We were not tourists but a group of international wine people, visiting at the request of the government to assess Moldova's potential for bringing its wine to the West. At Chisinau we were met by George Kozub, head of Dacia-Fenix, the state viticulture and wine department, and Victor Tutuo, his assistant, plus representatives from state farms.
We checked in at one of Chisinau's few hotels near Victory Square. In the corridors hung the sweet, fetid smell of decay, which sensitive noses traced to the Russian furniture polish. Hungry-looking young men approached furtively with their grandfathers' military medals for sale. Next day - in our rooms only - sandpaper and rough carbolic were replaced by real lavatory paper and little bars of hotel soap.
The grim reality of inflation soon became clear. Ten years ago the rouble was, notionally, at parity with the pound. Today there are 450 roubles to pounds 1. To have a shirt laundered costs 5p. But to send a fax costs pounds 35. The vast department store had little to sell other than mass-produced madonnas, plastic shoes and nylon clothes. I bought two records of Eastern European folk music for 3p each.
Sixty-five per cent of Moldova's population is Romanian and this is the official language. By virtue of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, Moldova, formerly Bessarabia, was annexed by Russia the following year. Independence was declared on 27 August 1991, but, as a result of Communist centralism, there is still no banking system and the country depends on others for medicine, petrol and two-thirds of its electricity. It even has to buy its sausage casings from Belarus.
Moldova is poor but it has lots of wine. In fact, its wine industry is known as the 'Golden Branch' of Moldovan agriculture. Until the mid-Eighties, 260,000 hectares of state farms and collectives were producing the equivalent of 580 million bottles of wine and 13 million bottles of brandy. Most of this was destined for the former Soviet Union. And most of the latter's consumption of sparkling wine - around 320 million bottles annually in 1988 - came from Moldova, the rest from the 10 other wine-producing states.
Then the Gorbachev anti-alcohol drive took its toll. With echoes of the Ottoman occupation of 16th-century Bessarabia, nearly 200,000 hectares of vineyard were uprooted. Last year, Moldova finally turned to the West.
But how do you interest anyone in an antiquated industry churning out, for the most part, tired and old-fashioned wines, and where even the paraphernalia of such things as corks and labels is scarce? It was hard for us to believe that Romaneshty, a showcase winery on the outskirts of Chisinau, was only built in 1982. With its joyless concrete and primitive installations, it looked more as if it was ready to be closed down.
At Cricova, a cavernous subterranean wine village renowned throughout the former Soviet Union for its champagne-method sparkling wines, they were surprised when we complained that the wine tasted mouldy. Hygiene may be able to correct it, but the Moldovan palate has apparently become inured to the taste of mould in its fizz.
In need of a partnership with the West, Moldova put out feelers. Enter Joop van de Kant, a Dutchman successful in the fine wine business. He rashly remarked that, at 49, he would like the challenge of developing wine in one of the new CIS states. On his first visit he took to the Moldovans. He admired their resilience; they felt they could trust him. The first of many a toast - norok], as they say - was drunk.
It became immediately clear to Mr van de Kant that Moldova was potentially suited not just for making wine, but for producing the kind of light red and white table wines capable of appealing to Western palates and pockets. On the same latitude as Burgundy, Moldova is a country of undulating hills and river valleys with a moderate, continental climate ideal for grape growing.
Thanks to the tsars, it has a tradition of wine made from the classic grape varieties of the West, notably cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling. In addition it has its own native varieties such as saperavi, rkatsiteli, rara niagre and fetiaska. The raw material was there. All it needed was a period of political stability and a minor miracle.
Mr van de Kant's three-point plan was to bring in a trio of French winemakers with experience in the styles of wine already being produced; to organise a tasting to select wines suitable for sale in the West; and then to advise on a programme of improvement. He had to explain to Moldovans impatient for Western hardware and cash that to build factories to supply wine bottles was not the answer; the process of improvement had to start in the vineyard and on the floor of the winery.
The old borders of individual communities are slowly being reintroduced. Families are to be given land quotas. Growers will work with producers and the profits of their association will be shared. By moving from the old state farms to a co-operative system, the government aims to give growers the incentives they previously lacked. Plans are also being drawn up for an appellation controlee-type system that would give formal recognition to superior sites at, for instance, Purkari, Choumai, Taracliya, Charda- Lunga, Cahul, Romaneshty, Staucheni and Comrat.
For his winemakers, Mr van de Kant enlisted the support of two brothers making wine in Bordeaux, Jacques and Francois Lurton, and Alain Thienot, who also produces champagne. The Lurtons' first job was to look at the vineyards and assess how they could be improved, by means of pruning and harvesting at the right time, reducing a tendency to excessive acidity and coping with disease.
Hygiene was the first priority in the cellar, along with the ageing of the wines and their storage. Most Moldovan wines are kept longer in cask than the modern European palate is used to. They are also pasteurised at the bottling stage - presumably for stability - which tends to remove all character. This year the Lurtons will make their first wines.
From the tasting of wines chosen by Mr van de Kant, reds in the bordeaux style made from the cabernet sauvignon grape were the most successful. The best were medium-bodied, fresh and fruity, without a trace of oak, echoes of a bordeaux of yesteryear. Dry white wines were markedly inferior, with one or two successes from the native rkatsiteli grape (hard to see a wine with a name like that becoming an overnight success). There were some excellent fino and oloroso-style sherry-types from the Yaloveni winery, and a number of interesting muscat-based sweet wines.
Despite their evident quality, neither the sherry types nor the sweet wines were felt likely to stand much of a chance in the West. But the majority of the table wines chosen were highly promising, especially if the prices could be kept in the pounds 2.50- pounds 4 range. Most were red table wines and we chose too many. Mr van de Kant did not want the Moldovans' heads filled with delusions of grandeur. As it was, they appeared to have no shortage of confidence in the viability of their products.
Perhaps a dozen of the wines we chose will end up being bottled in the Netherlands and sold initially to Western Europe, giving Moldova the necessary hard cash it will need to buy new equipment. Amid much singing, dancing and norok], accompanied by Moldovan brandy, a contract was duly signed. The flying Dutchman will be bringing Moldova to the West.
Stockists: Limited stocks, mostly of mature Moldovan wines, have been brought into the UK by the Russian Wine Company and are available through independent wine merchants. For details contact the Russian Wine Company (071-499 1300).
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