Are you ready for the ultimate? It really doesn’t get better than this in wine circles and the only real crime is that so few people know about Moldovan wine. It breaks my heart. Seriously, when did you hear that Moldova had such great wine? Be honest. It was right here, wasn’t it. See? Tragic.
Let’s get down to business.
I love these guys. Not only because they have the largest collection in the world (two million bottles, recognized by Guinness) and not because they have 200 kilometers of ‘cellar’ space (it’s really a limestone mine, but let’s not split hairs) and not because the tours are so fricking awesome, but because they are just plain nice, wonderful helpful people.
Tours, done by car, wind down through the cellars with stops at notable collections and artistically executed tourist points, terminating at the elegantly decorated restaurant, with a sea-bottom motif, 60m below ground. These tours, which include, naturally, wine tasting, are stunning while being refreshingly informal and hilarious. The two-hour tour, tasting & lunch are US$46 per person.
Tours can be arranged directly with the winery. Tour groups must have a minimum of four people – unofficially this is negotiable – while a Saturday/Sunday tour must have a minimum of 15 people.
Cricova currently has top name recognition in Moldova. Their wines are great, their prices are decent, but the tours are formal and stuffy. Furthermore, you sometimes have to move mountains just to get a tour. They never answer emails and their published phone numbers ring and ring. Until now, people wanting tours had to book through a travel agency in Chisinau, which made the expensive tour even more pricey. But, just for you, I have tracked down the super secret, Chisinau office phone number: 22-277 378. This phone is answered by a human and she’s actually quite nice. You can also try to make a booking by showing up in person at their headquarters in Chisinau at Str Vasile Alecsandri 111/7. You heard it here first.
Cricova’s underground wine kingdom, 15km north of Chisinau in the village of Cricova, is big, but what they don’t tell you is that it’s not as big as Milestii Mici! It boasts a mere 120km of labyrinthine roadways, versus MM’s 200km, Tunnels have existed under Cricova since the 15th century, when limestone was dug out to help build Chisinau. They were converted into an underground wine emporium in the 1950s.
Legend has it that in 1966 astronaut Yuri Gagarin entered the cellars, re-emerging (with assistance) two days later. Russian president Vladimir Putin celebrated his 50th birthday there.
Cricova makes a very unique sparkling red wine, kodrinskoie-sparkling, made from cabernet sauvignon stocks and marketed as having a ‘rich velvet texture and a blackcurrant and cherry taste’.
You must have private transport and advance reservations to get into Cricova. The one-hour tour ($46 per person) includes trips down streets with names such as Str Cabernet, Str Pinot etc; wine tasting; a snack of ‘placinte’ (pastries) and gift bottles of wine and champagne.
Once you’ve finished at Cricova, head to the much-awarded Acorex vineyard (hours: 9am-6pm), just down the hill. There’s no tour, but their shop sells limited lines not available in most stores or outside Moldova.
Cojusna (no web site)
Tel. 22-744 820 or 22-715 329; address Str Lomtadze 4, Cojusna
Hours 10am-6pm Mon-Fri
These spunky competitors to Cricova operate 12km northwest of Chisinau in the village of Cojusna. The facilities aren’t even remotely as flash as the big boys, but the tours are first-rate, down-to-earth and very friendly. What they lack in production they make up for with heart and charm.
These guys used to have a 12,000 bottle-per-hour capacity, but sales plummeted when their distribution network collapsed along with the USSR. Massive foreign investment (not forthcoming) will be needed to get the plant back up to its former productivity.
Cojusna tours are by appointment only. They offer 2-3hr tours ($23 or $35 with a meal). Their relatively tiny cellars comprise six ‘alleys’, each 100m long. Meals are served in an impressive and seductively cosy hall decorated with wooden furniture carved by a local 17-year-old boy and his father.
Furthermore, you can buy wines from the shop ($2 to $25 per bottle).
To get to Cojusna from Chisinau, take Bus No 2; it runs every 15 minutes from Str Vasile Alecsandri. Buses to Straseni also stop at Cojusna or catch one of the frequent maxitaxis leaving from Calea Esilor – to get to Calea Esilor, take trolleybus 1, 5 or 11 up Stefan cel Mare, to the Ion Creanga university stop. Alight at the Cojusna stop, ignore the turn on the left marked ‘Cojusna’ and walk or hitch the remaining 2km along the main road to the winery entrance, marked again by a ‘Cojusna’ sign and by a white-washed Jesus-on-the-cross.