Passport Magazine January 2011
Text:Charles Borden, Photos: Charles Borden and courtesy of Abrau Durso
The sharp pop from a bottle of Shampanskoye echoes across every almost every home, restaurant and park in Russia at midnight on New Year’s eve, followed by a fizzy pour into any handy container. To the chagrin of winemakers from France’s Champagne region, shampanskoye has long been the generic term in Russia for any sparkling wine, whether produced by Champagne’s classic méthode champenoise, or the shortcut reservoir (charmat) method and even simple CO2 gas infusion.
Méthode champenoise is used for premium sparkling wines around the world. Abrau Durso, a 140-year-old Russian winery near the Black Sea, has produced méthode champenoise wines for more than 100 years. Abrau Durso is truly a national treasure, and it has fortunately had a renaissance in recent years. Based upon a recent tasting, the Abrau Durso classic sparkling wines are well worth a try by serious wine consumers.
Russia’s love of sparkling wine
Russian interest in bubbly is dates back centuries. The Cossacks made a sparkling wine in the middle of the 17th century on the Don River in the Tsimlanskoi and Kumshatskoi villages in southern Russia. This wine was even mentioned in Pushkin’s poem, Eugene Onegin. A red sparkling wine is still made according to “old Cossack methods” in this area at Tsimlanskoye Winery.
The Russian aristocracy became the largest foreign market for French Champagne, and French winemakers even produced a sweet version for the goût russe (Russian taste). This prompted interest in sparkling wine production in the sunny and warm south of Russia.
In 1799, under the authority of Emperor Pavel, winemakers made sparkling wine at his palace at Sudak on the Crimean peninsula. By 1812, several companies were making sparkling wines in Crimea. During the Crimean War (1854-1856) wine production ceased when English and French invaders tore out vineyards and destroyed equipment, a large laboratory, and extensive documentation about winemaking and grape production.
Prince Lev Sergeyevich Golitsyn, the patriarch of modern Russian winemaking, restored the tradition of Russian sparkling winemaking. He founded Novy Svet winery near Sudak on the southeastern Crimean coast (now in Ukraine), and helped develop Abrau-Durso on Russia’s Black Sea coast near Novorossiysk.
In 1892, Golitsyn started to experiment with sparkling wines using the méthode champenoise. By 1896, his wines were served at the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, and in 1900 they received the Grand Prix medal in Paris. Novy Svet and Abrau Durso remain the region’s most famous sparkling wineries and they continue the tradition of making wines using méthode champenoise today.
Méthode champenoise wines receive a second in-bottle fermentation to produce the sparkle. This requires heavy bottles to withstand the pressure and a number of labor-intensive techniques over a period of months or years. Early in the Soviet era, winemakers sought a means to dramatically increase sparkling wine production. The answer was the reservoir or charmat method, which produces secondary fermentation in a series of vats at an accelerated pace, and results in a sparkling wine that can be bottled after three or four weeks. The even cheaper and faster “gas infusion” method is now also used in Russia and worldwide for very inexpensive sparkling wines, or for that matter soft drinks.
Charmat and gas infusion methods enabled the construction of a vinzavod (wine factory) close to the end user but far from Russia’s wine grape producing regions near the Black Sea. It is these methods that are used for the inexpensive Sovietskoe Shampanskoye that is greatly in demand at holidays.
It is a sad fact that there are no where near enough white wine grapes produced in Russia to meet demand, despite great potential for grape production in the country’s south. For this reason, the large majority of sparkling wines made in Russia use “wine material” imported from other countries—fermented white wines that are ready for secondary fermentation. Quality varies depending upon the origin of the wine material, handling and temperatures during transport, and the final process before bottling. These are the methods used to produce.Despite more than seventy years as a Soviet enterprise, and the difficult times that followed the end of the Soviet Union, Abrau Durso continued to produce classic sparkling wines. During a tour of the winery a few years ago, I enjoyed one of the best brut wines of my life with veteran Abrau Durso winemaker, Georgy Nepranov. The winery and the tradition it has maintained make it truly a national treasure.
Emperor Alexander II decreed the development of Abrau Durso in 1870 on land found by agronomist Feodor Geiduk in a small, rugged valley about 20 kilometers north of Novorossiysk, Russia’s main Black Sea port. Abrau Durso is named after two streams, the Abrau that forms a small, natural lake (the largest in the North Caucasus) in front of winery, and the Durso, which falls to the Black Sea two kilometers distant and 84 meters below. In 1896, the winery was turned to sparkling wine and Prince Golitsyn, joined by French specialists, quickly began to develop it. An extensive series of tunnels and caverns were dug into the hills and the Prince established a school to train young Russian winemakers. These young winemakers continued the Abrau Durso winemaking tradition after the Revolution when the winery became a vinsovkhoz (state wine farm).
Businessman Boris Titov, chairman of Delovaya Rossiya and reportedly a billionaire now controls Abrau Durso, with remaining shares still in state hands. He appears to have the money and desire to see that Abrau Durso continues to sparkle, and even more brilliantly.
Beginning in 2007, Mr. Titov embarked on an extensive modernization program with the assistance of Herve Justin, a talented Champagne winemaker who helped rebuild the Champagne house of Duval- Leroy. Winemaker Nepranov continues to lead the Russian winemaking contingent. Abrau Durso planted additional grapes to supplement their 300+ hectares of vineyards. Facilities have been renovated and a small hotel has been built near the winery. Apparently some vineyards will be devoted to biodynamic wine production.Abrau Durso’s product line has been updated with new labels. Abrau Durso L’Art Nouveau Imperial Brut made from Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir grapes tops the line. The flagship line includes Imperial Vintage Brut (Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay) and Imperial Vintage Brut Rose (Pinot Noir). Other classic sparkling wines are labeled “Premium” and include brut and semi-sweet. I tried a delightful Cabernet Sauvignon semi-sweet classic wine, as well as several brut wines at the art exhibition. They definitely hold their own among the best of sparkling wines from other world regions.
The winery recently held a juried poster contest that attracted dozens of entries from artists around Russia and internationally. The winners were announced during recent celebrations of Abrau Durso’s 140-year anniversary.
Abrau Durso now produces about one million bottles a year of classic méthode champenoise wines, which are entirely made with local grown grapes. It also produces another ten million bottles of charmat method wines, which are apparently made with imported wine material, primarily from South Africa.
Abrau Durso has a shop on the Garden
Ring near its crossing with the Arbat:
Abrau Durso Atelier
Smolensky Bulvar Dom 15
+7 499 252 2701