The tiny landlocked country of Moldova in Eastern Europe is one of Europe’s poorest. “The roads are a bone-shaking ordeal. Horses haul carts loaded with produce and people. Geese glare at outsiders,” wrote Stephen Sackur for BBC News. But there is one thing the country’s agriculture-driven economy is rich at, and that is grapes.
Moldova’s low hills, its sun-kissed plains, the flowing streams and two big rivers, and the moderate climate shaped by the Black Sea provides all the ideal conditions necessary to grow grapes. Wine is Moldova’s best-known product appreciated throughout the east and the west. Once part of the Soviet Union, it is said that every second bottle of wine consumed in the former Union was made and bottled at a vineyard in Moldova.
Moldova’s rich tradition of winemaking dates back thousands of years. Fossil evidence suggests that grapes grew here naturally as early 25 million years ago, while grape-growing and winemaking is at least 4,000 to 5,000 years old. Moldova’s wineries boasts thousands of hectares of beautifully tended vines, but the real spectacle lies underground.
In the commune of Mileștii Mici, is a vast subterranean complex with miles of tunnels filled with wine. According to the Guinness World Records, it is the biggest wine collection in the world with 2 million bottles stored in cellars that stretches for 200 kilometers, although only about 55 kilometers are actually in use. The tunnels belonged to an old limestone mine. When the mines closed in the late 1960s, the caverns were repurposed into Mileștii Mici’s wine cellar. The limestone galleries remain at a constantly high humidity (85–95%) and cool temperature (12–14°C) throughout the year—conditions ideal for aging red wine.
The wine cellar is so huge that the tunnels have been given street names to help people navigate, and visitors can drive their cars and bikes through the massive underground city.
Nearby, the Cricova winery also contains an extensive network of underground tunnels that stretch for about 120 kilometers. It’s the second biggest wine cellar in the world holding 1.5 million bottles of rare wine, such as a vintage 1902 “Jerusalem of Easter”, and the Nazi leader Hermann Göring’s private collection. During the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the winery’s large wooden barrels were used for hiding Jews.
Just like Mileștii Mici’, Cricova’s vast subterranean tunnels are given street names, named after popular wines. There is Cabernet Street, Pinot Noir Street, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Feteasca, Aligote, Muscat Streets and so on. Some of the tunnels are so spacious, that even a large truck can drive through them.
A third of Moldova’s wine exports went to Russia, until recently, when relationship with the former communist state soured after the Moldovan government expressed interest to join the European Union. Vladimir Putin decided to punish the country by imposing a ban on Moldavian wine, but you can be pretty sure he is secretly smuggling bottles for his own consumption—after all, Putin has his own alcove stashed with the choicest wine within Cricova’s cellars. He loves Moldavian wine and his personal cellar so much he reportedly celebrated his 50th birthday there.