Noroc for Moldova’s Wine Revolution

Poor little Moldova. Europe’s poorest country is trying hard to get back on its feet while  moving closer to a future with Europe, but crisis after crisis has rocked this poverty-struck nation. As wine is one of Moldova’s most important industries, it pays the price and is being kicked around like a political football. Currently wine constitutes 7.5% of Moldova’s exports, from an industry that employs around quarter of a million people directly or in related industries. That possibly makes Moldova the most wine-dependent country in the world.

ionThere’s a fledgling Wine of Moldova organisation that is keen to show the world the new face of Moldovan wine, and producers have made progress since the loss of the easy and unfussy Russian market. Quality is much improved, with the aim of appealing to western buyers and attracting new markets. So in early October, I joined a group of US, Polish and UK writers to tour the vineyards. Right: Ion Luca of Carpe Diem, and head of the Small Wineries Association.

The trip was timed to coincide with National Wine Day in October – normally held in the main square in the centre of the capital Chisinau, close to parliament. However, the square and main street were (and still are) occupied by two protest movements from different ends of the political spectrum. Each has its own tented city surrounded by armed police, so this put paid to any plans for serving wine nearby. The protests were noisy and determined, though have not erupted into violence (I felt quite safe walking by).

Both groups want answers to the unexplained loss of around 12% of Moldova’s GDP earlier in 2015. A series of dodgy, unsecured loans enabled around 1 billion Euros to be transferred out of Moldova, which seems incompetent if not downright criminal. Attempts to trace the money have proved fruitless so far with the trail allegedly ending at an offshore shell company registered in Edinburgh via Latvia and the Seychelles, (according to the BBC’s File on Four report from 6th October 2015). The money is believed to have ended up in Russia and protesters quite rightly want action to recover the funds and punish those responsible. Not only does its loss leave Moldova’s finances in a precarious state, their currency also collapsed by around 30% ,adding to the woes of already poor people. Monthly earnings now average around 250 Euros, while vineyard workers may take home as little as 100 Euros.

National Wine Day may seem an insignificant priority in the face of all this, but as wine supports so many people, the solution was to go ahead and move the event out to the wineries. Many wineries held open cellars and it was good to see so many people making the effort to travel out of the city and engage with the wineries rather than just having a glass or several in the city centre. This seems to be a good model for the future as Moldova tries to build some sort of domestic wine culture – where home-made wine is still much more popular than commercially bottled wine.

thatchedMoldova has been scarred by its Soviet history and regional politics.  Wine was even more important as a foreign money earner a decade ago, accounting for 25% of export earnings (the biggest earner after expat workers), but a total ban from Russia in 2006 on unproven grounds of contamination brought that crashing to a halt with hundreds of millions of Euros in losses. Left: a typical historic house in the village of Butuceni.

This was about the time of my first visit to Moldova, and while it was brutal, it was a problem waiting to happen. Back then I witnessed some of the worst and most unhygienic winemaking I have ever seen, so perhaps the ban provided a useful, if tough, kick-start to a new era more focused on quality.  This embargo was partially lifted, though with onerous terms attached, in 2009.  Many wineries were tempted back, having found that there was no Moldovan-shaped wine hole in the rest of the world to fill.

A second reality check hit hard in 2013, with another ban imposed by Russia, coincidentally timed with Moldova’s signing of a free-trade agreement with EU.  It seems that wine is a convenient political stick to hurt Moldova, a suspicion reinforced by the fact that both Transnistria (the self-declared breakaway republic in Moldova’s northeast) and the semi-autonomous, Russian-leaning zone of Gagauzia in the south west, both have permission to export to Russia.

In the meantime, the rest of Moldova’s wine industry has been undergoing a quiet revolution. Several aid projects from donors like USAID and the European investment bank, plus real motivation from the wineries themselves, has reformed the industry. The burden of around 3,000 rather pointless bureaucratic regulations has been lifted, allowing a new generation of small producers to appear.

etceteraThe biggest of these is Et Cetera, owned by two brothers who learnt about wine while working on US cruise ships. They produce a range of exciting blends and pioneering new varieties for Moldova like Carmenere and Cabernet Franc. Winemaker Alexandru Lucianov (left)  is a self-trained maths graduate but, ironically, has to employ a winemaking graduate to hold a  producer’s licence – even though he is good enough to consult to wineries in France and Georgia.

IMG_5865Other small wineries with exciting wines include Carpe Diem, Crescendo, Equinox, Mezalimpe, Molda and Minis Terrios and among the mid-sized wineries Fautor (especially Cuvée Blanc and Sauvignon), and Gitana are ones to watch and of course the historic Purcari winery. And several of the big players have upped their game too – like Bostavan, Asconi (right) and Vinaria din Vale.

It’s good to see some wineries successfully gaining mainstream listings in the UK – which shows that quality is hitting the spot. The Wine Society has a couple of wines from Chateau Vartely which was the first mid-sized winery to really focus on quality. It did things the right way round too – employing their German-trained winemaker, building a warehouse-like winery and securing vineyards first before adding the “bling” of a hotel and restaurant to help build wine culture.

Beth Willard at Laithwaites is a huge enthusiast for what she sees as the pristine purity of Moldovan wines – listing wines from Alabastrele, Vartely and the historic Purcari (originally founded in 1827 and famous for exporting Negru with English labels to the Queen during Soviet times). Berry Brothers also lists Moldova’s red flagship Negru de Purcari as well as Purcari’s local Rara Neagra and their intriguing Freedom blend. This was first made in 2011 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the independence of three Soviet Republics, using Saperavi to represent Georgia, Bastardo Magarach to represent Ukraine and Rara Neagra for Moldova.

For so many of us wine is luxury and just one ‘nice to have’ part of a certain lifestyle. For little Moldova, wine is part of the country’s lifeblood and provides essential employment for  so many people.  What better way to help them than by raising a glass of increasingly enjoyable Moldovan wine.