One of Europe's Least-Visited Countries Is a Land of Luxury Wine Hotels
“It’s a bad habit in Moldova to sit with an empty glass,” said Doina Borş, handing me a glass of her family’s rosé. It’s only 2 p.m., but the crowd gathered in Chișinău’s main square had been drinking wine since well before noon. It was National Wine Day, after all.
Each October, 150,000 visitors descend on the Republic of Moldova’s capital city to celebrate the national holiday, a weekend when winemakers from across the country display over a thousand different wines (most of which don't even hit shelves) in a village-like street fair. In Moldova, most of the villages exist because of wine, and the country boasts the most agricultural land dedicated to vineyards than anywhere else in the world.
After the collapse of the USSR, Moldova shifted from state-produced wine (crafted in spots like Milestii Mici, the world’s largest wine cellar) to boutique wine that's served in some of Tokyo's finest Michelin-star eateries. According to Wine of Moldova, the volume of Moldova’s wine market has doubled over the past five years alone, helping drive the country’s wine tourism. Now, some of Moldova’s most lavish wineries are opening up hotel and spa components, with haute castles like Castel Mimi taking inspiration from Bordeaux’s legendary vinothérapie spa, Les Sources de Caudalie, for its new wine-centric wellness center, debuting this spring.
Founder Constantin Mimi opened his winery in 1901 and sold his wine all across the Russian empire, even supplying the Russian army during the First World War. When Castel Mimi became a state-run business in 1940, it was one of the largest industrial wine factories in the USSR, where a large portion of grapes in the Soviet Union were delivered. Half of the town’s population—1,500 workers—helped produce seven million bottles per month, an astronomical figure that has since dropped to 1.5 million after reopening in 2016 following an extensive, five-year restoration. Bricks were falling off buildings and tanks were abandoned and rusting. Now, the chateau features a courtyard with Versailles-inspired musical fountain shows and seven contemporary, stone-constructed lodges designed by Italian architect Arnaldo Tranti.
The lodges are just the first phase of Mimi’s magnificent expansion. A 20-room hotel will debut in 2020, with 90 percent of the furniture sourced from Moldovan suppliers. “The hotel’s style is inspired by traditional design,” explains Castel Mimi’s general manager, Cristina Frolov. “We used the same materials for the hotel that were used to construct the castle—the first armed concrete building in Eastern Europe —like glass, wood, and concrete.”
At the Wine Spa, guests will soon be able to take part in a different type of wine tasting, with wine aromatherapy treatments, wine baths, and grapeseed oil-based massages, which Frolov calls “a very good method to promote the wine culture in our country.”
A name that may be more familiar to visitors is Château Purcari, the largest exporter of Moldovan wine. Purcari sits in the southeastern part of the country near the Black Sea on the same latitude line as Bordeaux. Its cross-shaped cellars haven’t changed since the monks built them in 1827. More recently, however, the winery tacked on ten, chalet-style rooms. The highlight: guests can sleep inside a wine barrel in one of the two barrique-shaped rooms overlooking the winery’s 600-plus acres of vines.
“In terms of marketing, I’ve seen more and more wineries coming up with great packaging and good concepts, and I think it’s inspiring,” explained Ionuţ Barbu, Borş’s partner and the creative director of recently launched millennial-centric wine brand, 6n. “Young Moldovan people are very close to their cultural heritage, and wine and Moldova are really tied together.”
If you go outside Chișinău, almost every family makes its own wine, storing barrels down in the beci, or cellar. “Moldova has always been a wine country, but no one cared about the quality,” explained Igor Luchianov, co-founder of boutique winery Et Cetera. In 2002, his brother (and winemaker), Alexander, purchased land in the Ștefan Vodă region, a two-hour drive from Chișinău, and they started growing grapes one year later. “If in this region there were four or five of us, we would have more tourists,” he said.
Et Cetera is trying to encourage travelers to explore beyond Chișinău and venture into Moldova’s countryside—and they’re offering an enticing way to do it. Guests can hop on a small, private plane from the capital city to Et Cetera’s Guest House, eight French country chic suites swathed in wood-paneled flooring and plaid-covered settees.
“Even in Europe, not everyone knows where Moldova is,” Borş said, explaining how she acts as somewhat of a liaison for her family’s winery, Doina Vin, from her base in Germany. “Within Moldova, though, it’s tougher to compete because there are so many producers.”
One of the most famous is Milestii Mici, the world’s largest wine cellar, visited by 25,000 tourists each year. “But what about the rest?” asks Mihaela Sirbu, as we dig in to a platter of flaky, cheese-filled plăcintă at her father’s winery, Asconi. “The first time I went to London, I didn’t go to Big Ben.”
Sirbu’s father, Anatolie, founded Asconi in 1994, but the winery only launched its tours and namesake restaurant three years ago. “It was an overwhelming success,” she says. “We realized that nowadays people are longing for home-cooked meals in a rustic atmosphere and want to reminisce about how things were in Moldova back in the days of their childhood—that’s how the idea of a second restaurant and accommodations came up.”
In June, Asconi will debut 20 rooms, including 12 traditional cottages, featuring hand-thatched roofs and woodwork constructed by local carpenters. “Our aim is to maintain the heritage and traditions of Moldova, for foreigners to discover and locals to rediscover what was once forgotten,” she says.