Vladimir Tsapelik. The story of the Russian Winemaking
Winemaking has a long history in Russia. It all seems to have started in the first millennium A.D., with the Khazars, although the territory of modern southern Russia had already been teaming with sundry Greek colonies that were making wine and shipping it back to Greece. The exact same grape varieties that were used for making wine during the time of the Khazar Khaganate are still used today. You can have a taste of wines from the white Sibirkoviy grape or from the red grapes of Krasnostop, Zolotovskiy, Zymlyanskiy Black, and Pleschistik. Recent DNA studies in Switzerland and Italy have discovered that these are definitely Vitis Vinifera grapes, however, they are not related to any of the modern European varieties. The Cossacks carefully concealed their vineyards on the right bank of the Don river and managed to preserve these ancient varieties to this day. The Don bowl (Donskaia chasha) grapevine training that the Cossacks use is unique in Europe.
Russia has an extremely broad range of climatic conditions. An extremely cold winter is followed by a relatively short but quite hot summer. Despite that, in a number of regions the summer lasts long enough for grapes to fully ripen. In the southernmost regions, the weather in the autumn is warm enough even to get late harvests of grapevines. The diversity of terrain and soils allows winemakers to achieve a broad variety of wine styles. Our winemakers have already made it to the Far East where they are not only growing European grapes but also experimenting with the wild Vitis Amurensis varieties.
The Crimea, which is now part of Russia, has a broad variety of autochthonous grape varieties that have survived there since the time of the Greek colonies or even before that. To name just a few of them: Sarah Pandas, Shabash, White Kapselskiy, Sun Valley, White Cocour, Ekim Kara, Kefesia, Kok Pandas, Soldaya, and Dzhevat Kara. Starting from the late 19th century, the Crimea became famous for its sparkling, dessert and fortified wines not only in Russia but also in Europe where Phylloxera was wreaking havoc at the time. Old vintage wines are now selling for extraordinary amounts of money at British auctions (Sothby’s). Before our very eyes wine making is fast becoming a big industry in Sevastopol, which is set to become home to some of Russia’s greatest still wines.
Sparkling wines are massively popular in Russia. The historic companies Noviy Svet (New World) in Crimea and Abrau-Durso in Kuban make exquisite wines using the classic Champaign process. And you would be hard pressed to name a single winemaking region in the country where they are not making sparking wines using the Martinotti-Charmat process. This process was refined in the USSR in the 1940s and the new and improved version was then patented. As a result, the Soviet technology for the fast production of sparkling wines is now used all over the world.
A major winemaking region in Russia is Krasnodarsky Krai. Russia has a total of about 90,000 hectares of vineyards and about a third of them are found in Krasnodarsky Krai. British wine critics have on many occasions noted the way that the high acidity found in the red dry wines from this region is perfectly offset by their thick fruitiness. Krasnodarsky Krai is also home to Europe’s largest privately owned vineyard. Kuban-Wine’s vineyards (the company that makes the Chateau Taman brand) are already close to 12,000 hectares on the Taman river and in the Anapa area.
In recent years, the government has been encouraging young winemaking. More and more garage farms are opening in various regions, even as far north as Samara, Voronezh and Tula. Quite often, they use frost-resistant hybrid grape varieties. These were primarily bred in the USSR on the basis of Vitis Vinifera and Vitis Amurensis. Every year in late May the Garage Farmer Cup Competition is held in the town of Tsimlyansk on the Don river in Russia.
Another important winemaking region is Dagestan, home to the original Russian grape vine. It was from the then Christian Northern Dagestan that the Khazars brought vines to the Don, Terek and Volga rivers where they had their three capital cities Sarkel, Semender and Itil. By utilising amelographic analysis, Soviet scientists were able to find links between the Dagestan and Don grape varieties. For example, the Krasnotop Zolotovsky variety found along the Don river has a closely related Gimra variety with female flowers in Dagestan. Today, brandies (koniaks) and strong wines from Dagestan are sold all over Russia. It is to be expected that production of still wines will be resumed from such autochthonous varieties as Giulyabi, Khatmi, Ag-Izium, Narma, Bor Kara and others.
The Anniversary (Yubileinaya) winery was the first Russian company to get gold medals at the Emozioni Dal Mondo Merlot e Cabernet Insieme contest in Bergamo, North Italy. However, Russian wine makers have already received over a hundred medals at various European and Asian wine competitions in the 21st century. These include such famous international contests as Decanter World Wine Award, International Wine Challange, International Wine and Spirits Competition, Mundus vini, Chardonnay du Monde, AWC Vienna, Concour Mondial de Bruxelle, Muvina, Chisinau Wines & Spirits Contest, The Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition, and many others.
Russia is trying to become a paradise for enogastronomic tourism. What has this country got to offer a gourmet traveller? Exquisite cuisine restaurants across a full range of national cuisines and price points. For example, wild seafood from the Far East have such complex and refined textures that they can appeal to practically anyone. The numerous wine bars and wine collections in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Yekaterinburg and other major cities of our huge Eurasian country offer a vast variety of Russian wines: white, red, pink, sparkling, still, dry, sweet, dessert, and strong. More and more wineries are opening their doors to curious travellers. Thus, the Abrau-Durso winery in Novorossiysk received some 250 thousand tourists in 2016. Small wineries do not necessarily have the same level of recreational capacity but the hospitality, delicious wines and local cuisine more than make up for any possible inconveniences.
Vladimir Tsapelik, President of the Independent Wine Club, member of the Board of Trustees of the Union of Winegrowers and Winemakers of Russia, judge at international wine competitions