On a quest to discover Moldovan wine, food and culture, we embarked on an adventure in the countryside, having just left the small European country’s capital city of Chisinau. Roadside merchants sold their wares: wicker baskets, colorful mums wearing autumnal hues, and large bowls containing green grapes fashioned into a pyramid shape. Farmers picked apples in orchards, a grape-harvesting crew took a break by lounging in a vineyard, and cows and goats grazed on the expansive golden plains.
If ever a swathe of land could be called ‘wine country,’ Moldova would be one of the most deserving to wear the label. Nestled between Ukraine and Romania, the country is abstractly shaped like a cluster of grapes. Winemaking accounts for 7% of the country’s exports, and when you go there, you get the sense that every family has an amateur winemaker in its ranks. Though family-made wines are common, the country is also becoming increasingly well-known for its high-quality, commercial wine, which is now made with adherence to international, modern standards. A National Office for Vine & Wine was established to help regulate the industry and promote Moldovan wine abroad.
Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Moldova was once one of the USSR’s most-fertile territories, and its agricultural sector continues to flourish today. Fossils indicate that grapes have grown in the country as far back as 25 million years ago, and it’s suspected they’ve been cultivated in Moldova since around 2800 BCE. Ties with the Romans and Greeks helped to nurture the industry, while the Ottoman occupation, coupled with two world wars, and the phylloxera epidemic damaged it.
In the next day and a half, we would be off to visit two well-known wineries in Moldova, Château Vartely and Cricova, and the celebrated cultural sites of Old Orhei and the Curchi Monastery. These four points, which roughly create a diamond shape on a map, are within a reasonable driving distance from Chisinau. We were eager to see Moldovan winemakers’ interpretations of international grapes such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but even more excited to try unique regional varietals like Fetească Regală and Fetească Neagră.
Our ‘home away from home’ for one day was the Château Vartely, (affiliate link) a winery and resort complex which opened in the city of Orhei just ten years ago. Taken under the wing of the complex’s guide and sommelier, Ludmila, we perused the wine cellar, and then serendipitously spotted large trucks overflowing with red grapes just as they were being delivered to the facility’s processing area. Transitioning into the fermentation room, we watched as the grapes were pressed, their stems removed and tossed into an ever-growing mountain.
Ludmila was quick to point out what we already sensed – that we were very lucky to be visiting Moldova during the harvest! Taking a large swirling glass, she poured freshly-pressed Sauvignon Blanc grape juice – or must – inside and invited us to try it. As it hadn’t yet gone through the fermentation process, the liquid wasn’t as clear as the finished product, nevertheless it was a treat. We learned that the modern winemaking equipment came from other parts of the world, notably that the grape presses were German.
Later, when we asked Ludmila if she had a favorite wine, she was ever the diplomat.
“They’re all my babies… It just depends on what you pair the wine with.”
We’d get the chance to see the pairing potential of Château Vartely wine during two meals. What we most enjoyed, aside from the impressive wine (for wine aficionados my extensive tasting notes are detailed below), was how the winery’s staff brilliantly fashioned the hearty Moldovan dishes, which are usually served family style, into elegant arrangements, with just a slightly different twist. As I tried to break down the ingredients in each dish, I was also delighted that my dishes were gluten free, and that each ingredient seemed to be sourced locally – everything from rabbit and freshwater fish, to locally-made honey and fig jam.
It was a treat chatting with Ludmila, and learning more about not only wine, but also Moldovan culture. We talked about the physics of wine glasses and why it was important to use the right shape. Champagne flutes, for example, help to preserve the bubbles longer. Ludmila also explained why one should sniff the wine not once but three times (initial nose, second nose after swirling and before tasting, and third nose after tasting). Finally, we heard about some of Ludmila’s life experiences. She joked that she went to Portugal not only for the country’s famous Port, but also for Beyoncé, who was touring there.
Though she’s really knowledgeable about wine culture, Ludmila had a no-nonsense, friendly approach to her explanations. She wasn’t at all pretentious, and I was pleased to acquire more wine tidbits from her.
Switching gears from Moldovan winemaking to historic monasteries, we headed to the Curchi Monastery, about 15 minutes by car from Château Vartely. Towering over the landscape, and looking quite formal when contrasted with the folk-art decorated homes en route to it, the Baroque structure’s cardinal-colored exterior complemented the clear blue skies and varied greens of the surrounding forest. With the exception of one structure which is awaiting further renovation, the grounds and neighboring buildings of the monastery complex were immaculate. Mosaics featuring Orthodox religious motifs twinkled in the early-autumn sunlight, and inside we marveled at the jewel-toned paintings, and icons framed by glimmering-golden accents.
Old Orhei (Orheiul Vechi)
After having driven through Moldova’s steppes and agricultural areas, the open-air archaeological complex of Old Orhei looked almost other-worldly. We glimpsed cave monasteries carved out of the craggy limestone cliffs, the golden domes of a 20th-century monastery, lush fields dotted with crops, and the serpentine Răut River. We agreed that the area was so scenic and historically-significant that we could’ve easily spent an entire day there. Instead, we enjoyed a few hours of touring the cave monastery, carved out by monks 800 years ago. The area’s small archaeological museum houses artifacts unearthed on the vast site, such as ceramics, headstones from the Ottoman Empire, and fragments of statuettes.
Butuceni, a nearby village, is comprised of beautifully-restored traditional homesteads which resemble quaint gingerbread houses. When we asked the Old Orhei guide Nina why robin’s egg-blue is featured so prominently in Moldovan home exteriors, even wooden cemetery headstones, she explained, “It is a connection between the blue of the sky and the blue of the water.”
Coming full-circle, we would book-end our day-and-a-half excursion with a stop at the famous Cricova Wine Cellars, which are renowned for their extensive subterranean network of roadways and cellars. This labyrinth totals more than 100km (roughly 60 miles)! At their deepest, the cellars are 100 meters (300 feet).
Hopping onto a golf-cart like train and slowly descending, I regretted I’d not brought warmer outerwear, for it was chilly down below. From wine collections of the world’s political elites, to themed tasting rooms reminiscent of Las Vegas, we toured a snippet of the underground city. It was fascinating to learn that the area had been tunneled out centuries ago, as it provided a source limestone to build the nearby city of Chisinau. It was funny to hear the anecdote that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had once gone underground to savor Cricova’s wine. Supposedly, he emerged two days later, walking as though he were in a zero-gravity environment. Cricova’s been home to wine since the 1950s and is still a popular mingling spot for the country’s visiting dignitaries.
For those with an interest in wine tidbits, and pairing ideas, my tasting notes from Château Vartely follow. Cheers, or as they say in Moldova, Noroc!
Château Vartely Flight of Wine:
- Brut, 2011, 12.5% alcohol, made with the Pinot Noir grape. Served at 6 degrees Celsius. Yeast and lime aromas. Ludmila pointed out that Moldovan winemakers tend to use one grape for sparkling wine – less blending. Château Vartely produces 5,000 bottles per year. Paired with dried apricots and prunes.
- Fetească Regală Select, 2013, 13% alcohol. Ludmila mentioned that this wine loses its freshness fast and that it should be served young. Light, refreshing taste – a good summer wine. Green apple, apricot, honey, and grapefruit notes. Served with fish and grapefruit wedge. In Romanian-Moldovan, the word Fetească means ‘young girl.’
- Malbec Shiraz Rosé, 2013, 13% alcohol. 8 grams residual sugar. Raspberry, cherry and berry notes. A perfect summer wine!
- Fetească Neagra Reserva, 2011, 14.5% alcohol. For a time, this grape varietal was lost, but it was later rediscovered and planted. Rich ruby color. Opened 20 minutes before we consumed it. Ludmila noted that old wines need even more time to “open up.” Hints of black cherries, plumbs, dark chocolate and coffee. Paired with chicken stuffed with cheese, dressed with balsamic vinegar and peppers.
- Taraboste Merlot & Cabernet-Sauvignon, 2009, 15% alcohol. A blend of three grapes: 50% Merlot, 50% Cabernet, and 10% Syrah. Aged 18 months in French Oak. Lighter in color than the Fetească Neagra Reserva. Blackcurrant, prune, pepper, vanilla and cherry notes. Smooth finish. Can keep up to 20 years. Served with tender pork and a honey mustard BBQ sauce.
Our Video of This Experience:
Where in the World?
- When visiting Moldova’s monasteries, know that shorts are forbidden and that women are expected to wear a head-covering. Most monasteries have scarves which they lend out at the entryway, but I appreciated having my own with me each day. As a woman, I was able to enter monasteries with a skirt, but other ladies wearing pants were expected to drape a borrowed scarf around their lower half, resembling a sarong.
- Our ‘home away from home’ for one night was the Château Vartely (affiliate link). From the fluffy, white robes in our cottage-like accommodation, to the convenience of having wine-tasting and dining facilities just footsteps away, we had a relaxing time, and wish we could’ve stayed a bit longer.
- Visit my Moldova page for more trip tips, plus an index of all my posts about Moldova.
Disclosure & Thanks:
Our visits to Château Vartely, Old Orhei, the Curchi Monastery and Cricova Winery were supported by Wine of Moldova / the country’s National Office for Vine & Wine (ONVV) to which we extend thanks.
To Veronica, Iulia and Marina who coordinated our visit, to our guides Ludmila and Nina, driver Eduard, and waiter Denis, we send out an extra special thank you, or mulțumesc!
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. Video footage is courtesy of my husband, Shawn.
37 thoughts on “A Land of Hidden Gems: Moldova’s Wine, Food & Monasteries”
Tricia, I am speechless, your post is amazing, thank you for educating me about Moldovan. I have known little to nothing about this treasure on the map. It makes me wanted to go there right now! And our photography you have taken on a very different level, excellento!
I am so sorry, I forgot to add the y, I meant to say your photography
Cornelia, I’m happy to hear of your interest in visiting Moldova. I’d wanted to visit for some time, and am thrilled that we made the effort this year. Being there during the harvest season added a special feeling to our visit. We saw everything from apples and plums to corn and grapes being harvested. We even participated in a village grape harvest (more on that soon).
I hear that there are now more and more flights to Moldova’s capital city, Chisinau, but we travelled overland from Bulgaria, and then returned to Germany via Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic.
In the villages the pace of life is slower, and the country’s economy is still largely dependent upon agriculture. Moldova’s wine is increasingly becoming more available in the United States, so be on the lookout for it. :)
As they say there – Mulţumesc – thank you for your kind words about my photography. The vivid colors of the homes, the wine, the countryside and the folk art, make photography there very satisfying.
Though not a fan of porridge, that Māmāligā you tried looks fluffy and delicious! Is it sweet or savory on its own?
Bespoke Traveler, we definitely had our share of Māmāligā. Instead of tiring of the dish, though, I enjoyed seeing each cook’s unique interpretation. This particular batch must’ve been prepared in a generous amount of butter. The richness wasn’t overpowering, and it was fun paired with the traditional cheese.
Now back in Germany, Shawn and I have even whipped up some Māmāligā, of course putting our own touches on the dish. We added some spring-green onions and paired it with vegetables. We were concerned that we wouldn’t find the right types of cheese here, but a blend of Crème fraîche, sour cream, and a version of feta cheese worked well.
It’s really like a polenta/cornmeal, so it has a rather neutral taste on its own.
I echo Cornelia’s comments, Tricia. This is a superb post…interesting, informative and beautifully supported with stunning photography. I felt like I stepped back in time while in the cave monastery with you. What a fascinating area and I’m glad to see that it is really making a name for itself with it’s distinct wine. Having good guides makes for a worthwhile cultural experience. Great video, Shawn.
Hi Lynne, I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed the post. As a traveler, it’s rewarding spreading the word about deserving places that aren’t so well known. The word “authentic” can sound cliché when describing a destination, but Moldova definitely has its own flair as evidenced by its ornately-decorated homes, hearty cuisine, and complicated history.
I do hope that Moldova’s wine industry can continue to help bolster the country’s economy and help the country develop. It’s among the poorest in Europe, and when you visit, the difference between urban and village life is apparent. It was refreshing mingling with people with entrepreneurial spirits, who want to see Moldova flourish.
Finally, thank you not only from me but also from Shawn for your flattering comments. We love telling these stories and it’s fun to hear when others enjoy them too.
Wow beautiful places & wonderful pictures love it!
Shakeela, indeed, Moldova’s golden countryside, colorful folk-art motifs, and vibrant wine caught my eye, and my camera was working overtime for the month we were there. :) Thank you for reading.
What a beautiful tour of the ‘wine country’ Moldova. I tried some of their wines when I lived in Romania. The Romanians still regret till today losing Bessarabia to the Soviets after the war.
Anda, how interesting to hear your feedback since you were born in Romania. Do you recall what type of Moldovan wine you tried back then? We heard that many Moldovans also hold Romanian passports, given their Romanian ancestry.
The region certainly has a complicated history, one that I’m still trying to piece together. We found it interesting that both Russian and Romanian-Moldovan (we heard differing opinions about whether to call the national language one or the other) and Russian are often used in Moldova. At the train station, for example, the computer systems were operating in Russian. Even some village bus timetables and signs were in the Cyrillic script. I haven’t been to many former Soviet republics, but I’m curious if that’s predominantly the case elsewhere. Either way, I got to simultaneously continue practicing the Cyrillic script that I learned in Bulgaria, and try to find similarities with French/romance languages when learning a few words of Romanian. :)
I heard that the elaborately-painted homes of Moldova can also be found in the Romanian countryside, and this gives me another reason to return to Romania. We were there for 5 days back in 2011, but focused more on visiting the cities rather than villages.
It looks like you had a wonderful time in a beautiful location drinking delicious wine and eating delicious food.
And fortunately doing just enough walking to keep that good food and wine from going to my hips! :)
Hope you had an enjoyable Thanksgiving holiday, Gerard. Do you ever go to NYC for the parade, or is the atmosphere just too crowded to fully appreciate it?
Hi Tricia. I don’t go to NYC to see the Thanksgiving parade ever. The train ride is 45 minutes. I never have time to just go see the parade and go about other things I have to do that day like prepare for company or go to someone else’s house.
I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving. I did.
Gerard, sounds like you celebrate in an equally-special way – with friends or family. :) Indeed, we had a nice Thanksgiving, and even managed to make our favorite traditional dishes despite us shopping in German markets. Stuffing, however, was missing. I’ll have to see if I can remedy that next year!
Great post and photos! Moldova really looks like a hidden gem! I didn’t realize their wine industry was this sophisticated. :) I’ll have to visit soon! :)
I appreciate your kind words, Christina. We lucked out with the fall weather, and that made the landscape and the colors come alive in pictures and video.
Re: winemaking there, Moldova (or at least the territory, since it’s changed hands so much) has a long history of winemaking. In recent years, USAID has been partnering with the country too, and a national wine office was created to help set standards and market abroad. As a result, I think you’ll see more and more Moldovan wine Stateside in the coming months and years. But, knowing your love of travel, I encourage you to visit and try it locally. We’re thrilled that we chose Moldova as our grape harvest destination for 2014, because we not only got to taste that ‘sophisticated wine,’ but we also had the chance to partake in more traditional, informal harvests with village winemakers. Moldova’s varied amateur and professional winemaking offerings really make it a fun destination for those interested in wine culture.
This is such a rich post ~ so much beauty and information. I never realized that Moldova wine making was so important to the economy (and culture). This experience you and Shawn have had here seems similar to your other incredible travels, but this place also seems to have something just a bit more special. Maybe it is the rabbit and Māmāligā ~ I love rabbit, and the Māmāligā looked incredible (I am a big porridge fan, millet and corn being special favorites).
I will go out an find a bottle of Moldovan wine this week and be sure to toast you both on your next adventure. Safe travels!
Randall, hope you were successful in finding that Moldovan bottle of wine. To that venture, I send a belated ‘Noroc’ or Cheers, and Thanksgiving greetings as well. If you have trouble finding Moldovan wine (you’re in Hong Kong now, right?), I have unearthed a few resources for purchasing it outside of Moldova – mostly because family and friends back in the States are curious about Moldovan wine now. :)
And I’m so glad that you mentioned your penchant for porridge, specifically millet. As someone who only eats gluten free, it’s nice to learn of a new food that I can try. Would you say that millet’s taste is similar to couscous (something I age before having to go gluten-free)? We’ve also recently become quite enamored with buckwheat.
The Moldovan wine will have to wait, as I am in HK for just a day before heading back to China for a final run of work prior to Christmas (and the States!). :-) Millet is really delicious, it is more in the line of wheat/buckwheat flavor, but the texture is similar to couscous… just had it a couple days ago. Have a great holiday season and safe travels ~
Randall, sounds like you’ll be racking up lots of miles in the coming weeks. From trains to planes, lots of striking going on here in Germany lately, so I in turn wish you safe, strike-free travels.
I’ll be on the lookout for millet. Do you have any trade secrets of what you like to pair it with? :) I’m already dreaming up Moroccan recipes, since it’s couscous-like.
Thank you Tricia, we’ve been in the Philippines and many flight cancellations right now ~ but such a beautiful place to be. I really like my millet plain these days (although I use to put in some maple syrup as it has been a favorite breakfast treat for me!). Cheers and wish you strike-free travel ~
Randall, ah, I didn’t realize that you were out of the country. In what part of the Philippines are you? We were fortunate to explore a bit of the country back in 2012: Batad Rice Terraces, Manila, and the island of Bohol. You’re right that it has so much natural beauty. I just heard about the typhoon there – do travel safely!
In the Tacloban area, and so much natural beauty. Just avoided the typhoon (and ironically was there with Save the Children to review the recovery efforts from the major typhoon there last year). I hope to return and see some of the sights, so much to see. Take care!
Good to hear that you escaped the typhoon. What sort of work do you do that you were there partnering with Save the Children? Wish you continued safe travels.
We were doing a field review, looking at how the money was spent over the past year since typhoon Yolanda…and I represented the personal donors. Continued safe travels for you both ~ where will you be for Christmas?
Sounds like an interesting and rewarding pursuit. We’ll be in the German Alps for Christmas, visiting my parents. Their little village is famous for woodcarving, and surviving the plague in the 1600s, and then vowing to hold a Passion Play regularly since then. While I love seeing the town dressed in snow, I very much appreciate warm, summer hikes. In what corner of the world will you be for the holidays?
Sounds like a perfect Christmas ~ must be picturesque this time of year. I just returned back to Seattle today, and will spend Christmas in Eastern Oregon…a little magic to end the year :-)
Dalo, it’s the one day of the year where I actually seek out snow here. :)
Hope you have a wonderful stay in the Pacific NW, and that the magic finds you.
It looks like you had an amazing journey here Tricia. Beautiful photos, as always.
Carol, Moldova did offer us a lot of unexpected, but pleasant surprises. Because so much of the country’s history and culture were unknown to us prior to the visit, we learned a lot. That, coupled with the nice people that we met along the way, made for quite a rewarding experience.
Thanks, as always, for reading, and happy weekend!
wow, such great experience you had! everything seems just so..genuine! I would like to discover a bit of Moldova too.!
Cris, as cliché as it sounds, I know that you like to get “off the beaten path” in your travels, and so I think you would enjoy exploring Moldova. We were fortunate to be able to make our visit coincide with the autumn harvests, and that made our month there even more memorable. As we strolled the quiet roads of the villages, people we met were very willing to let us participate in harvests, even share a glass of homemade wine. And, if you like wine, there’s also some very good up-and-coming wineries!
A stunning post! I’m so happy to have come across your blog – your pictures are beautiful, your text took me straight to Moldova, and your video gave me glimpses into different facets of this beautiful country. I must admit I didn’t know much about Moldova when I started to read your post, but from what I read and see, I’d love to visit it some day. Thanks for a spectacular post! :)
Ami, heartfelt thanks for your thoughtful comment. Indeed, Moldova is not such a well-known European country. As we discovered, that characteristic made exploring it quite a joy – perhaps most notably because we didn’t have many expectations before arriving there (aside from participating in a grape harvest). I do hope you’ll have chance to get there someday soon, and thanks again for reading!