Moldova is a landlocked country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania with a long history of winemaking. There are fossil records that indicate grapes flourished in Moldova 6 million to 25 million years ago, and the country was a significant source of wine for the ancient Greeks and later the Romans. After the end of Ottoman rule, Moldova became the main supplier of wine to Russia and several Eastern European countries.
For centuries, Moldovan wines were created with local, and largely unpronounceable, grapes including zghiharda, tamaioasa and batuta neagra. In the late 1800s, many vineyards were planted to French varietals such as pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and gamay as well. Like the rest of Europe, Moldova was affected by the Phylloxera epidemic and also had to endure two world wars along with years of Soviet rule that stifled innovation and modernization. Following independence in 1991, the Moldovan wine industry has rebounded but has also become a pawn in the country’s political struggles with its neighbor Russia. As a result, Moldovan winemakers are actively expanding their marketing toward the rest of the world including the U.S.
What remains of the Moldovan Jewish community is not sizeable, but there is kosher wine being made there. Perhaps recognizing current market trends, several of the wines have a noticeable sweetness including the Le Soreq Sauvignon Blanc 2012. This interesting, semi-dry (slightly sweet) version of this popular typically dry varietal wine is soft and round which offsets its nice acidity. Beginning with lemon, lime and grapefruit aromas and flavors it would pair with cheese or a light fish dish.
Spirits-wise, we recently heard some very interesting Scotch whisky industry news about the typically brilliant Mortlach Distillery: There will be four new releases and some long-term investment in the distillery, coming soon.
Mortlach is still an active distillery, but most of its whisky is blended into the Johnnie Walker portfolio so single-malt expressions can be hard to find. Last we heard, at most around 700 cases of Mortlach single malt are officially released to the world annually, often much less. There are always a few independently released bottles to be found, but all — official and nonofficial alike — have attracted a bit of a cult following, driving prices lamentably higher. The distillery lies in Dufftown, the heartland of the Speyside region of Scotland’s Highlands. Mortlach was founded in 1823 and was the first legal distillery to be built in Dufftown.
Unlike the vast majority of Scottish distilleries, Mortlach’s most essential distillation equipment — its three “wash” and three “spirit” stills — have been altered in both design and size over the years and are a bit of a hodgepodge, requiring no small amount of complex planning to produce consistently high-quality spirits. The reason for these changes in still shape and size are merely historical happenstance, though the distillery is now loath to ever make any changes.
The distillery was sold in 1831, and then resold in 1832, and then again in 1837 it was sold to John and James Grant who dismantled the equipment for use in another of their distilleries. Mortlach lay dormant (“silent” as the industry calls it) for quite some time. In the intervening years, the distillery was used as a brewery and even, for a time, as a church. Production only resumed in 1851 when John Alexander Gordon, who a decade before joined the Grant brothers as a partner, began producing Mortlach as “The Real John Gordon” Scotch whisky. The distillery switched hands again and by 1923 was bought by John Walker and Sons. In 1925, John Walker and Sons was acquired by the Distillers Company Limited, which in turn — via the usual mergers and acquisitions — became the Scottish Malt Distillers and then eventually became Diageo. Today, Diageo is still the world’s single largest drinks company and single biggest whisky producer, with 28 Scotch malt whisky distilleries and two Scotch grain distilleries.
The Mortlach Distillery was substantially rebuilt in 1964. In the 1990s, computers were installed to help run the facility and today, sadly, Mortlach has been operating on a skeletal staff. Diageo has used Mortlach as a bit of a workhorse, so there is no visitor center and official single-malt bottlings have remained few and far between. Here in the U.S., official bottlings are even harder to come by. Thankfully, Diageo has seen fit to change this. The only downside is that the target is not just the single-malt Scotch whisky market, but the “Luxury” category within that market. So along with the new releases, there will be new and higher prices.
As of this writing, the new lineup will be: “Rare Old” (43.4 percent abv, no age statement); “Special Strength” (49 percent abv, no age statement, non-chill filtered, Travel Retail/Duty Free exclusive); “18 Years Old” and “25 Years Old” (both 43.4 percent abv). Pricing and availability details have not yet been disclosed, but we’ve been told to expect them around mid-2014. As a “luxury” launch, we would guess the cheapest of these — the “Rare Old” — to be around $100-$120 or so, roughly the same as the newish Johnnie Walker Platinum.
On top of this, Diageo has also announced plans to double its production of Mortlach starting around November 2015. Indeed they say they will build a new £30 million ($48.5 million) distillery that exactly replicates the current distillery — every bizarre historic happenstance twist and dent. A company spokesman referred to this as an “idiosyncratic, not state of the art” investment and build-out. Diageo intends, in the words of Dr. Nick Morgan, Diageo’s head of whisky outreach, for this new Mortlach brand to “define luxury for single malt [and] become the next great luxury brand.” So, again, expect pricing to continue to rise. Again from Dr. Morgan: “This will be a connoisseur range of single malts.” This is, we suppose, a polite way of saying, suck it up.
Meanwhile, here are two examples we’ve tasted previously. Don’t get hung up on trying to find this or that expression; at this point, anything you can find before the rebrand launch will have to do (and will probably be jolly tasty, too).
G&M Mortlach 15-Year-Old Speyside Single-Malt Scotch Whisky (43 percent abv; $70): This light-bodied, straightforward whisky offers enjoyable aromas of barley, cereal notes, heavy fruit compote, and pumpkin spices with flavors of raisins, caramel, fruit salad, toasty oak, vanilla, pepper and a whisper of anise. A nice dessert-style whisky.
SMWSA Cask 76.84 “Feisty and Zesty” (57.8 percent abv; 21 years old; only 239 bottles allocated to the U.S.; $145): This is a lovely whisky. The nose is a bit closed, but with water opens beautifully. The whisky offers wisps of smoke and oak char amidst leathery fruit, licorice, green grass, citrus fruit rind, dark chocolate and some enticing savory meaty quality. Mouthwatering, chewy and a bit drying and fiery in finish, this is an after-dinner whisky to savor as winter draws near. L’Chaim!