A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Fetească Albă - Cotnari, Romania

It's been quite awhile since we visited the land of Romania.  Several years back I wrote a post about a blended white wine from Romania that I tried that contained three Romanian grapes heavy on the diacritical marks: Fetească Albă, Frâncuşă and Tămâiosă.  Romanian wine isn't that easy to find in my neck of the woods, so it has taken awhile for me to revisit this country, but I've recently found a few interesting Romanian wines and hope to be able to write about some of them over the next few weeks.  One of the wines that I was able to find was a varietal Fetească Albă, and that's the one I'd like to write about today.

I gave a brief capsule history of Romania and Romanian wine in my prior post, so interested readers are advised to skim that piece for more information on those topics.  In brief, Romanian wine is still struggling to recover after decades of rule by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was only overthrown in 1989.  Romania has a rich history of wine making and was considered for many years to be among the greatest wine producing nations in the world, but they found themselves on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain in the early to mid 20th Century and they have struggled to re-emerge onto the world wine market.  They are currently about 12th in total production in the world, but Romanian wines are still difficult to find on American shelves.

There are actually three different Fetească grapes.  Fetească Neagră is a black skinned grape that does not appear to actually be related to the other Fetească grapes at all.  The two white-berried forms are Fetească Albă and Fetească Regală, which are sometimes said to be subvarieties of the same grape, which isn't really accurate.  Some sources also indicate that Fetească Regală is the offspring of Fetească Albă and Grasă de Cotnari, but this was disproven by a Hungarian research team in 2009 (citation 1).  Many of the grapes grown in Romania are also grown in Hungary, but the names of the grapes are often very different.  The Hungarian study looked at a grape they called Királyleányka, which is the same as the Fetească Regală of Romania.  They reported that the given pedigree for this grape was Leányka and Kövérszölö, which are Fetească Albă and Grasă de Cotnari, respectively.  They were able to rule out Grasă de Cotnari as one of the parents, but they also showed that there was almost certainly a parent/offspring relationship between Leányka and Királyleányka (incidentally, it turns out that the other parent for Fetească Regală is actually Frâncuşă, which was in the blend I wrote about previously (citation 3)).

I've reverted to using the Hungarian names rather than the Romanian ones there because there is apparently some controversy over whether Leányka is actually the same grape as Fetească Albă.  They have long been thought to be identical not only because they look very similar, but also because their names roughly translate to the same thing in their respective languages ("maiden's grape" or "young girl's grape").  Though nearly every resource I've read indicates that they are the same grape, the Oxford Companion to Wine cryptically mentions in both their entries on Fetească Albă and Leányka that an Austrian research team has shown that the two grapes are actually genetically distinct.  It took several hours of intense searching to even find the abstract for the paper I believe that the OCW is referencing, but I believe that I finally found it (citation 2). Though I wasn't able to read the paper, I did read the abstract, and something struck me. The relevant portion of the abstract is copied below.

"The cv. Feteasca alba is not identical to Leanika (Mädchentraube), therefore the supposed definition as synonymous cultivars is obsolete. The cv. Kiraly Leanika could be evaluated as an individual cultivar. However, synonyms were detected by comparing Chasselas de Courtillier and Madleine Royale."

This seems pretty benign, unless you remember those last two grapes mentioned from my post on Müller-Thurgau.  One of the parents of Müller-Thurgau was misidentified for many years as Chasselas de Courtiller because of a labeling mix up at a holding institution in Austria where a Madeleine Royale vine was mislabeled as Chassleas de Courtiller (it's a cool story and I'd really encourage you to read the post).  This raises several issues with the reputability of this particular paper.  First, it appears that the samples taken for this particular study were taken from Klausterneuberg, which is the same institution responsible for the mislabeled vines in the Müller-Thurgau story.  Further, their finding that Chasselas de Courtiller and Madeleine Royale are the same grape have been disproved (because of the labeling mishap), meaning that there is good cause to doubt the rest of their findings as well.  A dubious source for the plant material coupled with findings that have been disproved elsewhere means that it's difficult to take this paper's findings as fact without further corroboration.

This paper was written in 2001, and as far as I can tell, there are no other papers published since then that corroborate the results that this team found regarding Fetească Albă and Leányka.  The VIVC database considers the grapes to be identical even though they list the paper above in their extensive bibliography on the grape.  Further, in a very recent study (published in September 2012, citation 3 below) which discovered hundreds of pedigrees for different grape varieties, the author's notation for Fetească Albă is literally "Fetească Albă = Leányka."  While I wasn't able to find any direct evidence that shows that the two grapes are identical*, that certainly seems to be the common consensus and has been for some time.  There may be airtight evidence that I've overlooked somewhere, but right now, the case for the grapes being identical seems much stronger than the case against it.**

All of which finally brings us to the bottle of 2008 Cotnari Fetească Albă, which I picked up at the Wine Gallery in Brookline (who has a very nice eastern European section these days) for around $12.  In the glass, the wine was a medium lemon gold color.  The nose was nicely aromatic with peach, apricot and pineapple fruits along with some honey and honeysuckle flower as well.  On the palate the wine was medium bodied with medium acidity.  As it states on the label, it was also medium sweet.  There were flavors of pineapple and mandarin oranges along with some peach and a touch of honey.  Pineapple was far and away the dominant flavor note.  It came off a bit syrupy and probably could have used more acidity to balance it out, but overall, I thought it was a pretty good wine for only $12.  Fans of slightly sweet German wines will probably find a lot to like here, as will fans of spicy food, as this would likely match well with a variety of spicy Asian dishes.


1) Kiss, E., Kozma, P., Halász, G., Molnár, S., Galbács, Z.S., Hoffmann, S., Veres, A., Galli, Z.S., Szőkel, A. and Heszky, L. 2009. Pedigree of Carpathian basin and Hungarian grapevine cultivars based on microsatellite analysis. Acta Hortitculturae (ISHS) 827:221-224

2) Regner, F.; Eisenheld, C.; Kaserer, H.; Stadlbauer, A. 2001. Weitere Sortenanalysen bei Rebe mittels genetischer Marker. [Further analyses for identification of grapevine by means of genetic markers]. Mitteilungen Klosterneuburg, Rebe und Wein, Obstbau und Früchteverwertung. 51(1) pp. 3-14.

3) Lacombe, T., Boursiquot, J.M., Laucou, V., Di Vecchi-Staraz, M., Peros, J.P., & This, P.  2012.  Large scale parentage analysis in an extended set of grapevine cultivars (Vitis vinifera L.).  Theoretical and Applied Genetics.  In press.

*This paper builds on another paper published by many of the same authors which analyzed the DNA of 4,370 different cultivars.  I wasn't able to find the list of all the grapes that were studied so I don't know whether Fetească Albă and Leányka were both in the study, but the "Fetească Albă = Leányka" notation leads me to think that perhaps they were.

**Look, I've done this dance several times already, so I'll spare everyone the rant and skip right to the point: CITE YOUR RESEARCH.   Not only for the sake of your readers, but also for the sake of the people whose ideas you're passing along, whether they're right or not.  If you didn't do the study, you need to tell your readers who did.


Emily H. said...

Thanks for this post. I have an affinity for Eastern European wines and was pleased to check out the cited papers for myself. Very interesting and thanks, as always, for doing a lot of the research leg work for us!!

George Mitea said...

Hi! I'm romanian and also a wine blogger, so you're in luck:)
1. The wine you tasted is produced by a huge company called Cotnari SA. They are very close of being what french call monopole, because Cotnari is a wine region. They only recently went for quality.
2. The insciptions on the bottle DOCC-CIB, mean: wine of controlled origin(DOC) with levels of quality(the last C)- picked very late (late as in raisins late).
3. Feteasca alba is indeed different from feteasca regala. The alba could give big, fine wines, very smooth taste(similar to let's say an alsace pinot gris), an with low aromatic profile (both sweet and dry), while feteasca regala is well known for more fresh and semi-aromatic white dry.
4. I have the feeling the informations from hungarian or romanian studies are let's say just a little politically contaminated, since we don't get along very well.
5. kyralyleanika is the feteasca regala, they even mean the same thing. The grape emerged from a place in Transilvania, in the early 1900's. Back then Transilvania was part of Hungary. It is possible that the grape was cultivated long before, but in the beggining of the century it was officially considered a distinct grape variety (it was named "regala" after the 1918 union of Romanian Kingdom and Transilvania, to honor the king).
6. both feteasca grapes are wide-spread in Romania. Francusa, however, is only to be found in Cotnari region.
If there are any other unasked questions, I'm happy to answer :)