High above a steep rocky peak of central Moldova, my eyes sweep over the boundless vista of vine-covered hills and the deep river valleys that is elegantly dressed by the afternoon sun. Quiet reigns here, save for the soft sounds of popping of corks from bottles of locally-produced wines. The ambrosial scent of richly-structured wine and fresh artisan cheese wafts through the room, lifted by the gust of a crisp breeze. Such is the seductive dolce vita character of Chateau Vartely, a hilltop winery and tourism complex nestled into the side of a limestone slope in the historic town of Orhei, 60 kilometers north of the capital Chisinau.
The air of well-crafted sophistication of this estate feels strangely out of place. This is, after all, the poorest corner of Europe. But Moldova, a sliver of a country wedged between Ukraine and Romania, is practically defined by contrasts.
About 150,000 hectares of vineyards make Moldova one of the regions largest grape growers, trumping both regional Hungary and Bulgaria in terms of size, yet it merits barely a passing mention in most wine encyclopedias. Surprising to many is the fact that viticulture is one of the strongholds of the country’s economy, producing over 100,000 hectoliters annually according to figures from Moldova-Vin Agricultural and Industrial Agency.
The wine industry even employs some 27 percent of the working population and accounts for 15 percent of the annual budget and over 85 percent of the entire production is sold to foreign markets, highlight the figures by Moldova-Vin.
“Wine has always been part of the culture. It’s consumption has been centered around cheap high-volume brands, so now we’re focusing on teaching customers how to appreciate premium quality wines,” said Arcadie Fosnea, the German-trained master winemaker at Chateau Vartely, who has been instrumental in turning the winery into a benchmark of quality in the domestic industry.
To establish the ambitious enterprise, no less than 20 million euro was invested by a group of foreign financiers who saw an opportunity in a high-end winery and tourism facility that fuses a sense of Moldova’s history with western business acumen, cutting-edge technology, and marketing savvy.
As an inveterate innovator and risk-taker, Fosnea has overseen the plantation of more than 220 hectares of vineyards since 2004, cultivating new grape varieties for the winery. Besides the top-selling Chardonnay, Sauvigon Blanc, and Traminer, he has also introduced new wines to the portfolio, among them refreshing roses from Merlot and Pinot Noir and sweet Muscat and Riesling ice wines.
While up-market Moldovan wines such as Chateau Vartely have started to secure a global foothold, Moldovan viticulture has enjoyed a long history tracing its roots back to the earliest Greek colonization of the area. The industry was dealt a mixed deck of economic, social, and political cards throughout it’s history, but it was wartime destruction, massive replanting, swelling demand for low-quality bulk wine, and post-Soviet privatization of wineries which dominated the 20th century.
But the most economically-crushing and industry-changing blow by far was Russia’s politically inspired embargo on Moldovan wine and meat in 2006. Russia, which traditionally imported some 75 percent of all wine produced in Moldova, imposed the restrictions, citing safety risks and quality impurities, including the presence of heavy metals and pesticide. Failing to provide any evidence of contamination underlines the view that the wine blockade was, in fact, reprisal for ongoing disputes over the breakaway territory of Transnistria. As a result, wine production dropped 60 percent, and over half of country’s wineries were forced to close their doors. Those left standing scrambled to find new markets.
In Fosnea’s words: “Before, nobody put any effort into marketing wines as all the poor quality semi-sweet wines were sold out. The 20-month Russian ban changed the rules of the game. Only the strongest wineries survived, and they did so by imposing strict quality control standards, diversifying to western markets, and crafting more delicate, European-style wines.”
At the tail-end of the trade crisis, seven leading wineries banded together to form the Moldovan Wine Guild in an effort to weather the changing marketplace and design a fitting image for Moldovan wine.
“This organization is a force of progressive and like-minded wineries that were ready to embrace new technology and a style that would cater to western consumers,” said Doina Nistor, the head of the Competitiveness Enhancement and Enterprise Development (CEED), a project sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that focuses on strengthening Moldovan private-sector businesses.
“One aspect of our support is creating a proactive marketing attitude and developing new promotion techniques in target markets, which we’ve identified as Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, and the United Kingdom,” Nistor added.
Lion-Gri, an export-only winery at the helm of the Moldovan Wine Guild in 2010, has been quick to leap onto the bandwagon of the latest winemaking techniques. With high-tech assistance from USAID and hands-on guidance from Italian, French, and Chilean winemaking consultants, the company upgraded its processing facilities from grape processing to the treatment and storage of wine. These advancements are palpable in the production plant, a cluster of five buildings situated on the outskirts of Chisinau, as well as across its range of products which includes over 120 varieties of premium wine, classic sparkling wine, divin, and brandy.
Being one of the country’s leading exporters of wine, Lion-Gri already trades in wine markets such as Poland, Germany, and the US. While looking to tap into new markets, the winery still decidedly depends on its established ones.
“Before the ban, Russia accounted for nearly seventy percent of our sales and now it’s around one quarter,” explained Tatiana Climco, chief winemaker at Lion-Gri.
Another company that is putting Moldova on the map as a producer of reasonable-priced wines is the Vinaria Purcari winery. Set in the verdant hills of the southeastern Purcari region, some 60 kilometers from the Black Sea, this rural estate is swathed by more than 200 hectares of neatly-choreographed vines.
Cabernet Sauvigon, Merlot, Malbec, and the indigenous Rara Neagra grapes perform particularly well here, which go into the company’s signature single-varietal wines, as well as blends such as Rosu de Purcari and Negru de Purcari, famed wines that have garnered accolades for their intense, complex aromas and opulent fruit flavors.
Aside from award-wining wines, Vinaria Purcari bears witness to the duality of tradition and modernity. The cross-shaped underground cellar harks back to the winery’s 1827 roots, with large oak barrels, bare-brick walls, and vaulted passageways lined with collection wines and cobweb-covered bottles, including ones earmarked for Queen Victoria in 1861. The rest of the premises consists of state-of-the-art machinery and production plants in addition to an elegant restaurant and an eight-room hotel. This emphasis on controlled quality, personal hospitality, and old-meets-new atmosphere makes Purcari one of the most-visited and best-recognized spots on the work-in-progress Moldovan Wine Route.
A tourism development project initiated by local officials, the Moldovan Wine Route aims to create a single point entry to the world of Moldovan wine by linking influential state-owned and private wineries including Milestii Mici, Cricova, Chateau Vartely, Cojusna, Branesti, and Chateau Migdal-P. Challenged by poor coordination and lack of proper financing support, as well as general logistical problems such as rutted roads and the shortage of directional signs, the project is still in the early stages.
Yet late last year, bringing a breath of fresh air to the local wine scene was a crop of dynamic young winemakers who assembled under another banner, the Moldovan Small Wine Producers Association. Quality over quantity is a binding attitude among the group with production levels maxing out at 10,000 bottles for the labels, which include Et Cetera, Equinox, Mezalimpe, Pelican Negru, and Vinaria Nobila.
Building on international wine experience, these producers have experimented by cultivating new grape varieties, introducing organic viticulture practices and fine-tuning old formulas to produce top-shelf wine for more discerning clients.
An important facet of the small producer’s operation is harnessing the benefits of team power and joining together to lobby for changes in very bureaucratic local regulations. They also share a vision of improving the culture of wine in the country. To that end, the group organizes a series of wine tastings in Chisinau’s most exclusive restaurants and uses social networking sites like Facebook to sustain a back-and-forth interaction with clients. They have also published a catalogue detailing each member’s background, vineyard parameters, and winemaking philosophy.
“Day by day we see new enthusiasts developing a thirst for learning about different types of fine wine and how to experience them,” said Alexandru Luchianov, the dapper half of a brotherly tandem that owns and manages Et Cetera, a boutique winery producing intensely-flavored Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Our group is laying the foundation for the next-generation of independent winemakers and a more quality-oriented phase in the Moldovan long-standing relationship with wine.”
Anna J. Kutor of ontheglobe.com is a Budapest-born journalist and photographer. She has spent the past decade exploring the eastern fringes of Europe. A life- and love-embracing traveler, she enriches her life by sharing stories and images of non-traditional destinations and genuine cultural experiences.