Moldova's fine wines buried beneath a hill

Tell your friends that Moldova has a wine mountain and they assume you're just tangling your conventional metaphors of agricultural surplus. No, no, they explain patiently, it's a surfeit of butter or cheese or spuds which form a mountain; what you mean to say is that Moldova has a wine lake. But they're mistaken. Moldova really does have a wine mountain -- or, possibly, wine mine -- in Cricova, just half an hour's drive from the capital, Chisinau, and it is quite the most unexpectedly lavish sight this cash-strapped nation has to offer.

Tell your friends that Moldova has a wine mountain and they assume you're just tangling your conventional metaphors of agricultural surplus. No, no, they explain patiently, it's a surfeit of butter or cheese or spuds which form a mountain; what you mean to say is that Moldova has a wine lake. But they're mistaken. Moldova really does have a wine mountain -- or, possibly, wine mine -- in Cricova, just half an hour's drive from the capital, Chisinau, and it is quite the most unexpectedly lavish sight this cash-strapped nation has to offer.

The approach to Cricova has a definite touch of the James Bonds about it. Driving through road checks, you pass a quarry and reach a large hill - all right, perhaps "mountain" is slightly too grand a term - which you then drive straight in to. But instead of revealing Dr No's latest high-tech headquarters, the road becomes a long network of underground streets, each with its own name -- Strada Aligote, Strada Sauvignon - each lined with large wooden vats of maturing wine.

This alcoholic labyrinth, some 75 miles in all, has been here since 1952, when it struck the Moldovans that the artificial caves they had quarried out for building materials would be an ideal store for the abundant produce of their vineyards.

At the heart of the labyrinth is a complex of rooms, designed for the display and (more importantly) ritual sampling of wines. The first of these chambers is a long white tunnel built in the shape of a wineglass, and lined with thousands of bottles of recent vintages held in recessed shelves: a giant honeycomb, redesigned by a dipsomaniac. Here and there, the shelves offer special displays -- the remnants of Hermann Goering's private wine collection, for example, seized by the Red Army at the fall of Berlin, or a bottle dating from 1902, and bearing the theologically dubious label "Jewish Easter wine." Somehow, it did not seem polite to quibble.

Then come a series of themed rooms, each devoted to the serious business of drinking. There's a wood-lined chamber with carvings of a Moldovan wedding feast; another in the form of a hunting lodge; a Little Mermaid - style fantasia (the rocks around us were part of the sea bed in prehistoric times), complete with anchor and sea nymphs; and a grand presidential room with a long table that can hold 30 drinkers on each side, illuminated by fairly convincing artificial daylight. After being led through all of these, the obedient visitor is finally and politely seated in a wood-lined room, presented with plates of meat and cheese, and turned loose on a succession of wines, red, white and sparkling.

The Moldovans believe that wine not only tastes good, but, like that well-known Irish tipple, also does you good. At the time of the Chernobyl disaster, they sent thousands of litres of red wine to their afflicted neighbours in the Ukraine, not just as palliative but as medicine, since it is widely held that a good robust red has the power to flush radioactive waste from the system. In the interests of pure science, I later asked a friend who works in medical physics what he thought of this cure. He pondered a moment, said: "Mmmmm," but not unsympathetically, and downed his fifth large cognac. Verdict: inconclusive.

Far and away the best glass I tasted was an '84 Cabernet - meaty, smooth and far more complex than its rivals. Our guide, Natalia, nodded her approval. "In Moldova we say that red wine is good for women - when their men drink it." In no position to put this bawdy hypothesis to the test, I simply asked for a refill, and thought how curious it is that so many religions have located their paradise in the skies instead of under the hills.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's pic YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star