It started with a bang, the filthy good vino flowed from day one and continued with a quick blast through the great vineyards of Bordeaux, Mouton, the Pichon’s, Ducru-Beuacaillou, Beychevelle, Pavie, Figeac and more. Reflection on this vintage are more about a rich life experience than a winemaking one!
The Best of wines: A Line-up of Filthy Good Vino consumed amongst friends and the great Château Pichon Longueville
Moldova is a tiny country a little smaller than Switzerland sandwiched between Romania and the Ukraine just above the Black Sea. It gained it’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1989 and was still very much an Eastern European state in 1996. I travelled in with a good friend whom I had studied winemaking with. We belted ourselves into a row of four seats held to Moldovan Airways only jet aircraft by two bolts. We flew low, mostly because the cabin was not airtight and could not be pressurised, it was freezing! The aggressive flying suggested that the captain may have been an ex-Russian fighter pilot. Three hours later we arrived in Moldova.
An hour later the customs officer finally turned up and signed us into the “Big Book of Names” and took US$100 from each of us in return for a three month VISA. On the way out we were greeted by a local who it turns out was our chauffeur, not that we could tell from his broken English.
During our first few days we found out what we were in for. I was to stay in the capital city Kishinev in a flat we were renting. Funny, we had no heating, no hot water, toilets that barely flushed (often holes in the ground), power eight hours in the day but we did have a phone and most important of all cable television with thirty channels BBC, NBC, CNN, ABC, MTV. Bugger the basics as long as you can get plenty of TV. There’s irony for you!
My mission was to go in make a million litres of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay in a little over two months. With three more Aussie flying winemakers we made wine from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Our first visit to the wineries at Hinchesti and Bosieni took us through rolling hills covered with miles and miles of untouched forests, fields of sunflowers and grapes. When we arrived we were greeted by the number two in charge, Nicholi. After a bottle of wine (at 9 in the morning) he took us for a tour around the wineries. We soon realised we were in for a big challenge. The wineries all had these bizarre wine tanks that were made of steel and enamelled on the inside but externally were rusted and look like old nuclear submarines. There were dirt floors and pumps that were relics from before the turn of the century and were larger than your average cow.
Outdoor Wooden Red Fermenters, Moldova 1996
The Biggest Pump in the World with Paul D Moldova 1996
There was also a few hundred thousand dollars of new sparkling stainless steel state of the art machinery supplied by an Italian firm who had won a contract supported by an EU developing nations fund (probably by bribing every one who mattered with thousands of dollars). Old versus New! This was a vast contrast we saw often. Even driving down the street in our chauffeur driven LADAs ($10 a day plus petrol) we saw brand new 7 series BMW’s (stolen from Italy and Germany under insurance fraud) flying by scores of shoeless peasants being carried by carts drawn slowly by lean horses.
The Lada & The Walnut Tree (Double exposed film with Saint-Émilion in the background)
Bribery was something that was rife in Moldova everyone was taking their cut. Every morning when I arrived at work I would be met by a line of Moldovans all wanting something. They all spoke Romanian or Russian and hence we always had a translator by our sides to tell us what they wanted from us and what they could not do for us. Putting this in context, the country has been through more upheaval and civil unrest in a few short years than your average Aussie will see in a lifetime. Bribery is a legitimate means of getting ahead. On the flip side there was also a generosity and kindness of spirit, at US$1 for a litre of Rasputan’s finest, the Vodka flowed like a river. Meat, a scarce resource was, was regularly on the table.
A Typical Moldovan Supermarket. The shelves are bare! Moldova 1996 (Double exposed film with a little bit of a cheese market in Holland in the background)
A Fortune Teller, Paid with Cigarettes, Moldova 1996 – Apparently we were all set to marry beautiful Moldovan Women (Double exposed film with Saint-Émilion in the background)
As far as the winemaking went, we soon realised we were not making wine, we were in damage control! Things that took ten minutes to do in Australia took three hours for Moldovans paid only $30 a month.
Somehow we managed to make wine, not great wines like those of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Australia but not bad considering we had to make them with water that ran black, felt slimy and reeked of rotten egg gas. The fruit that came in early was clean and pretty good quality over all, as the vintage progressed the rot set in and things went down hill rapidly. It was one hell of an experience ranging, through gastro, food poisoning (probably from eating some funky mushrooms or an unknown meat at the wineries, the supply of which could best be explained by the decreasing population of stray dogs) and a broken limb or two.
A Pack of Stray Dog .. Dinner? Moldova 1996
Though it may be primitive by Western standards, traditions ran deep, the people of Moldova were always friendly and the country was going somewhere it was evolving at a rapid pace. It was dragging itself up after the upheaval of changing from Communist Russian rule to being a free State and the turmoil of more recent civil wars. Where it will end up who knows but at least it is going some where. Moldova – An irreplaceable a life experience! Not so much of a winemaking experience.
A few of the winery crew, Moldova 1996. The big guy at the back in the middle fought in Afghanistan with the Soviets, could lift a 44 gallon drum and spent most of the day crunchy walnuts with his bare hands to munch on (Double exposed with Château Mouton-Rothschild’s First Year Barrel Cellar with empty barrels laid out ready to receive the next vintage)