Friday, September 28, 2007

Ceausescu's Rotten Vines Thrive Under Winemaking Central Banker

By Adam Brown

Sept. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Romanian central bank Governor Mugur Isarescu spends most days controlling money supply. On weekends, he worries about another liquid asset: wine.

Isarescu has become one of Romania's newest vintners as he tries to revive cramposie, a 2,000-year-old grape that all but died out under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

``It's a race to rehabilitate a Romanian wine,'' says Isarescu, who last year made 25,000 bottles of wine at vineyards in the southwestern Dragasani region. ``In a lot of ways, this is every bit as mysterious as a good monetary policy.''

Cultivating Romania's wine industry, the world's 12th- largest, may prove tougher for Isarescu than it was to resuscitate the nation's economy during his 17 years as head of the central bank. Vintners are struggling to recover from decades of communist-era overproduction and win back the favored spot they had in Paris restaurants in the 1920s.

Winemakers such as Isarescu and neighbor Jakob Kripp say they are focusing on quality rather than quantity.

Ceausescu's agricultural managers insisted on high-yielding grapes and expanded acreage by planting vines in ill-suited areas, such as hillsides.

Since communism collapsed in 1989, the area planted with wine grapes has dropped by 50 percent to about 440,800 acres, says Kripp, 47, who bottles wine under the Prince Stirbey label.

``This is a healthy development,'' says Kripp, an Austrian aristocrat whose Romanian wife inherited the vineyard. ``Now, Romania has a chance to get back an international winemaking reputation. The conditions for making wine are excellent.''

Unknown Abroad

To fulfill that potential, vintners must upgrade bottling and grape-crushing equipment, plant a wider variety of grapes and recruit experts from abroad, wine critics say.

Unlike the merlots, pinot grigios and sweet Tokajis made in neighboring Hungary, Romania's wines are relatively unknown to international consumers.

Romania made 6 million hectoliters (159 million gallons) of wine in 2006, sending only 181,600, or 3 percent, abroad. Output is similar to 11th-ranked Portugal's and a little more than a 10th of that in France, the world's biggest winemaker, according to the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization.

``I taste 5,000 wines a year, and it's been several years since I've tasted anything Romanian,'' says Tom Cannavan, editor of Fine Expressions, a wine magazine published in England. ``The Romanians have a lot of work to do.''

Hugh Johnson, a London-based wine historian and co-author of ``The World Atlas of Wine'' (Mitchell Beazley, 2001), blames Ceausescu for the faded reputation of Romanian wines, which were appreciated throughout Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

Parisian Fashion

Grasa de Cotnari, a sweet white from the eastern Romanian region of Moldavia, was referred to as ``Perle de la Moldavie,'' he says. It all but disappeared during communism while Hungary's Tokaji survived and then thrived.

``There was definitely a fashion for Romanian wine in Paris,'' Johnson says. ``They were quite capable of making fine wine. Ceausescu totally killed it off. It was total neglect.''

The regime chose to produce as much wine as possible from the cheapest grapes, adding excessive amounts of sugar to increase alcohol content during fermentation, Johnson says. Romania still has the climate, soil and tradition for a revival.

That tradition dates back more than 2000 years. Wine probably originated in what is modern-day Georgia, east of Romania on the other side of the Black Sea, according to the ``World Atlas of Wine.'' The vines spread south and east, and by the time the Romans conquered what is now Romania in 106 A.D., the local tribes were making wine.

Collectible Vintage

Romanian wine is getting better and people are paying more for it, says Ovidiu Gheorghe, director of Romania's National Association of Vineyards and Wines in the capital, Bucharest.

The country's wine sales will rise to 450 million euros ($632 million) this year, from 400 million euros last year, even as production drops 8 percent to 5.5 million hectoliters, Gheorghe says. A drought has cut output, though improved quality by increasing the natural sugar content of the grapes.

``This year will be an exceptional year for wine quality --a year for collectors,'' Gheorghe says.

Isarescu, 58, has a place for such wine.

This year, the National Bank of Romania will begin storing select vintages next to the gold bars in its Bucharest vaults. The first deposit will be 300 bottles of Grasa de Cotnari made in 1956, one of the last good years during communism.

Isarescu has headed the central bank since 1990, except for the year he served as prime minister. He helped slash the annual inflation rate from 317 percent in 1993 to 4 percent in June.

He sells wine mostly to bars and restaurants at 14 lei ($6) a bottle and serves it at central bank functions. His vineyard employs 15 people at peak season, including his wife and son.

``The fame of these vineyards almost disappeared in the communist period,'' Isarescu says. ``Now I'd like to be a part of their rebirth.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Adam Brown in Bucharest at abrown23@bloomberg.net

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