Until this week, I’d never had a Moldovan wine. Here’s my primer and wine tasting notes, after a Wednesday evening visit to the 13 stands of the guest of honour, Wine of Moldova, at the Arvinis wine fair in Montreux (April 25-30).
The country, the wine regions
The country is the Republic of Moldova (1991), previously the Moldavian Socialist Soviet Republic, sometimes also still called Moldavia. From 1818 to 1940 it was part of Romania, which lies to its west. It shares a border with Ukraine on the north, east and south; the country is landlocked with access to the nearby Black Sea (which affects the climate in some of the wine regions) via the Dniester River.
It sits at 46-47° latitude – roughly the same as Switzerland.
Moldova has a very long history of wine production, with the first vines recorded in 7,000BC and winemaking around 3,000BC. A curious aside: a group of wine producers from Vevey settled in Moldova in 1822 to cultivate grapes and make wine near the Black Sea. I can’t speak firsthand about this, but Moldova’s reputation for wine tourism is very good, with much to do and see; the country’s culture is a key thread woven through its wine production, even though exports are very important.
The Soviet era was unkind to the wine industry, with pressure to produce cheap wines in large quantities for export to Russia. Relations with Russia suffered in 2006 over the disputed territory of Transnistria on the border with Ukraine and one result was that Russia banned Moldovan agricultural imports.
Significant upgrading of the wine industry began in the early 21st century; a National Office for Vine and Wine was created in 2013 to “re-orient” the wine industry towards quality production.
This needs to be seen in the overall economic context, with Moldova as one of Europe’s poorest countries, although the economy has grown at an annual rate of 5% for most of the 21st century according to the World Bank. It also notes that remittances – money sent home by emigrants – account “for a quarter of GDP, among the highest shares in the world.”
Today Moldova has 113,000 hectares of vineyard, counts among the world’s 20 largest producers of wine, with four protected geographical indications (PGI): Valul lui Traian (southwest), Stefan Voda (southeast), Codru (north), Divin. Divin covers the entire country and is the PGI for a double distillation wine spirit oaked for a minimum of three years.
Native grapes account for only 10% of production, but there is growing interest in every sense in increasing their share, and the national wine office notes that more of these are being planted every year. International varieties, notably Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir for reds and Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay for whites.
White varieties are 70%; red are 30%, with whites dominating in the north and reds in the south. Saperavi, a Georgian wine, is widely grown and used mainly in blends, often with native grape varieties.
The four main grapes are:
Feteasca Alba – a white that is floral, light, fresh (notes of rose and peonies)
Feteasca Regala – also white, made dry, a natural cross between Feteasca Alba and Furmint; notes of rose, dried apricots, almonds.
Feteasca Neagra – red, an ancient grape (2,000 years) from the southwest Prut river valley. Notes of forest fruits, wild cherry, truffles/mushrooms.
Rare Neagra – red, also very old, notes of dried fruits and vanilla, gives wines that are soft and fresh in the mouth.
General note on the wines
These are made mostly by family wineries. The small number of white wines that I tasted were a great discovery; dry and crisp, with pleasing floral notes. Good as aperitif wines, also with light meats and fish.
I did not taste any of the sparkling wines or the Divin spirits; next time!
The reds as a whole fall into two categories, the international blends, clearly made in a bid to capture a part of the growing world wine trade, and native grape wines. World wines probably make commercial sense for a country that is trying to overhaul its wine industry in a bid for quality and that needs money from exports – especially as agricultural products from Moldova are banned in Russia, once the main market.
My own tastings left me with the impression that while the international style wines are generally well made, there is too much emphasis on oaking and a tendency to make very concentrated red wines that are not in step with consumer trends to seek lighter wines that go with lighter foods and meals. Overly extracted, aka very concentrated wines, can have harsh tanins that sometimes feel green, and I noticed this with some of the wines. I’d like to see them take their foot off the gas pedal in this area.
The native grape wines are the ones I found most interesting, although for someone used to Western European wines they take a bit of getting used to because there are often notes of mushroom and forest undergrowth as well as leather that are less familiar to us. Overall, these are wines I liked – pleasing noses, well-structured and rich in mouth, balanced but not heavy. Reds to accompany meats and strongly flavoured or spiced dishes.
They are generally briefly oaked to give them softness, 3 to 9 months, then aged in bottle. The red wines I tasted were from 2011 to 2016 vintages and while all are ready to drink, some would benefit from more time, including wines from 2014. I think – but my experience of these wines is limited – that the grapes have powerful enough flavours that they may need more time for the wines to settle into themselves, the way you do when you sink into an overstuffed chair and need a bit of time to get comfortable.
Prices vary from about CHF18 to 30 in Switzerland, where there are not currently any distributors, but you can order the wines from a contact in Switzerland (ask the wineries for details). A handful of well-made wines are more expensive. Don’t expect mass production cheap wines here. Value for money: I felt that some were over-priced and wondered if prices were set as a marketing ploy rather than as a reflection of production costs; others seem to be priced correctly. But when I checked on Wine-searcher, I found prices do range from about CHF8-30, and the wines we’re seeing at Arvinis are some of the mid- to top-end ones.
Polifornia white from the interesting Timbrus wine project (Spanish oenologist Manuel Ortiz), charming light dry blend with nose and mouth that is both floral and citrus.
Vicorea, dry white with a delightful nose, notably acidic and fruity with the saline thread, certainly good with seafood.
Timbrus Porcari Estate 2016 dry rosé blend was surprisingly sophisticated, pure but not too deep pink in colour, a good all-around rosé.
Saperavi from Timbrus, a good example of this Georgian grape, heavier than the local grape wines, notes of wild cherry, plum and leather, a spicy mouth and lingering finish; spends 18 months in oak.
Asconi winery’s Feteasca Neagra 2015, very good, with a rich but clean nose of red fruits and plums, very smooth in mouth, young, rich and fruity (give it more time). CHF27
Vinaria din Vale‘s Feteasca Neagra 2016 oaked version (they make two types), great notes of spices – cinnamon, black pepper; perfect for light meats like chicken and veal, young lamb. CHF22
Gitana Saperavi 2016, nose of red fruit compotes but without the sharpness you sometimes get from notes of jammy raspberry and cherry. CHF21.60
Gitana Lupi 2013, with the name meaning wolf, 30% Saperavi with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, one of the more successful international wines I tasted, dominated by Saperavi’s rich ripe fruit notes. There’s a nice story with this wine (which should be carafed, says the winery). The vines sit on land near a river where wolves used to cross over from Romania to drink water on the Moldovan side. Farmers at the time thought to kill the wolves, but some pointed out that the wolves were smart enough to show them where the best land was, so they were spared. CHF27
Gitana Princessa, a rather special wine (at CHF60 it needs to be), whose “designer” Daniel Mihai is about to be a first-time father – it’s his tribute to women: “Women are so complex, and I wanted a wine that is not just this grape or that, but like a beautiful woman, so warm and yet sarcastic, so much more, so complex!” Leather and dark fruits for the nose, rich raw material for the mouth (dense) and a great spicy finish.
Final note, the Merlots
I tasted several Merlots, as this is one of the favourite international grapes, and Moldovan producers use it for blends but also for single grape wines. The latter are interesting to try because you get a glimpse into Moldovan winemaking approaches: you can compare them at Arvinis to Ticino’s fine single grape Merlots. I found that too many of the Moldovan ones felt a bit green, and I think the general Moldovan emphasis on concentrated wines, with heavily extracted tanins, is probably the cause.
I stopped by Switzerland’s Agriloro stand to remind myself of what an excellent Merlot should be like; they have both oaked Merlots and ones made in tank. Moldovan Merlots are not bad, but they could be better, and Ticino’s wines are a good example.
Moldovan wineries use a mix of American, Hungarian and French oak, and this is an area where it seems they are still experimenting. Let’s wait and see.
Meanwhile, explore the geography and culture through Moldovan wine, especially the native grapes, and you’ll enjoy yourself.