‘Everyone has a connection to winemaking:’ the family traditions forging Moldova’s boutique wine industry

2 November 2021
Top image: Natalia Gârbu

Nearly every Moldovan family makes its own wine. Both of my grandfathers have done so throughout their lives, and my parents have been involved in the winemaking process ever since they were children: tasked with picking grapes, crushing the fruit with a wine press, pouring the juice into buckets, and carrying it in big wooden barrels into the cellar. There, they would watch over the fermentation process, which could take from between a few days and several weeks. Anyone venturing into the cellar during that time would be warned to strike a match before entering the room: if the flame refused to burn, it usually meant that dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide had been accidentally unleashed from fermenting wine. In modern Moldova, the police travel from house to house to warn homebrewers of the same risks. In Soviet times, children would usually be sent to the cellar to check on the barrels instead. Their reward would be the much-loved wort: the sweet, sugary liquid produced by the fermentation process. They could also watch their families’ chickens and ducks get drunk on the grape seeds, stalks and stems that would eventually be thrown into the garden as compost — just like humans, the birds would lose their sense of balance for a few hours. My grandpa, meanwhile, lauds his wine’s health benefits over its intoxicating effects. He dubs his wine “haemoglobin”, emphasising the wine’s hearty iron nutrients.

My grandfather in his vineyard, 2013. Image: Tosca Lloyd

These family memories have cemented wine as both a cornerstone of Moldova’s cultural identity, and of great national pride. Moldova has the highest density of vineyards in the world, relative to its size. It also hosts the world’s deepest wine cellars, Mileștii Mici and Cricova, both of which are shown to visiting world leaders. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin is said to have spent 24 hours in the cellars in 1966. But the wine making culture has also laid down roots for continued growth — not only for the thousands of families still making their own home vintages, but for a new generation of small, independent boutique wineries.

The winemaking tradition on the land where Moldova now stands goes back millennia, to 3,000 BCE. “This tradition is due to our climate and geographic position — we’re located on the same latitude as Bordeaux, which allows us to produce the highest quality wines, from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, Pinot Noir, Malbec, to local specialities,” oenologist Elizaveta Breahnă tells me. “There’s a joke that when God divided the earth across its peoples, the Moldovans were late. As a result, they only got a small share of land, yet God compensated through the quality of their soil.”

Image: Natalia Gârbu
Image: Natalia Gârbu
Image: Natalia Gârbu
Image: Natalia Gârbu
Image: Natalia Gârbu
Image: Natalia Gârbu
Image: Natalia Gârbu
Image: Natalia Gârbu

In the first half of the 20th century, Moldovan peasants planted hybrid grapes and made wine in the fields, crushing the fruit with their feet. In late autumn, they would come back to the village with the wine barrels, potatoes, and corn. My own great-grandfather, Afanasie, was charged in the interwar period with carrying wine barrels with a cart from his village, Cigârleni, to the markets of the capital city, Chișinău, 30 kilometres away. (His greatest challenge, rather than the gruelling labour, was avoiding intermediaries waiting in the city streets, who would force peasants to sell their wine at rock-bottom prices, before making their own profits at the capital’s markets.)

But the Soviet era saw the country’s winemaking process industrialised. Small wine vaults, as well as large-scale wineries such as Cricova and Mileștii Mici, were set up in the 1950s and 1960s. These producers planted classic grape types rather than traditional, local varieties or mixes, in order to cater to Russian and Soviet tastes. It has taken generous investments in the Moldovan wine industry to reverse that trend, finally giving wine producers, large and small, the chance to expand production of wines from local grapes. Switching back to fruity, corpolent reds such as Rara Neagră and Feteasca Neagră, and the light citrus flavours of the white Feteasca Albă and Feteasca Regală, has seen Moldovan wineries win more than 1,000 medals in international competitions in 2021 alone.

The fact that so many Moldovans drink their own homemade wine does not detract from this growth. Instead, it frees up more wine for export: some 84 per cent of the wine made professionally in Moldova is sold abroad.

Meanwhile, family traditions have also laid solid foundations for a new generation of boutique wine brands. Et Cetera was one of Moldova’s first small wine producers to come to prominence in the 00s. It was founded by Alexandru Luchianov, a mathematics graduate and former scuba-diving instructor, in 2003. Two years later, his brother Igor, a former casino worker, joined him. Et Cetera is now a household name, and their guest house in southern Moldova is usually booked up months in advance. “When I was a child, everyone in the village made wine. But I hated picking the grapes, I wanted to play football instead. I only started enjoying wine at 26, when I was in the US,” Alexandru Luchianov says. In 2005, the two brothers produced their first 3,300 bottles of wine: a Merlot that has become the defining product of their brand. Initially, Luchianov also planted Cabernet Sauvignon. “That was our biggest mistake,” he says. “In Moldova, because spring starts quite late, you can’t produce a good Cabernet Sauvignon crop every year; we had to cut the vineyards and plant younger wines.” Today, in addition to Merlot, Et Cetera specialises in Feteasca Neagră, a local variety. “It’s unique, there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world,” he explains, “so dense and playful, tasting of ripe cherry, chocolate, coffee, and cinnamon”.

Alexandru Luchianov and guests. Image: Etcetera via Facebook
Alexandru Luchianov and guests. Image: Etcetera via Facebook
Image: Etcetera via Facebook
Image: Etcetera via Facebook
Image: Etcetera via Facebook
Image: Etcetera via Facebook
Image: Etcetera via Facebook
Image: Etcetera via Facebook
Image: Castel Mimi via Facebook
Image: Castel Mimi via Facebook
Image: Castel Mimi via Facebook
Image: Castel Mimi via Facebook
Image: ATU Winery
Image: ATU Winery
Image: ATU Winery
Image: ATU Winery

The rise of local wine specialties, as well as boutique wine producers, has coincided with a new direction for Moldova’s exports. For the 15 years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of Moldova’s wines were exported to Russia. Then, in 2006, Russia imposed an embargo on Moldovan and Georgian wines. (While Moscow claimed that the wines were not up to standard, many have linked the move to geopolitical tensions.) Similarly, in 2013 the Russians banned Moldovan and Ukrainian imports. In response, Moldovan winery Purcari launched its own Freedom Blend bottle, mixing Moldovan Rara Neagră grapes with Ukrainian and Georgian varieties — “a manifesto”, they explained.

Today, a third of Moldova’s wine exports go to EU countries, a third go to CIS states, and the rest are sent to the United States, China, Japan, and elsewhere. This change in direction has coincided with an increase in the quality of the wines, as producers cater for new market standards. But there are also challenges. “The wine is cheap, and the costs of production are high,” Luchianov says simply. The low prices EU countries expect to pay for Moldovan wines — “a mockery of our work” — have even made Luchianov turn away from the Belgian and Dutch markets. He now exports wines instead to China, Japan, and neighbouring Ukraine and Romania. Et Cetera has also had to diversify their services. “Few [small wine producers] live from wine only. They usually have other businesses to rely on,” Luchianov explains. For him, the solution has been hospitality, which complements wine making.

Image: Purcari Winery via Facebook

In the meantime, more programmes and funds are hoping to transform winemaking from a cottage industry to a whirring cog in the tourist economy. In addition to the Soviet-era Cricova and Mileștii Mici cellars, Moldova can now boast restored wine chateaus such as Purcari and Mimi, and a fleet of small winery guest houses, from Et Cetera to “Moldova’s first urban winery”, ATU. Every year, more and more wine bars pop up in the capital city, Chișinău, too. Since 2015, UK-based travel firm Winerist has been offering wine tours across Moldova for international tourists. “Our clients are impressed by the wine culture in Moldova, and the fact that they can go and have a glass of home-made wine in people’s houses, see the giant and overwhelming cellars at Mileștii Mici and Cricova, and talk to small producers while tasting their wines,” says Moldovan-born, London-based Winerist co-founder and CEO, Diana Isac. Both of Isac’s grandfathers made wine, involving her and her cousins in the wine making process, for instance, crushing the grapes with their feet. “My mother’s father was a mathematician,” Isac recalls, “so when he made wine in his country house, he was precise about everything, explaining to us the importance of the size of the grapes, the quantity of sun and water needed to produce the wine. Everyone in Moldova has a connection to winemaking.”

In the US, Moldovan wines can be bought via Salveto Imports, Soroca Imports, B.G.A International USA Inc, ASAP Imports Co, VinDistributors, while in the UK, you can scout them at Waitrose, BBR, Directwines, C&O Wines, Naked Wines, Monolith etc.

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