Europe's Next Hot Wine Destination? Moldova.

Cricova wine Muldova

Moldywhatnow? Oh, you haven't heard of Moldova? Not to worry. Being Europe's least visited country (just 9000 international arrivals in 2011), Moldova is accustomed to blank stares whenever its name comes up.

Alas, scanning headlines for Moldova usually yields reports on poverty, dizzying political hijinks and its status as the unhappiest country on Earth. So, it's not uncommon for eyebrows to shoot up when people hear that not only are Moldova's sunshine, rainfall and forest soils ideal for wine grapes, but recent developments are rapidly fostering what could be the next hot wine-lovers' destination in Europe.

With Moldova's stalwart vineyards like Purcari, Cricova and Milestii Mici finally shaking off the shell shock of the post-USSR collapse of their distribution system, and the recent legalization of small-volume wine production, the region's wine-making booster rockets are igniting.

Having exhaustively toured Moldova in the past for Lonely Planet guidebook research, after a 3-year break I was curious, even a little excited, to see what the country's tourism sector had cooked up to invigorate its wine industry.

Before bouncing down busted-up rural roads for winery visits -- the country's infrastructure, while challenging, isn't prohibitively arduous -- I did some pre-research at Carpe Diem, a wine bar/shop combo in the capital of Chisinau. It's staffed by experts who are happy to uncork and provide a taste bud tour of Moldova's old standbys like Purcari and Cricova and new producers like Et Cetera, Equinox and Mezalimpe. Even after four previous visits to Moldova that involved admirable amounts of wine being consumed, I found I was woefully uninformed about the current state of the industry. I did my best to fill that void. After I'd done enough tasting to render further lecture useless, the shop's grocery store-caliber take-out prices allowed for additional "intelligence gathering" back at my hotel.

Cricova wine tunnelsNext, with a vehicle and driver, I journeyed about 9 miles north of Chisinau to Cricova, whose cellars are housed in 15th-century limestone caves a cumulative 74 miles in length. Tours of the caves involve driving through underground "streets" with names like "Cabernet" and "Pinot," then leaving the vehicles some 280 feet below ground and continuing on foot. Cricova's collections contain bottles dating to the early 1900s and are housed in a finished, moodily lit, opulent cave complex that could double as a turnkey James Bond villain lair.

Among its many noteworthy offerings, Cricova makes one of my favorite wines anywhere: a dark, sparkling red wine, "kodrinskoie-sparkling," made from cabernet sauvignon stocks producing a "rich velvet texture and a blackcurrant and cherry taste." It's effectively fermented Kool-Aid, and it's unlike any other red I've had.

About 30 minutes north of Cricova, in the town of Orhei, is Chateau Vartely. Though Vartely runs the table of wine varietals, the climate in this part of Moldova is best suited for white grapes, and it's particularly well known for the production of the indigenous fetească albăfrom its adjacent vineyards. Vartely's chief wine maker, Arcadie Fosnea, described it as being close to chardonnay, though I found it far less oaky and more refreshing. It's best consumed with light fish or fruit, though I was satisfied with the bottle.

After an interval of recovery, I cruised down to the fertile Stefan Voda region, 2 hours southeast of Chisinau, which enjoys a temperate micro-climate moderated by winds from the nearby Black Sea. The conditions are ideal for grapes such as the Decantor World Wine award-winning merlot and chardonnay made by newcomer Et Cetera, but the region is best known for its indigenous rara neagrăgrape, which produces dark, fruity, richly acidic red wines used to great acclaim by Purcari, whose Negru de Purcari was a favorite of Queen Victoria's.

Purcari cart wineFounded in 1827, Purcari's property is a pleasing, Disney-esque wino theme park. The stone foundation chateau sits above tiny lakes with gazebos on stilts. An old grape press and a skeletal wooden wagon add character, and the wine collection is stored in a mildly claustrophobic series of hamster tunnels.

Space prevents me from detailing the winery visits available just west of Chisinau in the village of Cojusna or the outstanding small producers that do not currently offer on-site tastings. You can do plenty of online reconnaissance, but for the mother of Moldovan wine immersion visit the region's Wine Festival, held annually during the first week of October.

Even with Moldova's outstanding and inexpensive wine industry becoming an ever brighter blip on oenophiles' radars, it may be some time before the pitiable international arrival numbers start growing appreciably. Though highly attractive to a certain breed of traveler, enticements like the budget-friendly eating and drinking riches of Chisinau, the country's increasingly organized agro-tourism scheme and the sensation of having sights like the cave monastery at Orheiul Vechi all to oneself are probably too understated to inspire many people to cross Europe for a visit, never mind the Atlantic.

That said, as Chisinau airport (the country's only commercial airport) adds more flights, particularly discount carriers, Moldova's profile is sure to rise. Before it does, fill a shoulder bag with your preferred hangover remedy, recruit a designated driver and blaze the trail yourself.

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