Sitting in the backseat of a car on a Saturday afternoon, I watched the Moldovan countryside pass by. The trip out of Chișinău, Moldova’s capital, had been uneventful. The drive beyond the city’s boundaries proved to be equally uneventful — some might even say boring.
This tiny landlocked country lacks anything I’d consider “spectacular.” The land is relatively flat; the views are not really noteworthy. Rows of wine grapes stretched for several miles, and it looked like the earth could use a bit of rain. And yet, it intrigued me. It reminded me a bit of the Midwest — the gaping “flyover country” in the United States.
“Is wine Moldova’s main export?” I asked our driver.
“That and labor,” he replied.
This response is an insightful one. It’s true Moldova is known for its wine and most of the country’s wine is exported. And, given Moldova’s quiet landscape around us, I’m not surprised to hear people are leaking out of the country as well. We’ve even heard a rumor that Moldovan men cross into Ukraine to find wives; it makes sense given the fact women far outnumber men in Ukraine.
Wine is both Moldova’s main export and its main attraction. A country void of a lot of much to see or do from a tourism perspective, Moldova attracts visitors primarily interested in its wine culture.
People seek out two wineries in particular: Milestii Mici has almost 200 kilometers of underground tunnels, a quarter of which store wine. The cellar holds more than 2 million bottles of wine — the world’s largest collection, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. However, the country’s best known winery is Cricova, and people flock to the expansive site for its famous underground tour.
Given the fact we planned a last-minute trip to Moldova, all tours to both Milestii Mici and Cricova were fully booked during our three days in the country. When we inquired into other opportunities for visiting a winery during our long weekend, hotel staff made arrangements for a private driver and afternoon excursion at Chateau Vartely.
And that’s how we ended up in a car heading 45 minutes north out of Chișinău.
Moldova’s tourism page lists Chateau Vartely, but it certainly isn’t considered a must-see site. It doesn’t make TripAdvisor’s top 10 Moldovan wineries list, so I imagine most people hardly know it exists. And yet, visiting Chateau Vartely was absolutely a highlight of our weekend.
Located near the town of Orhei, Chateau Vartely is a relatively new winery tucked at the end of a long, winding road. It houses a small hotel and a restaurant.
We had a private English-language tour with a guide who clearly loved her job. She walked us through the property and explained the winery’s process. The experience ended in a stunning tasting room fit for a wedding party.
We chose two wines to taste — a red and a white — and slowly worked our way through the tasting process. During the course of this experience, our guide explained her training to become better at her job. She had an aroma kit, and we experimented with it, trying to guess different flavors mixed into her training pack.
In all the winery visits and tastings I’ve participated in over the years, I’ve never had a guide share so much about the education to learn more about wine. It’s experiences like these that really stand out to me.
After enjoying some experiments with the aroma kit and tasting a few glasses of wine, we took the remainder of the two bottles and headed for a spot outside for a light, late lunch. These are the moments life is made for: leisurely conversation, delicious food and beverages, warm weather, time that seems to stop.
Unassuming, beautiful, and peaceful, Chateau Vartely was the ideal winery to visit for our extended weekend.
Though I’m sure both Milestii Mici and Cricova are lovely, I am thrilled we ended up at Chateau Vartely. We had genuine encounters and conversations with Moldovans who shared their stories and passions. We supported a new business and the local economy — and apparently escaped hordes of tourists in the process. And we dug beneath the seemingly uninteresting landscape to learn about a more vibrant side of this often overlooked nation.
Moldova may not be on most people’s radar, but I’m glad it was on ours. Fittingly, both the country and its wine can be summed up in just a few words: surprising, delicious, and worthy of attention.