There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 25 June 2018

Purcari, Fine Moldovan Wine: Part 2 of Moldova

Chişinău to Purcari

After breakfast N arrived with her driver and we set off for Purcari in the southeast of the country.

As the geography of Moldova is not generally well-known (and that may be an understatement), here is a map.

We travelled from Chisinau to the village of Purcari in southeast Moldova
The village of Purcari is 110km from Chişinău, a journey of some 2 hours, including a coffee stop. Once out of the capital we rolled sedately along a well-maintained two-lane road through rich agricultural country with fields of maize and sunflower, and the occasional open meadow.

Geese in a meadow on the way to Purcari (and sorry about the reflection!)
I recall no towns or villages on the route, though the map says we passed through the centre of Căuşeni (pop 16,000). The houses were set back from the road among woods and we missed any business district/shopping area it may have. We paused there at a petrol station with a coffee shop; Moldova may be the poorest country in Europe but these were clean and well organised facilities – and they were not there for tourists, because there were none (except us!).

The smaller town of Ştefan Vodă lay just off the road and even after leaving the highway we missed Purcari village, driving straight to the winery. 'Chateau' Purcari nestles among trees, surrounded by a sea of vines.

Chateau Purcari

Cheateau Purcari
We were introduced to the Chateau’s representative who showed us round.

Purcari Winery
The ‘chateau’ was built in 2003 but wines have been made on this site since 1827 and were considered among the finest in the Russian Empire. Purcari wines were served to Queen Victoria, George V and the ill-fated Tsar Nicholas II and are, they claim still favoured by the British royal family. For all I know they may drink nothing else - Her Maj rarely (OK, never) invites me round for an informal supper at the palace, so I am largely ignorant of her drinking habits, but a bottle from the Queen’s collection is prominently displayed at the winery. Berry Brothers and Rudd are Purcari’s UK agent and they have been official wine suppliers to the British Royal Family since the reign of King George III, so who knows….

Purcari wine from the royal collection
The winery thrived throughout the Soviet years; little Moldova and not much bigger Georgia, with less that a half of 1% of the USSR’s land between them produced most of its wine. Production ceased for ten years after the dissolution of the USSR, but the winery was brought back to life in 2003 and set about restoring its reputation for quality.

The grapes come from the surrounding 260ha of vineyards.

Lynne and the Purcari Vineyards
Modelled on a Bordeaux chateau both in style and wine-making technique (Bordeaux is on a similar latitude but Purcari’s climate is more continental and less maritime), fermentation takes place in stainless steel vats (just like everywhere else so I did not bother with a photo), then matures in new French oak barrels.

Purcari wine resting in new French oak barrels
A sparkling wine has recently been added to the portfolio. Purcari uses the same Pinot Noir/Chardonnay blend as Champagne and produces its wine by the methode champenoise, meaning the secondary fermentation that produces the fizz happens in the bottle. Remuage is the slow inverting and twisting of the bottles at the end of that secondary fermentation to collect the sediment in the neck so it can be easily removed. Until relatively recently this was done by hand, but most remuage is now done mechanically in gyropalletes which reduces the time required from six weeks to one without loss of quality (according to the Champagne official website). Purcari has invested in a phalanx of these machines.

Gyropalettes, Purcari winery
Tasting at the Purcari Winery

During our tour the sun had conveniently found its way above the yardarm, so our guide took us for a small tasting and proved to be as knowledgeable about the products as she had about the process – and she spoke excellent English, too.

Lynne and our friendly and knowledgeable local guide, Purcari Winery

The accent at Purcari is on quality rather than mass production and this was evident throughout the tasting. It is also reflected in the prices, those quoted are mail order (in Moldova only) from the winery’s website and UK prices for wines available from For comparison, you can buy a very decent (though not Purcari!) bottle in any mid-range Chişinău eatery for £6-£7 and for far less in supermarkets.

Pinot Grigio did not sound a promising start but although it was as colourless as any other Pinot Grigio it shone in a way most do not. It also had a strong fruity/spicy nose where most smell of nothing. Italian Pinot Grigio is harvested early to increase acidity and often over-cropped to keep it cheap - that is why it tastes of nothing This was fresh and clean on the palate with autumnal notes of apple and pear – if only all Pinot Grigio was like this. (120 Lei - £5.45) UK £11.95

Purcari wines
Left to right, Pinot Grigio, Rosé, Rosu and Ice Wine
Rosé de Purcari is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and the local Rară Neagră. A pale salmon pink with a wild strawberry nose, it has good acidity (more than the Pinot Grigio) but is disappointing on the palate as it offers little beyond crispness until the Cabernet kicks in at the end. (120 Lei - £5.45) UK £11.95

Roşu de Purcari is made using the classic Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Malbec blend. The 2014 vintage still looks young and purple, the nose is an immense blast of fruit very much in the Bordeaux style. This is a rich, premium wine with abundant plummy fruit, solid tannins and an excellent balance. If I had been told this came from the Haut-Médoc I would have believed it. Maybe they should be pushing their own style not aping somebody else’s, but they do it so well I forgive them. (295 Lei - £13.40 and it would be £25 if it really was Haut-Médoc.)

I'm taking this seriously, Tasting at Purcari Winery
Ice Wine. A pale gold, viscous (almost oily) blend of Muscat Ottonel and Traminer, with an aroma of lychees, honey and roses. The spicy Traminer (which I like) tempers the flowery Muscat (not so keen) and the intensely sweet, luscious whole is greater than the sum of its parts. (380 Lei - £17.30 for ½ bottle).

Lunch at the Purcari Winery

A good tasting is a perfect prelude to a good lunch and the winery had arranged a three-course meal showcasing traditional Moldovan cuisine.

We started with Plăcintă, a usually circular flaky pastry case with various fillings. A favourite in Romania and Ukraine as well as Moldova, it can be sweet or savoury, but for a starter we had cabbage and dill in one, and soft cheese in the other. The pastry was excellent, if a little filling, I liked the cheesy one but shredded cabbage would not be my first (or second) choice of filling.

Placinta, Purcari Winery
I would call ciorbă a sour soup, though Romanians and Moldovans draw a distinction between ciorbă and supă. To us it was a clear chicken noodle soup with carrots, coriander and onions; the chicken well-flavoured and the noodles made in the winery’s kitchen. It did have an interesting and distinctive sourness derived, I think from borş (wheat or barley bran fermented in water), though lemon and sauerkraut juice are also used.

Ciorba, Purcari Winery
Mămăligă and pork came next. We had already noticed that Moldovan low intensity farming produces meat and vegetables packed with flavour and our pork, stewed to softness, was top quality.  Mămăligă was once a millet-based polenta but is now always made from maize. Maize was brought to Europe from Mexico in 1530 and reached Romania around 1700, where it quickly replaced millet mămăligă as the staple diet of the peasantry. It remains popular and is perhaps the single defining dish of Romanian/Moldovan cuisine. It has a pleasant texture (Lynne was unconvinced) but is bland until mixed with grated, salty brânză (a ewe’s milk cheese). Once I realised that, I enjoyed it.

Pork and mamaliga with grated branza, Purcari Winery
We drank a half bottle of Rară Neagră, another Molodvan speciality. Less purple than the earlier Cabernet based Rosu, the nose is thinner with less fruit. It starts with plenty of flavour, a touch of sweet dried fruits and vanilla, but lacks tannin and falls away so quickly I could not detect the promised ‘fine oak aftertaste’. Purcari sell it for 180 lei (£8.20), sell it in the UK for £13.75 (whole bottle prices).

There was no desert – we were stuffed anyway – but we had been royally entertained and thoroughly enjoyed the best of Moldovan wine (we had started right at the top) and typical Moldovan food, and now it was time to leave.

As we left a young waitress scurried after us bearing another half bottle of Rară Neagră. Unfortunately, her English matched our Romanian and it was unclear whether she wanted us to pay for the bottle we had drunk (we had assumed it was ‘complimentary’) or give us this one as a gift. She ran off to find someone with better linguistic skills. It was a ‘gift’ (though we undoubtedly paid for everything we ate and drank at some point) and gratefully received. We cracked it the next day before going out to dinner.

Rara Neagra de Purcari in our hotel room, Chisinau
Purcari Village

Leaving the winery we headed into Purcari village, pausing to admire a family of storks in their nest.

Family of Storks, Purcari
We have a west European preconception of a village, a string of cottages, a cluster of shops, a church and pub/café/restaurant, but the 2,500 people of Purcari live in well-separated houses set back from the straight village roads, most with a patch of land and if there are any businesses we did not see them. They do, though, have a war memorial.

Purcari War Memorial
Second World War memorials are abundant throughout Russia and the former Soviet Union. They lost 8 million soldiers and 15 million civilians in the conflict, so it is hardly surprising.

Puracari War Memorial
Purcari to Chişinău

With no time to stop on the outward journey, our return to Chişinău was punctuated by photo stops. The first was at the bus stop on the main road past Ştefan Vodă. The Soviet Union chose strange things to decorate, some of Moscow’s metro stations resemble temples, there is a huge semi-circular mural on a specially erected wall on the Jvari Pass through the Caucasus in Georgia which is far less beautiful than the mountains it obscures, and here there are bus stops. Like the Georgian mural, this painting has seen better days.

Stefan Voda bus stop
The main themes on the bus stop are storks and sunflowers. I have already shown you the storks, so here are the sunflowers.

Sunflowers near Stefan Voda
Anyone who wanders through the British countryside must occasionally encounter a farm where one paddock, usually tucked behind a dilapidated barn, has become a graveyard for unwanted farm machinery, a broken-down quad bike, an old Ferguson tractor and the skeleton of a horse drawn harvester last used by great-grandpa in the 1930s. In Moldova they turn these things into memorials. I have no idea what this antique tractor is doing on a plinth, but there it is.

Antique tractor on a plinth, somewhere near Causeni
Near Căuşeni we had a look at an abandoned collective farm…

Abandoned collective farm, near Causeni
…and at Grigorievca a few kilometres north of Căuşeni we stopped at the church and cemetery. A large padlocked iron gate prevented us getting any closer, but the painting of St George killing a dragon over the doorway suggest who it might be dedicated to. From extensive googling I can tell you that Grigorievca has 1,200 residents, Ukrainians are the largest ethnic group and that the yellow paint job is fairly recent. That apart…..

Grigorievca Church

Evening in Chişinău

We reached Chişinău in the early evening. Later, deciding that we did not need a meal but a snack might be nice we repaired to one of the pubs across the pedestrianised road from our hotel where we shared what the menu described as ‘fried anchovies’ but I would call ‘whitebait’.

Fried anchovies in Chisinau
I had been an excellent day and I shall finish by noting that while Purcari is justly famous for its wine, Chişinău is proud of its brewery.

Chisinau beer

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