Passport Magazine August 2008
Text and photos Charles W. Borden
Recently Passport’s Knights of the Vine gathered to gauge the progress of Russian wineries. With a selection that included 28 bottles from the Metro discount cash-and-carry chain and eight more from Château Le Grand Vostock in Krasnodar region, Russia’s only modern winery, and Praskoveya Winery near Budyonnovsk in Stavropol region, preparation for the event reminded me of my first trip to a Russian winery, in September 1992.
On the way to the station to catch the train, my hosts warned me not to say anything. They explained that to save money that had bought me a ticket that was for Russian citizens only – not the more expensive ticket foreigners were required to buy. My train fare cost the equivalent of $1.25.
Ignorant of Russia’s vastness, I was looking forward to a nice train ride that would afford views of the Russian country side. I soon learned the trip to Novorossiysk, Russia’s principal port on the Black Sea, would take 36 hours. The train windows were so dirty that I saw little of the countryside, and the state of the bathroom…well, I shudder at the memory (please email me if you feel you can’t live without the gory details).
Upon arrival, we headed north to Anapa and the Ural Sanitorium, one of many health resorts that stretch along the beautiful beaches of the Black Sea coast. The next day I visited my first Russian winery, Primorsky, and over the next few days, I came to think that the economic opportunities here resembled those of southern California in the early 20th century. Thus began ten years of “experience” with the Russian wine industry.
Over the past 16 years there have been slow changes in Russia’s wine country, but few of them either positive or productive. In 1980, the former Soviet Union was the world’s fourthlargest wine country, producing three times as much as the United States. Production was principally divided between Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. During the Gorbachev anti-alcohol campaign in 1985, two-thirds of grapevines were cut down. If for no reason than this, Russian winemakers are certainly not fond of Mr. Gorbachev.Most Russian wineries are in Krasnodar region, near the northern coast of the Black Sea that stretches from Anapa through the Taman peninsula. The Taman peninsula lies between the Black and Azov seas, and before a strait that separates it from Crimea. Wines were first produced in this area over 2,500 years ago, first by Greek settlers. Stavropol region to the east also has a few wineries, though conditions for grapes there are difficult, and grape vines must be covered over in winter. This region lies at the same latitude as Bordeaux and Piedmont, and should be able to produce good, if not great, wines.
Nowadays the key thing to know now about wines labeled “Russian” is that most are made with imported bulk wines, conveniently called vinomaterial as if an ingredient. In addition to vinomaterial, other shortcuts are taken: For instance, I have seen dozens of barrels of Chilean grape concentrate at a Russian winery, destined for blending with water and fermentation. I have also heard about a winery that imported one cheap Spanish red wine to produce 16 different “Russian” wines, ranging from the dark Kagor sweet wine to Sangria. There is little if any regulation of appellations in Russia. If you want Russian grapes, you have to know your wineries.
For example, Château Le Grand Vostock is a completely modern winery, located about 60 kilometers inland from the Anapa airport. It was built with French equipment by French constructors and is under the control of a French winemaker, Frank Duseigneur, and his wife, Gael Brullon, who runs the laboratory. Château Le Grand Vostock has drawn the attention of former President Putin, who proudly shared its wines with French President Sarkozy. The winery has five quality levels, each level with a white and red blended wine. We tried the base-level Terre du Sud Red, the mid-level Cuvee Karsov white, and the super-premium Chene Royal red, named for a huge old oak on the winery property.
I had not seen Château Tamagne, located on the Taman peninsula, before. A few years ago a Chelyabinsk metals company bought up a large area of vineyards in Taman and brought in French winemaker, Jerome Barret, was brought in to help develop higher quality wines. The back label on the Château Tamagne wines bears his name, a positive sign for this winery.
Praskoveya Winery is located in Budyonnovsk and, thanks to its Frenchtrained brandy maker, excels at its brandy. I first arrived at Praskoveya about 10 days before the famous terrorist incident at the Budyonnovsk hospital in 1995 and later had a wine packaging venture with them. Even in the early 1990s, Praskoveya Winery was a business leader in the area due to the efforts of its director, Boris Pakhunov.
Praskoveya has a collection of about 100,000 bottles of wine dating back to 1945 (the German army occupied the area during World War II). The winery saved this collection from destruction during the anti-alcohol campaign, when wineries with wine collections were ordered to send their winemakers to a class to learn how to convert such wines to vinegar. Pakhunov was then winemaker, and, upon returning from the course, had the wine cellar entrance bricked over. When a commission arrived to check, they found no wines.
It is not easy to produce good wines in this area, and our tasting showed this. Our first wine was Tsimlanskoye Sauvignon, from Tsimlanskoye Winery in eastern Rostov region. Tsimlanskoye is better known for its sweet, purple sparkling wine made from local grapes “according to an old Cossack method.” This sparkling wine, if you can find it, is delightful. I can’t say the same, however, about Tsimlanskoye’s white Sauvignon, which demonstrated the typical off-tastes of an old Soviet-era winery. A problem with Sovietera relic wineries is that, even with modern equipment, they can never be truly cleansed of wild yeasts and bacteria that are carried in the air and can contaminate fermentation.
From Gelendjhik Winery — the southernmost winery on the coast — we tried an Aligote, a French grape that is widely grown in southern Russia. Since the winery has relatively small vineyard holdings, one can only wonder how it could supply a chain like Metro. I took the Aligote only because it is not a grape that is likely to be an imported bulk wine, but this one had the same off-tastes as the Tsimlanskoye.
We missed three important wineries:
Myskhako, located in Novorossiysk, was Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s favorite winery. It produces some very good white wines under the stewardship of fly-in Australian winemaker John Worontschak.
Fanagoria is Russia’s largest that produces a Cru Lermont line of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay wines from grapevines imported from France in 1997. Worontschak also consults Fanagoria.
Abrau Durso produces Russia’s best sparkling wines, surely some from its own or area vineyards according to classic French methods.
The scores speak for themselves. Clearly the three Château Le Grand Vostock wines scored the best, while Château Tamagne finished second. Small progress after 16 years in an area that can do better. I hope we don’t have to wait another 16 for great wines from the Black Sea’s Gold Coast.
Praskoveya wines, brandies, and collection wines can be found at Stavropol Wines and Cognac located at 12 Malaya Gruzinskaya Ul. (M. Barrikadnaya/Krasnopresnenskaya).
Knights of the Vine
John Ortega, Publisher, Passport Moscow
Charles Borden, Director, Meridian Capital
Yana Appelcova, Musician
Arian Alikhani, President, Lensmaster
Jan Heere, Managing Director, Inditex Zara Russia
Tony Wong, General Manager, Abbott International Russia
This article originally appeared in Moscow’s Passport Magazine