”. So, losing the young generation, as well as the active generation and having only depressive 60teeners and older people, it is difficult finding trained labor force for a sector that needs dynamic, motivated people.
This is the case of the hospitality business, but it also strikes the viticultural sector. Four years ago, I still heard rumors about producers paying the harvesters with food. So, not only it is difficult to find labor force and to get it of a qualified level, but also, this work does not pay. Many prefer to go and harvest in Spain, France or Portugal (where the labor force is shrinking in the sector too).
What about young winemakers? As I mentioned above, Romania is the country of all the paradoxes, we have a considerable number of universities reported to the number of population, but almost none of them actually delivers the Oenology Diploma. There are Oenology departments integrated to the Agronomy or Horticulture faculties, but there is no Oenology Faculty in its own. Regional research institutes have very good research facilities, focus more on the plantings than the vinification, which is not up-to-date.
This paradox seems to come from a lack of comprehension at a governmental scale, where money can go in one direction, without considering the whole. For instance, the ministry of development and innovation will support the research, but the ministry of agriculture will be less interested to focus on production. So youngsters are frustrated, and most leave for more challenging places abroad or even to get a foreign enology diploma. Some use it elsewhere, others come back, but meanwhile, the wineries hire foreign oenologists of the same level, because it makes better publicity for the estate. Some producers prefer working with a flying winemaker and have local students during an internship at the winery. They stay for a while, then leave for better opportunities…
The ambassador’s voice
Wineries should open more cellar-doors. I was surprised that even as a professional, I couldn’t get wherever I want (I mean, we haven’t yet the equivalent of the Romanée Conti or Rayas in Romania…) and if I got in, I was told that we should be at least 4 to taste, and of course not for free.
There is still work to do in terms of communication both on the websites and brochures. The technical information sometimes has approximate translations in English or French. The employees at the counter are not professionally trained to explain the terroir, grapes, and the producer’s philosophy, at the most, they retell a story they have learned by hard.
Romania should attend more international fairs and events and also expose more masterclasses and conferences on high-level themes and hot issues of the moment. Professionals from the diaspora that have created themselves a name abroad should be invited regularly to taste, judge, promote the Romanian wines. Most of the time, we do it naturally by our means, but we rarely have inner support.
Last but not least, journalists and top foreign professionals need to be invited at the same time as top Romanian journalists and professionals both from Romania and from abroad so that we meet together and exchange ideas. We, as professionals should help the wineries with training for their selling force, their counter employees, spreading their image by including them into masterclasses on wine fairs, by tasting and commenting their wines, talking about their potential, their aptitude to pair with international food or to fit into new trends of the market.
Romania’s image abroad should improve.
The seller’s voice…
There are still so many misconceptions about our country and people populating it. Some still confuse us for some minor ethnic populations that we have in Eastern European countries, some still think of Romania as a country of orphans, of thieves and extreme poverty, which is absolutely not the case!
There is another confusion abroad about our origins, most think we are Slavonic and not Latins, so it is difficult for some to imagine a wine culture in our country. Big confusion, first because we are Latins and second, Slavonic countries have a rich wine culture!
Take a look at other countries around Romania, Slavonic countries, definitely producing less than Romania: they all have been more dynamic with export politics. Romania tried to enter the export market either with entry-level wines or supposed “iconic” ranges, forgetting about a mid-range with competitive price-quality-pleasure ratio. “Iconic” wines being expensive copies of Bordeaux blends for instance, with overwhelming oak and over-ripen structure, most of the few Romanian export markets made a choice for the entry-level wines. Some countries even change the label, to give those wines a more neutral and less Romanian image.
This is also one of the problems in labeling: Romania offers too many brands that only Romanians can understand: obscure historical characters (except Dracula, what other Romanian sovereign is well known abroad?), Romanian paganism, orthodox symbols, folklore, links to Romanian literature that not even Romanians know (the wine dedicated to the mistress of a minor Romanian writer that used to have a house on the hill where vines are planted now…). There were and still exist some kitschy labels stating Chateau, Tenuta, Cru, Prince. The worst in this “hall of honors” is the literal translation of some native Romanian grapes: Swallowtail, The Black maiden, The Royal maiden… I am very skeptical about these wines on the export markets!
Another challenge is to better position the brand image of Romania: do we sell denominations? Around 33 DOCs exist and not even the Romanians know them, besides the fact they have complicated names for the export market, and sometimes they can be followed by extensions such as communes, villages or “crus” – “plai » not to mention the CMD, CT, CIB scale which make things even more complicated than the Germanic Prädikats and Einzellagen!
Do we sell Brands, in which case the marketing should be strong enough and also oriented to the export?
Do we sell Varietals? In that case, we should focus on the varietal definition!
Romanians drink almost all their production. There is a narrow middle class, a tiny wealthy class, and a vast majority of people struggling for daily life. This also reflects the categories of wine, very few highly-priced, few mid-range, and seas of entry-level wines. The top range, the most expensive wines are too expensive to get to the export, the mid-range to few, some lacking personality. The entry-level wines satisfy the average consumer in Romania and can also fit into the discount market of certain countries that often buy it unlabeled, as explained above. So, even the few exported wines risk losing their identity if they have one.
Romania needs to find a flagship variety or an Iconic wine/ denomination/ producer to get out of the shadow. Some speak about the Feteasca neagra, but plantings are still tiny, around 3000 ha. We haven’t yet defined the real varietal profile of this grape considering the array of climates and meso-climates where it is planted and most of the time, it is more a personal signature that primes, instead of its varietal definition. Romania is still searching for an Iconic wine, and we do not have an iconic denomination yet. Hungarians have Tokaj, we used to have Cotnari, but we haven’t preserved the traditional style. Strategy wanted the region focuses on dry and semi-dry wines, sparklings and even reds with a whole range that has been diversified on the basis of a stratification principle inside the same large producer Casa de Vinuri Cotnari/ Cramele Cotnari.
The iconic producers could be, in my opinion, DAVINO or Prince Stirbey, or one or two others, but I do not think they would really be interested in becoming the ambassador of the Romanian wine yet…They both focus on high- end quality and shine further than the market’s ambitions.
The wine lover’s voice…
I most believe in the potential of our local grapes. Still, we need to better work on the varietal definition before launching signature wines. Few wineries really excel in international varieties without producing cheap copies of foreign wines: Domeniile Franco-Române with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Davino, successfully blending Bordeaux varieties with a local touch, Stirbey’s Cabernet Sauvignon, the past iconic “Soare” Cabernet Sauvignon and “Prince Matei” Merlot from the ancient owner of Vinarte, Sergio Faleschini…and I might forget some.
Reds are definitely the new signature of the Romanian wine. I often feel like in Italy, where one can get tremendous reds, but few whites capable to express depth and lots of personality (sorry! Very personal opinion, although in Italy, Campania, the Friuli, and the Trentino, as well as some examples in the Abruzzo are totally able to contradict that!). Romania produces mostly easy-going, enjoyable whites, very few of them age-worthy. Moreover, the global climate changing pushes the reds naturally. However, if I have to mention one local white with high potential, that would definitely be the Feteasca regala.
Romanians have almost forgotten the sweet wines but still search for that taste into dry wines…looking for an over-ripen character, high alcohol, over-extraction, and over-oaking process. I firmly believe that we should focus on continuing producing some sweet wines with great balance, to better educate the taste for sweet wines.
There is another borderline category: sparklings. This joins the idea that the Romanian consumer still searches the sweet taste. I do not believe Romania should focus on sparklings, but some areas really have potential both in terms of the climate and specific grapes. There are too many cheap copies of prestigious traditional methods from Europe, using Champagne grapes that give here 13%abv, less acidity and most often are accompanied by at least 10g/l of dosage. Lees contact is short, at a minimum of 9-12 months and autolysis hardly occurs. There is a demand for that kind of sparklings; however, I believe Romania should focus on local grapes and cooler climates for its bubbles: Feteasca regala, Mustoasa de Maderat, Cramposia selectionata, Francusa. These all have a parentage link with the famous Gouais and can have a more neutral harvesting window where autolysis can stick better. This, of course, combined with the acidity imposed by the harvesting period plus cooler climate and eventually, a lower dosage. Some of my favorite examples are: Johanna Extra-Brut Feteasca regala from Crama Bauer, Crâmposia Selectionata Extra-Brut from Stirbey, “Celest” from Villa Vinea based on Feteasca regala, “Clarus” Mustoasa de Maderat from Balla Geza.
The marketing woman’s voice…
Our unique selling proposition would be, in my opinion, an authentic Feteasca neagra. I hope that soon the producers start understanding this grape better and push it to the pinnacle so that it will definitely become our real USP.
I also believe that Romania is excelling in showing a broad range of native grapes with each area having its own “catalog”. This is based on the tradition of what we used to call “sortiment” a kind of either field or vat bland coordinated by the needs of each zone. This was mostly lost around the turning point of Phylloxera, but some areas are moving backward and try to revive this tradition. As some of the varieties had been lost, some regions start thinking of what among the newcomers could replace them. Some regions also created crossings as the old varieties disappeared, were less competitive or on the edge of extinction. I also think that Romania’s most planted grape, the Feteasca regala is very exciting and has such a terroir footprint beside its varietal definition, that this can push it as a second choice for a USP.
During my last tour in Romania, this summer, I’ve heard too many complaints and arguing about the financial side…I do not think money is the biggest issue for the producers. Should associations help more, should the government support that more actively? I am definitely for it! It is unthinkable to repeat misadventures that happened on international fairs when the government didn’t send funds necessary for the trip of the producers or when associations split because of political issues. I think the most significant threat is a matter of selfishness.
We Romanians, have passed so many time under Communism, that we now have become too selfish and individualist! We now must understand how to work, learn, and grow as a team. Each region should build a kind of interprofessional committee, like in France. Cooperatives should exist again to help tiny producers and prevent them from making home-made wine of lousy quality and sell it on the edge of the road in plastic jugs. No matter what political color the mayor of a viticultural village has, he/she should promote his/her producers without regarding their convictions. Vinicultural villages and towns need to better support their local wine and producers through festivals, celebrations and with the help of traditional restaurants, taverns, commerce. It is unthinkable that for the harvesting festival or the flowering feast people drink beer (do not misunderstand, I am a beer enthusiast too), which actually happens very often! So, money is essential, indeed, but I think the necessary funds can be released if people in the business act more friendly ones towards the others.
To sum up…
So, who is Iulia Scavo to talk about all these issues? Besides being a somm, an educator, self-proclaimed ambassador of the Romanian wine, wine lover, plus one or two tiles to legitimate that…I am ROMANIAN.
Originally published on Julia Scavo’s Page on Facebook, Sept 9, 2019. All pictures and thoughts belong entirely to Julia Scavo and this piece is published with her approval and support.
Behind the keyboard...
Silvia Palasca- web dev by day, wine storyteller by night (or the other way around)
Hello, I'm Silvia, wine and travel enthusiast. Looking to turn my passions into a lifestyle. As I writer and web designer I thrive on great sips and epic scenery. WSET Level 2 graduate, I love writing, talking and analyzing wine. If you have a project in mind, let's talk!