Travel planner: Early autumn delights from Oltenia’s vineyards

Who would’ve thought that at the end of a three-hour drive from Bucharest one would find a strikingly similar replica of the idyllic Tuscan hills?

The pride of the Oltenia region, the Dragasani wine, is born every year in the sun-kissed Olt River Valley and up the Vineyards Hill, where tens of acres of the finest grapevines abundantly yield the selected Cramposie and Dragasani black varieties, poured into wine glasses across the world. The wine varieties may be the stars of the season, but one also ought to learn a thing or two about the first-rate Victoria table grapes variety. It was homologated in this region in the mid 1960s and it has since conquered further boundaries due to its juicy, fleshy and refreshing pulp.

The origins of wine making in this area trace back to the times of the ancient Dacians, only to turn into art during the Roman Conquest and finally become “not only a luxury product, but a lifestyle”, to cite a pretty famous local enologist. We chose this time of early autumn to get the best of this process and also appraise the most beautiful project initiated by the town council of the small commune of Prundeni: the “Wine Route”.

Seven renowned wineries spread their human size posts as far as the eye can see, with wires wrapped up in elaborate canopies of plump bunches of dark purple grapes heavily hanging above the ground and metaphorically called “the piglets”. The vineyards descend the gentle hillside, close to the wide banks of the now calm Olt River, creating the subtle impression that among the vines and roses one stands closer to the sky. Indeed, some still keep the tradition and continue to plant rose bushes at the starting point of each vine row, which serve as an early warning of a fungal infection. Thus, the vigorous yellow roses stand for healthy white grape varieties, while the red or pink ones, for red grapes.

This might be the winemaker’s heaven, but it’s also the best proof that you don’t have to be a wine making expert to find the utmost of pleasure in surprising your senses with a good wine. We arrived at the Vineyards Hill on a genuine autumn’s day, much too chilly for mid September, yet we were more than satisfied with the rain revealing and enhancing every scent and color: the moist soil, the aroma of crushed, luscious grapes with their thick skin, rich in tannins and the wide green leaves heavy with rain droplets, all enchanted us.

Grape harvesting may start as early as the second half of August provided that the vines benefited from plenty of sunlight during the summer and the grapes are always hand-picked, but throughout the initial process (harvesting, destemming, crushing and first fermentation) wineries usually limit tourist access in order to keep the production process as unaltered as possible, namely to produce wine “out of the strength of the earth and the wisdom of the sun”, as an old saying goes. However, tourists are gladly welcome to visit the domains starting with the end of April until the first days of October. According to the vineyards unique terroir, the winemakers are available for guided tours and laid-back wine tasting activities, which can last from 2 to 7 hours. Nonetheless, the full-bodied wines are always accompanied by the obvious taste of season’s home cooked meals prepared exclusively with locally produced organic ingredients. For the wine aficionados ready to take things to the next level, the menu also includes game specialties.

We were told incredible stories and shown photos of the spectacular grapevine flowering in May, a short process which takes only a few days, a whole week at best. As it is entirely conditioned by the weather, tourists should keep their eyes on the calendar, not to miss this precious moment.

Besides mastering the art of wine making, the locals from the Dragasani area surely are skilled beekeepers. Colorful beehives hide in the tall grass between the vineyards, producing, in our humble opinion, the tastiest and most delicate strained honey, the acacia honey. Likewise, the apple, plum and quince orchards have once more sacrificed a part of the fruits to ferment the most flavored tuica from Valcea County, while the rest was carefully preserved for the winter to come. Tourists can safely purchase compotes, marmalade and baked vegetable appetizers from the locals, as they are entirely additive-free. Once you reached the Vineyards Hill, our top recommendation is to pick a few handfuls of vitamin C-rich rose hips, which grow wildly along the road.

For those interested in an infusion of culture and history, the city of Dragasani hosts the newly refurbished Wine Museum, ready to reopen its gates by the end of this year, in the ruins of the ancient Dacian settlement of Rusidava, the Gib. Mihaescu Memorial House (Romanian novelist and dramatist) and the town’s cathedral.

The Wine Route can be effortlessly visited during one-day trips; however, to indulge in the perfect multi-sensorial experience, we highly recommend a night stopover in the area. As we speak, only one winery provides accommodation – which is a bit too expensive regardless the taste – but there are enough desirable options in Dragasani city centre, including a lovely boutique hotel.

We tested the three available options to reach the city of Dragasani by car, all of them starting with the A1 Highway to Pitesti:

  • Pitesti – Slatina – Dragasani on the European E574 Road which is in perfect condition, somewhat crowded; it crosses the River Olt to Ganeasa (outside Slatina city) and then it takes to the 64 National Road (DN64) to Dragasani.
  • Pitesti – Dragasani on DN67B zigzagging Arges and Olt Counties. This is the shortest option and the scenery is beautiful (the tall wooden street sculptures are not to be missed), but the road quality isn’t the best.
  • Pitesti – Ramnicu Valcea – Dragasani on E81, then on DN64 from Ramnicu Valcea to Dragasani. This would be the longest option, both roads are in good condition with a few sights of interest: the Anton Pann Memorial House (composer of Romania’s National Anthem), the Village Museum or the Zoo.

By Alexandra Duta, guest writer