Pub quizmasters, take note. The country with the most grapevines per capita is . . . Moldova. Sandwiched between Romania, another important wine producer, and war-torn Ukraine (with a slice of Russian-backed Transnistria in between the two) it is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Wine is hugely important to its economy.
Back in 2005, wine constituted a quarter of the country’s entire export earnings. Almost all of it went to Russia, where Moldovan wine — mostly pasteurised, semi-sweet and sold in bulk — made up about 25 per cent of all wine consumed. But in 2006, in a move related partly to the conflict over Transnistria, Russia suddenly banned imports of wine from Moldova along with wine from its other major supplier, Georgia. For both countries this was disastrous in the short term, but in the longer term it has provided real (albeit painful) impetus to make better wine that will appeal to other markets.
As eastern European wine specialist and Master of Wine Caroline Gilby puts it, “losing the Russian market meant that Moldovan wine had to reinvent itself.” Gilby went to Moldova in 2006 as part of a project funded by the development agency USAID to assess how to improve the country’s wine sector. In her 2018 book The Wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova, she writes that she encountered “some of the worst winemaking I’ve seen in my life — old Soviet-style reactor tanks, cellars reeking of stale wine, rusting painted vats, dirty pipes strewn across the floor and vile-smelling, leaky barrels”.
Fortunately, the country had many natural advantages as a wine producer. The climate is mild with usefully long, relatively warm summers and just the right amount of rainfall. The rolling hills help to provide contrast between day and night temperatures, regarded as a factor in wine quality. Furthermore, many Moldovan vineyards can boast of two similarities with fashionable Burgundy: latitude and limestone.
But Burgundy is almost 1,500 miles from Ukraine. The most prominent Moldovan winery, Purcari, based in a handsome stone building in the south-east of the country, is only 20 miles from the border and shelling can sometimes be heard there.
I recently tasted 26 current wines made by Purcari and its associated producer Bostavan and they certainly demonstrate the results of considerable investment in Moldova’s vineyards and cellars.
Grapes currently include a standard list of the international varieties that were once so fashionable and quite an array of local specialities that are arguably in a more contemporary idiom. In fact there was one white wine grape, Viorica, that was relatively new to me. This cross was made in Moldova as long ago as 1969 and the variety seems to be increasingly popular there today.
Moldovan grape-breeders are an active bunch, keen to distinguish their country from its much bigger western neighbour Romania. Moldova has fair claim to being the birthplace of the Festească Albă and Festească Neagră — grapes widely grown in Romania, and also grows the Romanian grapes Festească Regală and Babească Neagră, known in Moldova as Rară Neagră.
On the basis of what I tasted, however, the grape variety that really thrives in Moldova is neither Moldovan nor Romanian but Georgia’s pride and joy, Saperavi. It has apparently been grown in Moldova since the late 19th century and seems to have adapted so well that one can’t help but see a parallel with the Malbec grape that arrived in Argentina from Cahors in south-west France and seems to be particularly at home there.
Saperavi is the main ingredient in one of the most arrestingly political wines I’ve ever come across, Purcari’s Freedom Blend, which also includes 20 per cent Rară Neagră and 15 per cent Bastardo, a crossing originally made in Crimea. The three grapes are designed to represent, respectively, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine — all targeted by Russia. The wine initially saw the light of day in 2014 after Putin annexed Crimea, with its first blend based on the 2011 vintage — a nod to the 20th anniversary of Moldova’s independence.
I’ve tasted the 2018, 2019 and 2020 vintages and can recommend them all — especially since it is treated to sophisticated but not too obvious oak ageing and yet retails at not much more than £20. Profits, which I think could justifiably be boosted by a price rise, support the Ukrainian war effort and Ukrainian children.
But the wine of which Purcari is probably most proud is the historic Negru de Purcari, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Saperavi and Rară Neagră that won a gold medal at the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle. It was revived in the 1950s, and in 2010 the company launched a white counterpart to this famous wine called Alb de Purcari. It reminded me of nothing more than one of the best white blends made in Friuli in north-east Italy.
Purcari, based in Stefan Voda in the south-east, is by no means the only worthwhile producer in this potential paradise for grapevines. In her book, Gilby lists 27 different producers, including 13 of the new, smaller ones that have been energising the Moldovan wine scene. With wine names such as Bad Boys, Ed Knows and Femme Fatale, producers seem to be setting their caps at export markets more obviously than many of their European counterparts.
I have been impressed by the wines of Gitana, based in the warmer Valul lui Traian region in the south-west of the country. They seem to find their way to the US and the UK.
Tony Laithwaite of Laithwaites has been importing Moldovan wine since 1999. Their main supplier Château Vartely, is based just 30km from the Ukrainian border and, like Purcari, it rallied to provide a temporary home for many of the 600,000 Ukrainians who crossed into Moldova at the start of the war. Laithwaites voted it Winery of the Year in 2022.
Today Laithwaite observes that “going to Moldova is still like when I first visited in 2002 . . . countryside still medieval, horses and carts, flocks of geese all over. But the big surprise now is these futuristic, state-of-the-art wineries that seem to have landed like spaceships. Their winemaking has jumped from the 19th to the 21st century and missed out the 20th.”
Some of the country’s best wines
Albastrele, Blanc de Cabernet Sparkling Brut NV
Purcari, Cuvée de Purcari Rosé Brut NV 12.5%
$24.99 Liquor Barn IL, £29.92 Transylvania Wine of Yorkshire
Purcari, Freedom Blend 2020 13.5%
Widely available in the US from $19.98
Purcari, Freedom Blend 2019 14.5%
£17.49 M&M Wine & Food, £19.99 Novel Wines, £24.60 Turton Wines
Gitana Saperavi 2019 14%
£32 Sorin Wines, £39.95 Stroud Wine Co; from $29.99 in the US
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com. Follow Jancis on Twitter @JancisRobinson
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