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Moldova: Driving Through ‘Wine Town’

Milestii Mici has world’s largest wine cellar

The Arizona Republic – June 9, 2006

MILESTII MICI, Moldova – This is my kind of town.

There are 34 miles of streets, yet virtually no traffic. Crime is non-existent. The air is clean and the temperature is a constant 56 degrees year-round. It doesn’t rain or snow.  And it’s never hard to find a good meal and a fine bottle of wine.

In fact, Milestii Mici, an underground complex less than 10 miles from Moldova’s capital city of Chisinau, houses one of the largest wine cellars in the world. 

Guide Lily points out some of the more than 1.5 million bottles stored underground at Milestii Mici.

More than 1.5 million bottles and 1,300 huge oak barrels of wine dating back to the late 1960s are stored 50 yards below ground in this self-dubbed “wine town.” The site, which used to be a limestone mining operation, is now one of Moldova’s most popular tourist attractions.

For about $30, you get a guided tour by car along narrow streets appropriately named Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot. The tour includes lunch and a chance to sample six different wines. They even give you a couple of bottles to take home.

The Milestii Mici winery in Moldova.  

I’ve visited California’s Napa Valley before but nothing there comes close to matching the sheer magnitude of Milestii Mici.

Street after street is lined with barrels and bottles from floor to ceiling.

If your car is going to break down or run out of gas, I can’t think of a better place to wait for the tow truck.

It’s not just about quantity, either. The winery is also proud of its quality.

As we sipped several vintages of whites, reds and sparkling wine, Lily, our tour guide, told us of the numerous international medals Milestii Mici has won in various competitions. The winery’s reputation is so good, she said, England’s Queen Elizabeth and the royal family consume its red wine.

Moldova, which is about the same size as Maryland, is the seventh-largest wine-producing nation in the world. Wine exports constitute about one-third of the country’s GDP.

The Guiness World Record certificate at the Milestii Mici winery in Moldova.  

Winemaking is not only a cornerstone of the Moldovan economy, but an integral part of its culture. Many Moldovans make their own wine at home and in some rural villages, a person’s reputation is tied to the quality of their wine.

But Milestii Mici and other Moldovan wineries are now facing a serious challenge. A geopolitical wine war has erupted in Eastern Europe and Moldova is in danger of becoming its biggest casualty.

Until recently, 80 percent of Moldovan wine exports were sold to Russia. However, in late March, Russia announced that it would no longer buy wine from Moldova and Georgia, both former Soviet republics.

The official reason given by the Russian government was that wine from the two countries is unsafe to drink. A government official cited laboratory tests that reportedly found traces of DDT and heavy metals in the wine.

That’s the official reason. But to many Moldovans, it all smells like sour grapes.

Since becoming independent from the Soviet Union 15 years ago, both Moldova and Georgia have increasingly been turning toward the West. Many view the wine ban as a Russian attempt to strong-arm the two countries back into a more submissive role.

Indeed, Russia has refused to publicly release its laboratory results and independent tests of Moldovan and Georgian wine have found no problems.

Further fueling Moldova’s cynicism about the embargo is that the Kremlin hasn’t banned wines from Transnistria, a mostly Russian-speaking separatist region in Moldova. Russian troops have kept the region’s rogue government in power since a civil war 14 years ago.

At Milestii Mici, the ban is already taking a toll. Sales have slowed and workers have been given unpaid vacations. Other wineries have been forced to shut down completely.

Meanwhile, the country is desperately looking for new markets. Moldova’s president recently visited Beijing in hopes of increasing wine exports to China.

The United States is another potentially lucrative market. Moldovan wine is already sold in 25 states. The hope is that American consumers will find Moldovan wine to be a good-tasting alternative to pricier French and Italian products.

Lily, our Milestii Mici guide, is optimistic Moldova’s wine industry will withstand the Russian embargo.

“We will sell it somewhere else,” she said. “We must do it.”

Working the fields in rural Moldova.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2009  


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