WHAT: One of the many things I enjoy about writing a wine column is I learn so much, and not just about the wine I drink.
Wine seems to be woven more deeply into the cultural fabric of a country or a region than other alcoholic drinks. It could be because wine is so closely tied to food. In many countries there are countless local wines made to pair with local food, and they never get exported.
It could be because of the rituals and legends associated with some wines, such as Port, Champagne or Bull’s Blood.
It could be because of the current obsession with terroir, the idea that wine should reflect where the grapes are grown.
I learned a lot this week, because I had never tasted a wine from Moldova. In fact, I had to go scurrying to the atlas to find out where it was. I was close, if you can count several hundred miles as close.
Moldova is a former Soviet republic located on the Black Sea, bordered by Ukraine on the north and east and Romania on the west. It has a rich history of wine making.
A good example is this beautiful wine from Chateau Vartely, a blend of 30 percent merlot, 28 percent syrah and 42 percent of a local grape called Rara Neagra, sometimes called Babeasca Neagra, which translates to “black grandmother.”
Babeasca Neagra produces light and fruity red wine, typically designed for early consumption. Blended with the merlot and syrah, it produces a rich, complex wine with plenty of flavor.
It is a deep red in the glass, with a clean nose of cherries, plums and blackberries. There are also notes of black pepper and spices.
The layers of flavor continue to unwind the longer the wine sits in the glass. Cherries, cranberries and dark chocolate predominate, but at times I could taste herbs and coffee.
The tannins are nicely integrated and don’t overpower. Strong acidity balances the powerful fruit. The finish is smooth.
Dry red wine drinkers will love this wine. It is a good summer sipping wine, but it really shines with food.
The wine could be compared to a super Tuscan, combining native grapes with traditional European grapes for spectacular results. Maybe it would be a super Moldovan.
The grapes come from vineyards in Codru, in the central part of the country, where Chateau Vartely owns 600 acres of prime vineyards. Rara Neagra is one of Moldova’s most famous varietals and has been grown there for thousands of years.
The forests and hills of the rolling countryside protect the vineyards from winter frosts and dry summer winds, making this region an ideal environment for cultivating consistently high quality wines. The fruit is harvested by hand and aged in oak casks for at least one year.
Winemaking has been a big part of the Moldovan culture for centuries, though it has suffered setbacks at times. When the Soviet Union was the world’s third biggest wine producer in the 1970s, Moldova was a major supplier of wines. Then Mikhail Gorbachev tried to cut the country’s alcohol consumption, and grape vines were pulled up in all parts of the Soviet bloc.
When Moldova gained independence in 1991 it had to reinvent its wine culture. The industry was growing nicely until 2006 when Russian President Vladimir Putin banned imports of Moldovan wine because of quality issues.
It looks like Moldova has recovered from that blow and now has more than 140 wineries producing excellent wine.
A national program called “Wine of Moldova” was created last year to ensure quality control and market wines to the world.
WINERY: Though winemaking in Moldova is old, Chateau Vartely is relatively new. It was founded in 2008 as a modern producer of high quality wines made from Moldovan and international grape varieties.
Modeled after a French chateau, the estate was the first in Moldova to control the wine making process from planting to bottling.
Among the company’s 600 acres it grows cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, sauvignon, pinot gris, chardonnay and traminer, as well as indigenous grape varieties of Moldova: Feteasca Alba, Feteasca Regala, and Rara Neagra.
With global sales of 4.5 million bottles per year, Chateau Vartely exports wine to 14 countries, including European Union member states and China.
Chateau Vartely has established itself as one of Moldova’s top wineries, and as a tourist destination with 10,000 visitors a year. The tasting room sits on top of a hill, with a grand view of the picturesque vineyards.
GOES WITH: This is a versatile wine, so my wife, Teri, and I put it to the test. We drank it on one of those clean-out-the-refrigerator nights where we tried all kinds of things.
The main course was pulled pork. The frozen leftovers heat up great and taste fresh. I made a sandwich and doused the smoked meat with Mumbo sauce, my favorite barbecue sauce.
The meat is smoky and flavorful, and the sauce is slightly sweet, so we needed a wine that could cut through the smoke and balance the sweet sauce. The Vartely did that nicely. It was a great match. The light fruit of the Rara Neagra was balanced by the depth of the merlot and syrah.
We also had fried chicken wings, fried potato wedges, cheese and big salads. The wine made all the courses taste even better, which is all you can ask for in a good wine.
The Vartely Winemaker’s Selection would go well with grilled lamb, grilled duck or roasted chicken. I would chill it slightly and let the wine warm up in your glass.