By now, many people learned about the Republic of Moldova, a new former Soviet republic emerged in 1991. But many have little idea that this small country (of 4.5 million inhabitants, the size of Holland) is placed the 7th among the top world wine exporters. Wine represents the major product of Moldova’s economy, with exports in a good year accounting for up to half of the country’s total export earnings. The wine’s share in Moldova’s GDP is some 25 per cent. Vine growing and wine making in Moldova (this geographical place is also known in the past as Dacia, Moldavia, and Bessarabia) counts for almost 5,000 years.
But one of the most mysterious treasures a wine lover could dream of is also in Moldova. The largest underground wine cellar in the world is “hidden” in this country.
Just 15 km (some 9 miles) North of Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, Cricova mines lay deep underground. The mined limestone has been used for centuries to build the city of Chisinau and surrounding towns.
After the Second World War, someone came with this brilliant idea to use the empty space of this underground world for wine storage. Since the average depth of the caves is 60-80 meters (or 200-260 feet), the temperature is constant and low that makes it just perfect for the storage of wine and the fermentation of sparkling wine – about +12-14°C and humidity of 97-98%. Nowadays, the length of mines is about 100 km (or 60 miles) and the winery located there uses about 2/3 of them (or 53 ha). It is a labyrinth of subterranean streets, named after wine types, so you can stagger along Cabernet Street before crawling east into Pinot Noir Street and then on Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Feteasca, Aligote, Muscat Streets and so on. You need to have a guide not to get lost. The most fun is to drive a car in this world of large oak barrels filled with aged wine. It is so spacious down there that even a large truck can drive in. Don’t be surprised if you see a traffic light.
During the Soviet regime, Cricova cellar was closed to the public and only official delegations could admire its premises. In the guest book there are signatures of famous visitors, among them are Soviet political leaders, cosmonauts, like Brejnev, Gorbachiov and Gagarin.
Today, the market economy finally got there and anyone who loves wine and who looks for something unique can visit this amazing place. A tour includes not only a driving and working through these ‘wine tunnels’, but also a delicious dinner served with fine wines. At the end of the tour you will get a “take-home bag” with a few bottles of collection wines. Most famous names in the guest book: presidents of China (Zian ZeMin), France (Chirac), Poland (Kwasniewski), Romania (Iliescu), Russia (Putin), etc.
Cricova’s museum stores the country’s national collection of 1.2 millions of bottles of 653 names of local and world brands. The oldest wine is from 1902 named “Jewish Easter Wine” and the oldest bottle of liqueur is from the same year “Yan Bekher Liqueur”. German General Gering’s private collection of wine is also there. It was brought to Moldova by the general during WW II to be close to him at the Eastern front.
Not far from Cricova is another wine cellar – Milestii Mici – that has another uniqueness. The Milestii Mici’s wine collection of 1.5 million bottles has been included in the Guinness World Records at the category The Largest Quality Wine Collection In the World. On top of it all, some argue that Milestii Mici is larger cellar than that of Cricova…
Those of you who love to travel and are interested in visiting this man-made wonder, mark it in your tourist map. You would not regret it!
By Vlad Spânu
Vlad Spanu is a former Moldovan diplomat and now is the executive director of the nonprofit Moldova Foundation in Washington, D.C.