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Moldova things to do: Europe's new fine wines come from an unexpected place

Time:2019-05-12 03:38wine - Red wine life health Click:

Destination relative Food & Wine

A vineyard in snow, Chisinau, Moldova.

A vineyard in snow, Chisinau, Moldova. Photo: Alamy

It's not every day you can sample some of Europe's finest wines, while simultaneously thumbing your nose at a certain Russian leader.

"Thank you Mr Putin," says Moldovan winemaker Dan Prisacaru, as we sample a 2015 Rosu Imparat made from a blend of locally grown rara neagra and feteasca neagra grapes. "Your wine embargoes have brought positive change to our wine industry."

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Dan Prisacaru is part of a new wave of influential winemakers, who, in the aftermath of Russia's crippling 2006 and 2013 wine embargoes against Moldova, switched from making bulk wine for the Russian market to producing small-batch, quality wines to export to Western and central Europe, Japan, Singapore and Canada.

The Old Orhei monastery - part of an archaeological complex that's said to be the spiritual heart of Moldova.

The Old Orhei monastery - part of an archaeological complex that's said to be the spiritual heart of Moldova. Photo: Shutterstock

It's early on a Friday evening and we're seated at Embargo, a wine bar on the ground floor of a boxy, Soviet-era apartment block in Chisinau, Moldova's capital. Located on Alexander Pushkin Street, named after the famous Russian poet who was exiled in Chisinau due to his social activism, the bar attracts a lively and eclectic crowd.

While Embargo is a sly dig at Russia's strong-armed tactics, the buzzing vibe and shelves of wines from 42 Moldovan wineries prove that this little nation is fighting back. "After the first embargo Moldova lost 60 per cent of its wine industry," says Prisacaru, "The wineries that survived were the ones that focused on producing premium wines."

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If the bar's name illustrates the boldness of the current generation of winemakers, the labels tell the rest of the story. There are rows of cheeky Bad Boys, produced by Ion Luca from Carpe Diem winery, a parade of shady Individos, which translates as  the "thirst for individuality", and Prisacaru's own label,  Admir Lucrurile Aparent Imposibile, meaning "I admire things that seem impossible". The theme is at once humble and daring, a paradox I'm beginning to realise could stand for Moldova as a whole.

A puff of land wedged between Romania and Ukraine, tiny Moldova has been producing wines for 3000 years, making it one of the oldest wine cultures in the world. Under Soviet rule Moldova supplied almost 70 per cent of the USSR's wines, a relationship that continued well after the fall of communism in 1991.

The sour grapes began when the independent Republic of Moldova began looking towards the west for EU membership, an infraction so severe that Russia retaliated by imposing a series of import bans on Moldovan wines.

Sensing liberation rather than loss a small group of winemakers formed an association and started experimenting with European varietals blended with indigenous varieties. Prisacaru himself returned from Burgundy in 2013, where he'd been studying winemaking, to start his own winery, Minis Terrios, a name meaning "small plots".

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Over the course of the evening we sample everything from a sparkling crisecco (similar to Italy's famous prosecco) to a crisp sauvignon blanc, a ruby-coloured 2016 Bad Boys to a 2013 ice wine riesling from Chateau Vartely. On a similar latitude to Burgundy, with rich soils overlying limestone and sunny slopes, winemaking is in Moldova's DNA.

While the wines are exceptionally good and the prices wallet-friendly (from €3 for a bottle of the crisecco to €16 for the ice wine) the real joy is the sense of being at the edge of a seismic shift. It feels a little risky, rebellious even.

It's day five of my 13-day journey from Bucharest to Kiev travelling through Romania, Moldova and Ukraine with Intrepid Travel. We are a small group of curious travellers from Australia, Britain and the US, all keen to sidestep the well-worn European trail.

Tiny Moldova has been producing wines for 3000 years, making it one of the oldest wine cultures in the world.

Tiny Moldova has been producing wines for 3000 years, making it one of the oldest wine cultures in the world. Photo: Intrepid

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