Most of the countries keep their treasures in museums where visitors can admire them in special display cases. The objects are ingeniously illuminated and dusting must be done regularly. Moldova keeps its precious treasures under the ground. Nobody clears any cobwebs or dust away. That is because we are talking about wine bottles.
There were some minibuses waiting in front of the hotel in Chisinau and obviously more tourists waiting than the number of seats in those means of transport. I found my place in one minibus just next to the driver so I could observe what was going on very well. But the situation did not surprise the people who organized the trip. Suddenly they brought ordinary wooden chairs from somewhere and put them simply into the space in the minibuses. Luckily, we did not drive for a long time as the small city of Cricova is located just 15 km north of the capital of Moldova. Just before we arrived there, walnut trees lined both sides of the road. It was the end of September, the trees were beautifully coloured in yellow. Behind them, everywhere there were just endless rows of grapevines, which gave us clues about what kind of empire we were approaching. After all, we could see it also on the sign which was funnily decorated with wine bottles.
We changed the minibuses for such red small trains.
And then we entered the labyrinth of underground cellars. In 15th century the territory used to be a mine for limestone, a building material for the capital. Some time later, people noticed that the temperature maintains 10 – 13°C all year around and also the humidity of 90 – 100%, which are the perfect conditions for wine.
Today, Cricova has an extensive network of underground tunnels that stretches for 120 km, half of which is used for wine storage. It is like a real city, there are also traffic signs and the streets have names – of course, they are named neither after writers nor national heroes but they are named after the wines: Cabernet, Chardonnay, Cordu, Savignon… Traveling by small trains we made some stops where we were given interesting information: there are 1,3 million bottles stored here – but what a surprise! This is not the record in Moldova! Among the bottles, there are also trophies from the World War II – vin de Moselle, de Rhein, de Bourgogne and other rare wines from the first half of the 20th century which once belonged to the private collection of Hermann Göring, one of the most powerful men of Nazi Germany. After the war, the Red Army transferred part of his collection to Crimea and the rest was brought here, to Moldova. The oldest wine in Cricova cellars is “Jerusalem of Easter”, vintage 1902, produced by Mogit David, and the liqueur “Jan Becher” from the same year.
We left the train and continued walking through the other parts of this underground wine emporium. Corridors created a view of a wine bottle and were paved with marble. And everywhere you could see a lot of niches full with wine bottles.
There was also a room where wine collections of world leaders are kept. You could see the wine of Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, Donald Tusk, John Kerry etc.
Pictures of famous people who visited Cricova hung on the wall in the next room. Among them was also Yuri Gagarin, the very first man who flew into space. He visited this place in 1966 and they say that he had re-emerged two days later saying that it is easier to fly into space than to find the way out of these cellars. Anyway, he wrote in the guest book a wish for the Moldovan wine to gain a lot of medals. And if there was not enough metal for these medals he promised to bring some from the Moon or other planets.
And indeed, wines bearing the name “Cricova” have already won a whole collection of national and international awards. Its pride are sparkling wines produced according to the classical French method. Bottles are stored in stands upside down and our guide warned us about touching them. But just entering the next room we could hear some “bang! bang!”. Some visitors were just like small children. You can warn them in ten languages, they will not resist the temptation all the same…
After that we visited the tasting rooms. We could not believe that we were 100 meters under the ground. In the European room, there were stained glass windows depicting transformations of grapevine during all the seasons of the year. And then some other beautiful and luxurious rooms. Their walls were decorated with images of hunting and wine making. No wonder that this was the place where Vladimir Putin had celebrated his 50th birthday! Our guide tactfully kept quiet about his visit of Cricova. Nevertheless, the Russian president has his reliable bodyguards so I do not think it would be possible for him to get “lost” in this underground labyrinth like Gagarin.
I also liked the Seabed tasting room. They say that it symbolizes the Sarmatic Sea which existed on this territory 12 millions years ago.
And of course, we also tasted some wines of Cricova.
But not too much so we did not get lost like Gagarin 50 years ago and without problems we found our way back to Chisinau. Anyway, I hope that by visiting this place we have encouraged Moldovan wine producers to keep the tradition. Moldova is a very small country but in 2013, Moldova was the 21st largest wine producing country in the world (according to the FAO)! Most of the country‘s wine production is for export, more than 67 million bottles go to China, Poland, Russia and United States annually.
You will find more information about Cricova including the contacts here.
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Our thanks to the National Inbound Tourism Association of Moldova and National Office for Vine and Wine for organizing the visit.