Outside of Moldova’s capital of Chisinau lies Cricova, the second-largest wine cellar in the world. The stuff of legends, Cricova is more of an underground city than a cellar, occupying over 820,000 feet of space while extending over 75 miles. Situated 262 feet underground at it’s deepest point, the sprawling former limestone mine is a labyrinth that houses over 1.25 million bottles of wine, including its own brand of sparkling wine.
Putin stores his private collection in these chalky corridors and chose the site for his 50th birthday celebration. But Putin is not the only world leader with a penchant for this wine cellar.
Every statesman who visits the winery is accorded the honor of a personal collection, but Mr. Putin’s stash is noticeably bigger. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a frequent visitor—having hosted a few private galas here herself. With political heads of states boozing it up in the Moldovan crypt, it is no wonder that Cricova has become one of Moldova’s leading tourist attractions. But Cricova was not always a wine cellar.
Its chalky tunnels rich in limestone were used to build the capital of Chisinau in the 15th century. Nicknamed the “white city,” Chisinau’s fame did not include wine. It was not until 1952 that Cricova was founded as the wine cellar it is today.
Referred to in the past as “the orchard of the Soviet Union,” Moldova was the former Soviet Union’s primary source of fruit and vegetables, as well as some highly drinkable vino.
With its limestone composition, the tunnels of Cricova were perfectly suited to store wine—maintaining a temperature of 54-57 degrees Fahrenheit. There is also a priceless group of bottles on display acquired by Herman Goering, Hitler’s infamous Luftwaffe commander, who had an insatiable taste for stolen art, wine and other goods. These precious bottles were brought back by the Red Army at the end of World War II and remain on display today.
Upon recognizing the potential of Cricova’s tunnels, Soviet planners decided to convert the chalky underground passages into a gigantic wine cellar. They developed a large subterranean complex of roads to allow large trucks into the underground tunnels to move and store wine. These roads were given names such as Cabernet Street or Champagne Boulevard to designate the location of different vintages and varietals and to make navigation of the labyrinth easier.
Today, environmentally friendly vehicles have replaced the polluting Soviet Kamaz trucks that once barreled through the tunnels. And recently, runners from Moldova and around the world began an annual race through the tunnels ending with wine for all.
It would only make sense that Cricova would produce its own wine as well. Most notable is their Kodrinskoie-sparkling, a unique “methode champenoise made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes,” according to Cricova representative Olga Bordianu.
In an interview, Bordianu discussed how Cricova is one of Moldova’s leading tourist attractions not only because of its history but also because of its relationship to Moldova’s viticulture industry. Cricova is the heart of a country where wine has been produced on family farms for centuries.
For the last 10 years, the Cricova wine estate has been one of Moldova’s leading wine producers. Although most of Moldova’s wine exports are to Russia and other countries in the former Soviet orbit, growing trade with the European Union and the West portend a brighter future for Cricova and Moldova’s wine producers. Cricova and other Moldovan wine producers have brought in Western oenologists and new equipment to modernize its approach to winemaking, raising the quality as well as the prices that Moldovan wine can command.
Well, Putin was right about one thing: this wine cellar’s potential.
Molly Hannon is an American writer based in Berlin. She has written for the New York Times, The Guardian and Al Jazeera, among many others.