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// Mother Barrels
There was only one republic in the former USSR whose brands were associated exclusively with one industry. This was Moldova. Dengi correspondents Vladimir Gendlin and Ilya Pitalev (photos) toured the republics wine and brandy factories without a single hangover.
The Wine-Industrial Complex

Moldova is unique in being the only former Soviet republic where the Communists have returned to power democratically in the post-Soviet period. Despite this, the country has not lost hope of joining Europe; it listens to the recommendations of the IMF and generally tries to introduce civilized manners.

Not long ago, drivers began being required to let pedestrians cross at crosswalksa very humane and noble innovation. Now, instead of hiding themselves in the bushes with radar, the traffic police (GAI) hide themselves in alleyways and fine violators who have tried to sneak through crosswalks.

Moldova was always an agricultural country, and in Soviet times it supplied canned vegetables that were valued as natural products although they could not compete with Bulgarian brands in quality of packaging. Meat was exported to Romania earlier in post-Soviet times, but now this country is preparing to join the EU and is demanding higher quality standards that Moldova cannot meet at this time. The wine industry is probably the only agricultural sector that is not lying idle.

Wine plays an even greater role in the life of Moldovans than in the life of Georgians or Armenians. There are villages where there is no water but where every cellar is crammed with jars of homemade wine. The very map of Moldova resembles a bunch of grapes. Historians maintain that grapes in these areas grew naturally in the forests even in prehistoric times. Impressions of 15-million-year-old wild grape leaves discovered in the village of Naslavcia in Okniti District are evidence of this.

Grape cultivation began in the Dniester-Prut interfluve in the 6th century B.C. It was started by Greek colonists, who according to Herodotus who visited these territories, traded wine with the local Geto-Dacians.

However, the Moldovan wine industry remained underdeveloped before and during the 300 years of Turkish rule and experienced rapid growth only in the dark years of tsarism. After Russia annexed Bessarabia, landowners and capitalists began ruthlessly exploiting the fertile lands and favorable climatic conditions of the region. As a result, according to official information, there were nearly 107 000 desyatins [an old land measure equivalent to 2.7 acres] of vineyards in Bessarabia by the end of the 19th century producing more than half the wine in Russia

Connoisseurs not only treasure the unique wines from Goerings collection, but they are also afraid to even disturb the dust of centuries on the bottles.
Disaster came from where it was least expected when the vineyards began dying from phylloxera in the early 20th century. This disease had been brought from Western Europe on plants bought there. In 1910 alone, nearly 30 000 hectares of vineyards died from phylloxera and frost. In the 1920s and 1930s, hybrid direct producers were planted to replace the dead vines, and by 1937 the area planted in hybrids covered 85% all vineyards. This had a very serious effect on the quality of Moldovan wines; nevertheless, by the mid-1960s, winemaking was the republics largest industry, accounting for 49% of its total food-industry output. In the early 1980s, vineyards covered an area of 240 000 hectares and yearly production was more than 100 million deciliters of wine products. One in every seven hectares of cultivated land was planted in vines, from which 1.5 million tons of grapes per year were harvested. Altogether, Moldova produced nearly 20% of the grapes, 20% of the wine products, 20% of the brandy, and 4% of the champagne in the former USSR.

The Moldvinprom wine management association controlled 123 wine appellations dear to the heart of every Russian, including, Bely Aist (White Stork) brandy, Buket Moldavii vermouth, and Lidia, Isabela, Zemfira, Feteasca, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon wines. The more sophisticated prized Moldovan sherries, nominated as the standard for table sherry according to the results of an All-Union tasting in 1961.

The even more sophisticated had heard of Negru de Purcari, a dry red vintage wine from the Purcari area of Bender District (the Southwestern wine zone) locally called the Queen of Englands wine, because Queen Elizabeth II regularly orders the 1990 vintage. The Purcari winery produces its wine, which is matured for years in oak casks, in very limited batches. The recipe for this wine has been considered a secret for centuries, although everyone knows its ingredients: French varieties of Cabernet and Sauvignon, Georgian Saperavi, and Moldovan Rara Neagra. There is a legend that the Moldovan ruler Stefan the Great (Stefan cel Mare) was in the habit of downing a cup filled with four parts Negru de Purcari, three parts Purpuru de Purcari, and three parts Rosu de Purcari before battle and afterwards routed the Turks each time.

Renowned classic winemaking centers of Moldova included Ciumai, Romanesti, and Trifesti state farm wineries and the Kishinev state farm viticulture and winemaking school, among others. Altogether, there are 72 wine-bottling enterprises in Moldova, or about 160 if you include grape-processing enterprises. The most famous wineries are considered to be Cricova and Milestii Mici located deep underground in quarry galleries, where sparkling, vintage, and collection wines are produced and stored.

Moldova is the only former Soviet republic where Communists have been returned to power democratically; however, the country is still anxious to join Europe
The industrys most difficult period in the post-Soviet period lasted from 1992 to 1996. According to Emil Ruso, the head of the Moldova-Vin winemaking department of the Moldovan Ministry of Agriculture, sales fell sharply during this time. Peasants began to uproot their vineyards because they were uneconomic. Russians came, concluded contracts, paid 3040%, and disappeared. These were generally small firms. Moldova began to increase exports in 1997, but the default of 1998 dealt a severe blow. It was not until 2001 that a new upturn began. Today, large Russian distributors who order bottled wine come to Moldova (Moldovan wine was previously shipped in 60-ton tanks). Wineries now pay peasants in cash and even grant part of the money on credit, but out of habit the peasants wait until fall when they can dictate their terms to buyers during the busy season.

Russia is still the main sales market for Moldovan wines. Moldova has so far been unable to secure a position in Europe, where they demand regular deliveries during the contract period. But local wineries cannot meet these conditions; for that they need their own vineyards of at least 150 hectares each. A big problem with vineyards is that in order to plant and grow one hectare of vineyard you have to spend $4000 and wait five to ten years for a return. Another problem is that the IMF has made it a condition not to invest in winemaking. Instead, large Russian distributors are investing in the modernization of Moldovan wineries. In 2002, the Ochakovo beer and soft drink group bought the Calorasi wine and brandy factory and the Aroma trading house (the owner of the Aromatic World (Aromatny mir) store chain) bought VISMOS, a producer of sparkling wines. In the opinion of Moldovan producers, the best investor is not the one who offers the best price at a privatization auction but the one who has a sales market.

The arrival of investors has meant increased prosperity for wine-industry workers. For example, the average wage at the Belti wine and brandy enterprise, where Bely Aist brandy is made, is 2000 lei ($140).

The Grapes of Wrath

Bely Aist is more than just brandy and even more than just a stork. It is the symbol of the Moldovan wine industry, and you can see a bird carrying a bunch of grapes on any bottle of Moldovan wine. This symbol has been used since the 1950s and was registered in Moscow in 1962, 17 years before the brandy of the same name appeared.

The symbol is associated with legend. The Turks were besieging the fortress of Horodiste. The defenders were starving and suffering from thirst. Then, just when they had no strength left, storks carrying bunches of grapes suddenly descended on the fortress. The defenders ate the grapes, felt an incredible surge of strength, and defeated the Turks. The Turks generally seem to have suffered greatly from Moldovan wines, which served as a powerful stimulant for the local resistance.

As for the brandy, the recipe was devised in 1978 at Belti, and the brand name originated at the Ialoveni Scientific and Production Association, the main coordinating institute of the Moldovan wine industry); Molvinprom signed the specifications on February 19, 1979.

Emil Ruso: Before this, there were two kinds of ordinary brandy: three-star and five-star. A decision was made to produce an intermediate version aged for four years, which resulted in a very successful recipe. Incidentally, Boris Yeltsin enjoyed this brandy when he visited us.

Ruso hastened to add that the Russian public had been well acquainted with this brand long before Yeltsin.

Moldovas national wine collection is located in the Cricova cellars, the pride of the republic and a place of pilgrimage for tourists
We saw our first white stork as we approached the city of Belti, soaring like a bird of prey above the highway. It reminded of us of an eagle, clearly showing the way. We had no trouble finding the brandy factory in the center of the city; however, Sergei Baby, the factorys chief engineer, told us during the tour that he would not talk about Bely Aist. Its a sore point. Ive appeared twice at a plenary session of the Supreme Court of Moldova concerning this brand name, which is a precedent in itself.

The point is that before 2000, the Bely Aist brand name was registered outside the Belti wine and brandy enterprise, also known as AO Barza Alba (the Moldovan translation of white stork), although the name Bely Aist appeared on the labels. However, when the Communists came to power, the state put Bely Aist on a list of 74 trademarks to be transferred to state ownership and now Bely Aist is produced in Chisinau (Kishinev) and Tiraspol (there are only six brandy factories in Moldova).

Bely Aist has met with even more unpleasant adventures outside Moldova. The brand name was registered in Moscow in 1999 and Rospatent immediately came under heavy pressure. A struggle broke out over the brand in Moscow, and as a result the registration was revoked the following year. The Moldovans are now trying to take revenge but are not optimistic: Bely Aist will probably be registered only as a collective brand name. Consequently, Bely Aist made from Bulgarian and Spanish brandy spirit flies to Russia via Kaliningrad.

Barza Alba has suffered especially from counterfeits, since, as before, Bely Aist is associated with Belti. At Barza Alba, they are confident that their Bely Aist, which makes up 80% of their brandy production, has a more uniform quality than their competitors products and they are fighting against counterfeits by setting up company stores and increasing label protection. But the pirates are watching and new labels quickly appear on the black market.

According to Raisa Boreiko, head of the laboratory, in Soviet times, the company shipped 10 carloads of products per day every day, but now it ships only 1520 in a month. In 1990, they produced 600 000 decaliters of brandy, 262 000 decaliters of spirits, and 1 299 000 decaliters of wine. By 19951996 wine production had fallen to almost zero, brandy production to a third, and spirits to a fifth. Total production for 2002 was 185 800 decaliters of brandy, 51 000 decaliters of spirits, and 70 700 decaliters of wine.

Another problem is that peasants do not want to produce cheap brandy stock. The best stock is grown in the Central and Northern zones (Aligote, Feteasca, Riesling, Rkatsiteli, Sauvignon, Silvaner, and Semillon varieties). A reduction in supplies means reserves cannot be replenished, a key factor in brandy production, since brandy spirit must be aged at least three years.

Not a Sound in the Garden, Not Even Cricova

The Cricova wine enterprise, which produces select sparkling, vintage, and collection wines, is regarded as Moldovas largest and most renowned winery. The winery is still called Moldovas winepressing shed; in ancient times, grapes were pressed through a thin linen sack in a shed in the center of the vineyard, where the wine was also stored.

A distinctive feature of Cricova is that the winery is located not in the midst of vineyards but underneath them. Up to 1952, Moldova had never produced vintage wines; peasants hurried to gather the grapes early when the sugar content was 1213% or even lower, which resulted in low-quality wine with a low alcohol content. An investigation conducted in 19471949 showed that for the most part, mixed wines with an alcohol content of 8% or sometimes even less than 4% were being produced. In addition, much of the wine stock was stored in the open air, which decreased product quality and led to huge losses.

Two legendary Moldovan winemakers, Petr Ungureanu and Nikolai Sobolev, decided to change the situation. They came up with the idea of using galleries where shell rock [a type of limestone made up of broken shells] used to build Chisinau had been quarried. Together with geologists, they settled on excavation sites near the village of Cricova 20 km from Chisinau. The quarries, abandoned during the war years, had become dens for wolves and foxes; during bombardments, they had been refuges for local residents. They were large enough to hold millions of deciliters of wine.

Thus, in 1952, Moldova acquired a wine storehouse with a year-round temperature of 13C and 98% humidity, ideal conditions for storing wine. The Cricova storehouse is an entire underground city with 60 km of roads where each street is named after a wine variety, for example, Dionis Street (Pinot Noir grapes; the counterpart of Burgundy wines), Codru Street (Cabernet and Merlot; the counterpart of Bordeaux), Feteasca Street, Champagne Boulevard, and so on.

The vintage wine production plant is 60 m below ground, and the classic champagne plant is located at a depth of 80 m. An elevator takes you directly from the vault up to the administrative building; bottles are sent up the same way. Everything is provided with electricity and telephones.

It was here that Petr Ungureanu started champagne production using the classic method in 1957; until then, the only places in the USSR where this method was used were Novy Svet (Crimea), Abrau-Dyurso (Krasnodar Territory), and Artemovsk (Donetsk Region). There are two champagnization methods: the bottle method (classic) and the bulk (Charmat) method. In the Charmat process, the wine stock passes goes through the same stages as in the classic method, but in a large cylindrical tank and only for 35 days with the addition of a dose of carbon dioxide. In the classic method, the wine matures in bottles for three years through secondary fermentation.

The Belti wine and brandy enterprise, the originator of the Bely Aist brand name, is still the leader on the Moldovan brandy market
Dom Pierre Perignon, a monk of the Abbey of Hautvillers, is regarded as the inventor of champagne. From 1688 to the end of his life in 1715, he held the post of winemaker. According to one version, the monk had just opened a bottle of wine when suddenly a shot rang out. Father Perignon realized that the wine, which had not finished fermenting before being bottled in glass containers the previous fall, had started fermenting in the tightly sealed bottle with the onset of warm weather and had turned into a sparkling wine as a result. It remained only to select the necessary combination of grape varieties and devise a liqueur for champagnization. The new wine needed a new kind of container, in this case, a bottle with a bulged-in bottom, which acted as reinforcement, and a cork stopper instead of oiled fiber.

Petr Ungureanu researched 22 grape varieties from 52 locations and recommended 11 for the production of champagne stock.

According to Cricova employee Lyubov Evstrateva, the key ingredients for producing classic champagne besides wine stock are sugar, yeast, and bentonite (a substance that binds sediment particles). The key operations are remuage (riddling) and degorgement (disgorging). Remuage is a delicate operation carried out in the last three months of maturation of the champagne consisting of periodic rotation through 1/8 of the bottle circumference and shaking so that large precipitate particles pick up small ones. Novice remueurs practice by turning a 12-kg bucket full of sand with their wrist (very painful training for the wrists). Degorgement is carried out after the precipitate has collected on the cork. The degorgeur must extract the cork along with the precipitate; but if he makes a mistake, three years of aging have been wasted. Just like a combat engineer. According to Lyubov Evstrateva, today there are only 40 specialists in the production of classic champagne in the entire former USSR.

The Cricova galleries are a destination for tour groups at a cost of $20 including tasting. The Moldovan National Wine Collection is the main attraction. It is based on Goerings collection of elite Moselles, Rhine wines, Burgundies, and other wines produced before the war. The crowning glory of the collection is a bottle of Red Jerusalem Dessert Wine of 1902 standing in a bell glass. It is the only bottle in the world, and the famous American corn magnate Mr. Hearst offered $100 000 for it.

Of course, Cricova has experienced problems during the transition period. Staff was cut from 1000 people to 500, and the company was forced to fight against pirates. In 19961997 alone, 45 underground minifactories supplying fake Cricova products to the market were discovered. The press exposed a case where middle-ranking state traffic police officers were escorting cars loaded with fake alcohol. The company is currently working with a private detective firm to expose pirates and also maintains its own guard, security, and economic information services

by  Vladimir Gendlin and Ilya Pitalev (photos)

All the Article in Russian as of Apr. 21, 2003

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