The story of a Corsican dentist whose love of wine overcame the odds
Wednesday 15 September 2021
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From a wine industry run into the ground over decades of communist rule, SERVE set out in the 1990s on what seemed like a fool’s errand; not only to rehabilitate domestic production, but to bring the grand tradition of Romanian winemaking to a sceptical international audience. We caught up with Mihaela Tyrel de Poix, one of the winery’s founders and a true pioneer of modern Romanian oenology, who still steers SERVE’s wines to this day.
Mihaela was first trained in telecommunications, a profession chosen for her according to the rules of Romania’s communist period, when engineers were at a premium. Fortunately, regime change came five years later and a dissatisfied Mihaela jumped at the chance to switch career and explore her passion for wine. It took a couple more years, however, before she met Count Guy de Poix, a dentist and owner of the Peraldi Estate in Ajaccio, Corsica, whose family already had a long history in winemaking. “Guy was an enthusiastic, courageous, mobilizing man, a true leader,” says Mihaela. “I stayed with him, first in business and then as a life partner.”
Together, the pair founded SERVE winery (an acronym that stands for “Euro Romanian Society of Wines of Excellence”) in April 1994.
“We set out alone, against all the odds, four years after the fall of the communist regime,” continues Mihaela. “We faced a legislative system which retained all the hallmarks of communism, starting from taxation through to land property rights. There was no banking system to speak of; it was a time when interest rates on bank loans exceeded 100% and inflation was galloping. Domestic consumers were oriented 100% towards sweet and semi-sweet wines and the image of Romania internationally was very bad.
“Romania has ‘terroir’ almost as varied as that of France and for the past 2000 years winemaking has been a big part of people's history and culture here. In the past few hundred years Romanian wines have gained an international reputation as well, having been prized by European high society, from our immediate neighbours to western European countries such as France.”
Without its own winery on good, replanted land – a virtual impossibility at the time – those first few years at SERVE were frustratingly slow, with Guy and his team sourcing grapes from various plantations in the area and processing them at one of the communist winemaking centres in Dealu Mare. This all changed between 1999 and 2001 with the establishment of a brand new winery, though in many ways, this was the most challenging time of all.
“These were turbulent years, and I think the whole team had their doubts whether it would all work out,” says Mihaela. “There were so few of us trying to make quality wines, we were competing against a huge market for dry spritzers, and shop and restaurant owners were very mistrustful of dealing directly with wineries, which was the path we’d chosen.”
Fortunately though, SERVE was not completely alone, as Vinarte and other small producers set out to cater for an emerging cohort of well-travelled, knowledgeable Romanian wine drinkers, sparking what would eventually become the nation’s wine renaissance. For its part, SERVE did not simply mimic the techniques and styles of more established wine nations, but celebrated the rebirth of distinctively Romanian flavours, in particular the native grape variety that had originally inspired Guy to take this journey: the Black Maiden (Fetească Neagră).
Today, SERVE is one of the best established and most respected wineries in Romania, and has made its permanent home on the fertile slopes of the Dealu Mare DOC. This breathtaking region is marked out by the rivers Teleajen and Buzau, and extend over 70 km, occupying a total area of 20,000 hectares, sheltered from low winter temperatures by the hills of the Southern Carpathians to the south and east.
These lands have been cultivated for more than 500 years and are particularly famed for their red wine varieties. Until 20 years ago, the climate was temperate continental; in winter the vineyard would benefit from the convection currents that form when temperatures drop, allowing an active growing season between 180 and 210 days. Unfortunately though, climate change over the last 20 years has brought forward the start of the harvest by almost 30 days, shortened the growing season, increased sugar accumulation, and changed the distribution of rainfall.
“We have chosen among the Romanian varieties Fetească Albă, Tămâioasă Românească and Fetească Neagră, as well as some international varieties already grown in the area: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir. With flowering in the first part of June, the harvest starts for the early varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Fetească Albă) around 20 August and ends in November with Cabernet Sauvignon.”
Having worked together for more than 20 years, the team at SERVE has developed a deep shared understanding of the grapes and the wines. “We work as a family,” explains Mihaela. “Each of us understands the entire process, we can easily do each other’s job and so it is easy for us not to make mistakes.
“We’re guided by two core principles from which we will not deviate. Throughout the process of transforming grapes into bottled wine, we want to intervene as little as possible on the fruit, so as to preserve as many of its qualities as we can. Also, we pay special attention to every detail, from every vine to the last bottle that comes out of our door. This means that as we are selecting varieties and clones adapted to small but high-quality yields, we have been applying non-invasive cultivation methods for more than ten years, so that all our plants are adapted to their environment. This goes a long way towards counteracting the effects of recent climate change.
“We also use exclusively manual picking and sorting of the grapes, even from the vineyard, so that only the perfectly ripe and healthy ones reach the winery. If necessary, the grapes are cooled, so that when they enter the winemaking process they are as freshly picked from the vineyard as possible; fresh, crisp and with intact aromas.”
As a premium winery with international vision, SERVE recognises its role in challenging the historical preconceptions that still exist around Romanian wine.
“Romania might still have a bad image in the wine world; more than 30 years after the change of regime, we have not managed to recover our reputation. But thanks to the investments of the past 15 years, both in plantations and cellars, the average level of Romanian wines has increased considerably, with a growing number of wines attracting the attention of connoisseurs and critics.
“In order to achieve recognition among the mass market of wine lovers internationally, we still need two things: coherent and consistent promotion, supported by the Romanian state, and a coordinated distribution of as many wines as possible on as many different channels as possible.
“Beyond that, our perseverance and constant concern for quality will do the rest. This is the only way we will endure for future generations, the only way we will have something to bequeath to our children and grandchildren: a family company like a family, small among the big ones and big among the small ones. It’s a guarantee of quality, regardless of the product, that people say: ‘this wine is from SERVE, who else?’.”
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