I stood in the small excursions office at the winery outside of Chisinau and bit my lip. To my surprise, a tear was forming in the corner of my left eye. This woman standing just a foot away from me had just rather cheerfully informed me that the tour I thought I had booked couldn’t take place because I didn’t have a car. I explained as calmly as I could that I had been told I would be joining another group and that I thought I just needed to take the bus to the winery. No one told me anything about needing a car.
She faintly suggested that perhaps the other group would let me join in their car but considering they were a group of 3, plus a driver and a guide, the chances were slim. Then she suggested I call my hostel and try to get them to send a car or arrange a taxi. Of course, I didn’t have the hostel phone number with me, so that wasn’t really an option either.
Then it occurred to me – why couldn’t she just call me a taxi? After initially saying she didn’t have the number for one (huh? really?), she agreed to call. I asked how much they might charge and she quoted 50-100 lei – under $10, which was completely reasonable to me. Ten minutes later, she found me outside and told me she had called a taxi and they quoted 170 lei, which she found crazy. So instead she called a friend of hers and asked if he wanted to make an easy 100 lei by driving me around. Problem solved.
Fifteen minutes later, two cars pulled up – one was mine, driven by a twenty-something Moldovan guy wearing way too much cologne. The other carried an American guy and two Moldovan women – one said she was an interpreter, but the other gave me the distinct impression she was some kind of mail order bride being set up with the American guy. Our guide joined me in my car and off we went, into the largest wine cellar in Europe.
I know what you’re probably thinking now. The largest wine cellar in Europe? Surely that must be in France or Italy, right?
Wrong. It is in Moldova, just a short drive outside of the capital, Chisinau, at the Milestii Mici winery. Milestii Mici’s labyrinth of underground tunnels stretches for 200 kilometers and houses the world’s largest wine collection, totaling over two million bottles. They earned the distinction of World’s Largest five years ago from the Guinness Book of World Records, back when they had a mere 1.5 million bottles.
As we drove through the dark tunnels of the underground wine city, we passed barrel after barrel of wine – huge oak barrels, larger than any I saw during winery tours in Australia’s Yarra and Barossa Valleys. We drove down Merlot “street” and turned onto Pinot and then Cabernet– many of the so-called streets named after varieties of grapes.
Then it was time to continue the tour by foot. Our guide led us through the humid limestone tunnels lined with cubbyholes holding thousands and thousands of bottles of wine. Each section was carefully labeled with the year the grapes were picked, the year the wine was bottled and the number of bottles in the section.
Next up was a formerly secret chamber (having something to do with hiding wine from the Soviets), complete with a sliding wall that served as the entrance. It reminded me of something out of Scooby-Doo. There, we found the oldest wines they had, some dating back to the 1960s.
And finally, it was time to taste some wine! Our basic package included just three wines and some snacks, but they were generous tasting portions by any standards. First up was a Sauvignon Blanc, followed by a Codru (a blend of Cabernet and Merlot) and finally, a sweet blend called Margaritar. I am no wine connoisseur, but the Sauvignon Blanc was by far my favorite.
As we sampled the wines, we were entertained by a violinist and accordion player who humbly apologized for not having any Michael Jackson tunes to play for us. It was nice to see that at a winery so large and prestigious, they maintained a sense of humor.
And then we hopped back into our cars and retraced our path back out of the massive wine maze, our excursion into Europe’s largest wine cellar at an end.
If You Go
Unfortunately, Moldova’s best known wineries do not make it easy for individual travelers to visit. From what I was told, neither Milestii Mici nor Cricova Winery like to do individual tours so if you are traveling solo, you will likely need to coincide your visit with a group.
As I discovered, touring Milestii Mici also requires a car. If you don’t want to foot the bill for a car and driver all the way from Chisinau, you can try to do what I ended up doing: take the bus to Milestii Mici (they leave from in front of the central bus station about every hour to ninety minutes – for a 10:00 tour, take the 8:30 bus) and tell the driver to let you off at the “vinaria.” There, call for a taxi to drive you around.
You might also be able to work through a Chisinau tour company to arrange a visit for you, but I did not find any that were responsive.