I left the house with Diana, Sandu, and Boris as close to promptly at 8:30 a.m. as I could manage. We had a tour of the Cricova winery arranged for 9:00 a.m. It seems like an odd time for a winery tour, but the afternoon tours were all booked and waiting until next week seemed like a bad idea; neither Diana nor I knew what our schedule would look like.
We arrived 5 minutes before 9 at the entrance gate, and of course we were told to wait 5 minutes. Then we drove into a tunnel and picked up our tour guide, Alexander. I have to say his English was excellent. He started by explaining that the Cricova wine cellars are a small underground city. Each street is named after the variety of wine on the street (e.g., Strada Cabernet). The streets run for 120 kilometers, which is why the tour is done by car, not on foot. He joked that people who think Moldova is a small country should be told that it’s really a country built on two levels. I thought that was cute.
Although I’ve been to more than one winery in my life, I learned a lot about wine on this tour. On the tour, we saw wine barrels ranging from 220 liters to over 6000 liters. Alexander explained that each barrel was made of wood and built by hand. Because of this, the volume can vary slightly from barrel to barrel. Each barrel is weighed and marked with the exact number of liters inside. The smaller the barrel, the better the wine.
The tunnels were lined with limestone, which reflected a beautiful green off the headlights of the family Honda as we drove on. Alexander explained that the tunnels were maintained at constant temperature of 12-14 degrees C (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit) and 98 percent humidity. This “microclimate” is considered the perfect conditions for keeping wine.
Our next stop was the champagne room. I didn’t take a picture of the champagne bottling apparatus because it looked a little rusty, and the room it was in had concrete floors and tiled walls like a large bathroom or school gym. I didn’t want to scare anyone off from drinking Cricova champagne.
The champagne storage room was quite interesting. The bottles were not labeled but were capped with regular bottlecaps and placed in large wooden holders. Alexander explained that part of the ageing process involves turning the bottle clockwise and tilting the bottle at different angles over a period of days. The bottom of each bottle is marked with a white line to indicate its position (i.e., so the person turning it knows when and how much to turn the bottle). There is a picture of this in my photos folder. We also saw a machine that had been used in an experiment to turn the bottles automatically, but Alexander said the final product was not as good as the hand-turned product. Thus, I didn’t bother taking a picture of it.
The purpose of all the turning, we learned, was to sift the sediment away from the champagne. Once the sediment is sifted to the end of the bottle, the end is frozen in liquid nitrogen. When the bottle is opened in a special metal machine, the pressure forces the icy block of sediment out of the bottle “like a bullet”. The bottle is then capped with a Portuguese cork.
The final part of our tour was the private collection. We saw wines from around the world, including: a rare 1902 bottle from Jerusalem, European wines taken by the Soviets from Herman Goerring’s collection, and a wine donated by the current Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin. Other wines were grouped into berths rented by collectors. We saw names of some of the renters but didn’t recognize any of them. Diana assumed that they were new Russians with lots and lots of money.
When we booked the tour, I had decided not to reserve a wine tasting for a couple of reasons. One, tasting wine at 10:00 a.m. didn’t seem like a good idea, especially since we would be bowling later that afternoon. Two, we had already paid 200 lei (about $15) per person for the tour; I thought it was ridiculous to spend an extra 150 lei per person for a tasting. After seeing all the wine and the tasting rooms though, I was a little sorry I’d made this choice.
Although we didn’t do the tasting, we had a chance to see the different tasting rooms. Each had fancy glasses and snacks on the table. It looked like women were preparing more snacks to go with the wine as well. Each room was designed with a particular theme in mind; three left an impression on me. One was the “grand room” which was designed to look like a village room for entertaining. There was a wooden relief on the wall of a Moldovan folk wedding scene. The second was “Under the Sea”, which had a large anchor in the middle covered in mosaic tile and a carving of Poseidon on the wall. The walls were round and a beautiful glittery sea green and brown. The final room, which we had our picture taken in, was the presidential room. It had a long table of red chairs where presidents from other countries had sat before us. Alexander pointed out that the acoustics of the room were such that a person talking at one end of the table can hear someone at the other end, even though there are maybe 30 chairs in between. I thought that was impressive. It reminded me of the area of the Old Capitol building in D.C. with a similar feature. I imagine the Cricova variant has the same eavesdropping purposes.