By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 31 March 2018
The first ‘wine airport’ in the world is based in a country in which few in the UK might even know made any wine. The people of Moldova have just voted to rename their international airport in Chisinau, the ‘Wine of Moldova’ airport.
This shows how important wine is to Moldova, one of the smallest and impoverished of the ex-Soviet Union countries, and their aim to establish a reputation for themselves as serious wine producers across the world.
With 5% of the country under vine, a staggering 150,000 hectares of vineyards, winemaking is the main agricultural activity (25% of agricultural exports) in this tiny country, sandwiched between eastern Romania and Ukraine. Size-wise that is almost as many vines planted as in Australia, but in a country a fraction of the size.
Moldova (or Bessarabia as it was once known) has a long distinguished wine industry with grape seeds and amphorae found here dating back 3000 years. In its heyday, it had over 240,000 hectares of vineyards and was Russia’s most important source of wine supplying 80% of its needs. Stalin was a great devotee of Moldovan wines.
Other past devotees have been Queen Victoria, King George V and Tsar Alexander 1, who even established a winery here giving his name to the Romanesti region and promoting European grapes.
But when Gorbachev introduced anti-alcohol campaigns in the mid-1980s, Moldova’s wine economy was dealt a devastating blow – intensified when Russia embarged imports of wine and meat in 2006 and again in 2013. So now they are looking for new markets for their wines.
There are 153 wine companies, mainly privately owned with some international joint ventures, based across Moldova’s four wine regions: Balti in the north, Codru in the centre, Purcari and Cahul in the south. The favourable terroir with gently undulating hills and temperate continental climate is well suited to growing grapes and they make an interesting diversity of styles: mainly white (70%), but with an increasing number of reds (24%), sparkling and sweet wines. The main problem is the poor state of many vineyards in this poor country and uneven quality control.
Moldova has more European grapes here than any other ex-Soviet Union country. Its heavy reliance on Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Muscat make it a difficult sell in the competitive international market. The most interesting wines for the UK drinker are made from local grapes like floral white Feteasca Regala and spicy red Feteasca Neagra.
The best quality Moldovan wines I have tasted are from the historic Purcari winery (pictured right), established in 1827 formerly as Afono-Zagraf monastery completely revitalised in 2003 by new owners Bostavin. Based 120 km south east of Chisinau on the river Nistru, just 30 km from the Black Sea, it is now also a tourist attraction.
The top Purcari red I tasted was Negru de Purcari Reserve made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Rara Neagra and Saperavi grapes – a really serious wine sold by Berry Bros & Rudd for £22.50 – and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth II – it is sadly currently out of stock. Purcari also make exceptionally fine Icewine from Muscat grapes – which shows the potential of this style benefiting from the freezing cold dry wintery conditions.
The wines that are now currently available in the UK from Moldova come from the latest and most ambitious wine venture in Moldova. Chateau Vartely was launched in 2004 by Nicolai Ciorni in Orhei, a town about 50 km from Chisinau. It has extensive vineyards in the centre and south of the country, with 150 hectares in Codru and 110 hectares in Bugeac region, but many of the vines are still young.
Moldova certainly has potential and is a country to watch – but to date its best wines are its dessert late harvest and ice wines which are sadly only made in tiny quantities.
Feteasca Regala/Sauvignon Blanc 2016 Ch Vartely
(£9.49 www.laithwaites.co.uk) 13%
A blend of international and native grapes grown in the Codru region. Starts well with attractive floral aroma, green apple fruit initially on palate, but finishes too sharp and acidic.
Chardonnay Albastrele 2016
(£9.49 www.laithwaites.co.uk) 14%
Chardonnay from Tvarditsa Estate in Codru region made from organically grown grapes. Apple apricot aromas, creamy lees palate with a hint of sweetness and a reasonable length; a better quality wine than the Sauvignon Blanc blend. Shows potential.
Individo Feteasca Neagra 2016 Ch Vartely ***STAR BUY***
(£8.75 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com) 14%
This wine fascinated our tasters with its pronounced spicy character. Very pungent rich depth of black fruit, peppery, herby and savoury. Good value for the price. Shows good potential for the native Feteasca Neagra.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Ch Vartely
(£6.50 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com) 13.5%
Our tasters found this disappointing. Initially inviting pungent blackberry fruit aromas, gentle light soft palate, plummy fruits with smooth tannins, more like a Merlot than Cabernet Sauvignon. Lacks depth and concentration.
Chardonnay Dulce Alb 2013 Ch Vartely ***STAR BUY***
(£12.99/£15.99 for 50 cl bt www.laithwaites.co.uk) 11%
A rare example of late harvested Chardonnay – and currently the only one made in Moldova, by Vartely’s winemaker Arcadie Fosnea. Peach and citrus fruit bouquet, very honeyed smooth rounded. Serve with a fruit dessert. Very impressive – well done Moldova.
Join Rose’s Hidden Gems of Australia wine tasting on Wednesday 11 April in Edinburgh £42 www.rosemurraybrown.com