MOLDOVA: A ROADTRIP INTO THE WORLD’S LARGEST WINE CELLAR
In Western Europe the mention of Moldova mostly draws blank looks and indifferent shrugs. As both the poorest and the least-visited country in Europe, being able to locate it on a map is impressive in itself while knowing its capital warrants a high-five. (it’s Chisinau.) Admittedly, Moldova isn’t much to look at: a gently rolling landscape covered in fields of sunflowers and corn, picturesque for about five minutes before descending into monotony. But underground, a short drive south of the capital (still remember the name?), lies a place that is all the more remarkable for the randomness of its existence. It’s called Milestii Mici, and with 200 kilometres of underground tunnels housing two million bottles it is the world’s largest wine cellar.
And the best part? The only way to visit this massive wine collection is by driving through the winding tunnels in your own car.
We descend into the darkness in our rattling 30-year-old Mercedes, accompanied by Andrei, a young Russian hitch-hiker who approached us at the entrance, needing a ride into the cellar. With a pallid face that had not yet quite figured out how to grow a beard, a shy demeanour and halting English that reverts to Russian after a couple of words he seems like someone better suited to life inside a Dostoyevsky novel, but we instantly took a liking to him – gotta love a guy that manages to hitch-hike his way into a wine cellar. Next to him, clearly not impressed by our rusty masterpiece of German engineering, sits our tour guide Marta, a young woman with all the charm and warmth of a grumpy Russian robot, and an accent to match. Trailing behind the car is the rest of our group, eight Slovakian bikers on roaring BMWs who had already opened a bottle of rosé from the souvenir shop to kick off the tour.
The “streets” in Milestii Mici are named after the wines that are housed in them – drive down Cabernet, left onto Sauvignon and straight until you hit Feteasca – even though the oak barrels we drive past are empty. The real work goes on behind the scenes, in the many kilometres of tunnels that are closed to the public, since the temperature changes of constant visitors and the fumes of the cars would ruin the wine, which “prefers silence,” as Marta adds cryptically.
The excavation of the limestone warren of underground tunnels that now houses the world's largest wine collection began in the 1700's, when the stone was needed for the construction of houses. The state-owned wine cellar opened in 1969. While “only” 55 kilometres are used for wine storage the scale of the place is still overwhelming, though less surprising when considering that every second wine bottle sold in the Soviet Union used to be produced in Moldova, which, with a tradition of wine-making dating back to 2000 BC, enjoys a reputation as a wine-making centre of the East.
After a winding drive through the darkness, where it quickly becomes clear that we would get irretrievably lost without Marta’s guidance, we get out of the car to walk through the Golden Collection, whose 1,5 million bottles dating back to 1969 have earned Milestii Mici its Guiness World Record. We are in a cavernous room eighty metres underground, where the dusty wine bottles are stacked in semi-circular stone niches called cazas (“houses”), each carefully numbered and labelled. Every two to three years sommeliers from France come to this room and sample the wine from all 1200 cazas over the course of two months, in what sounds like one hell of a liver-intensive job.
Obviously resigned to reciting the same monologue for the rest of her life, Marta drones on: “Here the stable humidity and temperature are perfect for the aging of wines, which are protected like babies and educated like difficult adolescents. The Golden Collection really is like heaven on earth, or rather heaven under earth. Ha ha, just a little joke.”
She invites us to peek through a crack in the wall which offers a glimpse into a dark room which is off limits – in this secret room the winery’s workers hid their best bottles to protect them from Gorbachev's 1985 prohibition law. The bottles survived his anti-booze campaign and the oldest one, the Buquet of Moldova, is now priced at 1500 euro.
Finally, we are herded into a tasting room, where large jugs of red, white and dessert wine wait for us along with some snacks, amounting to almost a litre of wine per person. And here the fundamental flaw in the plan become obvious: ample quantities of wine to be enjoyed as thoroughly as possible in the half hour allotted to us by the formidable Marta. Great! But wait… who’s going to drive on the way out??
Luckily my not having a driver’s license quickly resolves the issue in my favour, so I enjoy a couple of glasses of the white Sauvignon-Riesling blend followed by the white dessert wine, careful to avoid the pretty awful Merlot after the first sip. We trade snacks with the increasingly jovial Slovakians, who are sitting at the adjacent table, and our morose Russian hitch-hiker is finally starting to cheer up after his second glass when Marta reappears at the foot of our table, her expression almost warm now that she's about to get rid of us. “OK, now we go!”
As the daughter of globe-trotting journalists I filled my first passport with stamps from five continents before losing the last of my baby teeth, and at eighteen I emptied my piggy bank and went to explore the world on my own. Since then I spent about three years travelling – the first solo trip to Asia at eighteen was followed by an overland trip from Iran to Indonesia a few years later, plus a couple of shorter trips fuelled by my SCUBA diving addiction – and the rest working towards my degrees in anthropology and global studies, which gave me a great “grown-up” excuse to move first to Berlin, and later to Buenos Aires and New Delhi. These days home is somewhere between Vienna and my mum’s kitchen in Ljubljana.