On the hills above a small Moldovan village, Nicolae Tronciu examines his vines and the buds ready to bloom. The war is raging in neighbouring Ukraine, some 50 kilometres away, but he has his eyes set on the West.
He started marketing his wine four years ago in the hope of bringing back his sons who have left for other countries when he retires.
“I sell mainly in Europe, especially in Romania,” the 71-year-old Tronciu said.
The man with piercing blue eyes, whose wife was born in a camp in Siberia where her parents were deported, is used to geopolitical upheavals in this depopulated former Soviet republic of some 2.6 million inhabitants.
And like other professionals in this sector, which is the pride of Moldova — one of the world’s top 20 wine producers thanks to its favourable climate — Tronciu has been careful to develop commercial links with the EU.
A strategy that is now helping to mitigate the impact of the conflict on the continent’s poorest country.
“Traditionally, we were looking to Russia, but prices are lower there,” while the EU focuses on quality, he says. “The future is in Europe.”
“Recently we had a gathering of fellow winemakers and I’ve noticed that all the boys are shifting to export to the Middle East, the European market and the Scandinavian one,” he said.
Russia’s successive embargoes over the past two decades, in retaliation for the Moldovan authorities’ decision to move closer to the EU, have prompted winegrowers to make the switch.
Brussels was able to accelerate this movement by lifting customs duties and then sealing a bilateral free trade agreement with Chisinau for wine products in 2014.
Rising costs, war in Ukraine challenge sales
According to the Moldovan Ministry of Agriculture, Russia accounted for only 10% of Moldovan wine exports in 2021, down from 80% at the turn of the century.
At the same time, Moldova delivered more than 120 million litres to European countries last year and is winning medals in international competitions.
“Before the 2006 embargo, the country did not know the term ‘market diversification’. Today, it exports nearly 68 million bottles a year to more than 70 countries,” Sergiu Gherciu, state secretary for agriculture, said in a statement.
For the prestigious Chateau Purcari, which dominates the market, this shift has been accompanied by political stances against Russian influence.
“In 2014, we designed our ‘Freedom Blend’, from Saperavi, Bastardo and Rara Neagra, three indigenous grape varieties from Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova,” says Eugen Comendant, director of operations.
“This wine is a symbol of these countries that are fighting for their de facto freedom,” he insists.
The group has also made a name for itself for its actions in favour of Ukrainian refugees, from free accommodation in guesthouses to anti-war advertisements.
As for the effect of the war on the business, Comendant also notes “an impact close to zero” due to his company’s minimal links to the Russian market.
On the other hand, the Ukrainian market — which was booming and represented 4% of the company’s sales — has collapsed.
Another factor is that “the blockade of the port of Odesa has caused major logistical problems and is complicating our exports to Asia”, he lamented.
Although traffic has now been diverted to the port of Constanta in Romania, €750,000-worth of wine bottles are blocked in the Ukrainian port, the Moldovan government recently indicated.
But the main challenge is the rising cost of production, which Gherciu says is likely to rise by 50% this year.
“Our costs have doubled due to the increase in the price of energy, pesticides and fertilisers, and it has also become difficult to find steel trellising cables, for example, as the price has tripled,” confirms Tronciu.
He also deplores the fact that his estate is deserted by tourists, whom he used to welcome with a bottle of his wine.
“Most of them were Russians or Ukrainians, you understand,” he said, while his small tasting room at the foot of the vineyards remains desperately empty.