Tasting Romanian natural wine with Philip Cox
Tasting Romanian natural wines with the owner of one of the largest wineries in Romania - Philip Cox - might seem like an odd choice for Simon. But this meeting of two very different minds ended up being enjoyable and educational for both of us.
When a random blowhard states on social media that “all the orange wines I’ve tried have been horrible”, I generally turn a blind eye. Why waste breath on a futile battle with another entrenched traditionalist?
But ex-Bristolian turned Romanian winery tycoon Philip Cox is not your average shock tweeter. Philip first crossed my horizon in 2018 when Cramele Recas, the giant Romanian winery of which he is co-owner and commercial director (another good story), released an “orange natural wine” on the UK market. Selling for £5.99 in Aldi, it caused a bit of a shitstorm within UK wine circles. “I practically got hate mail for that”, Philip later admitted. And of course, he didn’t think his orange wine was horrible.
Cramele Recas built its reputation on supplying large chain retailers across Europe with budget priced wines – although as Philip is keen to stress, that doesn’t mean the quality is poor. Still, the natural wine community were at best sceptical, if not outright vehement in their reaction to Recas’s orange wine. Keen to find out more, I got Philip’s phone number and gave him a call.
I assumed I’d be talking to a cautious and politic CEO, who would choose his words carefully and avoid saying anything too extreme. Instead, I got half an hour of Philip’s straight-talking, brutally frank soundbites. It was hugely refreshing. And it turned out that his orange natural wine was everything it claimed to be: wild fermented from organically grown fruit, and vinified without filtration or added sulphites.
So began a cautious but respectful online relationship. Philip would fire off a broadside on natural wine, I would parry with a dig about his wines. But Philip is clearly curious about every part of the wine world. And as someone who spends their entire professional life writing about garagiste winemakers and radical biodynamic growers, I wondered what someone on the polar opposite side of the industry could teach me.
After a few false starts, I accepted Philip’s invitation to visit Romania and Cramele Recas HQ in September 2021. We agreed to sit down and taste a selection of natural wines together. I wanted to know what else was happening in Romania, and I wanted to see how Philip reacted to the wines in person. He sourced a selection of all things natural, orange and organic from within Romania, I showed up with a suitcase full of my personal favourites.
Here's a transcription of our conversation as we tasted through the bottles. I've slightly edited it for brevity, leaving in as many swear words as possible.
Dassemus / Daxivin / Simon J Woolf - Ceci n’est pas une Orange 2019 (Brabant, NL)
Simon J Woolf: I brought this one for very specific reasons – it’s Dutch, it’s entirely made from hybrid varieties and it’s got my name on the back label.
Philip Cox: Well that’s global warming for you if they’re making wine in the Netherlands now. Every time I’ve been, it’s been pissing down with rain!
[tasting] It’s a little bit pink. It’s really intense on the palate. I like it. It coats your tongue.
SJW: You once said that all orange wines are disgusting. I know this is the first wine, but what about it? Would you drink this?
PC: Yes, I would drink more of this, it’s nice. I do remember saying that, but at that point I’d only tried maybe three orange wines.
Bauer - Orange 2017 (Dragasani, RO)
PC: Oh fuck, it’s with a fucking stupid wax cap.
SJW: [takes the corkscrew] I can handle that. I open these things for breakfast.
PC: This is Oliver Bauer. He’s a German winemaker down in Dragasani. He’s been here for ages like me. Last couple of years he’s been making his own wines.
[Philip tries to find out what the grape variety is. We discover it is Sauvignonasse AKA Friulano]
SJW: I think he put it in barrels didn’t he? And I wish he hadn’t.
PC: Yeah there’s a bit of a vanilla thing going on. I was tempted to do that but I never did, because I thought then the oak is dominating the whole thing. It’s not what you really want is it?
SJW: I wouldn’t really know this was skin fermented. It’s inoffensive but doesn’t speak to me of an orange wine.
Liliac – Chardonnay Orange 2016 (Transylvania, RO)
SJW: This is 2016!
PC: Yeah they’re not selling obviously. I have to say it’s difficult to sell orange wine here. We hardly sell any orange wine in Romania.
[looks at colour] Ah there you go, that’s a bit more orangy, a bit more golden.
SJW: I like that nose, it’s a little bit sweet though. There’s more skins influence here, but I could use a bit more acidity.
PC: Yeah It’s a bit flat. I do wonder if it’s a bit old. It’s from a cool climate region by Romanian standards.
Nachbil - Grünspitz 2017 (Satu Mare, RO)
[more swearing about the wax capsule]
PC: Mr Brutler was the original owner, he’s Austrian. This is up in the far north-east of Romania. I think it’s a great region.
SJW: The texture’s really nice, it’s pretty chunky. Maybe slightly lacking in fruit though.
PC: I think I preferred the Liliac. It’s definitely orange though!
SJW: If I could have this acidity together with the fruit of the Liliac, that would be perfect.
Škegro Family Winery – Krš Orange Žilavka 2018 (Herzegovina, BA)
SJW: In some vintages, the back label used to say “It is impossible, they say, to make a drinkable orange wine...”.
PC: I’ve said that to people too! Is this actually Bosnia?
SJW: It’s Herzegovina
PC: I like this!
SJW: It’s a take no prisoners nose I guess. [a bit bretty]
PC: Yeah, Hartley [head winemaker at Cramele Recas] would have something to say about this. We have a lot of discussion about how the product that you put in the bottle has to be stable. How OK is it for it change while it’s in the bottle, and by how much?
SJW: If you buy a nice piece of Brie or Camembert, you don’t expect it to stay the same. It’s living! Why shouldn’t wine be like that?
PC: If only all our customers were like you. [going back to the wine] I like that, I like the flavour. It’s more rounded, it’s not as grippy as some of the others, it glides down. That’s a wine that could convince a lot of people to like orange wine.
SJW: Bariša [Škegro] will be delighted to hear that. It’s pretty funky though isn’t it?
PC: It’s not as commercial as ours, it’s more out there. Does he also make a Žilavka with more normal winemaking?
SJW: Yes, but it’s a bit chalk and cheese. His regular Žilavka is very commercial, and then this is the other extreme.
PC: It’s a dilemma all winemakers have. Where do you want to go? How hardcore do you want it to be?
Cramele Recas – Orange 2020 (RO)
PC: This is the one we sell in Korea as you can tell [the back label is in Korean].
SJW: On a wine which is supposed to be natural and sustainable, why the clear plastic capsule?
PC: The Koreans wanted to be able to see the cork because that seems more…. natural. But then we found out that there’s a Korean rule that the cork is not allowed to come into contact with contaminants. We could have put wax on it….
SJW: It’s got a bit of that peachiness - quite attractive. It’s very fruit forward.
PC: Yeah, it’s commercial. It’s in the 7-11s in Korea! We didn’t try North Korea yet. Maybe we will next year. How different can it be?
SJW: How can you make a wine which is this clean and stable [without added sulphites]? What’s the trick?
PC: We spend a lot of time and effort keeping it away from air. The most important part is not using any press wine. It’s only free-run juice. The whole pressing process is quite traumatic for grapes. Especially if there’s no sulphur.
SJW: It’s an attractive style. It does feel very mainstream but I like the fruit.
PC: It’s not designed to be avant-garde.
Dagon – Clearstone Fetească Albă Reserve 2018 (Dealul Mare, RO)
PC: I don’t think they claim this is an orange wine. But they are quite trendy, I think they have a French winemaker. [reads the back label] Wait, it’s in fucking English, you can read it yourself!
SJW: [reading] Wild yeast, second use Burgundy barrels and new Romanian oak. That sounds scary.
[tasting] oh that’s nice. They have achieved a sort of Burgundy style, a bit of that struck match character. Lovely acidity too.
PC: It’s very Burgundian, like a Maconnais. This confirms my theory about Romanian winemakers - you’ve got to have a foreign winemaker for it to be good. We have a whole problem with the education system here, it’s not going well.
[both agree that it is a really, really good wine]
La Sapata - Fetească Regală 2019 (Tulcea, RO)
PC: They are down by the Black Sea. They’re quite new, but they’re making a bit of a wave.
SJW: That’s not smelling promising, it’s a bit gluey and volatile.
PC: Something’s gone a bit wrong there.
SJW: I like the palate though, I love the fruit and I have no problem with the bubbles. I do wonder whether it’s a done a little bit of extra fermentation.
PC: I think it’s a bottling fault. The nose is off-putting, but you can’t taste it on the palate.
Domaine des Mathouans - Mine de Rien 2019 (Roussillon, FR)
SJW: I thought I need to bring one all-out funky, stinky wine, and this is it. The name, loosely translated, means “no fucks given”.
PC: That’s a good name, I like that.
[sniffing] I wouldn’t have spotted it as a Muscat
SJW: To me it is recognisable but maybe I’m used to having macerated Muscat?
PC: I can taste Muscat. When you macerate it it gets a bit of a stinging nettle thing.
SJW: it’s slightly dirty but I like that, I find it marvellously drinkable.
PC: [grins] I like this, I really like it. It’s off-piste, off the beaten track. Thank you for bringing it.
PC: I have a question for you. I notice this bottle and most of the ones you brought don’t have organic certification. How important do you think that is?
SJW: I think it’s important. But in the natural wine world, particularly in French or Italy there’s a lot of people who see themselves as rebels, as outside the system. Their view is “why should we have to pay for certification when we’re not the ones polluting our vineyards?”. But you had an issue didn’t you, where you couldn’t get your natural wines certified because of some loophole?
PC: We did last year, we got it all done.
Cramele Recas – Natural Red 2020 (RO)
PC: This is organic Cabernet Merlot, no sulphur, no yeast, no fining, no oak.
SJW: What about filtration?
PC: No filtration.
SJW: I think it has a lovely fruit character, it’s soft and juicy. It’s very balanced but it is 14%, it’s not really a glou glou wine is it? How easy would it have been to make it at 13% ?
PC: It’s not glou glou. This is anecdotal but it’s true. 30 years ago when I first arrived in this region, we struggled to get red grapes ripe here. We didn’t have a long enough hang-time. Now we have the opposite problem, the summers are getting so hot. We’re already picking Merlot [it’s late September] and it’s already at 15% potential alcohol.
SJW: Are you waiting for 100% physiological ripeness?
PC: We’re looking for taste ripeness, phenolic ripeness. This year it’s a problem because the sugar levels are going up far too fast, but the actual ripening is still going relatively slowly.
SJW: A winemaker friend of mine in Portugal was saying people shouldn’t be scared of harvesting when the stems are still a bit green. If you wait for them to turn brown, you’re harvesting jam.
PC: You can do anything you want if you have a market for it. Everybody sees it through the prism of their own country. Australian winemakers will definitely look for higher ripeness levels than European winemakers I think.
Claus Preisinger – Kalk und Kiesel Rot 2018 (Burgenland, AT)
SJW: I wanted to show you this as an example of someone making a very fresh, early harvested style. It’s Claus Preisinger, a very famous biodynamic winemaker in Gols, Burgenland.
[sniffs the cork] Oh no. I think it’s a bit corked.
[we move on, after a short discussion about scalped fruit]
PC: Do you believe the whole biodynamic thing? Is it for real? Does it work?
SJW: Yeah it’s for real. I think biodynamics is a fantastic tool for getting people in contact with their vineyards, their soil. I also believe in it because so many times when I taste wines from biodynamic fruit, they taste so alive.
Pivnitele Theodoros – Vin Rosu Sec 2016 (Muntenia, RO)
PC: This is one of the wines you asked me for. I’ve never tasted it, I didn’t even know it existed!
SJW: I found these guys on the Raw Wine site. The label looks fun, quite old school.
PC: One of the other bottles that I had for you blew up and sprayed itself all over my carpet.
[sniffs the wine] Smells like a serious red wine.
PC: I get a bit of cassis
SJW: A lot of oak, but nice fruit. It’s super reductive with a bit of that burnt toast thing.
PC: It’s quite bright. [translating the label] Made without herbicides and pesticides, unfiltered, no cultured yeasts, no bacterias.
SJW: I think this is a really nice wine. This is the kind of style that’s only just about ready to drink.
PC: I can’t find out where it is. Fucking useless website, it doesn’t say where they are. It says its in Muntenia. That’s a massive area, it’s like saying your wine is from Holland.
SJW: They say they have mainly Feteasca Negra. Would you say this is typical?
PC: Feteasca Negra for me is usually not quite so dense, it should be more juicy.
SJW: Maybe because of the oak?
PC: I have a thing against Romanian oak because quite often they leak, or they don’t dry [season] the wood properly.
SJW: This makes me want to taste more from this winery. It’s a serious style that would get me excited about Romania.
Philip clearly wasn’t as excited about the final wine as I was. It was a rare exception during a two hour stint where we were mostly in violent agreement.
Tasting takes on a different dimension when you are with someone whose business is selling 25 million bottles of wine a year. There was no agonising about whether we were smelling wild strawberry or umeboshi plum, no radicalising over sulphur levels. Discussions majored on whether the wines were enjoyable, whether they were commercial or more niche and whether they felt stable and well-made. The lack of pretension was refreshing and eye-opening. We poured ourselves another glass of Mine de Rien at the end. An orange wine that is definitely, positively not horrible.