In (Russian) Vino Veritas!
Wild grape vines have grown around the Caspian, Black and Azov seas for thousands of years. Some even claim that the Black Sea area is the world's oldest wine region! But Russian wine making experienced a real boom thanks to the tireless work of one man - Count Lev Golitsyn. It was he who established the first Russian factory of champagne at his Crimean estate of Novy Svet towards the end of the 19th century and it didn't take long until his efforts led to international success: in 1889 the production of this winery won the Gold Medal at the Paris exhibition in the sparkling wines category.
Another name closely connected to the history of Russian wine was actually Golitsyn’s predecessor – Prince Mikhail Vorontsov. He was the governor of Novorossiya for more than three decades (1822-1854) and in his Crimean estates he grew various sorts of grapes, built special cellars for wine storage and supervised the founding of the first Crimean school of winemaking. In the late 19th century, the Tsar bought some of Vorontsov’s estates from his heirs, and that is when Golitsyn became the new official in charge of winemaking innovation on Romanov lands.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the French wine-savvy professionals fled Russia. Luckily, the industry was gradually reestablished in the 1920's. What's more, before the 1917 Revolution wine was drunk in Russia only by the aristocracy but the situation changed under Soviet rule. In 1936, the Soviet government implemented a policy to boost the production of sparkling, dessert and table wines, as well as brand wines.
Special attention was given to creating a Soviet sparkling wine that would resemble champagne (“shampanskoe”), thereby making a statement to Europe that the the favorite drink of the European aristocracy was easily affordable to the average Soviet citizen. And thus in 1937, the official production of Sovetskoe Shampanskoye began, and was made using an advanced, newly developed technology. The brand became popular very quickly and in the 1950’s the technology developed so much that a license for the Soviet method of sparkling wine production was eventually bought by Moet and Chandon! Sovetskoe Shampanskoye is still enjoyed today and can be found in many households around Russia on New Year’s Eve, birthdays and other celebratory events.
The glory days of Russian/Soviet wine came to a grinding halt with Gorbachev's campaign against alcoholism. The fall of the Soviet Union further damaged domestic wine making, as the privatization of land saw many of the area's prime vineyard spaces being utilized for other purposes. The situation was so bad by the year 2000 that on the entire territory of Russia only 72,000 hectares were under cultivation – less than half the total area used in the early 1980’s.
But all's well that ends well! In recent years, Russian wine-making has seen a real renaissance and according to some statistics, in 2014 Russia ranked 11th globally for the amount of land under cultivation in wine production. Old vineyards receive substantial investments and undergo impressive renovations, while small boutique wineries are popping up all over Russia's southern regions. Today, Russia produces many different styles of wine including still, sparkling and dessert wine, and boasts over 100 different varieties of grapes used in the production process.
The Rkatsiteli grape accounts for over 45% of production and results in noticeably acidic, balanced white wine with spicy and floral notes in the aroma. This ancient vinifera originates in Georgia and is one of the oldest grape varieties. Some even claim that before Gorbachev’s partial prohibition it was possibly the world's most widely planted white wine grape! Other varieties grown include Aligote, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Severny, Clairette blanche, Krasnostop Zolotovsky, Merlot, Muscat, Pinot gris and many many more.
Apart from world-class wines, visitors can also enjoy the scenic landscapes and a beach vacation in Russia’s historic wineries. If you’ve got a bit of time or are planning to come back to Russia again, here are some spots for an interesting and affordable enotourism experience:
Located near the city of Novorossiysk, this is probably one of the most popular spots for those interested in trying out Russia’s finest wines. Abrau-Dyurso Wine House was established in 1870 by a decree of Tsar Alexander II at the picturesque Lake Abrau. Not only does the winery have a rich history of producing wines according to classic French technology, but is also known today as the leading producer of sparkling wines in Russia. You can also explore four-mile long mountain tunnels with wine tasting included. Afterwards, relax in the Champagne Spa where grapes and champagne are used to soothe and tone the body.
On the site of a large ancient Greek settlement on the Taman Peninsula, you will find Fanagoria Winery, which produces more than 20 million liters of wine products that are distributed around the world. In 2012 Fanagoria became the only company to have its own full-cycle production of oak barrels in Russia (approximately 300 barrels from 100 to 600 liters are produced monthly). A unique microclimate soothed by the proximity of the seas allows for the production of a number of different alcohol products: white and red wines, sparkling wines, cognac, grape vodka (chachi) and balsam. You can either go for a standard tour of the winery (it includes a visit to the vineyards, Russia's only wine barrels workshop and ends with a wine tasting session) or sign up for a standard tasting tour with an eno-gastronomic dinner.
Massandra was built between 1894 and 1897 and is Crimea’s (and Russia’s) crown jewel when it comes to variety: here you will find one of the largest collections of fine and rare wines in the world. For example, the collection has a Sherry de la Frontera that was produced in 1775 - one of the oldest wines in the world. A bottle of this fortified wine was sold at auction at Sotherby's London in 2001 for $43,500!
A visit to Massandra would not be complete without a guided tour of the cellars and taking part in the wine tasting. In the summers, the winery hosts special concert evenings, where guests can experience the sunset over the mountains as they enjoy a degustation accompanied by live classical music in the spacious courtyard.
Unlike most old wineries of Crimea and Krasnodar Krai, Zolotaya Balka, which were founded by Count Golitsyn, this winery was set up in 1889 by Alexander Vitmer. Recently, the winery received some generous investments and has undergone a serious revamp. While staying true to the winemaking traditions of the past, the winery has acquired state of the art Italian technology and the new modern glass building boasts a rooftop restaurant where DJs often play, attracting a much younger and hipper crowd than before.
Just a few minutes’ drive from a beautiful secluded bay on Crimea’s Eastern shores is the famous Novy Svet winery that dates back to 1878. The sparkling wines produced here were served at the coronation of Russia’s last Tsar Nicholas II in 1896 and it is here that Count Golitsyn concocted the creation that became known worldwide when it won a Grand Prix at the World Exhibition in Paris.
Today, Novy Svet makes real champagne, using the same techniques as French champagne and that allows the winery to call it champagne as opposed to sparkling wine. Many of the wine tours on offer will appeal to history buffs. The Tsarsky Tour takes you back to the start of the 20th century when Tsar Nicholas and his family visited Count Golitsyn in Novy Svet. The Golitsynskie Tropy tour gives visitors the unique chance to explore the tunnel labyrinth that was dug at the end of the 19th century. Every tour culminates with wine tasting in a spacious hall with beautiful stained glass windows.
If heading south is not on the cards for you during this trip to Russia, you can imbibe the nectar of the Gods here in St. Petersburg.