Moldovan wine: All Shook Up

An old country with a new approach to its winemaking, Moldova is eyeing international markets. Jaq Bayles finds plenty to write home about

MOLDOVA has not experienced an earthquake for nine years, so it seemed symbolic that the tectonic plates chose to shift on a night when an international group of journalists were in the country to assess the opportunities for its wines in the global market.

The 5.3 Richter scale shake that rocked the capital, Chisinau, was all anyone could talk about the following morning as they mostly forsook the spittoons at the first tasting. It had been a reminder for those who live in the country of how fragile life could be and a taste for others of the delicate balance that Moldova strides.

The wine industry here has certainly suffered its fair share of disasters over the years, but it has finally begun to learn from its misfortunes and is beginning to strike a balance that it hopes will build its strength and allow it to fortify itself against the vicissitudes of global dealing.

For many years Moldovan winemakers were at the behest of the Soviet government, even following a wine Prohibition in the mid-eighties which saw most vineyards destroyed. Their reliance on Russia as an export market prevailed until 2006, when Russia imposed a ban on Moldovan wines. It was lifted a year and a half later but just a few weeks before my visit the Russian quality control agency once again decreed Moldovan wines to be too poor quality for import.

But many see this as a political move rather than a question of quality, and this time the Moldovan wineries were better equipped for the news.


The 2006 ban had seen a sea-change in attitudes as the Moldovans realised they needed to focus on markets that would prove more stable and the winemakers started to move away from their old ways to embrace new technologies.

Helping this small and economically poor landlocked country (it is sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania) to raise its winemaking game was the USAID-funded Competitiveness Enhancement & Enterprise Development II (CEED II) – a project to support “Moldovan enterprises’ ability to successfully compete in the global marketplace by growing and expanding key industries to increase sales and investment”.

And, according to Diana Lazar, project deputy director and wine industry manager, the winemaking industry rose well to the challenge.

 “After the embargo of 2006 it took about a year for the winemakers to start realising they had to build on an international market,” she says. “It was only now they had a major revelation in terms of style, quality and innovation.”

Back then there were five wineries which had the equipment and energy to get into international markets and they joined forces as the Moldovan Wine Guild.

Lazar says: “They looked to the UK, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic but it was difficult for these five wineries to build a market by themselves. They were the wineries that CEED helped.

“We needed to expand the tactic to the entire sector and find a unique way of promoting the country through an image that would be common for the country. That’s why we started to work to create a wine country brand. We had to get them to work together and this was not easy. We were trying to get them to go to trade fairs together under one booth as a community. 

“I think at the next Prowein we will appear on the international market with a new image as Wine Moldova, with a slogan and visual identity. The brand will be built on quality requirements and not all wine produced in Moldova will be able to trade under this brand. We will have a quality standard that will be based on organoleptical attributes – the wines will have to express the country.”

Flagship varieties

Moldova has four distict winemaking regions and, throughout, the wineries are concentrating their efforts on producing world-class wines from international grape varieties, but work is also being done on establishing flagship varieties which could convey that sense of ‘place’ the country so desires.

Lazar says Feteasca in both black and white varieties and Saparavi are the grapes that could most succeed in this respect, along with Rara Neagra, which she dubs “very much a Moldovan grape”.

The problem here is that the rootstocks are having to be re-established, having been all but lost during the Prohibition.

“Moldovan winemakers cannot provide volumes because they only started to plant them a few years ago. This is due to the Soviets, who didn’t promote and support these varieties. I believe we could excel in the cuvées.”

Only 5%-7% of the total vineyards support indigenous grapes but Lazar points out that the terroir is diverse – “we have hills, two rivers, the sea – different climates. And there are many stores of raw materials which can be used to have excellent plants”.

Lazar continues: “Most of the best wines of Moldova are cuvées. We have varietal wines which have won awards but the blends are special. Today the entire sector is striving to get out of its cliché, which is putting Moldova into cheap and low quality wines, and we want to prove we can do better.

“We got into a vicious circle because of the market. Eighty per cent of our wines went to Russia and they don’t know anything about wine. They are poor and importers want to make a lot of money.”

Despite Moldova carrying the tag of being the poorest country in Europe, investment is evident in its leading wineries, the majority of which double as tourist attractions in a country which has no beaches to offer and very little in the way of culturally historic buildings, thanks largely to war and earthquakes.

Purcari, in the prestigious Stefan-Voda winemaking region, is the country’s oldest winery, having been established in 1827, and boasts that its Negru de Purcari 1951 was a favourite of Queen Victoria and the only wine exported during Soviet times with an English label. Its main export markets for wines grown on 260ha are Romania, Russia and Ukraine and it has a handsome visitor centre which is not only popular with tourists but also acts as a venue for special events, including weddings.

The cellars were renovated in 2004 and parent company Bostoram Holdings has invested in European equipment for a mechanised plant which produces up to 1 million bottles a year. 

The winery Moldova most likes to shout about is its famous Milesti Mici, a state-owned winery in the central Codru region which has 200km of tunnels – created when the limestone was quarried for capital Chisineau – big enough to drive a bus through and with each tunnel named after a grape variety. 

Milesti Mici prides itself on its Guinness World Records entry for housing the world’s largest wine collection (more than 2 million bottles). It exports to Japan, China, the UK, US, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Poland. According to the tour guide: “The Japanese once wanted to buy up all our National Collection but it’s a national treasure and cannot be sold.”

Also on the ‘national treasure’ scale is Cricova Winery, again in Codru – said to be especially suited to white and sparkling wine production – and again boasting underground cellars which total nearly 60km and were converted to store wine in the 1950s. 

Among its store of some 1 million vintage wines is the former private collection of Nazi general Hermann Goering – along with those of Alexander Putin and Angela Merkel.

Sparkling production

Neighbouring Asconi Winery has 500ha of privately owened vineyards and plans to expand by 100ha a year for the next four years, as well as factoring in a mini-plant for sparkling wine production. It currently exports 3 million bottles a year – 80% to the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, along with the US, central Africa and China. It also has its sights set on Japan.

It is evident that Asconi is working hard to get back up to speed following the 2006 Russian ban when it had three factories exporting 3 million bottles a month – it has invested in a bottling line which can bottle 6,000-8,000 bottles an hour.

Asia is an especially important market here, as the company says: “The Chinese market is fed up with French wines and the price is higher. Moldova is a new market so the wines are less expensive.”

Moldova’s annual Wine Festival – a jaunty affair complete with dancing horses, brass bands and choreographed routines – showcases some of the country’s best offerings and highlights a growing band of boutique producers experimenting with a variety of viticultural techniques to create some outstanding wines.

Given the paucity of the domestic market – many households have their own vines and produce their own juice – clearly exports are a high priority. 

Some overseas (and overland) markets have already discovered the high quality of which Moldova is capable. Now it just needs to focus its mission and shake up the other possibilities to build more of those stable relationships it so craves.