As someone who spends most of their time writing about and drinking small-production natural or artisanal wine, I rarely get to see the other side of the coin.
But a few weeks back, I visited one of Romania’s largest wineries to get a different perspective. Cramele Recas produces around 25 million bottles a year, more than half of which is exported. Their CEO, Philip Cox, is an Englishman originally from Bristol.
Recas built their business up from nothing. Cox bought the crumbling winery from the state back in 1999, together with two other families and his wife Elvira. Back then, Romanian wine had a very poor reputation internationally, but it held one trump card: due to the country’s low cost of labour and struggling economy, it was dirt cheap. It still competes on price, but Cox has done a great job of improving the image.
Producing wine on this scale requires a different way of thinking and what Cox describes as “a lot of science”. Wine geeks who buy an expensive Burgundy or Barolo from a cult producer will expect vintage and even bottle variation. They’ll be willing to cellar the wine, perhaps purchasing several bottles so they can follow its evolution over a number of years.
In contrast, someone who buys a bottle of budget priced Pinot Grigio will pop the screwcap (and it will be a screwcap) the same night. They’ll expect it to taste the same as the bottle they bought the previous week, or even the previous year. The world’s major retailers know this, and they demand consistency. Even alcohol levels need to remain the same each year. If nature strays from the formula, science will be leveraged to correct it.
To achieve this kind of consistency over an annual production of multiple millions of litres is no mean feat. Hygiene, stability and control are the watchwords, as demonstrated by how Recas processes its wines just after fermentation.
Everything is passed through a centrifuge to separate the juice from the lees (dead yeast cells) and any other solid particles, large or small. This ensures that the remaining liquid is incredibly clean, free from stray yeasts or other bacterias. It contrasts with boutique wineries where extended lees contact is a popular choice to create texture and complexity in the wine.
Further filtering and clarification before bottling is standard at Recas – as it would be at any large-scale winery. Other possible interventions and additions include selected yeasts, bacterias to jump-start the malolactic fermentation and potential corrections to the must to ensure that alcohol and acidity levels are where they should be.
Looking at the banks of computerised temperature control units, the endless seas of shiny stainless steel and the large on-site laboratory, it’s clear that nothing is left to chance at Recas. It can’t be, when a single tank contains 75,000 litres of wine – more than the annual production of many cult wineries in France or Italy.
In terms of scale and technology, the operation is hugely impressive. The vineyards (all 1250 hectares of them) are also well-tended and healthy, and while most are not farmed organically, efforts are being made to reduce the dependency on synthetics. Everything feels like it’s well cared for.
While the wines are good quality, they are rarely if ever transformational. I would describe most as simple and fruit-forward, with easygoing flavours and characters. My personal favourite was the Regno Recaş – Negru de Drăgășani, a structured, spicy red made from a modern Saperavi crossing.
But the bottle that makes you pause for thought, contemplate a change of career or just wonder how a beverage can be so profound probably wasn’t passed through a centrifuge or made in a 75,000 litre tank.
Mass-market retailing demands absolute stability, and thus a wine that has been rendered more or less sterile before sale. It’s a product of grapes, but just as much of biochemistry and technology.
The artisanal version depends on a more fragile relationship between nature and winemaker – one that breaks down easily when empathy is lacking. There must be space for poetry, emotion and even imperfection.