It’s the sprawling wine kingdom of Milestii Mici that continues luring tourists to Moldova the same way Disney World does, transforming tunnels into theme park-style attractions.
More than 120 miles of limestone passages form the underground wine city that is Milestii Mici, with 34 miles of tunnels devoted to a 1.5 million bottle collection. When you the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, the Eastern European country landlocked between Romania and Ukraine, the Milestii Mici winery is likely the only reason anyone may have heard of it.
Moldova is one of the least-visited countries on the continent, with just 121,000 tourists in 2016. It isn’t the kind of place you’d just be passing through, unless you happened to be heading to neighboring capitals Bucharest or Kiev. Yet Moldova boasts the world’s largest wine cellar, Milestii Mici, and even has a Guinness World Record to prove it. The country is also home to the largest density of vineyards on the globe, with 277,000 acres planted with 30 grape varieties, from the indigenous Rara Neagra to Pinot Noir.
It’s the sprawling wine kingdom, though, that continues luring tourists to Moldova the same way Disney World does, transforming tunnels into theme park-style attractions. Modeled after a feudal fortress, entering the gates to the limestone underworld is about as dramatic as uttering “Open Sesame” and walking into a cave full of treasure. Here, waterfalls flow alongside 20,000-liter wine barrels and each section of the city is so perfectly laid out, you need a map to navigate the streets—which the winery will happily hand you, stamped and sealed with red wax.
After Moldova’s capital, Chisinau, was destroyed by three events in just two years (starting with the Soviet occupation and earthquake in 1940, followed by the Nazi takeover in 1941), over half of the buildings were rebuilt in Stalinist style using limestone slabs mined straight from the Milestii Mici winery—the reason Chisinau is now known as “the white city.” The mining machines, called galanes, still sit on display in the depths of the cellar on Cabernet Street, part of a three-mile stretch of tunnels that are open to the public and can only be passed through by car.
Driving on a minibus through Milestii Mici’s cellar is equal parts history lesson and a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, where you’re waiting to see what will pop out as you turn the next corner. Even the tasting room isn’t what you’d expect. Barrel-shaped wooden doors unwind in ceremonial fashion to reveal a violinist and accordion player leading you into the medieval-inspired space.
In Moldova, winemaking dates back 4,000 years to the Dacians, and in the Middle Ages, vineyard owners ruled the country. Wine is considered a national product that’s even fêted in holiday form the first weekend of October during the Moldova wine festival, where both small producers and underground cellars like Milestii Mici place their latest and rarest wine collections side-by-side proudly on display.
“I think no country in the world, even winemaking countries, has a national holiday for winemaking,” said Dan Prisacaru, winemaker and cofounder of Embargo, one of the latest wine bars to open in Moldova’s capital. “I hope it will grow, maybe in 10 years, into something like Oktoberfest in Germany.”
Under Soviet rule in the 1960s, Moldova’s wine industry started expanding on a larger scale and the republic became the USSR’s largest producer of wine. “Everyone knows Georgia, which was the second-biggest supplier during the Soviet Union, but I think that we have an advantage because Georgians use mostly local grape varieties, and Moldova’s wine style is closer to the European style of winemaking,” Prisacaru said.
As factories started sprouting up again, Moldova’s underground wine kingdom was born. The best wines in the country have been stored in Milestii Mici since the cellar opened in 1959, including Moldova’s national treasure. Protected in a secret room, this collection features 10,000 rare wines from across the country that were saved during Prohibition times. Now the cobweb-covered cazas also store Milestii Mici’s own wine from harvests between 1968 and 1991, with the most expensive bottle—a dessert wine—dating back to 1973 (and retailing for a cool $1,500.)
The difference between the state-run winery and the smaller private ones popping up is that Milestii Mici’s mass-produced bottles are still swayed by the country’s Soviet past, while boutique wineries like Prisacaru’s Minis Terrios are coming up with new ideas influenced by what’s happening around the world. But it’s not the wine drawing visitors to the cellar; it’s the size of the city sitting 279 feet below the surface.
“Having the largest wine cellar in the world creates instant intrigue into Moldovan wine culture,” said Leigh Barnes of Intrepid Travel, a tour operator whose newly launched tours visit the cellar. “But from there, travelers who venture off the beaten path and visit the new wineries will quickly see why this region is ripe for international recognition.”