Prince Stirbey wines are not just royal by name: this fantastic range of Romanian wines is produced by Princess Ileana - granddaughter of Princess Maria Stirbey - and her husband, Baron Jakob Kripp. They began winemaking in 1999 after reclaiming and reviving the historical family property, the winery of which had been designed in a Tuscan style by Princess Ileana's grandfather, Prince Barbu Alexandru Stirbey.
The completely family-run winery is set in the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps near Dragasani, where the family has owned vineyards for around 300 years. Prince Barbu Alexandru actually left an admirable legacy to the winemaking world: after phylloxera ravaged vineyards in the early 20th century, he owned one of the largest nurseries in Romania, which helped to graft local varieties.
Although the Kripps' philosophy is obviously to pay respect to the royal ancestors that founded the winery, their winemaking ambition is even greater than that: they are so passionate about achieving the local grapes' full potential, they only produce single-varietal wines to give each variety an opportunity to shine.
They have as much respect for the grapes as they do for the terroir: they believe in genius loci - 'the spirit of the place' - and therefore feel that nature can make a better wine than any technical intervention. To this end, they use minimal chemicals in the vineyard, and only harvest and treat the vines by hand.
The red novac grape - first grown here - works well on the region's loamy soil, and Prince Stirbey grows it on east-facing slopes to benefit from the freshness of the morning sun. It isn't easy to grow even here, and it is equally demanding in the winery, but Stirbey has worked hard with German winemaker Oliver Bauer to bring out its best elements. They've found success ageing it for around a year in large non- new oak barrels, which retains the grape's tannins and helps the complex characters develop gently.
The family's most successful white grape is the native t?mâioas? româneasc? - a relative of muscat - which makes both dry and sweet wines. Ileana and Jakob have found it grows best on the dark red cool loam and limestone soils on their south-facing vineyards, which enhances the grape's natural floral, aromatic spiciness and refreshing acidity.
Although the cellar dates back to the early 1900s, it has very much been brought into the 21st century: Stirbey now uses stainless-steel tanks, has a collection of oak barrels of various sizes with which to age its wines, uses a sterile bottling line, and benefits from a gentle pneumatic press which helps retain the grapes' natural aromas.