Caroline Gilby MW takes a look at the new face of this ancient wine country
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)
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
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
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
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
> View our listing of Moldovan wines
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
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.