Black Sea beauty Located in the Black Sea basin, Moldova is nestled between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the east. Locals claim that the country’s shape resembles a bunch of grapes. I hadn’t noticed, but now I recognize it as readily as Italy’s boot. It is completely landlocked, though only 5 miles (8km) from the Black Sea, which has a profound influence on the climate. Long, warm summers are punctuated by short, mild winters, though drought and frost may pose occasional problems for viticulture.
Its ancient winemaking roots date back 3,000 years to the Dacian era. Production flourished in the later Middle Ages under Stefan the Great (r.1457–1504), and the country turned into a bulk-wine powerhouse during Soviet times. Wine is deeply entrenched in the national identity; citizens celebrate National Wine Day in October, vines are embroidered into their folk costumes, and grapes are entwined with their legends. One of the most famous of these is the legend of the savior storks. During Stefan the Great’s rule, a large army of Tatars besieged Soroca fortress for several months. As they became very short of food and water within the fortress, the warriors were losing strength and hope every day. All of a sudden, flocks of storks appeared above the fortress, bearing in their beaks bunches of grapes, which they let fall inside the citadel. The grapes helped the warriors regain their powers and win victory. Since then, the stork, with its bunch of grapes, has become a symbol of national unity, and Moldovans greet the birds and send them on their way when they migrate each year.
Vine country The landscape is gentle, marked with low hills, sunny plateaus, and plains and crossed by streams that flow into the two major rivers, the Prut and the Dniester. Grapes grow easily here. Currently there are 132,000ha (326,000 acres) under vine, and some 27,000 households have their own backyard vineyards (average 1ha [2.47 acres] each). This love of the vine presents a double-edged sword for domestic consumption, however. Although wine is a staple of the dinner table, the vast majority of consumers prefer to make and drink their own wine. You can hardly cross a country road without meeting a babushka selling her vin in plastic liter jugs for the equivalent of a dollar or two, often with her sheeps’ cheese and other homemade treats. Such wine is barely palatable but will prevail as long as the mentality of preferring home-made over store-bought items does. Diana Lazar, deputy chief of the Moldova Competitiveness Project, explains: “We have made great efforts to grow a stable local market, but one of the post-Soviet misconceptions is that ‘commercial’ or ‘industrial’ wine is no good; you need to have home-made natural wine.” That notion is easy to understand, however, because as the UN has identified, one of the key obstacles for Moldovan agriculture is its reliance on chemicals and pesticides, a hangover from Soviet bulk production. Indeed, on all of my visits, I only met one producer who was working organically on a commercial scale. It was a chance encounter while he used the facilities of an urban winery—ATU—and the producer admitted that while his organic approach is just about viable, it is very challenging. Dynamic husband-and-wife team Vlada Balica and Victor Vutcarau of ATU, Moldova’s first urban winery, champion indigenous varieties but concur on the difficulties of organic viticulture in Moldova: “People are not ready to pay so much for an organic bottle of wine, and we don’t have the practices here or expertise to work organically.”