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The Evolution of the Russian Wine Landscape

22/07/2019

What do most people picture, when they think of Russian alcohol?

Vodka is undoubtedly the dearest of drinks to the Russian soul, but the country also has a surprisingly long-standing history of producing wine. We are taking a look at the difficult history of wine growing in the biggest country in the world, its regions and what to expect from Russian wines today.

Wine has been produced in Russia since the time of the ancient Greeks. Wild grape vines have grown around the Caspian, Black and Azov seas for thousands of years with evidence of viticulture and cultivation for trade with the ancient Greeks found along the shores of the Black Sea.

The beginnings of a proper wine culture in Russia are rooted in the times of Peter the Great and Empress Elizabeth II during the 18th century when Russian acquired a taste for Champagne and fine wines from Europe.

The 19th century saw the beginning of quality wine production in commercial volumes. The most famous of these early endeavours was the sparkling wine of the Crimean Peninsula, produced by the Prince Lev Sergeyevich Golitsyn at the Novyi Svet winery. Having studied French viticultural methods, he started planting vineyards with European grape varieties along the coast of the Black Sea and produced a sparkling wine that immediately became a huge success and earned itself the name “The People’s Champagne”. It was a delightful, slightly sweet, fizzy wine that conquered the salons and ballrooms of the Russian nobility and was served to international guests.

The winery exists till today and is said to be one of Russia’s more famous wine producers.

Like most regions, Russian wine production was hit hard during in the 20th century, as Phylloxera was widespread and two World Wars and their aftermaths affected the business in all sorts of ways. Already in 1917, after the Russian Revolution, most of the knowledgeable wine families had fled the country. Things did not improve much after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Winery equipment was seized, during the process of transitioning to a market economy with the privatisation of land government regulations were installed to re-purpose most of the agricultural areas that had once been vineyards, and producers had to rely on juice concentrates from other sources to make up for the lack of resources. On top of all that 1985, a partial prohibition was imposed by leader Mikhail Gorbachev which saw prices for alcohol soar and people caught drunk in public prosecuted.
After these struggles, from the 1990s on the Russian wine industry has been slowly recovering and started focussing on quality production.

On the plus side though is a fact that is quite unique in the wine world: historically most winemakers had been unable to afford chemical additives and fertilizers, resulting in Russian wine being traditionally organic. 

Many of Russia's vineyards are located near the borders with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine -  between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Dagestan, Russia's southernmost republic, and its neighbour Krasnodar Krai are the key wine regions. They border the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea respectively - an important factor in their climatic suitability for viticulture. Without the moderating influence that these inland seas bring, the continental climate would be too extreme for successful viticulture. Still, winegrowers have to deal with extremely severe winters that require special care to protect the vines. It is not unusual to completely cover the vineyards with soil during the harsh months of the year to protect them from frostbite. Summers are sunny and warm, sometimes bringing about the need for irrigation.

One of the most popular grape varieties in Russia is Rkatsiteli, which accounts for more than 1/3 of production. It is one of the oldest grown grapes. First seeds have been found as early as 3.000 BC in Georgia. Along with that, an array of European varieties is produced. Riesling, Traminer, Pinot Gris and Aligoté are found among the white, the red wines that thrive here are mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The wine styles range from still to dessert and sparkling wines.

The most important question though is: Are these local wines really up to the standards that Russian wine drinkers have? Until recently it was the affluent population who indulged in wines and they clearly preferred imported wines, mainly from Europe, all big names, all expensive and top-notch quality. That is about to change. Industry experts agree that Russian wines have potential.

Russian wine has experienced some great successes in recent years and is starting to seriously compete with their international counter players. Russian wines have won awards and received good scores at international competitions, more and more reputable restaurants are starting to include them in their wine lists and they are beginning to appear in retail.

Several years ago it would have been almost impossible to convince even Russians themselves to try domestic wine, mostly because there was a lot of distrust due to a large presence of low-quality wines on the market. But the hard work of Russian winemakers is beginning to pay off, and the reputation of Russian wine has improved drastically thanks to constant presentations and tastings. Now Russian wines come in a very diverse range of styles for any taste and any budget.

With the development of the country, more economic stability and higher incomes, there was also a new breed of wine enthusiasts born. This young generation of wine drinkers is curious, wants to explore and is not tied down to international brands or traditional regions. They are definitely a big help for domestic wines to establish themselves in the Russian market and they might also be the key to Russia's wine image abroad because Russian people are proud people. And when they are proud of something, they spread the word. So listen up, next time you hear a Russian rave about wine – it might be a domestic one!