There are a few countries that immediately spring to mind when we think of wine. In Europe, France, Spain and Italy are famed for their world-renowned vintages. Further afield, America, Australia and Argentina are also highly respected for the quality of their produce. If you asked the average wine drinker where you might find the world’s largest wine cellar, the chances are that they’d quote one of these notoriously wine-loving nations. The truth however, is a whole lot more surprising.
Buried in the Moldovan countryside lies one of Europe’s best-kept booze secrets. The village of Milestii Mici, on the outskirts of the capital Chisinau, might initially seem slightly nondescript to the untrained eye. An ancient settlement, Milestii Mici can trace its roots back to the 16th century, and possibly even further. For years, the locals extracted limestone from deposits deep below the ground, fashioning a network of tunnels stretching for over 200 km as they did so. It is these tunnels that are today home to the Milestii Mici wine city.
Nearly half of the total tunnel network is currently used for wine storage. For 100km, underground streets wind their way through the rock, flanked by shelves and shelves of bottles of every conceivable size and shape. Accessible only with a private vehicle, guided tours spend an hour driving tourists around the labyrinth, giving guests a comprehensive understanding of the scale of this wine paradise. Every road bears the name of a specific grape, helping to provide some semblance of structure in a cellar that contains nearly 2,000,000 bottles.
The cavernous streets are so vast that proper road protocol is observed at all times. In some places, the ceilings are high enough to drive a bus through the tunnels. In order to get around, all staff are equipped with bikes. This, truly, is a wine cellar like no other.
Founded in 1969, Milestii Mici boasts vintages both old and new. There are dessert wines dating from the 1970s as well as juvenile reds and whites from the more recent past. During a visit, tourists will be driven past a natural underwater cascade, shown the most valuable vintages and taken to a tasting room some 200 ft underground in order to sample some of the produce for themselves.
Though an old mine might seem a slightly odd location for the world’s largest wine collection, there is method to the Moldovan madness. Milestii Mici’s underground habitat makes it far easier to exert control over the environment, providing perfect conditions for wine to mature. The entire site is maintained at a steady temperature, in the mid-50s Fahrenheit, and humidity is carefully monitored and constantly adjusted. The result is a storage facility that has earned acclaim as a prime wine location.
While it may not have the global reputation of France or Spain, Moldova’s winemaking tradition runs deep. A landscape of low, gently sloping hills and fertile soil, coupled with a temperate climate make the nation ideally suited for grape growing. For centuries, Moldova led the way in Eastern Europe, producing and exporting wine throughout the Middle Ages and Early Modern period.
As part of the USSR, Moldova became the centre of Soviet winemaking. Every second bottle of wine consumed in the USSR could be traced back to Moldova, and the small nation produced more wine than any other socialist republic. Today, as demonstrated by Milestii Mici, the industry is still booming. Moldova is the 20th largest wine producer in the world, punching well above its weight with over 67 million bottles exported annually.
While the underground halls of Milestii Mici are something of a hidden gem, what is perhaps even more surprising is that it is not the only large-scale storage facility in the nation. The second largest wine cellar in the world, Cricova, stretches a still formidable 70km and is home to a further 1,200,000 bottles. That the country can maintain two such vast facilities just goes to show the scale of Moldova’s hidden wine industry.
Despite being consigned to the Guinness Book of World Records in 2005, Milestii Mici, and Moldovan wine in general, both remain largely absent from many people’s radar. As Viorel Bezede, administrator at Milestii Mici, puts it, “Moldovan wine is still looking for new markets worldwide and many people do not know about it.” Moldova remains one of the least visited countries in Europe, making it a great place to get a taste of the unknown for the more adventurous wine enthusiast.
Tours of Milestii Mici cost between $15 and $20, and a tasting experience will set you back an additional $15. For the chance to experience a real wonder of the wine world, this is more than reasonable. For anyone who likes their wine, a trip to Moldova is a great chance to expand your horizons and step out of your comfort zone. In a cellar of 2,000,000, there’s bound to be something to everyone’s taste.