Discovering Moldova

Caroline Gilby MW takes a look at the new face of this ancient wine country

Click to enlarge Moldova Wine Regions

Few people know where Moldova is and even fewer people will be aware that Moldova is actually a significant wine producer, reliant as it has been on exports to its former Soviet neighbours. Until recently, very few of its wines made it to western markets, but that is all changing with a number of Moldovan wines arriving in the UK, including a couple of new listings from pioneering estate Château Vartely at The Wine Society.

Moldova lies on the far eastern edge of Europe, sandwiched between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the east. Winemaking here dates back to at least 3,000 years BC, but in Moldova today, the wine industry is working hard to reinvent itself as a modern European wine country.

The highest per capita production of wine in the world

Wine is at the heart of Moldovan life - even the shape of the country resembles a bunch of grapes dropped onto the map, or so Moldovans like to claim, possibly after a glass or two of the local product. Grapevines cover 7% of the country's agricultural land; the highest density in the world and the country has the highest per capita production of wine too.

This is a tiny nation with around 3.5 million citizens, and is the poorest in Europe; yet around 200,000 people (20% of the economically active population) earn a living from wine, so there is a lot of motivation to get it right.

Moldova officially has the largest wine cellar in the world at Mileştii Mici (registered in the Guinness World Records with a collection of nearly two million bottles)

Moldova officially has the largest wine cellar in the world at Mileştii Mici (registered in the Guinness World Records with a collection of nearly two million bottles)

Great soils and sunny slopes

The landscape features green, gently rolling hills covered with vines at every turn, with rich black soil overlying limestone bedrock full of fossilised shells, left over from the time this region was under the Pannonian sea. As well as great soils and sunny slopes, Moldova lies at the same latitude as Bordeaux, though its climate is more continental, moderated by the nearby Black Sea, so conditions for growing good grapes are pretty much ideal.

Shaped by its political past

There's no doubt that Moldova has been both shaped and scarred by its Soviet history. In the USSR, every second bottle of wine consumed was from Moldova, and even since independence in 1991; Moldova has continued to depend on its former Big Brother for much of its trade.

In the past, the wine industry was set up to supply vast quantities of cheap, vaguely wine-like alcohol to Russia - wineries often had their own railway sidings, volumes were so large. However, today this is changing fast with privatised wineries now owning vineyards and investing in modern equipment, and small boutique producers appearing too.

Wine used as a political stick

Because wine has been so economically significant to Moldova (nearly a quarter of all exports in 2005 and still a sizeable 7.5% today), Russia has used wine as a political stick to try and bring Moldova to heel as it tries to reinvent itself as a modern European nation, especially since its recent signing of a free trade treaty with the EU. Russia banned all Moldova's wine in 2006 and again in 2013 causing massive financial hardship in a country that was already impoverished.

Moldova has recognised that its future lies in focusing on quality wines and diversifying into wider markets to get away from Russian bullying. And the industry has been working hard on raising standards, improving knowhow and developing new protected geographical indications, at the same time as helping to support rural life and slowing the flood of people leaving to work abroad.

A new generation of quality-focused producers

Cellar doors at Château Vartely Cellar doors at Château Vartely

Château Vartely was one of the first of the new generation of quality-focused producers. It is not far north of the capital Chisinau, close to the historic village and cave monastery of Old Orhei (well worth a detour). It started in 2004 with a winery and a young Moldovan winemaker named Arcadie Fosnea who, unusually for Moldova, had studied winemaking in Germany. The winery has invested heavily in vineyards, and now has 250 hectares of its own and a further 150 hectares that it manages. It has also built a small tourist complex and restaurant - to help improve wine culture in Moldova itself.

White grapes come from cooler vineyards in the centre of Moldova close to the winery, while red grapes are trucked during the night from Comrat in the south, where the climate is warmer and better for ripening red varieties. The winery itself is equipped with all the latest technology, and Fosnea is fanatical about attention to detail, and highlighting the pristine pure flavours of Moldovan grapes.

The Historic Monument of Old Orhei

The Historic Monument of Old Orhei

Well-established international varieties & indigenous grapes

Moldova's 112,000 hectares of noble wine grapes cover a larger area than more famous, Eastern European nations of Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. These are planted with a mixture of international and local varieties. The international grapes, including cabernet sauvignon, are not simply upstart arrivistes but have been here since the early 19th century, arriving when the Russian aristocracy brought in French experts (most famously from the Cahors region) after Moldova joined the Russian Empire in 1812.

Hint of 'girl power' in local grapes

Moldova also has some unique grapes local to the region (arguably shared with Romania) that are proving to be exciting in expressing this special terroir. There's definitely a hint of 'girl power' among the local grapes: the black maiden grape fetească neagră the white maiden grape fetească albă; its off-spring the royal maiden grape fetească regală and a grape that is better known as grandmother's grape in Romania (băbească neagră). Fetească regală is perhaps the most interesting of these, with typical notes of pear and acacia, backed by the crisp, refreshing character that Moldova's climate brings.

Traditional Moldovan House

Traditional Moldovan House

Much to offer tourists

There's so much more to see in Moldova than just its wines. The roads are lined with walnut trees, and walnuts with honey are a typical breakfast treat. Orchards and vegetable growing abound and every meal starts with a crunchy salad - you wouldn't believe tomatoes and cucumber could be so tasty. Another favourite is placinta - a sort of cross between filo and flaky pastry stuffed with potato, pumpkin or brinza (a salted sheep cheese), and dessert versions are full of walnuts and sour cherries. A local version of polenta called mamaliga is the traditional staple, with sour cream and yet more brinza - great with typical pork stew called tocana. Soups like chicken zama or ciorba are tasty and filling and then stuffed vine leaves or cabbage may follow. Moldova is not on many tourist maps yet though it was recently voted Europe's top 'off the beaten track' destination by Lonely Planet and direct flights from UK and hubs like Vienna and Frankfurt now make it quite accessible.

So what nicer way could there be to support this poor beleaguered country and its people than by drinking its wines. Noroc!

Caroline Gilby MW

June 2015

> View our listing of Moldovan wines

Caroline Gilby MW

Caroline Gilby MW Caroline Gilby MW

Caroline Gilby is a Master of Wine and wine writer with a passion for the wines of Central and Eastern Europe, ever since her first job as a junior wine buyer took her there in the early 1990s. She contributes to several wine books, magazines and websites.

> Read other articles by Caroline Gilby MW

Further Reading

Legend of Savior Storks

Legend of Savior Storks Legend of Savior Storks

During Stefan the Great's rule, a big army of Tatars besieged Soroca fortress for several months. As they became short of food and water within the fortress, the warriors were losing strength and their hope every day. All of a sudden, flocks of storks appeared above the fortress, bearing in their beaks bunches of grapes, which they let fall inside the citadel. The grapes helped the warriors to regain their powers and obtain victory. Since then, the stork, with its bunch of grapes, has become a symbol of unity and the Moldovans greet the birds and send them on their way when they migrate each year.

Want more inspiration?

Sign up for a carefully-curated selection of recipes, guides, in-depth expertise and much more.

Our website uses cookies with the aim of providing you with a better service. By using this website you consent to The Wine Society using cookies in accordance with our policy.


4.4. Cookie Policy

By using The Wine Society website, you agree to cookies being used in accordance with the policy outlined below. If you do not agree to this, you must alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you or cease using the website.

The Wine Society uses cookies to enable easy navigation and shopping on the website. We take the privacy of all who use our website very seriously and ensure that our use of cookies complies with current EU legislation. The following guide outlines what cookies are, the types of cookies used on The Society's website and how they work.

You may alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you, but this will cause difficulties when accessing and using some areas of the site. Instructions on how to do this can also be found below.

4.4.1. What are 'Cookies'?

  • Most major websites use cookies.
  • A cookie is a very small data file placed on your hard drive by a web page server. It is essentially your access card, and cannot be executed as code or deliver viruses. It is uniquely yours and can only be read by the server that gave it to you.
  • Cookies cannot be used by themselves to identify you.
  • The purpose of a basic cookie is to tell the server that you returned to that web page or have items in your basket. Without cookies, websites and their servers have no memory. A cookie, like a key, enables swift passage from one place to the next.
  • Without a cookie every time you open a new web page the server where that page is stored will treat you like a completely new visitor.
  • More recently, cookies have also been used to collect information about the user which allows a profile of their preferences and interests to be created so that they can be served with interest-based rather than generic information about available goods and services.

4.4.2. How do Cookies help The Wine Society?

Cookies allow our website to function effectively. Cookies also help us to arrange content to match your preferred interests more quickly. We can learn what information is important to our visitors, and what isn't.

4.4.3. How does The Wine Society use cookies?

The Wine Society does not accept advertising from third parties and therefore, as a rule, does not serve third-party cookies. Exceptions to this include performance/analytical cookies (see below), used anonymously to improve the way our website works, the provision of personalised recommendations, and occasions when we may team up with suppliers to offer special discounts on goods or services.

The Society uses technology to track the patterns of behaviour of visitors to our site.

4.4.4. What type of cookies does The Wine Society use?

We use the following three types of cookies: Strictly Necessary Cookies
These cookies are required for the operation of our website, enabling you to move around the website and use its features, such as accessing secure areas of the website. Without these cookies, services like shopping baskets or e-billing cannot be provided. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Authentication Cookie and Anonymous Cookie
    These cookies remember that you are logged in to your account – without them, the website would repeatedly request your login details with each new page you visit during your time on our website. They are removed once your session has ended.
  • Session Cookie
    These cookies are used to remember who you are as you use our site: without them, the website would be unable to tell the difference between you and another Wine Society member and facilities such as your basket and the checkout process would therefore not be able to function. They too are removed once your session has ended. Functionality & Targeting/Tracking Cookies
These cookies are used to recognise you when you return to our website and to provide enhanced features. This allows us to personalise our content for you. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Unique User Cookie
    This cookie is used to:
    • store your share number in order to identify that you have visited the website before. Without this cookie, we would be unable to tell whether you are a member or not.
    • record your visit to the website, the pages you have visited and the links you have followed. We use this information to make our website, the content displayed on it and direct marketing communications we may send to you or contact you about more relevant to your interests.
    • This cookie expires after 13 months.
  • Peerius Cookies
    These third-party cookies are used to provide you with personalised recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history. They expire within 4 hours of your visit. Performance/analytical cookies
These cookies collect information about how visitors use a website, for instance which pages visitors go to most often, and if they get error messages from web pages. These cookies don't collect information which identifies a visitor. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. It is only used to improve how a website works. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Google Analytics Cookies
    These are third-party cookies to enable Google Analytics to monitor website traffic. All information is recorded anonymously. Using Google Analytics allows The Society to better understand how members use our site and monitor website traffic. Authentication Cookie
In order for us to ensure that your data remains secure it is necessary for us to verify that your session is authentic (i.e. it has not been compromised by a malicious user). We do this by storing an otherwise meaningless unique ID in a cookie for the duration of your visit. No personal information can be gained from this cookie.

4.4.5. How do you turn cookies off?

All modern browsers allow you to modify your cookie settings so that all cookies, or those types which are not acceptable to you, are blocked. However, please note that this may affect the successful functioning of the site, particularly if you block all cookies, including essential cookies. For example, In Internet Explorer, go to the Tools Menu, then go to Internet Options, then go to Privacy. Here you can change the rules your browser uses to accept cookies. You can find out more in the public sources mentioned below.

4.4.6. Learn more about cookies

4.4.7. Changes to our cookie policy

Any changes we may make to our cookie policy in the future will be posted on the website and, where appropriate, notified to you by email. Please check back frequently to see any updates and changes to our cookie policy.