Last week I sat in Vladimir Putin's chair.
Well to be precise, it was a chair he may have sat on when he celebrated his 50th birthday in the vast Cricova wine cellar, one of Moldova's biggest tourist attractions. Situated just outside the capital, Chisinau, Cricova is a former mine which is now a vast wine cellar of over 120 km, housing some of Moldova's wine collection and producing its famous (well, it should be famous) sparkling white. As well as Putin, Cricova has also hosted Angela Merkel, John Kerry and sundry other famous people, but the only one who has a plaque in his honour is the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin - it may be the fact that his 'tasting' lasted a legendary two days or that he remained an ardent fan of Cricova, but the tour guides still talk of him as if his visit was just last week.
On the snowy evening we visited, we were the only tourists and our guide seemed glad of someone to talk to. We drove for an hour and a half through tunnels filled with barrels and bottles while he talked. I'm not very good at guided tours - I tend to get a bit confused - and the anxiety of taking interesting photographs, absorbing historical facts and technical details and not getting left behind in the vast shadowy cellars means I didn't really get the whole story of Cricova. But who needs the whole story? Maybe bits of the story are more interesting: the monk who hid some of the vines when the Soviets decided to uproot all the vineyards in the face of increasing alcoholism; the people appointed to go around smelling people's breath in the morning to see if they had been drinking - what a job that must have been; the sight of Herman Goering's wine collection taken by the Red Army in 1945 and split between Moldova, Ukraine and Moscow; or the small army of women (yes, they are all women) whose job it is to turn the thousands of wine bottles 360 degrees by hand as part of the cellar's process.
A good tour should be like a good book - an interesting setting and story but with enough shadowy places to allow your imagination to explore and attempt to explain. Cricova has all that. And it finishes with dinner and wine tasting in one of the highly decorated tasting rooms so you leave with a real glow of contentment.
As for which wine would I recommend - well if even my untrained palate and blocked nose could appreciate the dry white Viorika then it's probably worth a taste or two!