It is about to rain, the dusky blue sky fast morphing into a menacing deep charcoal, and although I can’t understand what the two men speaking Romanian are saying, the expressions on their faces convey relief. On this late Friday afternoon, they have escaped the brooding weather—and their offices—to ensconce themselves at a table with glasses of just-poured red wine. As one of them reaches for a sip, thunder roars, and another guy walks through the door to peruse the precise rows of bottles on the wooden shelves, contemplating tonight’s spontaneous pick. Both a wine bar and well-stocked shop, petite Carpe Diem is a casual, library-like oenophile hangout in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova.
Carpe Diem also has a winery of the same name, which turns out such varieties as the delightfully dry white Feteasca Regală, and Bad Boys, a blend of plummy Feteasca Neagra and inky Saperavi grapes. But among Carpe Diem’s more than 150 selections, there are other Moldovan producers on display, like Novak and Chateau Vartely. About a 15-minute-walk away is Embargo Wine Bar, an upbeat spot with charcuterie plates, chalkboard menus, and a bar lined with bottles from Moldovan producers such as Chateau Cristi and Minis Terrios. Dan Prisacaru founded the latter, a small company with an impressive portfolio of wines including the lush Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blend Negru Împărat. When I meet him there after my guided tasting at Carpe Diem he is animated. He explains the thoughtful process behind the creation of one of his striking labels, pauses to check if his vineyard is currently getting pounded with rain like it is in Chișinău, and tells me how Moldovan wine has evolved.
Wedged between Romania and Ukraine, tiny Moldova is one of the world’s least-visited nations, but that’s quickly changing, fueled by wine tourism. Wine is the lifeblood of Moldova; grapes a beloved crop that have grown on family farms for centuries. In 1918 Moldova united with Romania; by 1940 it was absorbed by the Soviet Union. The country with the most agricultural land dedicated to vineyards anywhere in the world began pumping out bulk wine for the USSR’s masses, supplying nearly 70 percent of its needs. Shifts toward quality slowly began to take shape after the fall of Communism in 1991, but there were crippling obstacles: Russia’s wine embargoes in 2006 and 2013. For those producers with quality top of mind, attention turned to the robust EU market instead, and by 2017, over 80 percent of Moldovan wine was exported to those countries, helping raise its international profile. All those decades that Moldova devoted to mass-produced wine was never publicly acknowledged, simply relegated to “made in the USSR” status.
Finally, other countries are beginning to take note of distinctly Moldovan wine. This is why determined entrepreneurs like Prisacaru have forged ahead. After studying the wine business in Burgundy he walked away from a prime job offer and took a chance on moving back to Moldova to start his own winery. “I saw an opportunity,” he says. “All those years [Moldova] made wine for the Soviet Union, but now it’s almost like we started over and built a new wine scene from scratch. Everyone in the industry is friendly and collaborative, and it will only get more impressive.”
Moldova is the home of Old Orhei, a historical and archaeological complex that many deem the country’s spiritual home, complete with a cave monastery and simply adorned cottages that are a picturesque time warp. There is also Emil Racovita in the northern part of the country, one of the world’s biggest caves. These are reasons to visit, surely, but so are the staggering wineries. Upon arriving in Chișinău, the best bet is to plan an excursion with the savvy agency Winetours Moldova, which can even organize stays in rural guest houses. Knowledgeable, English-speaking guides will whisk the curious to the French chateau-style Purcari, the oldest winery in Moldova, or the fascinating underground cellars of Mileștii Mici. Its network of cool haunted mansion-like tunnels, the vastest in the world, has galleries filled with more than 1.5 million bottles, some dating back to 1968. Another subterranean marvel is Cricova. Known for its sparkling wine, it’s like an ornate, underground city where one roams through winding corridors of stained glass and marble.
My favorite winery of the trip is Asconi, for its rustic village feel. The rain hasn’t let up by the time I arrive for dinner, but like Carpe Diem, it only adds to the ambiance of stone walls and wooden beams overhead. Classic Moldovan dishes fly out of the kitchen: flaky cheese pies (plăcinte), stuffed cabbage leaves (sarmale), and mounds of thick, polenta-like mămăligă. Moldovans are warm, and their innate sense of hospitality shines tonight.
Although it’s tempting to just stick to the rambling, fairy tale-like wine estates, visitors should spend time in Chișinău as well. Boxy Soviet-era buildings do not detract from the city’s charms—the regal, 19th-century state capitol-esque Nativity Cathedral, the leafy alley of literary busts, the compact home where Russian poet Alexander Pushkin was exiled, and the National Museum of History of Moldova among them.
Beyond the bars, it is interesting to see how local wine is in constant dialogue with the rest of the city. There is Propaganda, where crispy potatoes and honey-glazed chicken are eaten in an old-fashioned parlor setting decked out with images of Lenin and vintage radios. Gastrobar is a homey retreat for muhammara and pumpkin soup, and the commodious Black Rabbit, which nods to Scandinavia with its abundance of light wood and greenery, serves a delectable eggplant caviar with goat cheese mousse. All illuminate their collections of Moldovan wine.
Even accommodations put wine at the forefront. Skip the business hotels and their aura of faded luxury for swank boutique experiences like BERD’s Design Hotelwith its freestanding bathtubs in rooms that subtly showcase Moldovan designs and a spa that mixes a hammam with a Himalayan salt room. Newcomer Casa Daca also weaves Moldovan touches into its minimalist rooms, although most time should be spent in the airy lobby slurping down a smoothie from the juice bar, visually accompanied by elegant arrangements whipped up at the on-site floral shop.
Wine has proven a gateway to recognizing Moldovan craftsmanship in other realms, particularly fashion. Consider Valentina Vidrașcu, whose namesake boutique is a showroom for her intricately embroidered blouses and dresses that gorgeously re-imagine folk-inspired Moldovan patterns on lace, silk, and velvet. Julia Allert’s collection, spanning high-collared pantsuits and dresses patterned with oversized bees, is also gathering momentum.
“Our wine has been a great way to bring attention to Moldova, to showcase our quality, our passion and our traditions, but now that story is expanding to fashion and design,” says Allert. “There is so much energy throughout the whole country now—a vibe of young designers and local talent. It’s exciting for me to be a part of that and strive to make a Moldovan brand a global one.” Allert adds that Moldova’s emerging creativity, combined with a strong dedication to quality, leads to inviting shopping expeditions in Chișinău. I can envision her clothing snatched off the racks in a Brooklyn boutique—just like I know it won’t be long before Moldovan wine starts making frequent appearances on forward-thinking wine lists stateside.