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  • Writer's pictureClaire @ fromthegrapevine

Noroc to Moldova!

Welcome to Moldova!

For this blog post we travel further afield from Swindon to the Republic of Moldova. Most people know of Moldova from the Eurovision Song Contest, or the film, The Princess Diaries (which actually wasn’t set in Moldova, but fictional Genovia). The country wasn’t on my radar until my sister met a Moldovan girl who enthused about the wine industry, and I was told to google “Cricova” ... so I did, and I was curious. A trip was booked.

The first reaction from people is “Where is that?” - It’s a landlocked country between Romania and the Ukraine. It’s had a turbulent history, changing hands between the USSR and Romania, finally gaining recognised independence in 1992.

The next question people ask is “Why Moldova?” The simple answer is “Wine!” Moldova has more land dedicated to vines than any other country in the world (per head of population.... OK, Moldova has a small population), and wine is its only real industry to speak of (if you don’t count producing cheesy Eurovision songs). In Soviet days, the vast majority of the wines were exported to the Soviet Union, where there was an insatiable thirst for it. Trouble struck under Mikhail Gorbachev, when in the 1980s Moldova’s vineyards were uprooted when Gorbachev began his anti-alcoholism campaign. Fortunately, vines have been replanted and the industry recovered, but turbulent times didn’t end there.

In 2006, when Moldova rejected a deal to end the frozen conflict over Transdniestria (a breakaway annex in the East of the country, refusing to become Moldovan), Vladimir Putin’s Russia slapped an embargo on Moldovan wine. Millions of bottles already in Russia were poured away or never paid for. Mr Putin redoubled the embargo in 2013 when Moldova annoyed him further by signing an association agreement with the European Union.

So it’s to Europe that the Moldovan wine industry now depends, but competing with wines from France and Italy means that Moldova has had to up its game.

Research into Moldovan wine brings up three recurring wineries; Milestii Mici, which holds the Guinness Book of Records award for the world’s largest underground cellars, Cricova, and Purcari. The latter produces a wine that is locally called the "Queen of England’s wine", because Buckingham Palace regularly orders the 1990 vintage. (You won’t find it in Sainsbury’s by the way).

In wine shops and on restaurant wine lists in Moldova you will also find Chateau Vartley wines, and this is one you can get in the UK, through the Wine Society. Some independent wine shops may also stock Purcari, although probably not the 1990 vintage.

So, my adventure to Moldova began. I based myself in the capital, Chişinău, where Milestii Mici and Cricova were both in easy reach. Purcari would have to be left off the list as it is sixty miles to the south, with no train option to get there.

The first stumbling block for Milestii Mici is that you need a car to visit. Not just to get there, but to be driven around the underground caves when you arrive. We headed to tourist information to try to get this organised, but the lady there only spoke Romanian, Russian or Polish, so after a lot of shrugging, we gave up. To cut a long story short we managed to find Veronica- a lively hostel administrator- who booked us a tour and transport. The transport turned out to be her driving us there, but it served a purpose, and she was informative and fun. There were a handful of other cars (mainly taxis) waiting to join the tour, which was in English. In convoy the cars drive into the entrance to the cellars and head into the underground “city” where the streets have proper road signs, and are named after grape varieties.

The first stop is at a waterfall - we all pile out into the chilly gloom. The cellars are at a constant natural temperature around 12 degrees, ideal for storing wines. We are given some information about Milestii Mici, the only winery that is wholly state owned, and it’s size (over 200km of tunnels dug out of the limestone - the largest in the world). We then drive a bit further into the labyrinth and stop

again to walk around one of the storage areas on foot.

The final stop is at the tasting hall. They seem very proud of their ornately decorated (but not particularly homely) tasting halls and we are seated with a range of local food - la placente, like a Cornish pasty with soggier pastry - and four wines to try. They are in jugs so you have to take their word for what they are (Chardonnay, a rosé made from Cabernet grapes, a red Cabernet and a sweet wine made from muscat.)

We were left for twenty minutes to drink the wine.... I wouldn’t say “enjoy” the wine as it was nothing special, but the group of Polish tourists next to us seemed to be having a raucous time. A local musician duo came to serenade us. It’s the first time I’ve ever paired wine and Greensleeves.

With the twenty minutes up, we are encouraged to shuttle back out into the sunshine with an optional stop at the gift shop. Their white and red wine fountains make for a good photo opportunity too.

The next challenge was a wine tour at Cricova winery. With no online booking facility, Google suggested the website, where I made an enquiry booking for Sunday. On Saturday lunchtime, I had an email offering a tour at 4pm that afternoon. No good.

Luckily for us we had our secret weapon, Veronica, and she rang Cricova and booked us in for the date and time we wanted to go. Phew! She also told us about the bus that travels there. Everywhere else seems to suggest you will need a taxi for the 12km journey (£20 round trip) but even on a Sunday there are 2 buses an hour between Chisinau bus station (or we picked it up by our accommodation on Pushkin St) and Cricova. We had to walk about half a mile from Cricova Centre to the cellars, but the round trip by bus was 9 leu (45p!).

On arrival at the cellars we joined a tour group in English, jumped on the electric train and trundled off underground. First stop was the sparkling wine area where hundreds of bottles of sparkling wine are enjoying their second fermentation in riddling racks. The guide explained the process of making sparkling wine by this Champagne method.

Next stop, the cinema, where we were offered a (plastic) glass of sparkling wine and watched an over enthusiastic film about the greatness of Cricova. Then it was on to the cellars where we saw the cazas holding wine collections for the rich and famous. Despite Vladimir Putin destroying the opportunities for wine exportation to Russia, there was a Caza full of dusty bottles for him to order at any time. I think Teresa May is missing out here.

And finally the tasting room. We enjoyed a white, rosé, red and sweet sparkling wine with some nibbles and learnt a little about the grapes and how to taste wine. There is a gift shop inside selling the Cricova wines, and a second wine shop outside selling wines from other Moldovan wineries.

All in all, this was a good value tour lasting 2 hours and the guide was great.

On a negative note, I feel they could do more to make visitor’s lives easier. Online booking is not rocket science these days, and there was a nice looking bar next to the wine shop but it appeared to have closed down. For refreshment, the only small bar was in the town, and it wasn’t anything special (stray cats wandering around, a communal toilet with no toilet seat... you get the idea).

There was a third opportunity to delve into yet another winery on our final day. We had gone out on a trip with Veronica over the border to Transnistria, and on the way back she offered to drop into a smaller winery. Her first choice Castel Mimi was closed, but she managed to get a tour booked in at Asconi - a family run winery nestled in the countryside forty minutes to the south of Chişinău.

Steel tanks at Anconi winery

This winery had no underground caves, but it was happy to show off all its latest investments in technology in the production of its wine. Our guide was a young sommelier with impressive English learnt from movies and pop songs and a 4-month stay in Delaware. She explained how the winery collect grapes from their own vineyards (in order to ensure consistency and quality) - all within a 10km radius of the winery - and we were shown where the grapes get fed into the crusher, press and fermentation tanks. We could see the bottling plant where a continuous machine fills the bottles, seals with both cork or screw cap, adds the label and sends it for packing.

She showed us where new accommodation was being built - 12 thatched cottages which should be completed later in 2018. There was also a cellar where some of the premium wines were ageing in French oak barriques. We had a tasting of a white, red and rosé made from the local grape Fetească Neagră (black maiden) - she was also kind enough to let us try Ice wine, made by leaving the grapes on the vine until they shrivel, full of concentrated sugars. The winter frost then preserves them before they are processed into sweet dessert wine.

Asconi also boasts a restaurant with both inside and outside seating, and this set up is the most similar experience to a tour of a UK winery. The guide did however forget to show us the cellar shop (maybe she was clever enough to realise we couldn’t transport any wine home in our suitcase after I enquired if they offered shipping. They don’t.)

I loved the tours I took in Moldova, and look forward to returning in the future to experience other wineries. I was left feeling a bit frustrated though. With the majority of tourists coming to Moldova for its wine industry, the country needs to capitalise on this opportunity, and make it seamless and easy to visit, tour, stay and buy the wines. It’s still a young country though and there were signs of development and growth; maybe if I return in five years I will see a big difference.


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