The Cricova Cellar, Moldova - This is one of the world's largest wine cellars with more than a million bottles kept in the constantly cool and humid underground city whose streets stretch for 120 kilometres and are named after wine brands.

Some names sound familiar - Cabernet, Riesling, Pinot. But there is also a street named after Feteasca - a Moldovan grape variety used in red and white wines that have been a household name in the former-USSR, even among the rare Soviet nationals who travelled abroad - or to outer space.

"I want you to fill these cellars with plenty of medals for these great wines," Yuri Gagarin, the world's first cosmonaut, wrote in the Cricova guestbook after a two-day binge in 1965.

"If there is not enough metal for them on Earth, we pledge to deliver it from the Moon and other planets," Gagarin wrote.

The cellar was a limestone quarry until 1954, when Communist Moscow established the gigantic Cricova winery as part of its effort to boost alcohol production in Moldova. Sparkling wines from Cricova were sold in each Soviet liquor store - while dozens of smaller Moldovan wineries flooded the Soviet Union with countless reds, whites and brandies.

For more than 200 years, Russia shaped Moldova's wine industry - in fateful or disastrous ways.

After making Moldova a Russian province in 1812, tzars boosted wine production here by introducing Western-modeled wineries and replacing local grape varieties with French ones.

Many [producers] waited for things to go back, but they never will, and those who wait are likely to die out like dinosaurs.

Constantin Stratan,Equinox winery

In the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ordered destruction of thousands of hectares of first-class vines during his Quixotic anti-alcoholism drive that plunged his approval ratings and hastened the Soviet collapse.

'Sandwiched between'

Moscow still wants Moldova in its political and economic orbit - and uses access to its alcohol market as a weapon to divide and rule the nation of almost four million, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine.

In 2006, for instance, after Moldova tilted westwards seeking closer integration with the European Union, Russia banned all exports of Moldovan wines and brandies citing alleged pesticide pollution.

The ban - that was lifted and reintroduced two more times - badly hurt Moldova, among the top 20 wine producers worldwide and the biggest winemaker in the former Soviet Union. At least half a million Moldovans are employed in the wine industry that sold most of its output to Russia.

"It was a shock," Constantin Stratan, vice director of Equinox winery told Al Jazeera. The winery located in southeastern Moldova pioneered the production of high-end red and white wines in the early 2000s, told the vice director.

"Many [producers] waited for things to go back, but they never will, and those who wait are likely to die out like dinosaurs," Stratan said of the bans. 

And while winemakers in central Moldova are winning new markets, pro-Moscow politicians competing in the June 14 municipal elections lured voters by promising to renew exports to Russia.

The situation in two of Moldova's pro-Russian regions is absolutely different.

In Transnistria that broke away from the central government in the early 1990s, the Kvint winery is a pillar of local economy.

It annually produces some 20 million bottles of brandies and wines widely popular in Russia. Kvint is owned by a holding that pays more than a half of tax revenues in the unrecognised territory of 500,000, where smuggling and illicit arms trade are reportedly ubiquitous.

In 2011, Transnistria's founding father Igor Smirnov decided to run for a fifth presidential term. But the 70-year-old leader fell out with Moscow, and the Kremlin "advised" him not to run - otherwise threatening to ban Kvint exports. He ran but lost - because Moscow backed his rival.

These days, Russia also favours alcohol from Gagauzia, a Turkic-speaking southern autonomy with an independence streak.


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In March, Gagauzia elected a pro-Russian regional head, and a year earlier voted to join a Moscow-led trade bloc. In return, Russia exempted several Gagauzian wine producers from the ban - provided their labels don't say, "Made in Moldova."

As a result, more than 5 million litres of alcohol from Transniestria and Gagauzia have reportedly been exported to Russia this year alone.

Water of life

Wine has for centuries been part of daily life in Moldova.

The nation is the world's second largest per capita consumer of alcohol after Belarus, according to the World Health Organization (Russia is number four). Each rural family has plenty of grapevines backdoor and enough dusty jars in the basement to supply themselves and their urban kin.

"There isn't a single person in Moldova who doesn't know how to make wine," sommelier Alexandr Slobozian from the village of Purcari, some 120 km south of the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, told Al Jazeera.

Many Moldovans still reject the idea of consuming anything but homemade alcohol - including grape moonshine that resembles Italian grappa.

 Moldova: Under the influence

"We don't drink bottled wine, they put chemicals in it that kill the taste," Oleg Traian, a businessman in Chisinau, told Al Jazeera.

A nostalgic smile lit up his face as he described his grandfather who washed wine barrels with creek water and herbs, and invited his whole family to his southwestern village each fall to help him squeeze grapes.

The shock from the 2006 ban was painful but reinvigorating.

Instead of supplying mass-produced plonk to Russia's insatiable market, the industry had to improve quality, adopt new technologies and redirect the wine flow to the West and the winemakers' new El Dorado - China.

"The embargo was an engine of progress," Vadim Mihailov, production manager at the Purcari Chateau winery that dates back to 1827, told Al Jazeera.

Winning the Western market with another inexpensive Merlot or Cabernet was unfeasible. Instead of Soviet-era mammoth wineries, Moldovans now focus on smaller businesses that target oenophiles who seek something new and exotic.

"They are very interested, often surprised by the level of quality," Artur Marin, Purcari Chateau's commercial director, told Al Jazeera. "In traditional wine markets, they have to be surprised with something original," Marin said.

Original, domestic grapes were not that easy to find - varieties such as Feteasca, Rara neagra and Plavai accounted for less than 10 percent of harvests. Stratan of Equinox winery recalls how he struggled to obtain quality Moldovan rootstock 10 years ago.

But the tide is turning. Now, he said, the demand is so high that Italian wine nurseries grow Moldovan rootstock.

Cosmonaut Gagarin's wish is coming through - in recent years, Moldovan wines have won dozens of international awards.

"I fully believe they have the potential for Western Europe," Marco Tiggelman, a Dutch expert who consulted Moldova's National Office for Wine and Vine, told Al Jazeera.

"Some wineries have already been quite successful and more is still to come," Tiggelman said.

Source: Al Jazeera