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.

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