The ride in is unusual for Moldova – let’s call the village a suburban off-shoot of Chisinau. The roads are wide, the buildings well-plastered, and the trees a lush sexy. Even before the short promenade, you’re welcomed ostentatiously: a large “Cricova” arch suspends over the graveled turn-off.
The taxi driver who brought us in told us Gagarin came to visit Cricova. He spent a week in Moldova… and was all the week at the winery. (If you check on Wikipedia, the figure cited is two days: the legend does as they are wont to do.)
Up from the winery check-in is a small souvenir shop (mostly drink) and a few port-a-johns. (And, also unusual for the rest of Moldova, these johns have seats, they flush, and you’re provided with something to wipe! No need to bring toilet paper or loose pants to squat…)
With divine luck, you’ll run into a new friend. A small rumbling machine slunk from the tree line across from the shop, not exactly my way. (It didn’t take more than the local “ksk, ksk” cat call to nab her attention). Watch out! You’ll end up in cashmere, but the unexpected bear hug around the neck is worth the fuzz.
Perhaps a Saturday is not the best day for this trip. I heard tell of a tour that was 3-people strong, but ours was a double-tour: in Russian and English, and packed full.
As I went to find a place on the red transport, I encountered the Romanians. A larger, older woman with hips more impressive than my own expressed her dislike. Her words verbatim: “I don’t like this.” (She was referring to the seating arrangement; I was trying to squeeze myself onto the pleather space next to her younger woman friend after being separated from my own companions.)
My response: “I don’t either.” I glanced around (two others, Germans, were similarly trying to contort themselves into their square holes), asked about the seat in the front (the guide’s seat, unfortunately).
The woman was aware; I eased in and, though tight, the space wasn’t unbearably cramped.
The carapace crept under the earth….
The stale wind is the most pleasant thing about this tour. That one underground uphill expanse (a strange sensation, going up when down) where she breathes out mechanical ruffles…
Stop Number One is a vista of large beveled barrels. We peeled out of the tight transport at a true corner facing the giants. The oak containers (shipped from Italy – made traditional, and this Oak wood grows nowhere in Moldova) intimidated. The guide explained they were all for show; it was easier to work with the smaller barrels, and besides, the company can pass them onto Cognac producers at a later date. No one wants the big barrels. (Though they’d make for a great percussion performance – I know, I tried.)
Stop Number Two was a deep excursion to a light touch: the chambers of champagne.
A half million bottles of champagne are turned by six women every day. Gloved hands carefully rotate the sediment-laden drink. The women bring their daughters to work, too. When the sediment finally settles after a few weeks in the stocks, the producers (somehow) remove just the lower necks of the bottles, stuffed with solid, and seal them back up for final production. This includes scrutiny with strong light – if you want to know more, make it out to Moldova.
Some of the bottles are rotated per mechanical process, and I caught myself wondering why. The guide insisted the Woman’s Touch is The Best. Gentle, and capable of adjusting the bottles incrementally for better settle. Are these machines just for show, to promote how technologically advanced they can get?
(I’ll prevent myself from lauding the merits of the hand-crafted, traditional, person-centered craft…)
For Stop Number Three, one of the tour’s highlights, an underground movie with a philosophical beginning:
“What is wine? Is it temptation? Is it savor? Is it the Blood of God…??”
“The most noble and enigmatic drink ever known…”
And not to spoil the show! But they spun an interesting legend of the history of the place: A monk lived on the land that is Cricova and cultivated grapes to make wine for church ceremonies. The Ottoman Turks invaded and prohibited local people from growing their grapes, threatening them with death. Only one monk continued, but the Ottomans found out that he was cultivating. They punished him, and the locals say they can still hear his moans barreling through in the valley. The village’s name came from the monk: “Cric” means “outcry.” And the people claim they see shadows, and footprints, appear in the caves from time to time…
Beware! At the movie, I noticed there was a bathroom. A traveling partner who had been there before had said “No toilets ‘till the end of the tour…”
…I wished I had listened. I approached the entrance obliviously, slid myself in and the Romanian lady who had voiced her disapproval at the thought of a cramped seat graciously told me the pot was occupied… “Oh! Were you waiting?” She chuckled, “Yes, but we can wait together…”
I turned, a man emerged, I turned again and she was gone. I peeked around the corner but she must have been mingling, so I shamelessly charged in to take my relief (she did say we would wait together…). My business accomplished, I stood to leave, and noticed… there was no handle on the inside of the door.
Karma. I called out, my Romanian lady friend was there, and I asked politely: “Could you try to open the door, please?” She jiggled the handle a little, asked if I was okay and told me she would seek help… a few minutes and a few of my (dry, choking but bemused) laughs later, and the driver had bashed the handle from the other side of the door. I guarantee excellent customer service on the Cricova tour. (I can also guarantee the relief of that Romanian lady – when I returned, she chuckled, “I’m glad it wasn’t me!.” I was glad I am not claustrophobic. Or easily annoyed by chuckling Romanian ladies who save lives.)
At Stop Number Four, we were privy to a museum followed by famed collections of moldy corked enigma. John Kerry spent an afternoon once; Vladimir Putin has his own stash, and the French must love their Moldovan wine, for their spot was the sparsest of all (though it’s told that some collections are taken from elsewhere, so the origin is questionable).
And The Final Stop!
The tasting stage was enhanced by gorgeous rooms – we were tempted at the first by the banquet where our spread was already at table. The guide led us to the others, boasting of the many countries that embrace the Cricova brand. The funkiest room (you’ll have to see for yourself) is an underwater theme, lit garishly around the wall’s upper edges where the shadows of fossilized shells cracked the upward-slanting rays.
And we ended with what you would expect….
Why Do The Tour? Tips & Facts:
- It’s unlike any (most) other(s), of course! You’ll get a tour of man-carved caves 100 meters below the earth’s surface with over 100 kilometers of tunnels (though smaller than the cellars of Milestii Mici, the largest in the world and also a Moldovan wonder) that were punk’d out in the 1950’s to create the winery you tour today.
- Our trip was on a Saturday… and I would do it again on a weekday. If you want a good seat with your friends, wait near the gate and run to be seated, even if the tour guide is only announcing the Russian tour (and even if you want to avoid the abusive sun).
- Bring a jacket! It’s chilly…
- There is a package deal – do it online! Or better, call. Don’t fall for the signs in Chisinau, the deal is more expensive (44 Euro is advertised).
- There are multiple tour options in English, Russian and Romanian.
- The tour includes a degustation at the end – my group chose the second package (545 MDL per person), which included 1 glass of champagne after the underground movie and at the end of the tour, a 4-flight tasting (white, rose, red and more champagne) accompanied by traditional placinta (cabbage and farmer’s cheese), walnuts and some delicious nut-covered crackers (I’m certain they were hand-baked).
- The quarry is now a part of Chisinau – white limestone, interrupted with shell clusters. The compressed expanse was relocated to another damp home once shipped to the capital; many underpasses with small cheap stores are lined with the rock from Cricova.
The Cricova Website (in English):
The Wine Tour Video* (in English):
*If you’re patient, at around 5 minutes in, you may hear a familiar strain… And if anything, the delightful English translation is worth the wait! It will give you a little history and some overview of the wine-making and production process.