Prepare yourself for a rather long but interesting reading!
We hope this article will make you more eager to discover our country. Trip Moldova is always ready to give a hand!
1. Where in the world is … Moldova?
Anyone my age will remember the computer game for geography geeks (it really was cool): Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. I don’t remember Moldova featuring but I’m sure someone can prove me wrong! Apparently there is also a board game called “Where is Moldova”? Not sure it made it to Australia when I was growing up. I’m guessing the implication is that a lot of people can’t answer this question. Moldova is one of Europe’s smallest countries, entirely surrounded by the much much larger Ukraine to its East, and Romania to its West. Landlocked (although only a stone’s throw from the Black Sea) and part of the corridor between Slavic and Roman/Germanic cultures: a cross-roads. It’s not a surprise that the country is also split linguistically between Moldovan (Romanian) – also the official language – and Russian. If you really want a few more obscure facts to impress at your weekly pub quiz, then I can also tell you there are two rivers that run down its Western and Eastern borders, the Prut and the Nistra. Some of you may have heard of this last one because it is the major geographical feature that defines the breakaway region of Transnistria, a pro-Russian territory on the border with Ukraine, a region that has declared its independence but not recognised by the Moldovan government.
2. Moldova makes the most wine in the world
Bet you didn’t know that! OK, I was slightly misleading. Just wanted to get your attention. Moldova’s production of wine is the highest in the world per capita. It seems like every house has its own vines like the one on the right. Apparently this is a very very old tradition, and while these homemade wines may not be of commercial standard, it just goes to show that wine is at the heart of Moldovan culture. In fact, driving through the countryside which is mostly free from heavy industry, vines dominate the scenery:
Above you can see miles of vineyards, in fact right on the border with Ukraine (seen in the flat land behind the last hill and town) in the South East of Moldova. This is where you find a large concentration of grapes: in the South where the weather is milder, sunnier, under the influence of the Black Sea. But the country is small, and there are vineyards almost all over the place. In fact, the country takes its wine production so seriously, it is actually shaped like a bunch of grapes! The wine map on the right shows the whole country of Moldova, and its wine regions, and I think you can just about make out the shape of a bunch of grapes. In any case, it makes for a good story!
3. Don’t judge a book by its cover, or a winery by its tanks!
OK so this might sound incredibly cliched (because it is a cliche). But this phrase is appropriate in the case of Moldovan wine. Certainly now there are some impressive buildings on the Moldovan wine route but there are also some relics of the Soviet past. Not the most attractive buildings but I think it is an important reminder of where the country has been and now where it is going. Because look beyond the rusting facade, you’ll find super modern technology, the latest tanks and some of the most expensive equipment in the world. I was impressed to see our friends at Albastrele Wines bottling on the day I visited: I was assured the bottling was a coincidence and not actually timed for my visit, but in any case it was great to see these lovely crisp whites going down the bottling line, destined for the UK.
4. Moldova, a holiday destination with a difference.
From these pictures you would be forgiven for thinking these could be taken in a cellar door in Australia or California. Wineries like et cetera, Château Vartely and Purcari (and very soon Albastrele Wines will join them) are trying to promote wine tourism through personalised wine tastings and onsite restaurants. Vartely (www.vartely.md) and Purcari (www.purcari.md) also have accommodation on site, and et cetera will start building a guest house very soon.
Apart from the wineries themselves, there are some really interesting options out there for the more adventurous tourist. Forget 5 star anonymous hotels in big cities, get off the beaten track and try some traditional Moldovan hospitality. I visited Butuceni (www.pensiuneabutuceni.md) which is a tourism complex in Old Orhei, a Medieval village in the north of the central zone of Moldova. Surrounds include Roman Baths, a Monastery, and a lot of woodland to explore. The complex itself includes traditional Moldovan accommodation – but very luxurious! – and an indoor spa. Wake up warm and toasty on an old stone stove, then go for a dip in the indoor heated pool.
5. Mamaliga is not the name of a female football competition.
Moldovan food is delicious. Once labelled the garden of the Soviet Union, Moldova produces beautiful vegetables which are served in delicious salads and soups. During my most recent visit of 4 days, I must have eaten a year’s worth of cucumbers: who would have thought they were so tasty! Plus there’s Mamaliga, a delectable mix of something very similar to polenta, cheese and sour cream. With a bit of meat on the side, or after a gorgeous chorba (soup), it’s perfect. But my favourite is placinte. A sort of flat pie with fillings like spinach and cheese or meat. I may have gone a bit overboard with the amount placinte I ate in just a few days. Nearly every meal! And all these lovely dishes pair perfectly with crisp elegant whites or rich full bodied Moldovan reds.
6. Maidens and Dark Forests
Feteasca Alba, Feteasca Regala and Feteasca Neagra: all local varieties and all named after maidens! The first one, alba, is the white maiden (obviously a white variety), then we have the royal maiden (also a white) and finally the black maiden (a gorgeous plummy red). No Iron Maiden but then maybe that’s still to come…Anyhow, the wines are fantastically fruity, both the whites and the reds, and surely must have loads of commercial potential if we could just get them in more people’s glasses.
The exciting thing is that these varieties are all well suited to the climate, perhaps the reds more suited to the south. And Moldova has now created four regions for its wine industry so that some sort of terroir based concept can be explored. In the central part of Moldova there is Codru. This is a Moldovan word which was used in Medieval times for forest. Now most of the central region of the country is generally referred to as Codru, and so it is appropriate that the wine region also takes its name.
In the south east of Moldova, on the border with Ukraine (just a stone’s throw from Odessa) there is a very heroic region: Stefan Voda. This is one of the best names for a wine region I’ve come across because it is named after a national hero. Stefan Voda – or Stefan the Great – defended Moldovan against its enemies in the 15th century, and in fact was victorious in 46 out of his 48 battles. Not a bad record. A good sign for the wine region then!
And then there’s Valul Lui Traian – Hadrian’s Wall. Yes the Romans left their mark here in Moldova too. This is the south western part of Moldova, bordering Romania and almost touching the Black Sea. This is the primary source of really big juicy black reds, a lot made from Feteasca Neagra but also from wonderfully rich Cabernet Sauvignon. I am really looking forward to trying some of these again and hopefully shipping them out of the country.
And finally, in the north of the country there is a small region around the town of Balti, also the second biggest town in Moldova after the capital. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world starts to learn about these regions and the distinct wines they are now producing.
8. Good evening Europe, this is Chisinau calling
Yes this is a reference to one of my favourite things: voting on Eurovision. So when you next hear this phrase on the best night of the year (true!) you’ll know that the host is in the Moldovan capital city. Over a quarter of Moldova’s population live in the capital, a city rich with layers of history, beautiful green gardens and now a boutique wine shop.
Only stocking Moldovan wine, Carpe Diem is the sort of sophisticated wine bar/shop you’d find in London, New York or Sydney. If you want to try a few different glasses, this is the place to go. And it is run by a passionate winemaker, Ion Luca, also head of the Small Winegrowers’ Association of Moldova. He is incredibly excited by the potential of the industry in Moldovan, and the next generation of winemakers just now starting to practise their art.
Ion’s own wines, under the brand Crescendo, have started winning international awards, and I tasted some gorgeous wines from other small producers who are experimenting with different grapes and oak. The problem is that this development is taking a long time because these small growers are funding all their own vineyard and equipment investment themselves. Bank loans which can be paid back once the vineyards become productive are non-existent so the small profit made from each vintage’s wine is carefully reinvested each year. But this means that production is very small and only increasing at a snail’s pace. Hopefully there will be a solution: either more private investment or access to funding so that they can continue their fantastic work.
9. Moldova is looking for new markets.
Since 2013 Russia has imposed a ban on Moldovan wine being sold in the country, ever since Moldova signed a draft treaty with the European Union. Russia had always been Moldova’s major export market, followed by Ukraine, now in a state of war. It’s like a David and Goliath story: small Moldova surrounded by Ukraine and further east, Russia, and now in desperate need of new partners. The wines are fantastic, the will of producers is strong, so all that’s needed is for more people to taste these great wines and accept Moldova among their favourite go-to regions.
10. And finally even in Moldova you can get stuck in traffic
The brilliant thing about Moldova is the clean open spaces free from industry and pollution. Animals roam freely, and this can sometimes mean they end up in the wrong place, at least if you’re trying to get somewhere in a car! I’m not sure what the road rules say but I reckon it’s only fair to give way to passing cattle!
For more stories from the East, please read through Tony Laithwaite’s recent blog about Eastern Europe. He was travelling with me in November through several countries, and it is so interesting to listen to his stories of his pioneering work in the 70s and 80s in bringing wines from unknown regions to the UK. Really fascinating stuff: read his blog here.
And apologies for the lack of accents on the Moldovan names: I haven’t set up my Moldovan keyboard yet!”