Inspiration / Travels In Wine

The rebirth of Prince Stirbey

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Mahesh Bharwaney Mahesh Bharwaney / 01 August 2018
Baroness Ileana Kripp-Costinescu and Jakob Kripp
Baroness Ileana Kripp-Costinescu and Jakob Kripp

Jakob explained how through the restitution claims after the change of government in Romania, following the collapse of the communist regime, he started the process of trying to recover ownership of property and land that had belonged to Ileana's family. As with most of the joyous moments in life there is a touch of romance to this story! I will attempt to do this rather beautiful story justice, but if you want to read a more in-depth version, my colleague Rosie Allen has recently written it up for us too in our Discovery pages.


A story of love and redemption

Dumitru Nedelut tended the Stirbey vines keeping them in good condition during the communist period and remains the domaine's agronomist to this day
Dumitru Nedelut tended the Stirbey vines, keeping
them in good condition during the communist period
and remains the domaine’s agronomist to this day

Jakob and Ileana met in Germany at a vineyard owned by Jakob's brother. To me this was an important revelation, one that I have subsequently realised is well known, but I hadn't heard it before and found it very charming and prophetic. After they were married, they then travelled to Romania on honeymoon, Ileana's first visit back for many years. They visited the then state-owned vineyards and found them to be well tended and well looked after.

Working on the vineyards was Dumitru Nedelut. Dumitru took Jakob and Ileana to his home, his wife cooked, they shared food and wine and they talked. Jakob made the restitution claim, found encouragement from the local government offices and the local people, including Dumitru, who has continued as the vineyard manager today! He was there on our visit, he delighted in showing us around; his enthusiasm was infectious, his knowledge impressive and his great relationship with Jakob, who translated for us on the tour, was evident.

Jakob walking through the vineyards between rain showers
Jakob walking through the vineyards between rain showers

Jakob told me that the people who work for him have 20 years' experience of the soils, the weather the grapes and you just cannot underestimate how important that is. Jakob and Ileana have worked hard to win back her family's domaine, but there is a sense that it is still part of the local community's inheritance too.

Dumitru took great delight in showing us around his well-tended vineyards. Left to right: Dumitru Nedelut, agronomist, yours truly, Richard Fox, UK agent for Prince Stirbey & Wine Society buyer, Freddy Bulmer
Dumitru took great delight in showing us around his well-tended vineyards. Left to right: Dumitru Nedelut, agronomist, yours truly, Richard Fox, UK agent for Prince Stirbey & Wine Society buyer, Freddy Bulmer

As if to demonstrate, Dumitru showed us different vineyards, pointing out varied slopes and aspects that suited the different grape varieties in specific ways. He showed us vineyards of cramposie (an ancient variety which dates back to pre-Roman days), novac, tamâioasa, feteasca regala and more, and you could see how pleased he was that The Wine Society buyer, Freddy Bulmer had made time and come all this way to visit his vineyards.

Our visit was at the beginning of August and we saw grapes galore, the worry Dumitru explained was the amount of rain; the bunches were swelling, there was a risk of some bursting, particularly the very tight bunches of novac and then, then there would the risk of mould and rot. As I write this Jakob has said that some of the tamâioasa has been affected, with no remedy available now as they wait for the sugars to concentrate enough to allow harvesting! Please spare a thought for this annual dilemma. We so easily forget that wine is an agricultural product at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Fetita the vineyard dog
Anton the vineyard donkey
More vineyard wildlife! Anton the vineyard donkey and Fetita the vineyard dog with years of professionally barking at grapes behind her!

From vineyard to winery

Winemaker Oliver Bauer chats to buyer Freddy Bulmer on the roof of the winery
Winemaker Oliver Bauer with buyer Freddy Bulmer

We then went to the winery and met up with German winemaker Oliver Bauer and yet another romantic story. Oliver accepted the job in Romania because as a young winemaker in Germany he thought the opportunity would help establish him in the industry and he would then be able to move on.

However, Oliver has married a Romanian, built a house, a winery and owns his own vineyards where he can experiment with grapes and styles to his heart's content. He is able to focus on the wines of Prince Stirbey with their core of single varietals from indigenous varieties and in his own time can make small productions in styles and with grapes that he chooses.

Oliver's own wines – he can experiment to his heart's content!
Oliver's own wines – he can experiment to his heart's content!

We visited both wineries and you can see the investment and the care in both immediately. Both are spotlessly clean, with double-walled Slovenian stainless steel temperature-controlled tanks, oak barrels made by Romanian coopers. Wood from the north adding softer and harmonious notes to the wine and wood from the east providing structure. Oliver talked about his style of winemaking. He is certainly an advocate of minimal intervention and jokingly coined the phrase 'controlled laziness.' Yes it is minimal intervention but every process, including hand-picking, sorting, vinification, racking, clarification and bottling is done on site with care and attention to detail. There have been no government subsidies here, so everything has been acquired with personal investment from Jakob and Ileana. It is a labour of love, in more ways than one.

Pichi the pooch
Rex the friendly guard dog
More winery dog photos! Pichi the pooch and Rex the friendly guard dog.

The past and the future – the wine runs through them!

We had a little time to do some sightseeing and visited some monasteries in the area. Jakob explained the importance of The Stirbey family and their influence on the region. One of these monasteries was built by a Stirbey, the connection to the region runs deep.

Horezu Monestary
Horezu Monestary
Horezu Monestary
Dintr-un Lemn Monastery; 18th century wooden church at Dintr-un Lemn; Inside the Horezu Monastery

We saw original advertising posters from the 1930s pronouncing Stirbey as producers of 'Wines of Tradition' and posters from 2004 proclaiming 'The Rebirth of Stirbey Wines' and the family has records showing the production of sparkling wine 100 years ago. Stirbey don't do copies, their focus is original wines from local varieties and they do it very well.

Overall, my lasting impression is how well matched The Wine Society and Prince Stirbey are. There is a marvellous history and story to both companies and yet both are investing in their futures with modern technology and a continued desire to look after the people involved. Long may we both prosper!

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