Băbeasca Neagră (which roughly translates to “old lady’s black grape”) is the second most widespread indigenous red grape in Romania (2590 ha), after Feteasca Neagră (3090 ha), although the presence on the shelves gives no hint about this at all. Most producers overlooked this variety for a long time, and it remained a favorite of domestic growers. In the Republic of Moldova, it exists under the name of “Rara Neagra”. It is considered a native variety and was elevated to the status of a national brand, although they have only 80 ha.
It generally creates fruity, light wines. Due to its high acidity, it is also suitable for sparkling wines. Through specific winemaking techniques and aging in wood, it can acquire a more pronounced character and a more intense color. We recommend that the wines from Băbească neagra be consumed young, in the first 3-5 years, at most since it has little demonstrated aging potential.
Legends and alternative names
Since Constantinescu and Heraru record in the “Metamorphoses of the Wine” a tale about this grape that has a reference to Stephen the Great (a prominent XV-th century ruler), we can safely assume that the variety already existed in the medieval era.
The story goes that the voivode proposed the variety’s name after a soldier served him with a glass of this wine to forgive him for missing the garrison all night. The soldier had received the wine as a gift from an old woman, as a reminder of her son who had died in the fight with the Turks. The ruler seems to have been impressed by the story and wine and proposed the name “băbească” (old lady’s).
Another possible explanation for the name is the resemblance between the rare grains on clusters and the teeth of the elderly.
The long-standing history of the variety is sustained by more than 110 synonyms registered in the international catalog Vitis International Variety VIVC Catalog, of which we mention: Căldărușă, Crăcănată, Rășchirată, Cernyi Redkyi, Sereksya, and many others that attest the geographical spread, especially in the Eastern European area.
Băbeasca Neagră- flavors, potential and winemaking styles
Being a somewhat capricious variety in terms of climatic conditions, it usually creates wines that are generally less intense in terms of color and alcoholic content. For this reason, Băbeasca was overlooked for a long time by many producers. It was not compliant with market demands, especially in the 1990s-2000s, when the Romanian consumers asked for intense and strongly oaked red wines.
The grapes from Băbească Neagră ripe unevenly; the accumulated sugar varies between 170g /l and 200-220 g /l, which means that the wines obtained can sometimes only have 10-11% alcohol, considered too weak for an elegant red wine and unsuitable for aging. In warmer areas (Dobrogea), sugar accumulation may be higher, which means a higher alcoholic strength (13-13.5%).
Without other interventions, the color of the Băbeasca Neagră wines is a translucent, bright red. Băbeasca neagra has a large grape. Therefore, the skin, which gives the color of the wines, is insufficient to concentrate enough pigments in relation to the size of the pulp. One possible solution that some winemakers (Sorin Marcoviciuc – Domeniile Panciu) proposed is to use the “saignée” method. Through this technique, a part of the must is eliminated and transformed into rosé. The remaining must has a prolonged contact with the skins, thus extracting more color and tannins.
The variety can be extremely productive, the specification on DOC Panciu allowing up to 17.5 t/ha and 15t/ha in Odobești. In DOC Nicorești and DOC Iana, the production is limited to 12t/ha,similar to DOC Cotești. DOC Dealu Bujorului has the most strict restrictions, of 10t/ha.
Naturally, the wines obtained from Băbească Neagră are translucent, with a ruby-violet hue. The nose includes red fruits, especially cherries and sour cherries, which echo in the taste as well. The wine is lively due to the high acidity and low tannins. The optimum serving temperature is 12-14 ° C, slightly colder than most red wines.
When the winemakers want a more intense color and a higher alcoholic strength, they harvest the grapes later and sometimes use the saignée method. For an additional intensity of aromas and a longer shelf life of wines, oak aging is carried out for about six months. The wines created in this way have a much more intense, dark red color. The aromas go towards more colored fruits: cherries, black cherries, currants, but also spices, such as nutmeg and pepper, and even coffee or chocolate. The optimum serving temperature, in this case, is 14-16 ° C.
The high acidity of the variety makes it suitable for sparkling wines, usually rosés.
Choose Băbeasca Neagră if you already like:
A light and intensely fruity wine, Băbeasca Neagră can satisfy Pinot Noir fans, as long as they understand that they are dealing with a “vin de pays”. This native Romanian grape carries the same juicy taste, fruity sensation, and light body. Also, the rosé or sparkling variants are echoes of what can be obtained from the Burgundy star. A Băbeasca, however, will never have those earthy and vegetable aromas of a Pinot Noir. The delicate secondary aromas of a Cremant d’ Alsace are also missing entirely from the sparkling versions.
The acidity, liveliness, and youthfulness of Beaujolais can be found in the bottles of Băbească that have not been subjected to saignée or maturation in wood. Try a bottle that is no more than 1-2 years old if you are looking for unpretentious wine, low in alcohol and non-astringent, but with some notes of green pepper besides those of red fruits.
Nebbiolo or Sangiovese
If Băbeasca is enhanced by saignée and barrel aging, it begins to get closer to the aromatic profile of Italian wines. The explosive fruitiness complemented by the spicy notes may remind of a Montalcino. However, Babeasca neagră lacks the tannins that create expressiveness and has little potential for elegant aging.
The aromatic profile and the similarities with international varieties dictate culinary associations that emphasize the intensely fruity character. Avoid fatty meat, since there are no tannins to balance the association.
If we have a simple Băbească neagră, it can accompany intensely flavored poultry preparations such as chicken breast with rosemary or duck breast with anise. It can complement gracefully a lamb stew.
More intense Băbească neagră goes well with beef (steak or steak in red wine sauce) or with pork breast in the oven. It also fits near teriyaki salmon.
If we want an indigenous culinary association, from the Moldovan area, I would opt for sarmale (meat rolled in cabbage) and polenta or Pleșcoi sausages. If we have an oaked version, try it with marinated sheep pastrami.
Conclusions and curiosities
While the Republic of Moldova exploits a few hectares of Black Rare at its maximum, Romania still ignores the potential of Băbească neagră, both as a stand-alone wine variety and in blends. At this moment, there are only a few timid attempts to capitalize on this variety.
As a curiosity and an idea, this variety is successfully cultivated by Americans in colder areas (New York – where it is known as Sereksyia). They pair it with Saperavi in a wine blend called Black Russian Red, alluding to the eastern origin of these varieties that came to the US in the 1950s.
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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!