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A Discovery of Russian Wines

April 3rd, 2012

Recently, I was brought to southern Russia to visit wineries. It was a second encounter with these wines, as I had also tasted them at the London International Wine Fair last May. I was brought to Russia for two reasons: to attend the 275th anniversary of Tsymlyanskiye Winery’s sparkling wine (they made wine for Tsarina Anna who ruled at that time), and to visit the wineries of southern Russia.

These wines are not yet exported to the US. They are available in the United Kingdom. And most of them were better than I expected.

The Indigenous Varieties

Surprisingly, only one winery focused on the native varieties, Vedernikov Winery, very near the southern city of Rostov. That area had a long history of winemaking, most recently (‘recent’ in Russia means the last 500 years) by Cossacks. Of course, that area also suffered greatly under the Communist regime, where big was valued more that subtle, and machine-driven everything was prized.

Today, Vedernikov looks like any other winery, with grapes growing on a single Guyot system, hand harvesting into small boxes, temperature control, pneumatic presses, etc. Riesling came to the vineyards when Peter the Great (1672-1725) reportedly told the growers that they needed to import German varieties for entry-level wines. Most producers also make an aligote´ for that purpose as well.

INDIGENOUS WHITES

Rkatziteli, a Georgian variety, shows a somewhat herbal, floral and citrus nose, with citrus, green apple, and mineral notes on the palate. This wine is typically made for young consumption and does not age very well beyond 2-3 years.

Sibirkoviy gives off a floral, grassy and peachy aroma, and on the palate shows citrus, floral and apple notes. It, too, should be consumed within 3 years.

INDIGENOUS REDS

Krasnostop Zolotovsky is a red grape with notes of plum, red currant, firm tannins, with red fruit flavors and spice. It is generally made to be consumed within 4-5 years. Vedernikov Winery is experimenting with using French oak on the wine and from the example they showed, the oaked wine looks very promising.

Tzimlanskiy Cherniy shows notes of prunes, spice, leather with a full body, firm tannins, and a cassis-jam flavor. It, too, is made for a 4-5 drinking window.

Vedernikov Winery also blends Krasnostop and Tzimlanskiy each with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Saperavi produces substantial deep red wines that are also suitable for aging. It is the main red grape found in Georgia. Saperavi has the potential to produce high alcohol levels and is used extensively for blending with other varieties. At Chateau de Grand Vostock (see below), it is used to blend with Cabernet for a very well-structured and tasty result.

The Garagistes

Even in Russia, there are very tiny producers who see themselves as Garage Winemakers, or garagistes. They make very small quantities and most of them were wealthy before they began as producers.

The Garagistes even have their own set of rules.

1. Own one’s own vineyards, with minimal mechanization.

2. Use as few machines as possible; wine must be “hand made”.

3. Make a maximum of 10,000 litres per year.

4. Sell the wine at the place where it is made.

One of these garagists is named Valeriy Loginov and his company is called Black Sea Garage Wine. He is also a partner in the very large Gerrus Group, which makes an enormously large quantity of boxed wines, tetra paks, and some lower end bottles.

Loginov’s winery is near Anapa, very close to the Black Sea, and has 159 hectars (393 acres) of vines and plans a tasting room, restaurant, and small hotel. He has planted his property with all the modern international varieties and he is waiting to see which works best on his land.

Another Garage winemaker is Gennadiy Oparin. His winery and restaurant are named Semigorie (Seven Hills) also near Anapa, where there was held a garage wine tasting, although most of the wines we tasted were not from small producers. Oparin’s money is from a Bag-in-Box wine named Russkaya Loza (Russian Vine), but he left that project and had lost almost all of his money. But he had squirreled enough away to keep the restaurant and start his small winery, which is housed in the basement of the restaurant.

The French Influence

Many of the wineries use French consultants (and one Australian who lives in London).

Alain Dugas consults for a winery called Gaï Kodzor in southern Russia by the Black Sea. His connection with the vineyards of Russia has a lot to do with his friendship with Eduard Alexandrov, the owner of Gai Kodzor, whom he met when he was promoting Chateauneuf du Pape in Moscow. The dry slopes in the Russian western Caucasus Mountains are indeed far from the former Chateauneuf du Pape estate of Chateau de La Nerthe (even though he says that the two regions have a lot in common), which Dugas ran. The two men toured the Black Sea region some time later, looking at vineyards. And now Dugas visits and consults regularly.

At Lefkadia, a very well funded operation that has yet to release any wine, has hired Patrick Leon as a consultant. Leon is the former winemaker for Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Lefkadia began planting in 2007 and planted 24 hectars (59 acres). Right now, Lefkadia’s whites show more promise than the reds. They have the most well organized, well-funded lab imaginable. They do virus DNA testing on all plant material. They test wines. They test soils. They consult for other wineries. They run a computerized professional lab the likes of which have not been seen at a single winery: all in all, a very impressive facility.

The Lefkadia winery is no less impressive. All fermentation tanks are either 500 or 750 litres, stainless steel and all fermentations are small lot and temperature controlled. They, too have plans for hotels, and tasting rooms.

In Russian, sparkling wines have been called Shapamskoye (which sounds like Champagne). Recently, at a meeting at the Abrau Durso winery, the members of the Russian Winegrower and Winemaker Union agreed in principle to outlaw the ‘Sovetskoye Shampanskoye’ trademark, without fixing a date for the ban. The name, which was established under Stalin in the 1920s, is still widely used by privately-owned producers today.

There was initially strong opposition to the move from many producers, who fear that sales will plummet once the name is banned, but the group voted to phase out the name after strong encouragement from Abrau Durso, the sparkling wine producer owned by Boris Titov. Titov, a wealthy former petrochemicals trader, also owns Château d’Avize in Champagne.

Abrau Durso also has an historical pedigree. The settlement was founded on November 25, 1870 as a royal winery, which was to provide wine for the Tsar’s household. These plans were only brought to full fruition twenty-one years later, when Prince Leo Galitzine, renowned for his Crimean vineyards, was appointed Surveyor of Imperial Vineyards at Abrau Durso. It was he who brought to Russia a team of skilled winemakers from France. By 1897, Abrau Durso boasted a sparkling wine cellar containing in excess of 13,000 bottles.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought an end to Abrau Durso’s prosperity, if only for a short time. The French specialists fled Russia, but their work was continued by their Russian apprentices. Throughout the Soviet period, Abrau Durso was reputed for its sparkling wine, which was marketed under the name “Sovetskoye Shampanskoye”, or “champagne for the people”.
Today, former Duval-Leroy winemaker Hervé Jestin, Chef d’entreprise for the JESTIN Oenologie Lieu Région de Reims, France consults for Abrau Durso. And Abrau Durso’s top 3 Imperial cuvees are remarkable. Like Myskhako below, the soils on which the vines are planted are chalk. So the sparkling wines absolutely have a chalky component to them. They make many different styles, including a sweet sparkling red wine that Russians like, but the winery’s Imperial line is very fine wine, and very chalky, too.
But the French are not the only consultants. Australian winemaker John Worontschak (who lives and works from London, UK) is the consulting winemaker at Fanagoria, and at Myskhako, both in the general Krasnodar area. Fanagoria’s Cabernet Sauvignon was a favorite at the Garagiste’s tasting.

At Fanagoria, they have their own cooperage, using Caucasian oak for barrels. They own 2,500 hectars (6,175 acres) of vineyards and produce everything from spirits, tetra pak, bag-in-box to fine wines. They use machine harvesting for the lower end wines and hand harvest the upper end. They have their own nurseries and grafting stations as well. More than 60 percent of their vines are international varieties, but they are also propagating the indigenous varieties.

At Myskhako, near Abrau Durso and the town of Novorossyisk (new Russia) the soils are very chalky and that flavor comes through the wines at times. The Cabernet from the very nice 2008 vintage was a stunning wine from this winery.

At Kubano Vino, in the Kuban region very near the Black Sea, they do not use a French or any other consultant. They manage 5,600 bearing hectars (13,832 acres) of land. They grow vinifera and hybrids on mostly own-rooted vines. Kubano Vino makes truly massive quantities of wine, and the winemaker makes many experimental cuvees each year. This year, she will make a dry Gruner Veltiner, different from the very sweet one she created last year.

And at another winery, Chateau de Grand Vostock, the winemaker is French: Franck Duseigneur. Duseigneur was graduated from the ENITA engineering school in Bordeaux, and studied viticulture there. He now speaks Russian fluently. And his wines all bear a mark of very good quality.
The overall impression to take away from this ancient but newly emerging region is one of quality. Clearly, most of the wineries have left behind the mass production methods of the former Soviet days, and the learning curve appears very rapid. This region will face the same challenges in international markets as any new entrant, but the quality is there. Meanwhile, the domestic market in Russia favors the sweet wines, and the higher end wines can only be bought by people with substantial money. This country’s wines are poised for outside growth.

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