A Land of Hidden Gems: Moldova’s Wine, Food & Monasteries
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, 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!
Homemade Moldovan chicken and vegetable soup, known as Zeama. As we discovered at Moldovan homes too, the soup is typically garnished with a hot red chili pepper and a dish of Smântână (sour cream). While Shawn’s soup featured noodles, mine was gluten-free and heavier on the vegetables: cabbage, carrots, pepper, zucchini, mushrooms, potatoes, and parsley.
A 2013 Malbec & Syrah Rosé, 13% alcohol content, delightful on a warm autumn afternoon!
Time-honored Moldovan favorites such as Mămăligă and Salau fish (similar to Pike) are presented in a minimalist fashion. Mămăligă is a cornmeal porridge, served with crumbled Brânză cheese (upper left) and Smântână, or sour cream (center). My fish dish was garnished with a sprig of dill, and a small dish of Mujdei, a spicy sauce made with oil and garlic, dill, and diced red peppers. This was my feast.
Shawn’s lunch consisted of roasted Rabbit, Mămăligă, and a mini green-onion omelette. The rabbit was served on a bed of stewed carrots, cabbage and celery.
A fusion of flavors come together to create memorable desserts thanks to the use of traditional Moldovan ingredients. I enjoyed plums ingeniously stuffed with walnuts, and topped with cream and mint (left). Shawn feasted upon Plăcintă – thin pastry dough filled with cherries and dressed with powdered sugar. Plăcintă is something Moldovan locals kept raving about during our time in the country, and several days after this feast, Shawn would even try a savory version elsewhere in the country.
Château Vartely’s guide / sommelier, Ludmila, chats about the winery’s barrels. The oak for Château Vartely barrels comes from Portugal, Romania, and the United States.
Château Vartely employees stir grapes from the 2014 vintage, just moments after a truck delivered them. I’d never seen so many grapes before! On the right, Shawn samples the newly-pressed grape must.
Ludmila leads us through a maze of fermentation tanks. We found it interesting to learn that Château Vartely’s wine is shipped to 26 countries – everywhere from China and the Czech Republic, to Kazakhstan, France, and the United States.
One of the winery’s tasting rooms held wine from around the world.
We were initially skeptical of what the late-September weather would be like in Moldova, but were rewarded with perfect autumn days. On the grounds of the winery, we also appreciated the mingling of tradition and modernity: new winemaking technology, but a hint of the past, such as this antique grape press.
Château Vartely’s grapes are grown off-site, in Central and Southern Moldova, however, several rows of vines populate the property. Inside, we enjoyed learning more about cork-making Moldova’s soil composition via several, three-dimensional educational displays.
A bride and groom by the entrance to the Curchi Monastery, and on the right, the Orhei Forest, which surrounds the complex.
Established in the 18th century, the Curchi grounds are home to this formidable crimson-colored Baroque monastery, several churches, a guesthouse for pilgrims, and even an orchard. During Soviet times, the monastery was converted into a psychiatric hospital. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was refurbished, following years of neglect, and re-established as a place of worship.
Strolling the grounds (left) and the monastery’s gilded interior (right).
In the heart of Moldovan wine country, grapes are even visible in the monastery’s ornately-painted walls. On the right, an icon featuring Mary and Jesus. We observed worshippers, upon entering, kissing the icon’s glass cover. In the monastery’s gift shop, we saw an array of icons for sale, so that visitors can purchase one with their namesake featured on it.
Ludmila guided us through Moldovan wine culture, as we enjoyed a flight of five wines, several of which were made with grape varietals that are unique to Moldova and a handful of countries in the region. We transitioned from a sparkling wine, to a white, to a Rosé, to two bold reds. Each wine was paired with a light, but elegant snack to keep the wine from going to our heads! :)
This 2009 Taraboste wine, was among our favorites at Château Vartely. It was a blend of three red grapes: 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet, and 10% Syrah. The name Taraboste refers to hats that aristocrats in the region used to wear in past centuries.
The next morning, we visited atmospheric Old Orhei (Orheiul Vechi), justifiably the country’s most famous site, thanks to its dramatic setting, and fascinating archaeological and cultural history. Here, Shawn and I, along with the museum guide Nina, stand just outside a cave monastery. The drop-off to the left is pretty significant! This Orthodox cave monastery was dug out and established by monks in the 13th century.
Magnificent views of Old Orhei. The Răut River and fertile plains are in the distance below, to the left. Through the centuries, the territory has been contested by many, including the Slavs, Romans, Hungarians and Tatars.
The small chapel inside the cave monastery.
The monks’ former sleeping area.
The Ascension of St. Mary Church was built in 1905. Like the Curchi Monastery which we visited the day before, the church was closed down during Communist times. It was re-opened in the mid-1990s.
Details of Old Orhei: rosehips in the foreground (left) and a colorful cemetery.
A traditional Moldovan homestead, with a thatch roof. Though this home and its neighbors have been restored mostly for touristic purposes, we saw similar homes in non-touristic villages such as Roşu.
The home’s Casa Mare, in which homeowners traditionally received guests for meals.
Antique spinning wheels and ceramic jugs in the Casa Mare, and a glimpse into the home’s cellar, in which wine and food were stored.
Common scenes in the Moldovan countryside: the colorful domes of an Orthodox church, and horse-drawn carts.
At the Cricova Cellars, Shawn practices his Japanese skills with a fellow visitor.
Cricova is one of the largest wine cellars in the world. It comprises more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) of roadways.
Cricova is home to more than one million bottles of collectible wine and also holds the 30 million or so bottles produced by the winery each year.
Cricova’s sparkling wines are made using the Champenoise method, which helps to separate residue from the wine. For six months, the bottles are turned – by hand – every two days. Since the process is so labor-intensive, and expensive, it’s important that the bottles not be tinkered with by visitors! This method is unique to a handful of countries, including Moldova, France, and Russia.
Cricova compartments play host to wine collections of celebrities and international politicians, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose stash is featured here.
A touch of home as we pose next to the 500 bottles of wine given to American Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Moldova in 2013.
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.
- Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from 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.