Little Brother Grows Up

Moldovan hasn’t always had a great reputation in many of her export markets and that includes the Czech Republic where Moldova often fills the niche of cheap semi-sweet price fighting wine. In fact, the Czech Republic is one of Moldova’s most important customers taking just over 4 million litres of bottled wine and 3.2 million litres of bulk wine in 2015. However, Moldova is a country that’s worth another look for massive improvements in quality and the development of a strong range of modern, enjoyable dry wines.

Moldova must be the single most dependent country in the world on wine – with 112 hectares of Vitis vinifera for its 3.5 million resident population. To put this in perspective, this is approximately one third of the population of Czech Republic, but around 6 times the Czech vineyard area. Wine is worth 7.5% of Moldova’s exports (at one time it was 25%) and is one of Moldova’s major export earners behind its expat workers. Estimates reckon around a quarter of a million people earn a living directly or indirectly from wine – around one fifth of the economically active resident population.  So that alone is good reason for Moldova to put effort into getting it right.  In most countries, wine is a “nice to have” side line but in Moldova it is strategically incredibly important attracting 330million euros worth of funding from various aid organisations. Sadly, for the people in this poor country, wine’s key economic role has meant it has become a political football in relations with Big Brother Russia.  The first total ban imposed by Russia in 2006 was devastating to an industry that exported 99% of its production, and most of that went to Russia, but it also kick-started a new approach to winemaking. A second ban in 2013 coincided with Moldova signing a free trade agreement with the EU and the only companies still allowed to sell in Russia are the Russian-owned ones. Make of that what you will.

The end point of all this is an industry that has literally cleaned up its act – most wineries are now clean, hygienic and equipped with the latest stainless steel, temperature control and bottling lines, while the old rusty soviet tanks and glass pipes are gone. Perhaps more importantly, huge investment has gone into vineyards, with wineries realising that owning their own vines is critical in allowing them to control quality. Party this is there has long been a huge gulf of understanding between growers who got paid on yield and preferred to drink sweetish brews made at home from hybrid vines like Lidia and Isabella and the requirements of modern global winemaking. Wineries with vineyards can be more specific about canopy management, yields and picking date. So once wineries have got the vineyards, the next step forward was realising that within their large vineyards there was an opportunity to select the best sites and the best fruit to go into bottled wines.  This is something that can actually be done more consistently by big wineries who will always have some good fruit to select even in difficult years whereas small estates are stuck with what they get from their limited area.

Moldova lies at the same latitude as Bordeaux, though is more continental and extremes of climate are moderated by the nearby Black Sea (even if Moldova’s actual coastline is only a few hundred metres). Everywhere you turn the green, gently rolling hills are covered with vines, with rich black soil overlying limestone bedrock full of fossilised shells, left over from the time this region was under the Pannonian sea.   It’s not surprising to find Bordeaux grapes like Cabernet and Merlot grown widely though these are not simply upstart arrivistes but have been here since the early 19th century, arriving with French experts (most famously from the Cahors region) brought in by the Russian aristocracy soon after Moldova joined the Russian Empire in 1812. Pioneering small estate Et Cetera (in fact the first of the new era of small estate producers) makes a great Merlot.

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 best known as grandmother’s grape in Romania (Băbească Neagră). While genetically identical, the distinctive local version grown in Moldova is called Rara Neagră and is gaining attention in its own right as a Moldovan speciality as well as appearing in blends (such as Purcari’s Negru de Purcari and Freedom blend). Fetească Neagră is potentially the flagship red of the region with its deep colour and notes of black cherry and cloves, though actually offers a more complete wine with a little blending help – Albastrele’s Fiori Feteasca/Shiraz works well for this, as does Et Cetera’s Serendipity. Fetească Albă is delicate, doesn’t take well to oak and is a good bet for pure refreshing apple blossom and white peach-scented wines – Vinaria din Vale makes a benchmark example.  Among the international varieties, there are some lovely aromatic Sauvignons like the night harvested Sauvignon Sol Negru from Asconi.  Sparkling wines based on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have long been important here – aged in the famous deep underground cellars, a speciality of the world-famous Cricova cellar with its 120km of tunnels. Look for Cuvee Prestige Alb Brut or Pinot Noir Extra Brut – both really classy and good value bottle-fermented sparkling wines.

This is just a little snap shot of a few favourites from the new era of Moldovan winemaking, and there’s much more to explore. What better way to support a country under pressure than buying its wines? Noroc!