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Milestii Mici wine cellars, a miracle of civil engineering, stretch for 255 kilometres
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After All: Cheered up by tastings of sparkling Pfizer and dry-white AstraZeneca

Image credit: Inga at Flickr

Chased by greedy undertakers and funeral directors, our columnist flees (vicariously) to one the world’s engineering wonders – Milestii Mici Wine City in Moldova.

I’m not sure about you, but this writer is desperate for a bit of cheer.

Like all of us, I am getting increasingly fed up with the all-permeating gloom-and-doom of the continuing, even if diminishing, Covid-19 pandemic, with all the resulting lockdowns, but particularly with some new technological and social trends, that they seem to generate.

Example. From the start of the pandemic, it has become routine for undertakers and funeral directors to bombard me every morning with emails on the “great” and “secret” (from whom??) offers of how to bury or cremate myself with the lowest possible expenditure (as if I would then care). The number of such offers has grown tenfold since I took out a new life insurance policy. It appears as if all those ‘Do Us the Honour’ funeral parlours won’t rest until I finally kick the bucket under their relentless pressure – so much so that I recently had to pay my email provider to stop those vultures from having a field day on my computer screen!

Trying to find an escape in reading, as I have advised you in my previous columns, does not always bring the coveted cheer either. Last week, being in a slightly better mood after receiving my first jab of AstraZeneca vaccine, I was thrown back into melancholy by a column in The Spectator, in which Lionel Shriver concluded that “proper” international travel won’t resume until we complete a global inoculation. “That’s expected to take seven years. Even then, what about the variants?...”

Well, if it is really going to take seven years, I’d better surrender here and now to the ‘horizontal travel agents’ (as they reportedly used to call undertakers in the British Army – see ‘After All’ July 2020 ).

Against that gruesome background, even the most bizarre-looking attempts at normality become praiseworthy. The same Spectator magazine, for example, is conducting online wine-tastings – a concept that sounds like a classic oxymoron. Yet, due to ingenuity, mixed with technology, it seems to be working. After you buy a ticket online, a couple of bottles from a designated winery get posted to your home, and then, on a pre-arranged evening and from the comfort of your favourite armchair, you visit the winery’s website, from where a local expert will lead you through the tasting: step-by step, or rather sip-by-sip, and in real time: the sheer quintessence of armchair travelling, in which not just your mind, but also your taste buds are taking part!

The costs of such virtual boozing, however, at £100 per ticket are not conducive to practising it too frequently, so I would still resort to the time-​tested travels of the mind, i.e. recalling the most impressive wineries I have visited in real life, while sipping a cheapish Cabernet Sauvignon from a local Sainsbury’s. My most frequent vicariously bibulous journey is to the Milestii Mici Wine City – the world’s largest underground wine cellars, in Moldova.

I first visited that engineering wonder in the late 1980s while on an assignment for the Moscow-based Krokodil magazine. The assignment itself had nothing to do with wine: my local hosts took me to the Wine City, then closed to the public, as a special treat.

The cellars were indeed like an underground city, complete with streets, lanes, and crossroads. ‘Champagne Avenue’, ‘Port Wine Street’, ‘Cabernet Road’, the dimly lit plates stated. The streets were so wide that lorries drove freely along them in both directions. On both sides stood huge barrels, in which good Moldovan wines were maturing.

I was escorted by a local wine-​maker, who had a professional wine-glass corn on the bridge of his nose, the result of years of intensive wine-tasting. He had a puffy purple face, which was the main symptom of ‘winism’ – a professional wine-makers’ disease, as he explained. Now I am inclined to think that he was simply an alcoholic. But then I was very impressed.

At one point, my escort took me up to a solid wall, groped along its flat surface, then made a pressing movement. The wall slid open like a theatre curtain, revealing a spacious, brightly lit underground hall, with chandeliers, parquet floor, a tiled fireplace and, in the centre of the room, an ornate fountain with goldfish. Elaborate wooden sculptures in an avant-garde style were scattered here and there, each one illuminated from underneath by a spotlight. There were several other rooms in that fairy-tale palace. In one of them stood a long table with exquisite Arabic chairs.

I went numb. “What is this? A museum?” I asked my red-nosed guide when I could speak again.

“No, this is the place where the leaders of our republic receive their guests, taste Moldovan wines and throw banquets,” he explained.

These days, the cellars of the State Enterprise Quality Wines Industrial Complex Milestii Mici stretch for 255km, of which ‘only’ 55km are in constant use. Moldova, a former Soviet republic sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, has a rich wine-making tradition, dating back thousands of years. Low hills, sun-drenched plains, flowing rivers, and moderate climate, shaped by the Black Sea, are perfect for grapes. So when an old limestone mine was decommissioned here in the late 1960s, transforming its caverns into wine cellars made perfect sense. Temperatures in the subterranean space stay at 12-14°C, and constant humidity creates ideal conditions for wine ageing. The cellars hold over two million bottles – by far the largest wine collection in the world.

More than 70 per cent of the stored wines are red, 20 per cent are white and about 10 per cent are dessert ones. I think that – by the sound of their names only – the ‘wines’ called ‘AstraZeneca’ (dry white) and ‘Pfizer’ (sparkling) would be suitable entries to the list. Yet this is just a fantasy triggered by the recent vaccination and prolonged lockdowns.

Unlike in the Soviet times, visitors are now allowed to tour the cellars – on foot and in their vehicles. They can even examine the palatial ‘secret’ tasting rooms, skilfully built into the rock some 60m underground – the same rooms where, with my hard-nosed host, we tasted some beautiful Moldovan wines over 30 years ago. 

 ‘The Bumper Book of Vitali’s Travels: Thirty Years of Globe-​Trotting’ by Vitali Vitaliev is published by Thrust Books.

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