Passport Magazine October 2009
Text and photos by Charles Borden
As you open this month’s Passport, the grape harvest is closing in Russia Wine Country, an area that stretches north and northeast of the Black Sea port of Novorossisk to the Azov Sea, where about eighty percent of the country’s wine grapes are produced. The village harvest celebrations should begin by the first or second weekend of October. This is a truly lovely time to visit Anapa and the surrounding region with its one hundred kilometers or so of golden sand dunes and beaches and mild weather. This is the “Velvet Season” and gone are the heat and summer crowds when “an apple could not find a place to fall on the beach”.
True, there are other Russian wine areas: Dagestan, the eastern Stavropol region north of Mineralny Vody, and a couple of locations in the Rostov region to the north. But the sun and land of Anapa, Temruk, Novorossisk and Krimsk districts of the Krasnodar region, approximately the same latitude as Bordeaux and Piedmont, have the potential to make very good if not great wines. This extended wine region stretches across the strait to the Azov Sea at Port Kavkaz along the coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Wine has been produced in this entire area for more than 2,500 years since Greek trading settlements were established near the coast. Anapa was then Gorgipia, and remnants of the old walls are preserved near the city center.
Fifteen Years Ago
As I write this article, fifteen years have past since my first trip to Russian Wine Country. My hosts decided we should take the train. When I arrived at Kursky Station at about midnight, I was warned not to speak – they had purchased a “Russian” ticket for me, at a cost of about $1.25 at that time, a significant savings over the $35 plane ticket. I had expected an adventure, an overnight train ride through Russia, and an adventure it was, 36 hours of it, by the time I arrived in Novorossisk tired and looking for a clean bathroom. As it turned out I spent the next six years working with several southern Russian wineries.
Fifteen years ago few Russian wineries had bottling capability and most of those that did used poor quality domestic bottles sealed with a plastic cap. Grapes were a mix of French varieties bred in the USSR and domestic grapes like the deep, dark Saparavi and the widely planted white Rkatsiteli. Russians did, and to a great degree still do, prefer sweet or semi-sweet wines and that is what was mostly produced: the dark red, sweet Kagor, the amber, honey-like Ulibka (smile), “portwine” and others. Dry wines included white Rkatsiteli, Aligote and Muskat and the red was mostly “Kaberne”. At that time virtually none could compete in the intensely competitive international wine market.
In Soviet times, most wine produced in southern Russia was sent to bottling plants or as “wine material” to make sparkling wines in other parts of the country. The wineries were mainly former state farms, but by then privatized and in control of their own destiny. They were seeking new opportunities to control and benefit from their hard work.
One Hundred and Thirty Years Ago
Though wines have been made in this region for more than 2,500 years, the modern era began with the arrival of Prince Lev Golitsyn from France in about 1878. At that time Russia was the largest export market for French Champagne. French specialists had already set up along the Black Sea to try their hand at Russian production.
Prince Golitsyn had grown up in France and did not speak Russian when he took over production at the Abrau Durso winery near Novorossisk and Novy Svet on the Crimea coast. At Novy Svet he conducted tests on over 600 grape varieties to choose the best for local conditions, and by 1900 he produced sparkling wines that would win a prize in Paris. Novy Svet and Abrau Durso today stand as national treasures in their respective countries and both still produce some sparkling wines using classic French methods.
Golitsyn died a few years before the Revolution. The vineyards and wineries were collectivized and most that exist today were founded after the Second World War. By 1980 the Soviet Union was the world’s fourth largest wine producer from grapes grown in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. The next major event for the industry was the destruction of around two-thirds of the vineyards during the Gorbachev anti-alcohol campaign of 1985.
In fifteen years, changes in the industry have been slower than I could have imagined. One factor that cripples Russia’s authentic wine producers, is the lack of an appellation system like those used in Europe that restricts the use of geographic names to wines made from local grapes. Today, the amount of “Russian” wine that is sold outstrips by several times the entire productive capacity of Russia’s vineyards. In Russia, wine, treated conceptually as a manufactured product, can be labeled Russian because it is made in the country, though from imported ingredients such as bulk wine called “wine material”. I recall seeing a European exhibitor at the annual Krasnodar wine trade show with a display of essences for various wine grapes (e.g. essence of Chardonnay).
Some southern Russian wineries have closed, many have been sold, and the remaining have modern packaging. However, most are housed in Soviet-era facilities that are difficult to maintain in the condition necessary to produce world-class wines. No matter though, these wineries can sell their entire production to tourists during the summer months. Those wines don’t often make it to Moscow.
Only one major, modern winery has been constructed in southern Russia that produces modern, international-class wines – Chateau Le Grand Vostock – under the management of a French winemaker. Two wineries employ fly-in winemakers, notably Fanagoria in the Temruk area and Mysakho, which overlooks Novorossisk.
Abrau Durso still produces classically made sparkling wines. Tsimlanskoye Winery in the eastern Rostov region also makes sparkling wines, in particular a deep red, sweet wine from domestic grapes “in accordance with an ancient Cossack method”.
Praskoveya Winery, far to the east in the Stavropol region near Budyonnovsk, makes still wines but it excels at brandies. Praskoveya also sells wines from its 100,000 bottle collection that dates back to 1945. Russia has a couple of small, private producers but unfortunately Russia’s regulatory climate does not yet favor the small winery industry climate of major wine producing countries, and that is so beneficial in up-and-coming regions.
Where to Buy
The following are notes about where to find Russian wines mentioned in this article.
Chateau Le Grand Vostock
or at Metro Cash and Carry and other supermarkets
Fanagoria Winery (dry Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon made from French clone grapevines planted in 1997)
Occasionally available at Sedmoi Kontinent and other supermarkets
Mysakho Winery (wines from Mysakho and collection wines from neighboring Saook Dure, which is now closed)
51 Old Arbat (across from Hard Rock Café)
Praskoveya Winery (wines, brandies, collection wines)
Stavropol Wines and Cognac
12 Malaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa
Massandra Shops (Tsimlanskoye sparkling wines as well as Ukrainian and Crimean wines from Novy Svet and others)
7 Zvenigorodskoye Shosse
15 Komsomolsky Prospekt
This article originally appeared in Moscow’s Passport Magazine in October 2009