November 30 2011 issue

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PAGES (88) November 30 2011

The Wines of Moldova: Discovering velvet behind the Iron Curtain Jason Tesauro

Twice, they slaughtered the spring lamb for us. A 9-year-old chess prodigy, son of a signer of his country’s Declaration of Independence, checkmated me in four moves. And then there was the Fetească-fueled feast during a total lunar eclipse. It was all part of my recent discovery of a virtually unrecognized wine-producing country, one with 5,000 years of viticultural history and enough bottles stored underground to supply every inhabitant of Chicago with a case apiece. The Eastern Europeans have known about this region for a century or so, and the British, Germans, and Chinese are catching on, but I was the first American wine journalist to conduct a thorough investigation.

At a tasting in August 2009, Dmitri Corbet of Salveto Imports uncorked some Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris that tasted of nowhere I knew. “Moldova,” he said: “my home.” In June 2011, my wife Amy Lee and I made the 6,000-mile trek to see for ourselves. We crisscrossed four growing areas to visit 10 producers and sample nearly 100 wines. Expecting a second-world country with primitive wineries, we instead found ourselves staring down the oak barrel of a high-caliber wine culture, cocked to let loose on the global market.

HUMBLE HOSPITALITY

Our Tarom Airlines flight landed before 7 a.m. on a Sunday, but Eugen Pîslaru and Svitlana Gonta were there at sunrise to greet us. Pîslaru is a decorated military officer, a former member of Parliament, and the avuncular director general of Sălcuţa Winery, a company whose progressive philosophy makes it a model. Gonta, Sălcuţa’s sales manager, blends business-degree savvy with beauty-pageant looks.

We devoted our first day to Chişinău (KISH-in-ow), the capital city—a bit shopworn, but tidy and filled with trees. “They say we are the poorest nation in Europe,” Pîslaru told us as Gonta translated. “Yet there is ournational symphony, our cinema, our national opera, and ballet.” Even in the lean, post-Communist economy, these institutions remain vibrant, along with the local food-and-wine scene. At Stejăris restaurant, we supped on zama, a lemony soup with parsley, dill, homemade noodles, bird meat, and fresh sour cream. Pîslaru selected the 2003 Negru de Purcari, a seamless blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and the indigenous Rara Neagră and Saperavi, with brilliantly integrated fruit, acidity, and soft tannins. Purcari, the most respected name in Moldovan wine, is both a commune and a producer on the country’s southeastern tip, at the same latitude as Burgundy’s Mâconnais.

UNPLUNDERED RESOURCES

Moldova is a grape-cluster-shaped nation of 3.5 million inhabitants, bordering Romania on the west and Ukraine along the north and east, with only a jagged burr of Ukraine separating it from the Black Sea in the south. Its landscape is a mosaic of rolling hills, forests, and green or golden steppe. Black chernozem (a humus-rich soil) is the main natural resource. “Even the tail of hammer could grow,” said Vladimir Davidescu, owner of Vinăria Din Vale & Co., the country’s largest vineyard landholder. Eons ago, Moldova was covered by ocean; as I climbed its hills and descended into caves, I stepped on fossils and ancient seashells. “We look for calcareous and sandy plots for planting vines,” Davidescu noted. Nelly Sonic, vice president of Lion-Gri, another major player in the wine industry, described it as “one-meter-deep black soil, like someone poured oil on it—very clean, because Moldova didn’t have the money for chemicals.”

For generations, Moldova served as the larder of the Soviet Union, growing vegetables, walnuts, apricots, cherries, and peaches on a vast scale, all harvested by hand and earmarked for the USSR. No wonder so few outside the present-day Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) know that this Eden even exists. “Twenty years ago, if the Russians weren’t so protective, this would be like the rest of Europe,” said Pîslaru as we inspected his Traminer vineyard, peppered with poppies between the rows. “The whole village works the land, many still with horse and wagon for transport.”

Yet had there been no Communism, Moldova’s natural resources would have been exploited long ago. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the country is now truly open for business, and its wine production already outpaces that of New Zealand. All it needs now are the four Is: investors, infrastructure, importers, and an iPhone app. “We are supposedly poor,” Pîslaru repeated outside the 600-year-old Mănăstirea Căpriana, “but you see what we can build.” I asked if international success would come at a price. “Maybe we will be rich,” he replied, “but we’ve been here since Stephen the Great. A few Parker ratings will not shift the culture.”

THE HAMMER-AND-SICKLE CYCLE

With its Cold War-era presses and double destemmers, Romaneşti Winery is a relic of the last Russian dynasty, when it served as the imperial winemaking colony for Tsar Nicholas II. It doesn’t seem to have changed much since then, still using antiquated tanks that look like salvaged Soviet submarines, but both its wines and its hospitality are surprisingly vivacious.

To learn why the Moldovan wine industry is intimately tethered to the nation’s sociopolitical structure, I visited Minister of Agriculture Vasile Bumacov. Surrounded in his office by plants and a bank of phones harkening back to the days of answering to the Politburo, he explained that the Russians wanted quantity, not quality, and gobbled up everything grown here. Sweet and sparkling wines were popular; Moldovans made more. Bordeaux varieties yielded higher tonnage than indigenous grapes; Moldovans planted more. While Communism brought a predictable prosperity, it also promoted torpor. As Bumacov put it, “They said, ‘Don’t worry, we have Russia, we don’t need other markets.’” Then perestroika hit, accompanied by devastating anti-alcoholism prohibitions. “The KGB put diesel in the wine barrels and made people cut their own vines, recalled Château Vartely director Dmitry Munteanu. “It broke their hearts.”

Moldova declared independence in 1991, but the decimated wine industry took a few more years to recover. Even when it did, 90% of the production was still being shipped to Russia. In 2006, though, the Russians banned Moldovan imports during a conflict with the Republic of Georgia, claiming spuriously that the wines posed a health risk. This 20-month embargo led to massive shutdowns and a loan from the European Union. “But I don’t want their money,” said Bumacov; “I want to help wineries organize and penetrate new markets.” Added Château Vartely winemaker Arcadie Fosnea: “The ban changed the rules of the game. Only the strongest survived, and they did so by imposing strict quality control, diversifying to Western markets, and crafting more delicate, European-style wines.”

THE WAY FORWARD

Ninety percent of the country’s wine is produced by 15 key factories, many of whom belong to the Moldova Wine Guild. Vinăria Purcari, established in 1827 as Moldova’s first commercial vineyard, is owned by Vinăria Bostavan, one of the country’s largest holding companies. After viewing a stunning sunset from vineyards flanking Purcari’s fully renovated winery and inn, I could understand how independence has given rise to ambition and pride. The amiable Victor Bostan, founder of Bostavan, observed that “when I inherited Purcari in 2002, it was not a treasure.” Now, he’s making precise, aristocratic wines and leading the march toward modernization.

Château Vartely, one of many wineries in the central (Codru) zone surrounding the capital, has taken a similar approach, building a tourist destination with elegant tasting rooms and superior accommodations and dining. As Munteanu expressed it, “We show them our soul, not just that we put wine in bottles.” The golden-orange hue of his lush Muscat Ottonel Ice-wine perfectly reflected that evening’s total lunar eclipse.

Sonic, an effervescent redhead who also chairs the Moldova Wine Guild, is keeping up by driving the old guard into a new century. She told me that “our targets are the U.S., China, Vietnam. I have a big ego and I am tired of the Russians. Women are warriors—they have intuition and they will cry for Moldova.” After tasting highlights of the portfolio, I cruised Lion-Gri’s underground empire with its president, Sonic’s husband Grigore. Moldovan wines have a stellar brightness attributable to the limestone caves, 100-330 feet below ground, where they wait to be sold on demand for export. These machine-extracted cellars, winding for 75 miles, store an estimated 30 million bottles at a steady 54-57º.

Chişinău’s Mileştii Mici houses the world’s largest wine collection in its cellars, according to Guinness World Records, but nearby Cricova Wine Factory is second. There, I spied nooks of library selections enrobed in silken fungi amid rooms full of recently bottled wine, much of it bubbly. “If it’s sparkling, it’s Cricova,” said Vasile Luca, the company’s chief engineer, who drove me past countless riddling racks, more “submarines,” and pallets of hibernating bottles.

“We have to spend as much as needed to make a good face with our company to be proud of,” said Ion Mereuta, Asconi Winery’s 24-year-old enologist. Established in 1999 in the country’s southern (Cahul) zone, Asconi is “growing very fast, like yeast,” Mereuta claimed. He called himself “a bridge to combine old and new style.”

As for boutique producers, “you can count us with your fingers,” observed Igor Luchianov of Et Cetera winery, one of five members of the Moldovan Small Wine Producers Association. Another member, Constantin Stratan, started in 2002 with a hilltop vineyard from which we could see Ukraine across the Dniester River. “It’s one of the best spots to make red wines in Moldova,” he contended. Holding only 10 acres, Stratan is proud to be the country’s smallest producer in terms of volume. He grows eight varieties, including Rara Neagră grapes propagated from five old vines, and sold to Luchianov before launching his own brand, Equinox. “In restaurants, I was the most expensive wine until Negru de Purcari,” he pointed out. Et Cetera (which will rebrand for the United States, since there’s a Sonoma producer of the same name) maintains 124 acres of vines, now certified organic, and began selling with the 2009 vintage. “All new technology,” Luchianov said with a smile—“no submarines.” He and his brother Alexandru were the first Moldovans to employ high-density planting and grow Syrah. The day I visited, a team from Cricova was also on hand. According to Luchianov, Cricova’s director of production said, ‘Igor, your wines are better than mine. We are large, but we still must learn. Can I send you my agronomists for education?’”

This cooperative spirit permeates the industry. “I’m not seeing competitors,” said Davidescu—“only friends with shared visions.” He and his son Andrian own and manage nearly 20,000 acres of cultivated land, with more than 3,200 acres of it planted to grapevines. Much of the vineyard acreage is organic, and all of it is tended and harvested by hand. “Minimum wage in Moldova is $90 per month,” said Davidescu. “Minimum salary here is $200 because we want high-quality workers.”

COMING TO AMERICA

Over a meal of plăcintă (a traditional pie filled with sheep cheese and cabbage) and lamb so tender we could eat the bones, our discussion turned to the United States. Davidescu’s latest investment is a $1.9 million bottling line for the 20% of his production designated for the American market. The remainder is shipped via insulated tanker trucks to Minsk, Belarus, before being filtered, bottled, and sold to other CIS nations. “The future is in making many varieties at high quality,” said Davidescu. “We have the raw materials for wines that are lighter, softer, and fruitier, with natural acidity.”

Back in the States, I talked to Moldovan Ambassador Igor Munteanu (no relation to the Vartely owner). “PNTR [Permanent Normal Trading Regulations] status is coming this fall,” he says, “and a delegation met with the TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau] to learn about everything from labeling to advertising, PR, and distributors.” Moldovan exports are gaining momentum, thanks in part to a $150 million fund from the U.S. Agency for International Development for investors in Ukraine and Moldova. In 2010, Horizon Capital, an equity investment company with offices in Ukraine and Chicago, anted up $15 million for Purcari. And in early 2011, Vice President Joe Biden told a welcoming crowd in Chişinău: “I promise you, America will be your partner.”

I opened some Moldovan bottles with an accomplished winemaker and a James Beard Award-winning food-and-wine writer, who affirmed my “who knew?” fascination. But “having good wine isn’t enough,” said Bartholomew Broadbent, a wily importer whose portfolio brims with underappreciated gems from Lebanon and Uruguay. Yes, there’s a trickle of Moldovan wine being imported to the United States, but until sommeliers, restaurateurs, retailers, and consumers make a commotion, the international prospects of these amiable and talented Eastern Europeans will remain uncertain. Americans need to discover the velvet behind the Iron Curtain.

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