Chris Boiling is a winemaker and wine and travel writer. You can find his work at JancisRobinson.com, VinCE magazine and of course WTM, where he wants to share his passion for the wines and wine regions of Central and Eastern Europe.
The revival and modernization of the wine industry in one of Europe’s poorest countries has taken some strange turns, as Chris Boiling discovers.
All eyes are on us. The Mercedes-Benz minivan stands out for its size against the wide-eyed children playing in the streets. Its 201 horsepower stands out against the horse-drawn carts that seem more common in this small, poor Eastern European country. And the van’s functional, classic design is in stark contrast to the incomplete palaces linked by a maze of dirt tracks that we’re now bumping down.
We are in a shanty town of unfinished vanity projects – bare breeze block walls and white columns topped with gleaming gold domes, statues of lions and horses in gardens of rubble. We are in Soroca, in the northeast of the Republic of Moldova, close to the border with Ukraine, in an area known as Gypsy Hill.
A dark-haired teenager, dressed in black and wearing expensive-looking shoes, belt and watch, escorts us to his family home. It’s enormous. The breeze-block edifice is filled with antique furniture, tapestries, religious statues, crystal chandeliers and bold paintings.
After the two-and-a-half-hour drive from the capital, Chişinău, I am in need of the toilet. There is a small swimming pool in the bathroom right next to the pan.
When I return to the dining room, I am served homemade red wine. It is sweet and closer to grape juice than wine. I say it’s delicious. The woman of the house, part of the ruling Cherari dynasty, explains why her husband and other sons are absent. They are selling “apples and pears” in remote parts of Russia, where these fruits are considered “exotic.”
Drinking wine in a Roma palace is one of the most surreal moments of my life. This too-quick, four-day trip to Moldova produced several surprises. I came to this former Soviet Bloc country because it has one of the longest histories of producing wine (going back to 3000 B.C.). It is now looking to export more to the West after repeated problems with its main export market, Russia. And it has some really interesting regional grape varieties: the whites Feteasca Alba, Feteasca Regală and Viorica, and the reds Feteasca Neagră, Rara Neagră and Saperavi.
What I wasn’t expecting was so much homemade wine. But that’s what the locals drink and that’s what you’re offered when you are invited into their homes or go to a charming local restaurant. “It’s a Moldovan tradition – everyone cultivates grapes, makes wine, has a cellar,” explains my guide, Natalia Cojuhari. “It’s a low-class family that has no wine to welcome you with.”
For the decent stuff – the wine winning export orders and fans around the globe – I have to wait until I visit one of the new or refurbished wineries. These operations have received some of the €330 million in investment from the West over the past decade to help keep Moldova out of the clutches of Russia. After all, about a quarter of the country’s workforce is employed in the wine industry and it accounts for more than 3 percent of the country’s GDP.
In the meantime, I discover that the sweet red wine in the gypsy palace is not so typical of the homemade wine – most is mouth-puckeringly sour -- but it does pair well with traditional dishes such as plăcintă (a filled savoury pastry) and mămăligă (polenta, sheep’s cheese and sour cream).
In contrast, the wineries on the tourist trail are smooth and sanitized. The buildings are immaculate inside and out, the tours are slickly run and well-scripted. The wines are what you would expect to find in any of the Eastern European countries that are now emerging as forces to be reckoned with in terms of both quality and value.
Purcari, in the southeastern region, about 114 kilometers from Chişinău, was founded in 1827 and is simply stunning. It’s a French-style chateau with eight suites, two restaurants, two lakes and cellars built in the shape of a cross by its early occupants, monks. The Bosavan family, backed by U.S. dollars, has rebuilt the complex with tourists in mind. Coach parties, not wine tourists.
The tasting that was included in our tour comprised a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a sweet red wine, Cahor, which is popular in Russian Orthodox churches. It was a shame because Purcari does make much more interesting wines, especially those that pair a local hero with an international star in a 51 percent - 49 percent blend of Rara Neagră (Malbec) or Feteasca Alba (Chardonnay). And its iconic wine, the Negru de Purcari, which is supposed to have been a favourite of Russian Emperor Nicholas II and British royalty since King George V, comprises 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Saperavi and 5 percent Rara Neagră. It is a deep ruby color, with ripe plums, figs and spice on the nose, and red and black fruits laced with oak-influenced spices in the mouth.
Another good red is the Freedom Blend, which comprises 50 percent Rara Neagră, 45 percent Saperavi and 5 percent Bastardo. Purcari is also one of the increasing number of producers making a Rara Neagră varietal. This difficult-to-grow red grape is low in tannin, high in acidity, but it can produce an elegant wine somewhere on the spectrum between Pinot Noir and Sangiovese. The nose is red cherries and dried herbs, with pomegranate and floral notes and a touch of pepper and spice. In the mouth it’s medium-bodied, fresh, with red and dried fruits dominating. The acidity and spice give it good structure and a decent finish.
Italian wine consultant Federico Giotto, who has been working with Purcari since 2009, told me why he is a fan of Moldovan wines: “Moldova has a territory that gives a great identity to grapes and wines. The soils are usually very dark and rich in organic matter, but there are also some areas where there is a great amount of iron, thanks to the volcanic origin of its soil. It’s here where some of Moldova’s best white wines are produced. In addition to the distinction of the soils, the elements that give great typicality to these wines are the exposure and the proximity to several rivers that run through the country, as well as the Black Sea.” In particular he likes the wines’ “extreme freshness and frankness.”
Château Vartely in Orhei, about an hour north of Chişinău, is a more modern-looking complex but equally impressive, with accommodations in traditional villas, two very grand tasting rooms, a restaurant and a pristine winery. It’s the dream of a young Moldovan winemaker, Arcadie Fosnea, who learned his trade in Germany and has a special touch with the aromatic whites Feteasca Regală, Sauvignon Blanc and Traminer. The winery, part of an oil company, has 260 hectares of vines and buys grapes from an additional 150 hectares under its control.
Nearby is another tourist attraction well worth a visit, the 15th-century cave monastery of Old Orhei.
One surreal moment of these visits was sitting in a luxurious chateau and discussing highfalutin subjects such as Russian poet Aleksandr Puskin’s love for gypsies after passing so much poverty en route.
“We are top of the unhappy league,” Natalia confessed. “It’s a beautiful country but we are struggling to make a living. How can you be happy if you can’t pay the bills? It is only wine that makes us happy.”
Another surreal experience was driving through a cellar. The Cricova ‘cellar’, about 15 kilometers north of Chişinău, is more like an underground city, where the streets are named after grape varieties and the houses are large oak barrels. The journey through the tunnels, excavated for the limestone, has stop-offs to see how the winery’s sparkling wines are made and to take in the national wine collection. The wines date from 1902 and include the private collections of Hermann Goering, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel. I spotted Burgundy and Bordeaux wines from the 1930s and Californian wines from the 1990s.
The five themed tasting rooms are as impressive as the 120-kilometer-long tunnels. One is ‘presidential’ in style, another European, and my favourite is called ‘Sea Bottom.’ Here, you’re drinking Moldova’s answer to Prosecco, Crisecco, 80 meters under the village of Cricova. The Crisecco is made from Feteasca Albă and Muscat. It’s fruity and fun, but my favourite fizz in Cricova was the classic-method Cuvée Aleksandr – rich, crisp, refreshing.
Cricova, though, is not the largest cellar in Moldova and doesn’t have the largest collection. That honour goes to Mileştii Mici, 25 kilometers north of Chişinău, where a tour of the limestone galleries could clock up to 200 kilometers and two million bottles -- enough to get the cellar into the Guinness Book of Records on both counts.
The drawback of all these places, for me, was the emphasis on infrastructure, when I had come to taste the wines. So my favourite visit was the Et Cetera winery, about a 20-minute drive from Purcari, near the village of Crocmaz.
Et Cetera is run by brothers Igor and Alex Luchianov, who made their money running casinos on cruise ships in the U.S. Their functional, factory-style winery, opened in 2009, and cozy restaurant are surrounded by 45 hectares of new vineyards. The white cuvee made from equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc slipped down quickly, as did the Chardonnay varietal.
The red blends delivered the most joy. Serendipity, put together with their U.S. importer, is made from 70 percent Feteasca Neagră and 30 percent cabernet sauvignon -- a match made in heaven. The Cuvee Rouge, though, stood out the most. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Saperavi and Rara Neagră, we tasted it from the bottle and barrel.
“It has personality,” Igor said.
I said it was delicious. This time I meant it. I sat back and soaked up the sunshine.
I wanted to stay longer. Fortunately, the family is building eight guest rooms that should be ready by spring 2016.
They are also building a wine shop in Chişinău, in their office above the city’s best wine shop, Carpe Diem. I had dinner there on my final night in Moldova. Yes, dinner in a wine shop – another surreal experience. It gave me the chance to try wines from small producers such as Vinăria Nobilă, Equinox, Mezalimpe and DAC, as well as Carpe Diem’s own range, from talented winemaker Ion Luca, who is head of the Small Winegrowers’ Association of Moldova and also makes wine under the Crescendo label.
It was a reminder there is more to Moldovan wine than the headline acts, and I vowed to return next October for their National Wine Day celebrations to discover even more of the country’s 140 wineries.
You can fly to Moldova’s capital, Chişinău, from major European hubs such as London, Munich, Milan, Vienna and Bucharest. Most of the places mentioned in the article are within two hours of the capital.