Monday, February 5, 2018

Fight back against Vladimir Putin: drink wine from Moldova

Landlocked Moldova is especially vulnerable to the Russian boycott of its wine
Hey wine lover: have you wondered recently, is there any way I can irk Vladimir Putin and fight Russian aggression while spending less than $20?

Yes! You can drink a unique and delicious wine, support freedom in Eastern Europe and stick a metaphorical corkscrew in Putin's eye, all by buying Rara Neagra from Moldova -- the Sonoma County of the former Soviet Union.

Moldova needs the help, as it is far more vulnerable to Russian meddling than we are. It's amazing that Moldova had the temerity to sign a draft association treaty with the European Union in 2013 because Russia could -- and did -- quickly crush its economy by cutting off its main export: wine. Moldovan wineries were selling most of their wine in Russia; now they are scrambling for new markets.

Stuck between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. Its per capita income is half that of Albania. Agriculture is its main source of income and wine is its main product. Wine is so important that wine grapes appear on its currency and its citizens voted to rename its national airport "Wine of Moldova Airport."

In the Soviet era, Moldova was one of the USSR's main producers of wine, behind Georgia. It's simple geography, as Moldova is far enough south to ripen wine grapes. Its main growing regions are at the same latitude as Alto Adige in Italy, but it's not mountainous.

French varieties -- Chardonnay, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. -- have been planted there since the 1800s and they nearly pushed out the local varieties entirely. When a local businessman named Victor Bostan bought the Purcari winery and brand in 2002, he wanted to resurrect indigenous grapes, but there were none left in any of the country's commercial vineyards, says Purcari commercial director Artur Marin.

Rara Neagra grapes
But, as in Georgia, many local people make their own wine from backyard vines, which turned out to be a treasure trove of forgotten varieties, and the star is Rara Neagra.

"I believe there are some more autochthonous varieties left, but not so many as you find in Greece and Italy," Marin said by phone from Moldova. "Rara Neagra has a rich history. In my research I found notification that Rara Neagra was growing on this territory from ancient times, even 1000 years before Christ."

Like many ancient grapes, even though it was adapted to the region, Rara Neagra may never have been made into better wines than it is right now.

"Rara Neagra is a very difficult variety," says Federico Giotto, an Italian winemaker who consults in Moldova as well as in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Tajikstan and Crimea. (To quote Georgian basketball export Zaza Pachulia, "Nothin' easy.")

Federico Giotto
"Rara Neagra have very big grapes," Giotto said by Skype from Italy. "The skin is not very (thick). You don't have wine with a nice quantity of color. It's very similar to Pinot Noir. It's a wine where you don't have too much extract. But (color is) not important for me. It's very elegant. But it's very difficult to have a good maturation of these grapes. The different year changes everything. The plant has a very high vegetation in the year, and it's very important to stop this vegetation. We're using a not very vigorous rootstock. Also, it needs some clay in the soil. If the plant has a big stress, it's a problem.

"The first time I try to vinification of this grape was 2009. It was spicy, but like a white pepper, not too much spicy like Syrah. The body was very thin, but for me it was interesting to find something deep and thin in the same glass."

I tasted eight wines from Moldova, and the most interesting involved Rara Neagra. Moldova can make good Bordeaux-style wines, both red and white (see below), and those are also a corkscrew in Putin's eye, so politically they're satisfying. But for flavor, Giotto has it right: Rara Neagra has a light-bodied approachable spiciness, it's very food-friendly, it's unique and it's delicious, even when it's cheap.

Purcari winery. Courtesy Dumitru Brinzan
If you buy these wines, you will be helping a plucky agricultural country get out from under the claws of the bear. I called Moldova the Sonoma County of the USSR because it was second-fiddle perhaps to Georgia, but its wines were also famous and respected. There's even a parallel in grapes: like Napa Valley, Georgia is most famous for a dark, brooding and fascinating variety (Saperavi), whereas Moldova is best at the Pinot-like Rara Neagra.

The U.S. State Department has been helping Georgia market its wine here for several years for geopolitical reasons (this will probably end in this administration), but there is some rule against helping Moldova. Consequently Moldova's U.S. wine marketing campaign is literally amateurish: it's mainly being run by an American woman who likes Moldova but knows nothing about wine. Funny story: I'm writing this because the PR outreach emails I got trying to tell me this story were so inarticulate that I searched her out to explain them, and when I finally DID learn the Moldova wine story, it piqued my interest. And the wines I tried are good.

Plus, the money you spend on them will literally fight Russian expansion on more than one front.

Lenna Koszarny
This isn't a story that Moldovan vintners want to tell, but I did a little digging into the ownership of Purcari, a winery founded in 1827. It's now owned 63% by Horizon Capital, a Ukranian-based private equity firm.

Horizon Capital's co-founder and CEO is Lenna Koszarny, a Canadian woman of Ukranian descent. She, according to this story from the Globe and Mail newspaper of Toronto, is financing Ukranian defense forces and even visiting the front lines: she's the Ukranian-Canadian version of Wonder Woman. So that's where some of the profit from your Moldovan wine purchase may go.

That said, Moldova really needs the help.

"Generally Moldova is struggling," Marin says. "More than 90% of its wine has to be exported. Moldova is the second country in the world in exported wine per capita. We're a small country and a lot of people are involved in the industry. Wine is a core element in our culture in general. It is helpful to convince potential customers from different countries to taste and start consuming Moldovan wine."

Here are my tasting notes on Moldovan wines along with links to order them (some have been imported to the U.S. but don't seem to be in stores yet; these say "price currently NA."). Corkscrews for Putin's eyes sold separately.

Wines with indigenous grapes

Purcari 1827 Rara Neagra 2016 ($20, 13% alcohol)
Imported by Faropian Spirits, West Babylon NY
This is the only wine I tried that was 100% Rara Neagra. It's delightful like a good cru Beaujolais. It's earthy and fruity, with wild raspberry on the nose. Drinking it, it's fruity up front and light-bodied but lively and with length. The finish is graceful and pretty. Lovely. 93 points. Buy it here.

Purcari 1827 Rosé de Purcari 2016 ($20, 13% alcohol)
Imported by Faropian Spirits, West Babylon NY
60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 10% Rara Neagra
Has that nice pale pink color that the French call partridge eye. Pretty strawberry aroma. Fresh and dry on the palate, with nice strawberry fruit. Very solid and sippable. 88 Buy it here.

Bostavan "DOR" Moldova Rara Neagra Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (13%; price currently NA)
Imported by Vin Distributors, LLC, West Springfield, MA
The Bostavan wines are intended to be entry-level, with prices under $15. This is quite good in that price range. It's spicy and fruity; think Cab Franc. I can see serving this with salty and spicy and meaty snacks. We enjoyed it with pizza. 89

Purcari "Freedom Blend" Moldova Bastardo Rara Neagra Saperavi 2015 (13%; price currently NA)
55% Bastardo 30% Rara Neagra 15% Saperavi
Imported by Faropian Spirits, West Babylon NY
Three interesting grapes here: Bastardo is better known as Trousseau, and Saperavi is the main grape of Georgia. Even the small percentage of Saperavi is dominant in this blend: it's brooding, with dark fruit and good length. Closed up tight right now, but there's an iron note on the palate and a little high note of spice on the nose, and even though I decanted it I wished I had left it in the cellar a little longer. 89 Buy it here

Purcari "Negru de Purcari" Moldova 2014 ($35; 13.5%)
70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Saperavi, 5% Rara Neagra
Imported by Faropian Spirits, West Babylon NY
Until recently the most expensive Moldovan wine in the U.S., and the one that has gotten the best scores from magazine critics: these facts are probably related. The Cab acts as a frame for the Saperavi, which is kind of brooding, off-kilter dark fruit. You think you recognize it, but then realize you don't. Might be an easy entry into Saperavi; it's attractive like an angsty French love dramedy. 89 Buy it here

Wines with only international grapes (but two are quite good)

Purcari "1827" IGP Stefan Voda Moldova Sauvignon Blanc 2016 (13%; price currently NA)
Imported by Faropian Spirits, West Babylon NY
A dead ringer for a restrained Marlbrough, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. It has that gooseberry/herbaceous aroma, but it's far less herbal on the palate, delivering mostly refreshing pink grapefruit. Very nice version; terrific with seafood. 91 Buy it here

Bostavan "DOR" Moldova Traminer Chardonnay 2016 (13%; price currently NA)
Imported by Vin Distributors, LLC, West Springfield, MA
51% Etulia Traminer 49% Chardonnay
Nice looking bottle for the price. A little floral on the nose. Simple on the palate: stone fruit, slightly floral. A good cheap white blend. 87

Purcari "Rosu de Purcari" Moldova 2013 ($37, 13.5%)
Imported by Faropian Spirits, West Babylon NY
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 15% Malbec
If it's odd to think about drinking a Bordeaux blend from Moldova, consider that this was the kind of wine most popular in Russia, and it's easy to see why. It's a well-balanced wine with juicy yet non-assertive blackberry fruit. It's elegant, the tannins are well-managed and it has good length. Really a nice wine: familiar flavors from an unfamiliar place. 91 Buy it here

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