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There’s a pool of spiritual values that translate into Vrancea County’s treasures of language and wisdom, and which inevitably carry the imprint of the geological features of this realm, like a melting pot of the spirituality of the three Romanian historical regions – Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania.

Photos by Cristian Nistor / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

Vrancea County has been blessed with vineyards aplenty and its inhabitants, poised, steadfast and hospitable people, worthy heirs of their ancestors’ virtues, have introduced the culture of the vine and wine in their spirituality; motifs that invoke vine fruit can be found in everything related to household culture and also in church interior paintings.

Therefore, one cannot talk about Vrancea County without mentioning earth … the sun … the grapes and wine. Wine which was in time considered ambrosia, the godly drink of perpetual youth, with the grapes and vine tendrils figured even in Vrancea church frescoes.

Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror has seemingly known and appreciated the refined taste of Vrancea wines, and referring to this beverage he said: “I allowed the wine to the wise and banned it to the fools.”

Grapes — sun condensed in Vrancea County’s earth. The sun all concentrated in a berry is a miracle. It has everything: flavor, fragrance, taste, color, sugars, vitamins, so that the wine justly deserves its name of elixir of life. A glass of wine naturally accompanies the fundamental moments in the existence of Vrancea folks: birth, marriage and death. It’s required by both moments of grief and joy.

The Panciu vineyard was first mentioned in documents in the 16th century, but testimony to the old age of vine cultivation on this territory is given by the fragment of a Carpi pot found in Padureni, which has a vine string with two stylized grape bunches on it as ornament.

In his second journey to Moldavia, Goerg von Reichersterffer, the emissary of Ferdinand of Habsburg to voivode Petru Rares, refers to large vine plantations in the area, known back then as the vineyard of the Crosses. An image of viticulture here, as practiced in the mid-19th century, is also given by the volume titled “Statistical works in Moldavia” published in 1861. The book mentions that the current acreage under vine totaled 2,870 hectares or 14 percent of the entire wine-growing surface of Moldavia. The vineyard is also described in other foreign documents, with information offered by travelers who appreciated the high quality of the wines, but also the special fragrance of the Panciu table grapes.

The Panciu vineyard covers approximately 10,000 hectares. Seen from the satellite, it appears as a strip with an average width of nine kilometers running between the Trotus Valley to the north and the Putna Valley to the south. The Panciu vineyard sits in full temperate zone, which confers a particular aroma to the red or white wines and renders them well-balanced, as oenologists say. According to them, the Panciu wines can be classified as beverages with “a lively character” obtained both from native grape varieties such as Plavaie, Galbena, Babeasca Neagra, Feteasca Alba, Feteasca Neagra, but also from other acclimatized grape varieties, like Feteasca Regala, Italian Riesling, Aligoté, Sauvignon, Muscat Ottonel, Pinot Noir and Merlot, which have become equally famous in the vineyard.

Several wine-making trading companies process the grapes in full compliance with the relevant standards of quality. They were retrofitted with European Union funds, and the wines are obtained by last generation technologies, but a great part of the beverage is aged by traditional methods in cellars and historic wine caves.

In the Panciu vineyard, red wines are still in the minority, although several trading companies that carried out reconversion projects have planted red grape varieties too. Yet the area specializes in the production of dry white wines that are also used to produce sparkling wine by the Champenoise method, which has its origins in France. The ‘champagne’ obtained at Panciu can fulfil the most demanding tastes and expectations: dry white sparkling wines, semi-dry or semi-sweet, rose wine, as well as red champagne are produced here. White champagne is a mix of at least three different varieties of wine. The dominant one is the Sauvignon Blanc, which gives the euphoric drink’s finesse and vivacity, one third is the Pinot Gris that gives it power and profound taste, and Feteasca Alba adds freshness and fruitiness. The red champagne is also a blend of three wines: Pinot Noir, Merlot and Feteasca Neagra.

All the bottles with such sparkling wine are kept for aging in the Panciu cellars at an angle of about 60 degrees, between six and 12 months, and are rotated every week.

Of these subterranean storage structures, ‘Stephen the Great’s Cellars” are the most famed thanks both to their size and to the qualities of the sparkling wine produced by natural fermentation, being classified as a historic monument placed under the protection of UNESCO. Located on the right side of the valley of the Zabrauti stream, in the point called “Valea Cerbului /The Stag’s Valley”, the Panciu cellars have a layout that includes a central corridor with 36 lateral galleries branching out from it and totaling more than 3,000 meters, built in clayey earth (loess). The historians date the cellars back to the time of Stephen the Great and Holy (1457 — 1504), but a document mentioning their use as special wine depository was issued on August 19, 1700, mentioning also the owner of the cellars — cavalry commander Ion Costin, son of great chancellor Miron Costin. Then a long documentary silence sets in as regards the Panciu cellars.

The entry to the cellars was actually discovered in 1949 when the locals — gathered in a joyful procession to celebrate the transit from the old to the new vineyard year — did some digging on a neighboring hill and came upon entry to “Stephen the Great’s Cellars” sealed by their ancestor wine growers several hundred years before, probably for the Turks not to prey on them. To their surprise they also found old wine barrels in there.

Apart from “Stephen the Great’s Cellars”, Panciu has another two cellars that are historic monuments. One is the ”Marin Stefan” cellar, the other the ‘Vladoianu” cellar, both dating from the 19th century, but local legends talk about undiscovered cellars beneath the city, spanning almost its entire territory.

The “Stephen the Great” galleries are under the administration of a state-owned company since 1949, producing sparkling wine through the classical Champenoise method; they became a real tourist attraction, the starting point on the ‘Vrancea Vineyards Road’ that continues along DJ 205 B through Tifesti, Bolotesti and Jaristea to another famous winery that majestically stretches on the Magura Odobesti hills.

The viticultural area of Odobesti stretches on approximately 7,000 hectares within the boundaries of the localities Bolotesti, Jaristea and Odobesti. This is one of the most famous and oldest Romanian vineyards. In his studies, historian Nicolae Iorga shows that as early as in the time of Petru Rares, and especially during the reign of Vasile Lupu, the Odobesti wines already enjoyed a well-established fame, and the Cossack traders used to exchange them in the fairs of Podolia and Russia for furs, skins and other products. Some two centuries ago, the Odobesti wine growers who were famed all over Eastern Europe, built the “Saint Apostles Peter and Paul” Church in the Cazaclii neighborhood of Odobesti.

The first documentary mention about the Odobesti vineyard dates from the 17th century, when prince Dimitrie Cantemir wrote in his “Descriptio Moldavie” that Odobesti ranks third among Moldavia’s vineyards, and around 1750, Italian Ignacio Raicevich considered that the Odobesti hill topped Moldavia’s vineyards.

Frenchman Jean Louis Carra, secretary of Prince Grigore Ghica of Moldavia, also wrote about the wealth of the vineyard, stating in a report that taxes on wines accounted for 10 percent of Moldavia’s total receipts, with the Odobesti vineyard accounting for three quarters thereof. Until the phylloxera invasion, local grape varieties were cultivated in the Odobesti vineyard, with the Galbena de Odobesti and the Plavaia sorts accounting for the bulk of the crops, while Poama Verde and Panciu accounted for a lesser share.

Given the special importance of the area in terms of wine growing, the Viticulture and Winemaking Research and Development Station was set up in Odobesti in 1936. Following research activities, the scientific institution created new varieties of grapes such as Sarba, that produces a full-flavored wine approved in 1972, and Babeasca Gri, approved in 1975.

Sarba, which was produced for the first time in Odobesti, is a wine with intensely aromatic, somewhat bizarre features, suggesting the sweetness of the smell of jam roses. By far, the most famous in the vineyard is the ‘Galbena de Odobesti’ wine.

There are many wine producers who craft the famous Galbena de Odobesti, but also other well-established wine varieties like Sarba de Odobesti, with the beverage stored for ageing in the Princely Cellar and the Bahamat Cellar dating from the 19th century.

From Odobesti, the “Vrancea Vineyards Road” leads to the Princely Cellar, a historic monument near the city, entered in the National Register of Tourism Heritage and on the UNESCO conservation list.

Built in the times of Stephen the Great and renovated during the reign of the Sturdza family, between 1834-1839, the Princely Cellar is an underground facility 62 meters long and 13.4 meters deep, the only such facility made of pumice. Currently under the administration of a Focsani-based company, it accommodates the largest collection of vintage wines, Romania’s largest professional wine library.

The “Vrancea Vineyards Road” further continues to the Cotesti vineyard, boasting more than 600 years of history and stretching on over 12,000 hectares within the boundaries of the localities Faraoane, Cirligele, Budesti, Cotesti, Urechesti, Popesti and Tamboiesti.

The centre of the vineyard, the Cotesti commune, was first mentioned in a document in 1471; it was named after captain Stan Cotea Odobescu, who was granted an estate in this area by the ruler of Wallachia. In the village Odobasca, the captain built a wooden church that exists to this day and can be visited.

The Cotesti vineyard also appeared mentioned in documents in 1580, during the reign of Islam convert Mihnea Turcitul. The most famous wines of Cotesti, falling in all four categories — dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, sweet — are Feteasca Alba, Feteasca Regala, Feteasca Neagra, Babeasca Neagra, Francusa, along with wines ranging from Pinot, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Ottonel, Merlot, to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Yet the Sarba wine varieties enjoy particular fame. The sommeliers say this wine is delightful to taste thanks to its sweet tones and sensations with slightly bitter notes. They also mention that this is a light wine with a balanced acidity, that can be optimally consumed at a temperature of 10 — 12° C together with vegetables or poultry, but also with tender pork chops.

What should Vrancea wine growers do to maintain the high status they acquired? According to one expert in the trade, Horia Furtuna, “only by honoring at top quality standards the wine brands promoted by each vineyard, can the crest of recognition be defended. We have a duty to defend the prestige our forerunners have well-deservedly earned for Vrancea’s viticulture through dedication, patient work and great love for this job.”AGERPRES

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