On the wine train in Cricova – with some fine cut-price wine on board
Cricova is one of Moldova’s most famous wineries.
Moldova – a country that usually “only” features in travel blogs once in a blue moon, usually on people’s quest to visit every country of Europe. After an activity-packed week in Chisinau and Odessa I sat next to such a person in the Chisinau Opera and Ballet Theatre as we enjoyed a performance of “Spartacus” almost as risque as the TV series although with some intellectual claim – a ballet by Armenian composer Khatchaturian in a Brutalist Soviet theatre in a country that is a curious cultural mix of Polish, Romanian and Russian influences where Romanian is mostly spoken. “I found it really boring” he whispered to me as the curtain rose and before I could ask him to elaborate the curtain lifted and the performance began.
So, I admit I did stick mostly to Chisinau and whatever was in public transport reach of Chisinau on this short trip to Moldova, skipping many fine wineries, Orheiul Vechi and the fine countryside my train home chugged through the following evening, but even if I had found nothing to do, I would have happily spent my days in Chisinau visiting Moldova’s wineries and drinking their fine and very reasonably priced wine.
Thankfully, I had heard that Moldova makes some good wine, and had booked a tour of one of Moldova’s foremost wineries before I boarded that Ryanair flight to Bucharest and literally hopped on a Chisinau-bound minivan at the airport.
Getting to Cricova
Cricova is by far the easiest winery to reach from Chisinau on public transport. From the central Stefan cel Mare Boulevard, I walked along the pleasant Strada Vasile Alecsandri, admiring some pleasant residential architecture on the way. The turn is near Andy’s and the Smokehouse restaurants.
After about 600m, the white Ikarus buses were easy to spot! The location of the bus stop is the Strada Vasile Alecsandri / Strada Alexandru cel Bun intersection. It is just a small-ish bus stop with a few bus lines, and someone will be able to point you to the bus leaving next.
The very pleasant ride took about 40 minutes. We passed some fine Soviet architecture along Gregore Vieru Boulevard, such as the National Bank of Moldova, the Chisinau Circus and some very impressive colossal residential blocks that put the Warsaw Eastern Wall to shame. And what’s best, if wine isn’t your destination, th bus stops frequently enough to get off and explore.
But I wanted the wineyard, tour, so stayed put, and 40 minutes later the bus dropped me off in the very pleasant village of Cricova. It is pretty much the last stop on the route, plus most people got ff at the stop, too, among them some fellow wine tourists. It is really impossible to get lost.
When you see Cricova’s “Central Park” it is time to get off the bus. The vineyard and cellars are just outside the village, and it’s a pleasant walk there.
There were road signs directing visitors to the winery. I took some time to admire a very pretty cat.
The walk to the winery was a very pleasant downhill walk of 1,5km through a pleasant residential area with gorgeous gardens full of fruit. When I arrived at the entrance, there was extremely little going on. I bought my pre-booked ticket at reception and sat in the shade for about an hour. Yup, not knowing the locality, I had arrived way too early and unfortunately, there is very little do do, as most of the winery’s attractions including its restaurant and wine shop are deep inside the cavernous cellar system.
Viniculture in Moldova
Despite being a small country, Moldova has three distinct wine-growing regions in the centre that cover most of Moldovas area, except the North. They are called “Codru”, ”Stefan Voda” and ”Vadul lui Trajan”. Neighbouring countries Romania and Ukraine are also prolific wine growers, and like Moldiova, neither of these countries gets an international reputation for its viniculture. As far as Moldova goes, I was easily convinced that there is some excellent wine to be had, often at a fraction of the price of the more established wine countries.
Actually, Moldova is at the same geographical latitude as Burgundy, but unlike Burgundy, has a more continental climate with short pronounced winters, where temperatures can fall to -30degrees.
Cricova is in the largest region, Codru, which is also the largest and coolest wine growing region of Moldova. It is hilly and very forested,w hich protects from the worst winter frosts. The grapes that thrive here are predominantly white wine grapes, among the Rkatsiteli ( a Caucasus grape variety) , Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Aligote, the latter being French varieties. Perhaps a bit more known for its sweet white wine and sparkling wine, you can also find great full-bodied dry red and white wines here.
The winemaking tradition in Moldova goes back centuries. The Soviet UNion was once the third largest producer of wine (after France and Italy), and during Soviet times, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Ukraine produced wine for the entire Soviet UNion. Tiny Moldova accounted for about 50% of the entire Soviet wine output, but not much had the quality desoired for the international market. Longstanding problems with alcoholism and the Gorbachew government tackling them hard halso had a economican impact on the Moldivan wine industry.
Today, winemaking accounts for almost 10% of Moldovas gross national product, and over 120 wineries produce up to two million bottles per year. Time to check out that Molvdovan wine!
The Cricova wine tour
For pretty much every tour, you will get loaded onto cute trolleys at reception. The electric trolleys are the standard mode of transport inside Cricova’s vast network of cellars. The tunnel system is 120km long and hails from the day when limestone was mined in the area. Limestone mining slowed down in the 1950s, and part of the tunnels were converted for wine storage by the newly founded Cricova winery. The tunnels go as deep as 100m and even in summer, it is nice and cool down there – this is definitely a place where a jacket is needed any time of the year.
Off we went, in our jolly trolley, speeding through the entrance gate and into one of the main tunnels. Soon, after a few hundred metres, barrels if winde flanked the tunnel. About 60km of tunnel are used for wine maturing and storgage nowadays.
Most of Cricova’s wine output is Bordeaux-style red blend, some white wines ranging from dry to super sweet and sparkling wine.
They were pioneers in Eastern Europe in applying the “Methode Champenoise” – or “Classique/Traditionelle” etc since the EU only allows for Champagne to bear that methods original name.
Anyway, in this work-intensive traditional method, the sparkling wine is fermented in this bottle, matured for months, even years, then the bottles are slowly turned overand the yeast at the neck of each bottle removed, and the bottle then corked. So it was with great pride that we were led to the special sparkling wine cellars where this method is applied – with the help of some machines, although the opening and removal of yeast is done by hand.
And after the sparkling wine filling station, what better way to be treated to a film about Cricova wine production in the cellars underground cinema, accompanied by a glass of excellent sparkling wine?
The one we tried was the standard Cricova Brut Alb, with Alb signifying white sparkling wine, made from 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. It retails in Moldova for 3-4 Euro and is excellent. They make a lot of other sparkling wines, from another brut white made from 90% Feteasca Alba local white grape, to rose and even red sparkling wine.
After the sparkling interlude, our tour got increasingly more jolly, as we passed lanes and lanes of maturing bottles.
With plenty of stops to take a closer look. These are actually some “older” bottles from the National Collection.
The National Wine Collection and Tasting Suite at Cricova
After about 45min of our jolly trolley tour, we were dropped off, still relatively sober, at the heart of the cellars, the National Wine Collection and the Tasting Suite. A whole underground small town of function rooms, fancy cellars, tasting rooms and a wine superstore.
These “Grand Cellars of Cricova” house the self-titled National Wine Collection of Moldova, spanning 1,3 Million bottles of locally produced wine and classic French and German vintages, beginning from the oldest 1902 bottle of “Jerusalem of Easter” to selected vintages from Cricova’s own production, some of which have been gifted to prominent people but keep being stored at Cricova.
It is really nicely done, until you get back to the central oligarch-style reception area, ready for the tour de tasting.
We had seen enough wine by now, and that sparkling wine buzz started to wear off, time to try some more wine! But… not just is there the agony which wine to choose, but also… which tasting room to drink your wine in!
Here is the largest of the tasting rooms. Vladimir Putin celebrated his 50th birthday here, so since this is a while ago and he has been President for what seems like eternity, they call this the “Sala Prezidentiala”.
Here is a more intimate, very traditional Romanian/Moldovan folk style room called “Casa Mare”. It is inspired by the “good” room of a Moldovan vilalge house, decorated with rustic oak furniture and Moldoivan carpets. It’s all subterranean, so the windows are an illusion, as these tasting rooms are about 75 metres underground. I think it would be impossible to fall off these huge chairs after a few too many.
This one I liked in particular – not 20.000 miles under the sea but 75m underground, Captain Nemo gone psychedelic or alcoholised. Its official name is “Fundul Marii”. It symbolizes the Sarmatian Sea which was in this place… about 12 Million years ago. We didn’t get this one, either!
As our large group was divvied up into a tasting-less cheapskate bunch who were ushered straight to the wine shop, those who had booked amore expensive package and our group of about 12 who had gone the mid-price route of tasting some standard output along with a great stodgefeast of traditional Moldovan food, we were guided into “Sala Europeana” AKA the Yuri Gagarin Room. The stained glass panels, according to the Cricova web site, represent the vines during the seasons.
This is also the room, where Yuri Gagarin, fit, able, gravity-defying first man in space, went for a tasting session and emerged two or three days later, needing more than just a helping hand to guide him into the outside world. Still, his memory seemed a pleasant one, as the “Thank You” letter displayed outside the tasting rooms shows.
So, given the three bottles on display for our medium-size group, one would think they were a bit stingy with the wine, but on the contrary! These were display, to show what was up for tasting, and more bottles were swiftly produced as soon as glasses were poured in an unusually liberal fashion, half full, not like just tasting at all. A good thing we were given plenty of mineral water and copious amounts of traditional Romanian-Moldovan fare to line our stomachs.
Local nuts, grapes, and a lot of cabbage- and cheese-filled pastries guaranteed no one would get legless after the first glass. And with that, our tasting started!
Accompanied by our great guide who would take a polite sip as she explained each wine, we sipped our way through our white, rose and red “standard” wines, which were all bloody good.
At the end, we spilled out of the tasting room, a good half hour later, extremely jolly although still in possession of our balance and mobility, onto the trolley via the large wine superstore. The shop was great, and the prices even greater. With quality full-size bottles starting at around £ Euro, who would not want o buy a case or two? And the cunning preconditioning with plenty alcohol led to me almost buying a few bottles abnd stuffing them in my back pack, to drink.. alone in my hotel room.
Other notable Moldovan wineries
Moldovan wine has experienced a renaissance and significan hike in quality in recent years, and if you are in Chisinau, there are plenty of wine shops, often with small bars or tasting rooms attached, where you can try and buy.
One that gets a lot of good reviews is Carpe Diem in Chisinau. They have wines from a large range of wineries on sale and also have a web shop, but sadly do not ship internationally.
If you want to visit another winery, Milestii Mici is perhaps the most famous one, with its 200km of cellars the largest underground cellar system in the world. It is easy to get to on public transport, litera;ly just on the outskirts of Chisinau, but to do the tour, you will need to have your own car!
Another one that is easy to reach is Castel Mimi. You can take any Tiraspol-bound minibus and request to get off at Bulboaca, from where it is a 3km walk/taxi ride to the vinyard complete with impressive castle, restaurant and tasting rooms. They offer a great range of workshops too. So if you are done with the wine, you can learn how to make traditional Moldovan-Romanian pies.
A vineyard for the more dedicated is Chateau Vartely, about 50km north of Chisinau. The winery is relatively modern, with a decent sized “tourist complex” with rooms and dining rooms attachedm and offers some very low priced wine tours, starting from just under 10 Euro.
If you are serious about quality wine, the wines from Cricova, Castel Mimi, Chateau Vartely and Purcari get good reviews and occasionally international prizes, but are best tasted in person!
Where to buy outside Moldova
A bit tricky, this one. If you are heading through Bucharest Airport, they have a small selection at somewhat inflated prices. I believe some supermarkets stock Moldovan wines, especially in the “value” section. There are several small web shops in Germany specialising on Moldovan wine that I haven’t tried yet. I tend to buy a lot of my white wine directly from the producers or, luggage space allowing, directly in Gaillac, and rarely buy it from web shops or sueprmarkets. A web shop that ships internationally and has a good selection is Moldova Wine Store, which ships worldwide.
Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded, and I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links to Booking.com. For the simple process of linking to other businesses, I proclaim this unpaid advertising. I will only review and recommend places that I have stayed in myself – or have at least visited, and I will make it clear if I did not stay somewhere. You can trust me for the complete, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here.
How to get to Moldova
A direct flight to Chisinau from many European cities is the easiest and sometimes most cost-effective way to get to Moldova. When I travelled, I had a super cheap return flight to Bucharest, then paid approximately 20 Euros for a six-hour minibus ride from Bucharest airport to Chisinau.
I took the vintage-feel Prietina Express for my return journey from Chisinau to Bucharest – this was the other reason I flew to Bucharest, other than the super cheap flight.
Chisinau is a relatively modern, very Soviet-looking in places small metropole and altogether a very pleasant city to spend a couple of days in. It has several museums, some fine Soviet architecture and plenty of cafes and cheap resturants to entertain you. I did not find the cuisine that exciting (stodgy, meat- and carb laden) , but there are lovely beer gardens and wine bars for endless entertainments.
How to buy a Cricova Tour ticket
I recommend booking a tour in advance, as some wine connaisseurs have also discovered Moldova and large wine group tours are not uncommon. I just visited the Cricova website and booked the “National” Package for about 22Euro which included a tour of the extensive cellars, a cinema show, a visit to the wine collection and a very boozy tasting session with food aplenty. Not every tour is available every day in English, so I emailed them first and asked what’s available, then made a reservation by email and paid by credit card at the entrance just before the tour – very easy.
If you are not fussed about language, you might be able to get onto a tour in Romanian at super short notice by just turning up, but there is no guarantee.
Where to stay
In Chisinau, I highly recommend staying in the centre somewhere along or off Stefan cel Mare Boulevard. Not only is it safe, well lit and easy for orientation, it is central and offers transport any time of the day. I did not have trouble finding something the night before I wanted to stay, and every coffee shop/ restaurant has WiFi, so booking even at short notice is not a problem. Also, Trolleybus 1 and 4 run almost the entire length of Stefan cel MAre Boulevard and will take you to the train station early in the morning.
I stayed in three places in Chisinau:
The Chisinau Hotel* is, though extremely cheap, clean, safe, and right next to a bus stop yet easy to walk to both train station and city centre. It is also really old school, so if you want a taste to Soviet style travel, I would recommend this one. It takes about ten to fifteen minutes to walk to the train station.
Continuing with the faded Soviet theme, my night at the concrete beauty Cosmos Hotel* was somewhat less restful, and unless you’re deeply into concrete and viewing from outside isn’t enough, stay here. I found bed comfort and WiFi less satisfactory, but at least you get your own balcony and the staff was extremely friendly here. Also, you can walk to the train station in five minutes.
After getting a bit tired with endless rounds of pies and bread, I opted for an apartment for the last two nights so that I could prepare food (i.e. salads and loads of fresh fruit) myself . This was also the cheapest, and I loved it. Not only was it 2 min from the Central Market (great for transport and fresh produce) , it was beautiful, clean, and very professionally managed. The listing is no longer on AirBnB, but the area 9Stefano cel Mare Blvd./Strada Armeneasca is super central, basically anywhere on Stefano cel Mare Blvd is a great location as it has buses running day and night and is pretty well lit (not all streets in Chisinau are).