The newest wine making territories, 1st part, Eastern Europe : Moravia and Moldova.
Recently, in one of our articles where we wrote about global warming and its effect on the production of wine, we raised the possibility that, one day we might drink Chardonnay that came from Northern China. Our little joke was not so unrealistic, considering the rapid development of completely new wine producing territories everywhere on the planet.
Obviously, everyone who knows even a little about the world of wine is familiar with the classic terroirs like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja, Napa Valley and Tuscany.
Most wine lovers with even a little bit of knowledge are also familiar with new classics like Stellenbosch in South Africa, Marlborough in New Zealand or the Barossa Valley in Australia.
Yet there remains many fabulous areas that are not yet familiar or even, often, that have simply not been discovered. In fact, many of today’s best wines are produced in places you may not even have heard of.
This week we start with Eastern Europe and specifically with Moravia (Czechoslovakia) and Moldova. In recent years, probably because of the opening of European borders and the fall of the Iron Wall, it is in Eastern Europe that we can make some of the most interesting discoveries in the field of wine.
In general, we think first of Czechoslovakia for its beers. Yet, in the eastern province of Moravia, close to Austria, vintners have started to produce some of the best white wines in the world
The Czech winemaking tradition dates back to Roman antiquity and its reputation peaked in the 16th century, especially around Bohemia, in the region of Prague and in Moravia, around the river Dyje. At the time, these territories were part of the great Austrian Empire which ensured its wines a place on the tables of the crowned heads of Europe, thus increasing their prestige.
Unfortunately, the Thirty Years War, which pitted states supporting the papacy against those under Protestant rule, destroyed a large portion of the vineyards in these regions. Then, in the 18th century, local production was severely regulated to avoid competing with Austrian wines. After that, phylloxera, the two world wars and the grip of the Communist regime combined to relegate into oblivion these wines that were once so celebrated. In 1965, the Czech vineyard area started stagnating to under 7000 hectares before the renewal of vineyards started accelerating and highly productive standards were adopted, following the Austrian model.
It is after its entry into the European Union, around 2004, that the Czech Republic saw its wine industry regain its former influence, especially with the adoption of legislation in line with European standards. There are still two Czech wine regions, the same as under the Austrian Empire in 1610 : Bohemia and Moravia. However, it is the latter that is the most interesting as it constitutes 96% of all Czech vineyard.
Native vines and herbaceous wines
The vineyards of Moravia occupy currently more than 20 000 hectares and are still concentrated around the Dyje River, a sub-tributary of the Danube. Summers, under this continental climate, are hot, dry and combined with the long, cold winters, they allow a wide range of wines, including several fruity ones, that are particularly interesting. The soil is suitable for the production of white wines with very specific spicy aromas. It includes many plantations of Müller-Thurgau, also called Rivaner, a native varietal from Switzerland and Franconia, which produces white wines that are a bit exotic, with a frankly herbaceous nose. There are also plantations of Grüner Veltliner, already widespread in Austria as well as Moravian Muscat.
Unfortunately, for now, we do not find any Moravian wine or even from Bohemia at the SAQ and importing them is still a process in its infancy here. However, given the importance of the production and its quality, it is inevitable that they will make their way up to here.
Where to drink well in Prague
Meanwhile, if you plan a trip that includes Prague, an increasingly popular destination, we recommend two places to sample some of the best Moravian wines.
First, the inevitable and well named, The Wine Bar, located at Arbesovo namesti 7, in the Mala Strana area. There are regular tastings but nothing prevents you just get there to to savour a glass of exceptional Tramín Kořený kabinet.
Otherwise, a little off the beaten track and especially away from the hordes of tourists, there is the Vinoteka Karlovo nám 17, located at Karlovo nám 17, a few steps from the Square Charles (Karlovo Namesti). The place is in a converted cellar in a basement and in, addition to tastings, one can also buy bottles at reasonable prices.
Located between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova has been producing wine for more than 5,000 years but, because it has been locked inside the communist territories, it is still largely neglected on the wine markets of the rest of the world.
Strangely enough, wine is, with chocolate and beer, the main export product of the Moldavian Republic. In term of its economy, it is wine that brings the most money in the coffers of the state, employing more than 250 000 workers, which means that more than one Moldavian out of four is a winemaker !
Burgundian climate and fertile soil
The country has both a continental climate, fertile soil and a topography made of hills, particularly appropriate for viticulture. The country is also at the same latitude as Burgundy in France.
In the Antiquity, Ovid, the Roman poet of the Metamorphosis, wondered, in his travel chronicles, about the “solidification” that the Thracians of the North employed for storing wine by freezing it to prevent fermentation and then eat it during Winter.
A complicated history
In the Sixteenth century, wine was the main export product of the territory until Moldova was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, which prohibited wine for religious reasons.
After 1812, with the annexation of Moldova by Russia, the Czar, wishing to please Russian nobility, pushed for the planting of local varietials such as Rara Neagră, Plavay, or Bǎtuta Neagră which was a major component of many local wines .
In 1914, Moldova possessed the largest vineyard in the Russian Empire. Alas, Russia became alternately, over time, both the protector and the destructor of Moldovan wine as was the case for many landlocked republics in the Soviet fold.
Russia-Moldova relations and wine
Between Russia and Moldova, wine has always been a source of manipulation and blackmail. First Gorbachev established a “dry law” to combat alcoholism, destroying in the process many vineyards. On the other hand, when relations between the two countries were positive, the wine trade was exceptional. Moreover, according to many sources, the preferred wine of President Putin are Moldovan.
In addition, since the independence of Moldova, Russia qualifies Moldovan wines as “Non-conform to sanitary standards” from time to time, thus ruining trade. Moreover, after the independence, many vineyards have been fragmented during the restitution and privatization program, reducing productivity. For this reason, before the rebirth of the Moldovan wine industry, in 2007, the area dedicated to the production of Moldovan wine had decreased by 25% in 10 years.
Europe, once again, to the rescue
Fortunately, with the market openings towards Europe, which culminated with the signing in 2014 of the Association Agreement between Moldova and the European Union, Moldovan wines have resolutely started to conquer the world’s markets.
Each year, Moldova produces several hundred different wine types. But it is the whites who are mainly produced on the territory since their vines account for nearly 70% of dedicated cultivated areas. Moreover, the Negru and Purpuriu from Purcari (an official supplier to the Queen of England) and the white Radacini are very popular.
The world’s largest wine cellar
The underground cellars of Cricova and Milestii Mici, created in ancient limestone quarries, saw their tunnels, in the 1950s, transformed in into cellars with perfect temperature and humidity, and they are real cities that extend onto hundreds of kilometers.
The SAQ is currently offering only one Moldovan wine, Dionysos-Mereni Carlevana Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, from JSC Dionysos-Mereni, a table wine made of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, which is pretty good and an excellent value at $ 15.75, SAQ code 10791475.
In our next article we will talk about other territories of Eastern Europe, mainly Slovenia, Hungary and Romania.
A few resources to learn more about wines from Moldova and Moravia:
The Wine.md website offering many Moldovan wines to export.
The Vino Z Cech website offering the same services for Moravian wines.
A Czech tourism office resource specially dedicated to biking on the wine routes in the country.
A French podcast on wine tourism and visits in Moravia.
The Milestii Mici cellars.