(CNN) -

Judging by the dust on the label, the bottle hasn't been handled for years, yet it feels warm to touch.

Perhaps that's because it's part of a wine collection that I'm told belongs to Russian President Vladimir Putin and my palms are perspiring.

Turning slowly, I half expect to be confronted by a bare-chested man in a judo stance, demanding to know what I'm doing with his vino.

I'm imagining things, of course.

Putin has more pressing matters to attend to than skulking around in catacombs in Moldova.

I'm in the state-owned Cricova wine cellar, deep beneath the hills outside Chisinau, the capital.

My paranoia isn't quite as foolish as it sounds -- Putin reportedly celebrated his 50th birthday right here.

Moldova, Europe's least-visited country, is separated from Russia by Ukraine -- although since the recent annexation of the Crimea, it feels a lot closer.

It certainly holds this complex little country's fortunes in its hand.

Last year, when Russia ceased importing Moldovan wine because it said trace contaminants had been discovered, some said the move was really an expression of displeasure at European Union expansion.

Wine is everything here.

The countryside is covered by vineyards and Moldova produces some of the world's best wines, although you wouldn't know it looking at stockists in many parts of the planet.

Britain's Queen Victoria was a fan, partial to a bottle of Negru de Purcari.

Limestone labyrinth

The limestone labyrinth I'm standing in is one of the planet's biggest cellars.

Cricova's tunnels are vast wine-filled wormholes that extend for anywhere between 60 and 120 kilometers (37 and 74 miles), depending on who you believe.

They're so huge I'm exploring them in a van.

Oceans of splendid sparkling white are made in this subterranean wine city using Dom Pierre Perignon's celebrated Methode Champenoise, and conditions are perfect for storing all varietals.

Putin isn't the only person to have a private stash here.

I spy a collection labeled as belonging to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

There's also a priceless group of bottles accumulated by Hermann Goring, including a 1902 Jewish dessert wine.

The Nazi commander's ill-gotten hoard was liberated by the Red Army at the end of World War II and brought here.

Moldova sees only a few thousand visitors annually, with Cricova among popular destinations.

There have been some illustrious guests -- including Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, whose sampling tour reputedly lasted two days.

Tourism clearly doesn't keep the country afloat, but wine sales do, which is why the Russian embargo causes such concern.