Wedged between Romania and Ukraine, tiny Moldova is one of the world’s least-visited nations, but that’s quickly changing, fueled by wine tourism. Wine is the lifeblood of Moldova; grapes a beloved crop that have grown on family farms for centuries. In 1918 Moldova united with Romania; by 1940 it was absorbed by the Soviet Union. The country with the most agricultural land dedicated to vineyards anywhere in the world began pumping out bulk wine for the USSR’s masses, supplying nearly 70 percent of its needs. Shifts toward quality slowly began to take shape after the fall of Communism in 1991, but there were crippling obstacles: Russia’s wine embargoes in 2006 and 2013. For those producers with quality top of mind, attention turned to the robust EU market instead, and by 2017, over 80 percent of Moldovan wine was exported to those countries, helping raise its international profile. All those decades that Moldova devoted to mass-produced wine was never publicly acknowledged, simply relegated to “made in the USSR” status.
Moldova is the home of Old Orhei, a historical and archaeological complex that many deem the country’s spiritual home, complete with a cave monastery and simply adorned cottages that are a picturesque time warp. There is also Emil Racovita in the northern part of the country, one of the world’s biggest caves. These are reasons to visit, surely, but so are the staggering wineries. Upon arriving in Chișinău, the best bet is to plan an excursion with the savvy agency Winetours Moldova, which can even organize stays in rural guest houses. Knowledgeable, English-speaking guides will whisk the curious to the French chateau-style Purcari, the oldest winery in Moldova, or the fascinating underground cellars of Mileștii Mici. Its network of cool haunted mansion-like tunnels, the vastest in the world, has galleries filled with more than 1.5 million bottles, some dating back to 1968. Another subterranean marvel is Cricova. Known for its sparkling wine, it’s like an ornate, underground city where one roams through winding corridors of stained glass and marble.