Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Grape Spotlight: Codru PGI Moldovian Pinot Noir from Chateau Vartely

Winemaking has been an occupation in the Eastern European country of Moldova for the past seven thousand years starting with the Cucuteni-Trypillia culture – one of the oldest civilizations in Europe (6th – 4th centuries B.C.). Serious grape growing was introduced later by the Greeks and Romans and strengthened by the Christian monasteries during the Middle Ages. Winemaking halted for 300 years when the principality of Moldova was a vassal state to the Ottomans and was eventually reversed under the Soviets when the state became a leading supplier of cheap bulk wine to the rest of the USSR and satellite countries. Once independent in 1991, there have been public and private efforts to increase quality and become a tourist destination for European travelers.  

The Moldovian landscape is quite moderate in regard to topography and extreme weather.  Rolling hills provide sunlight and drainage while cool winters and warm summers rarely reach extreme levels that can damage vines or reduce fruit quality. Rainfall is also moderate, "completing a set of conditions almost perfectly suited to viticulture" (wine-searcher.com).

There are four Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) designations in the country: Codru, Ștefan Vodă, Valul lui Traian, and Divin. Codru PGI is a wine designation that covers roughly the central third of the Republic of Moldova, stretching from the border with Romania to that with Ukraine on the other side of the country. This region shares many of the overall conditions in Moldova where the climate is temperate continental, with mild short winters and long warm summers. Vineyard altitudes range from 150 to 400 meters above sea level and the region is fragmented by a network of valleys, ravines, ridges, hills, and cliffs. The most common soils are dark chernozem. This is very fertile, with high levels of humus, phosphoric acids, phosphorus, and ammonia. It can produce high yields due to its water storage capacity. Chardonnay accounts for the largest plantings of white wine so it's no surprise that its Burgundy compatriot Pinot Noir is a widely planted red wine grape. 

According to Wine of Moldova, "Château Vartely is considered a pearl of the Moldovan wine industry and the calling card of the Republic of Moldova".  The name Vartely originates from the name of the town Orhei which in Hungarian means “place of the fortress”, (vár + hely or fortress + place).  Château Vartely officially appeared on the market as early as 1996 while the Château Vartely Company brand was launched in 2004. The winery sits 50 kilometers from the capital Chisinau and farms 550 hectares of grapes -- mostly in the Codru PGI. 

I purchased the 2019 Codru Pinot Noir ($10.99) from MezeHub, attracted by the low price and Eastern European nature. The wine is light-medium bodied with abundant red berry fruit on the nose and palate. The tannins are very approachable with a slight black pepper spice and satisfying finish. 


The last two photos are courtesy of Wine of Moldova. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

Yebiga BELA Rakija -> Award Winning Rustic Plum Brandy

Imagine being the founding member of the rock band Faith No More and in 1992 opening for Guns n' Roses in Budapest, yet the most memorable event at that concert was backstage being introduced to a local fruit brandy -- known as palinka in Hungary and rakija throughout the Balkins. That was the experience of bassist Bill Gould who continued his education of rakija through subsequent Balkin tours as a musician and tourist for the subsequent 25+ years.

"During this time, I have been frustrated by the lack of awareness, as well as lack of availability, of what I believe to be one of the world's Great Spirits. And I wanted it for myself as well...I had people occasionally bring me bottles from the Old Country but sometimes they would break and when they did, a piece of my heart would break as well!  Finally, in 2019 I realized that the only way to bring a premium version of this to the US was to do it myself. I had no experience with this industry but set out with a goal to bring a true, completely traditional handmade version -- the kind that is usually kept within the family and rarely offered for sale--to the US for the first time".

What Gould witnessed is how rakija is an intricate part of Eastern European life used to welcome visitors, toast celebratory occasions, or just a jolt of comfort. Home distillation is quite common and I can personally attest, is superior to some of the highest-quality fruit brandies on the market. Rakija is made from a number of fruits, from grapes, apricots, quince, pears, and with most popular, plums - referred to as slivowitz. 

By launching Yebiga, Gould is introducing the traditional processes of home distillation to a retail market. Currently, there are two plum brandies within the Yebiga brand: BELA, a clear rakija and PRVA, an oak-aged rakija. The spirits are distilled on a mountain farm near Kraljevo in Central Serbia. The plum orchard sits at 800m, the highest elevation point for plums, and subsists alongside pines and other conifers. BELA is produced from an equal share of čačanska rodna and čačanska lepotica plums -- both varieties created by the Institute of Fruit Growing in Čačak, Serbia. This is the equivalent of Cornell AgriTech regarding the development of new grape varieties. Both of these plums were released in 1975 and according to the Institute, are high-quality cultivars most suitable for desserts and slivowitz. 

The plums are hand-harvested at full maturation which is quite labor-intensive since individual plums ripen at different intervals. This period lasts from late July to early August and after harvest, the pits are removed, and the fruit ferments from 10 days to 14 weeks. The fermented juice is then double distilled using a 500l wood-fired copper pot still. The wood for the fire is acquired from the local forest. Finally, the rakija is cut to 40% abv using pure mountain spring water. 

Having no oak treatment the BELA provides a full expression of the fruit - from the cultivars to the evergreen terrain. Not sure if my sensory impressions were influenced by their story, but there's subtle pine mixed with the stone fruit aroma. Plums are clearly noticeable on the palate just before the soft burn and lengthy finish. I can see why the BELA was awarded double gold at the  2021 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. 

The Yebiga rakija is currently available online via Mash&Grape ($31) and Yebiga and at retail locations in the following states:  CA, IL, NY, NJ, DC, FL, TX, MO, & MI. There is a map of retail stores on the Yebiga website. Finally, they are available at Total Wine in California and Texas as well as at Binny's in Illinois.  


Orchard and still photos courtesy of Yebiga.

Disclosure: We received samples from Yebiga through the BevFluence New Perspectives on Cider, Perry, and Brandy campaign in order to share our opinion about their products.