| GURA VADULUI, Romania
GURA VADULUI, Romania Can the latest fad for wine enthusiasts possibly come from an eastern European country whose wine-growing traditions are as old as Christianity?
Romania is the sixth-largest wine grower in the European Union and its enthusiastic proponents say the aspect of its 180,000 hectares of vineyards, unique soil, unusual grapes and inexpensive costs make it a producer to watch.
"What is unique about Romania is certainly the soils that can give unique characteristics to the wine," said Stephen Donnelly, oenologist of the Budureasca vineyard some 90 km northeast of capital Bucharest.
Romania's wine region lies on its western coast alongside the Black Sea, where vineyards dot the mostly sunny slopes and play home to grapes with names such as Feteasca Neagra and Tamaioasa Romaneasca.
"The two varieties I get most asked for when I do shows in London are Feteasca Neagra and Tamaioasa Romaneasca, which are both indigenous varieties," Donnelly told Reuters. "Because everyone has tasted Merlot from Chile, Argentina, so it's nothing special there."
The Tamaioasa grape has ancient Greek origins and has been cultivated in Romania for more than two thousand years.
"Pale straw in color, strong aroma of elderflower, strong flavors of fresh lychee, and with a soft natural sweetness and a long finish," is how Donnelly described the wine.
Price-wise it's competitive with its established European rivals in the export market and one of the very few sectors of the Romanian economy that is attracting EU development funds.
A bottle of Budureasca's finest wine can be bought in EU shops for as little as 6 euros ($7.74). Compare that to a Carignan varietal particular to France's less-lauded Languedoc wine region which costs 7.49 pounds ($12.10) at a British online wine shop or a mid-level Margaux from Bordeaux at 14.99 pounds ($24.21).
The Budureasca winery, whose name comes from an ancient Dacian archaeological site, exports a meagre five percent of its wine to Canada, Belgium, Sweden and Germany and plans to expand its export base to United States and across northern Europe.
"Its soils, the southern exposure, on 45 degrees are on a parallel with Bordeaux ... and limestone gives strength and mildness to red wines," Budureasca director Dumitru Varga said.
Many western importers have yet to see Romania as a member of the world's select wine club and the country suffers from a reputation for widespread graft, cumbersome commercial practices and shaky political foundations.
"The problem we had and we are still having is the fact that Romania's image is a bit stained," said Gabriel Lacureanu, oenologist at the nearby Basilescu winery.
Although Romania uses modern wine-making technology, a winter freeze and this summer's scorching temperatures hit production, estimated to drop 30 percent from 4.1 million hectoliters in 2011 when it exported only 130,000 hl.
Imports were nine times larger.
"Romania has a great future. When I do (go to) London I see we have a nice big stand with Romania," Lacureanu said. "But we're standing there trying to literally grab people to come in and it's a shame." ($1 = 0.7749 euros) ($1 = 0.6192 British pounds)
(Reporting by Ioana Patran; Editing by Radu Marinas and Paul Casciato)