Their story is Romanian wine in microcosm.
Credit: TUDOR VINTILOIU/Getty Images

As I am from England, my American in-laws assume that I regularly have tea with the Queen but the truth is that I have never met any actual royalty until I visited the Prince Stirbey winery in Romania. Here my hostess was Baroness Ileana Kripp-Costinescu. She is the granddaughter of Princess Maria Stirbey of the Romanian royal family whose lands were taken by the Communists in 1949. During these dark times Romania became, in the words of historian Norman Davies, “the North Korea of Eastern Europe.” Many of her family were imprisoned, and in 1969 Princess Ileana fled to Paris.

She thought she’d never go back, but her husband, Austrian nobleman Baron Jakob Kripp, persuaded her to visit her home country for their honeymoon in 1997. It wasn’t an easy journey. “I was full of sorrow and joy, and I cried every day,” she told me. But the trip planted a seed and they managed to reclaim their family’s vineyards in 2001. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but with the help of a German winemaker Oliver Bauer, the Prince Stirbey estate is once again making some of the best wines in Romania.

Their story is Romanian wine in microcosm. It’s very much a vine-growing and wine drinking country, but under Communism, all the land was confiscated and wine production industrialized. After the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was deposed and executed in 1989, things declined further, vines were neglected and many died. Today, despite having the tenth biggest area under vines in the world, many of Romania's vineyards are still in bad condition or the grapes are only suitable for home winemaking. According to Philip Cox, an Englishman who has been in Romania since the 1990s, “privatization was a terrible mess with courts cases over who owned the land. You don’t invest if you don’t know who it belongs to.” Cox ran a business importing Heineken in the 90s and then with two business partners bought a former state winery in Recaș. It was a lawless time: “When we bought the firm from the government, people would steal anything even the grapes so we bribed a judge to give one thief nine years. That soon stopped things.”

Nowadays Cramele ("cellar" in Romanian) Recaș is one of the country’s biggest producers. Their bread-and-butter is making inexpensive Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio for the European and U.S. markets, which they do extremely well—you’ve probably drunk their wine without knowing about it. But there’s much more to Romanian wine than cheap Pinot. The country has a wealth of indigenous grapes such as Fetească Regală and Crâmpoşie for whites, and for reds Fetească Neagră, Novac and the wonderfully named Negru de Drăgăşani (it’s pronounced something like Drer-ger-sharn which sounds like a character from Game of Thrones). Locals love their local varieties according to Cox. Prince Stirbey in particular specializes in indigenous grapes.

It’s quite a big country by European standards, about the size of Michigan, and there are grapes planted in every corner. Recaș in the west near the border with Hungary is well-sited for tourism; they receive over 30,000 per year. A new nearby winery, Aramic, built an alpine style lodge to welcome visitors before they finished their barrel store. The owner Cosmin Crăciunescu, a former dentist, speaks excellent English. In fact most people in the big cities are embarrassingly good linguists. Not a surprise when a fifth of the population are out of the country working in other parts of Europe. Visitor numbers are likely to increase when the nearby city of Timișoara is European Capital of Culture in 2021.

Timișoara has the feel of a miniature Vienna or Budapest. The west of Romania used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and there’s still a strong Hungarian influence. Balla Géza, owner of another vineyard near the city, Princess Winery (they do love a Princess in Romania) is Hungarian. Alongside the Romanian and international varieties he grows Hungarian grapes such as the white Furmint (famous for Tokaji) and the reds Kadarka and Kekfrankos (Blaufrankisch in Austria) He was manager for the state wine company and when Communism collapsed managed to buy up the best land at very reasonable prices, he told me with a glint in his eye.

Tourism is very important for him too. He has a guest house on site and an extremely good cook. On my visit we feasted on roast duck with quinces, stuffed cabbage leaves and roast loin of pork in a cream sauce.The food in Romania can be excellent. It’s where Mitteleuropa food such as pork, dumplings, etc., meets the eastern Mediterranean with kebabs, tomatoes and pickles.

The land around Timișoara is very flat, one can imagine marauding Turks galloping across the plains, but it gets steeper as one gets into wine country. The vineyards are located in the foothills of the Western Carpathians. Prince Stirbey is located on the other side of these mountains near the town of Drăgăşani (home of the grape) in the south of Romania. It’s a seven hours in a car from Timișoara, on some quite exciting highland roads, or you can fly to the capital, Bucharest, and then it’s a three hour drive. The standard of driving is no worse than Italy and certainly a huge improvement on Armenia or Lebanon though watch out for wild boar and even bears in more remote parts of the Carpathians.

It’s worth the journey because the hills around Drăgăşani are one of the most beautiful wine regions I have visited. The weather was lovely too when I visited in October; it has hot summers up to about 100°F and cold winters. Jakob Kripp described it as a paradise for grape growing. The region was famous for its wine in the nineteenth century but when Ileanna and Jakob arrived, they were the only commercial winery. They are not alone now. Across the hills is the striking Avincis winery and hotel which looks like a cross between a Mayan temple and a spaceship. It was built by the former Minister of Justice, Valeriu Stoica, and his wife Cristiana Irinel Stoica. Their vines are very young but they’re already producing some impressive white wines.

“When we revived Prince Stirbey, we were the only light on the hillside at night ” Ileana told me “ now there are lots of light bulbs here.” And when you try her wines you will understand why.

All the wineries mentioned offer visitor tours as well as good local food and you can stay at Avincis and the Princess Winery.

Expert Tip: My big tip for buying Romanian wine is to drink what the locals do, Fetească Regală (it means Royal Maiden—yes more royal references). At all price levels it tends to be excellent and it works well in a blend. Recas Castle have a spicy, peachy and floral version which shouldn’t cost more than $6 (Total $5.99) which is frankly obscene for a wine of this quality. It’s a wine fit for a princess.