23 February 2011

Cave Driving

A few days ago, we drove through the largest wine caves in the world - the passages that they occupy travel some two hundred kilometers underground. What's more, the vineyard has the largest collection of wine in Europe, at over two million bottles. The name of this place is Milestii-Mici, and it was perhaps more amusing than it was impressive.
Before we went underground, we wandered around the vines themselves. They are supported by wires strung between concrete poles, which is common practice here. It isn't so much pretty as somewhat mesmerizing - the lines of poles arrange and rearrange themselves into grey patterns as you pass by. We were alone, killing time before our tour began, enjoying the stillness of the air and relatively mild temperature. As you can see, it was another cloudy day, which is perfect for taking pictures below ground.
Our tour guide, Lilly, got into our car and gave us directions through the passageways. Another group of four people followed in a separate car. The cellars began life as a limestone mine, and the vineyard only uses a small percentage of them - even two million bottles isn't enough to fill two hundred kilometers. We drove past huge metal and wood barrels first, where the wine is aged before bottling, then parked and walked through the deeper, bottle-aging section. The "streets" are convoluted and are named for different grapes and wines. Lilly would tell us to "turn left on Sauvignon Blanc," or "continue on Pinot." It's really kind of tacky - the vineyard website actually refers to the caves as "the biggest underground wine town."
As we drove, our headlights occasionally swept across shadowy figures in the tunnels - mostly older women with headscarves and blue aprons. Hundreds of people work in these caves, mostly people from the nearby town. One wonders if they have exceptional night vision. We could hear them clinking bottles against one another as we walked, too, and sometimes caught sight of somebody down a side passage.
The tasting was accompanied by a fiddler and accordionist - but not by any commentary on the wines. In fact, we were given no more information than "red, white, dessert." The white wasn't very good, the red was palatable and the dessert was fine. Quality isn't really the goal at Milestii-Mici. Actually, the goal - according to the tour guide and the president of Moldova - is to sell "one bottle for every Chineses [sic]".
There are two reasons why Milestii-Mici has so many bottles. The first: it is really a wine collective, with only some of the bottles stored there produced in the town's vineyards. The rest come from other producers in Moldova who can't or don't want to maintain their own caves. The second reason: there is currently a Russian embargo on Moldovan wine, and Russia used to account for nearly all of their alcohol sales. Many of the bottle in the caves are there because nobody wants to buy them.
Partly because of this - and partly because many things are very cheap in Moldova - the wine is very cheap. Especially in the vineyard store, where bottles such as this one - a 1986 Traminer in their "collector" series - sell for 98 lei. That's about $8.25. We bought two very good bottles of sparkling wine for $5. That's $2.50 each.

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