July 10, 2018

Driving drinking underground. Moldova

As a regular reader of this blog would know I am partial to the odd glass of wine. While in Moldova I heard of a winery with stocks of over 2 million bottles of wine stored in over 200 km (120 miles). The only way to see the wine is to actually drive through the cellars. 

Milesti Mici is the winery, and it actually is a Guinness book of world records winner due to the incredible amount of wine it holds. The limestone tunnels beneath the winery are perfect for maintaining the right temperature and humidity for storing wine and are also perfect for tunneling.

With the Moldavian capital, Chisinau, being one of the most rural I have ever visited, it was only a matter of minutes before my taxi was out into the countryside and passing line after line of vines beside the road. Milesti Mici winery was at the end of a rural road.

Although at first sight, it was not that welcoming, as it had massive metal gates blocking the entry. Rather than dissuading tourists from visiting, it was the fact that we were slightly too early as to the reason why the gates were closed. A honk of the driver's horn resulted in them being slowly opened.

We were directed to a small road leading to a tunnel and asked to wait for more cars to join us. Opposite us was a wine fountain, a never ending bottle continually filling glasses beneath it. It looked like wine, but I discovered it was coloured water. Allegedly it had once been used with wine but residual sediments blocked the pipes.

After a further five cars had arrived we were signalled to leave and we descend into the dark tunnels driving past locked cellar doors and even an underground waterfall. Exploring further by foot, the sheer number of wine bottles stored here is astounding.

New collectors, particularly from China, are renting alcoves stocked with older Milesti Mici vintages to ensure the winery maintains its world record.

There is a gap in vintages from the mid-eighties for a few years. Being state-owned, the winery was forced to rip up vines and reduce production due to Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaigns in the Soviet Union. It was really an attempt to reduce the many deaths caused by spirit abuse, think vodka rather than wine, but the Moldovan communist party went a little too far in trying to impress their boss.

We were shown a secret entrance behind one of the alcoves where the staff hid some of their rarest vintages in case the party leaders went all Iranian on them and tried to destroy the wine.

Our final destination was the tasting room where we got to try some of the tasty wines produced here. The younger wines were a bit overpowering, and not in a good way, which is to be expected as they retail for around US$2 a bottle in local supermarkets here (and you can get much cheaper wines also for the less discerning palate).

The more mature wines were far more to my taste, ten-year-old vintages of Merlot, and wines blended with the local Rara Neagra red grape were extremely pleasant, although could have done with a little bit of breathing and decanting before tasting.

I visited a number of other wineries while in Moldova. The main competitor to Milesti Mici is the Cricova winery, a private sector operation who charge three times the price for entry and have an operation that is big on family entertainment, with videos, a huge amount of merchandise, and a motorised train to take you around.

While Cricova does have a few star turns, with 'interesting' wine collections from such luminaries as Putin, Merkel and Joseph Goebbels to name just a few, and its sparkling wine is not bad to taste, I feel the whole experience is only great if you have kids, and is not a patch on Milesti Mici.

My guide was jealous of the Cricova train and hoped that one day they might do the same thing. Please don't!! The experience of driving underground at speed flying past vats of wine is unique and unforgettable.

Far Flung Places Tips

* Tours need to be booked in advance, contact the winery directly.

* I arranged a taxi for the morning through the desk of the Cosmos Hotel (Architecturally a classic Soviet 1970's design but highly recommended for its really comfortable beds, being well priced, and having a great position in Chisinau) for Euro 20.

* Entrance cost for the car was 200 Lei (about US$10) with various other pricing offers for dinners and tasting of aged wines.

* A small wine cellar can be visited after the tour where you can buy vintage wines for ludicrously little money.

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