The game of wines

Wine has played an integral role in Crimea for more than 120 years. But now it’s caught in the crossfire of great power politics, finds Felicity Carter.

Alma Valley winery
Alma Valley winery

The helicopter speeds over azure waters, white beaches and a vast, multi-coloured salt lake.

And then come the ruins. Broken roads snake across a landscape that seems abandoned. Factories lie exposed to the elements, with roofs fallen in and storage tanks eaten by rust. Rural villages have gaps like missing teeth, where houses used to be. And there are vineyards stretching to the horizon, many choked with overgrown grass and dead vines.

Welcome to Crimea.

Alma Valley

The helicopter lands at the Alma Valley winery, near the site of the Crimean War’s first battle. Founded in 2006, this is a good place for wine: Western Crimea offers a combination of brown loam and calcareous soils, on an underlying bed of limestone. Breezes from the Black Sea keep everything well ventilated; in winter temperatures can fall below -27C, so the vines have to be plowed under.

Alma Valley is the flagship of the small ‘new wave’ wineries, mostly Russian owned, that have opened in Crimea over the past decade. The ownership of Alma Valley is somewhat opaque – winery  executives won’t reveal who it belongs to, although the Russian media have speculated it’s the president of one of Russia’s major banks. Whoever he is, he has powerful friends; fledging vines planted by President Vladimir Putin and other notables are out the front. It’s a state-of-the-art winery built in 2013 by Swiss experts, with a German winemaker, Thomas Doll. Its first manager, a local, was less expert, however. He ordered equipment at random from various catalogues, leaving the winery with micro-oxygenation tanks they don’t need, and fermentation tanks installed in such a way that they can’t be used. The owner finally brought in a team of well-known Russian wine experts: Andrey Grigoryev, general director, and his deputy, Igor Serdyuk, Russia’s most respected wine journalist.

Igor conducts a tasting of wines in the panoramic tasting room. Made from young vines, it’s going to take time before these wines really show their form – although they’ve just won bronze in Hong Kong – but already they’re quality wines. The Black Sea moderates the temperatures and there is relatively little diurnal variation, leading to wines that are soft and easy to drink. The ‘upper line’ offers a varietal range of Tempranillo, Cabernet, Shiraz and Merlot, and Pinot Noir, while the barrel sample of Petite Arvine is a pleasant surprise. 

When we leave, we pass a broken-down building I’m told is a winery. Through the windows I can see some new-looking steel tanks but the place is silent and bolted, although it’s Monday. The village we pass through on our way to Sevastopol in the southwest is poor, the fences collapsed and the cars rusty.

I ask the driver to stop, so I can photograph the vineyards. It’s hard to get through the vines, because the grass between them is tough and overgrown. “This is what the Ukrainian government did in the post-Soviet era.” says Igor. “Nothing.” 

The conflict

On 27 February 2014, Russian troops entered Crimea and declared it independent from Ukraine. Such action is business as usual for the peninsula. Located on the Black Sea between Russia and Ukraine, Crimea’s been bitterly contested since antiquity; this is where both modern warfare and modern nursing began. The current conflict has soured Russia’s relations with the West, bringing down economic sanctions against Russia and its products.

Wine plays a significant role in Crimea. According to Ukrainian statistics from 2013, there are 200,000 Crimeans involved in wine enterprises, or nearly 10% of the population. Initially the Russian government promised to invest in the wine sector – up to $800m. But that promise was made before the oil price collapsed in mid-2014. Oil and gas account for up to 70% of Russia’s export income, and government coffers emptied fast. In December 2014, the ruble collapsed and now it will be hard for the government to honour its pledges. If investment is to come, it must come from private citizens, like Pavel Shvets. Born here in the romantic harbour city of Sevastopol, he trained as a sommelier in Moscow and then created Uppa Winery. He was the first of the new-wave wine producers, planting his vineyard in 2006. He and other wine professionals, including Vitaly Marinchuk, co-founder of distributor Crimea Cost, have come to pour their wines. They say that Pinot Noir does well here. Shvets has biodynamic wines on the table: an impressive Riesling and Chardonnay. “We use preparation 500 and 501 and the moon, all those things,” says Shvets. “We have ten hectares, and only seven hectares produce grapes for wine, because they’re still very young. Our vineyard is almost 400 metres above the sea.”

After the annexation, Shvets thought the time was ideal to set out a development program for the local industry. “The main idea was to create more than 200 small wineries, but not very big,” he said. “A preliminary area of 20 ha each, but working from grape to bottle.” He said the Russians who have come to invest in wineries in Crimea are typical of wine investors elsewhere. “They’re people who live in St Petersburg or Moscow, who work in banking or consulting. They’re aged 45 or 50 and they’re starting to invest,” he says. “They’re thinking – maybe in ten years I will get my first bottle, and then I will retire to Crimea and live by the sea.” Unfortunately, unlike the Ukrainian authorities, the Russian government simply doesn’t understand wine, and their bureaucratic demands are Kafka-esque. “We tried to count how many different Russian documents we have to use,” said Shvets. “There were 850.”

Some Crimean wineries reportedly closed after the annexation, simply because they couldn’t cope with the paperwork. The Russian government, not wanting the bad press, lifted some of the demands on the wine industry – giving mainland wineries cause to celebrate. But there are still problems. Most Russian wineries rely on imported bulk wine, so there’s no will to create an appellation system. “People from these wineries have good friendships with people in government, and when we tried to give advice about good wine regulation for Russia, these people were not happy,” says Shvets. What he’s pushing for are appellation regulations in accordance with the rest of the world, so that they “will have table wines and upper-class wines. But in Russia, not even winemakers understand these realities.

The Ministry of Agriculture wants to be boss.”

Perhaps it’s dawning on them just how important wine is to Crimea. As we’re speaking, Shvets gets a text from the Ministry, asking for information on how to double the vineyard area. And the difficulties haven’t stopped the ‘new wave’ pursuing their passions. There are 13 wineries in Sevastopol, only one of which doesn’t have a vineyard, and people talk terroir and wine, just like anywhere else.

Marinchuk has brought a delicious Kokur from his negociant brand, Yayla. It hails from the stony soils of Sunny Valley, where the sun shines 300 days a year, and there are indigenous varieties that Marinchuk wants to bring to export markets. 

The group around the table are hoping that more wine lovers will come along to invest in the near future, because they see lots of potential in the terroir.  A freeze has been imposed on agricultural land sales, making investing an unattractive proposition right now, but the moratorium expires on 1 January 2016. It’s not yet clear whether land will be only be available for purchase  – probably around $5,000.00/ha right now – or whether some may be given away to anyone who can develop it and bring jobs to the region.

What about Ukraine?

Marina Mayevska, managing editor of Ukraine’s Drinks+ magazine, agrees that, with the right investments, Crimea has the terroir to produce high quality wine.  “What we would like the world to know about this wine is that it is produced on Ukrainian land,” she says, adding that Crimea can’t exist without water from Ukrainian rivers – not to mention Ukrainian electricity. “And we really hope that soon it will win the hearts around the world among other Ukrainian wines.”

The loss of Crimea has forced the Ukrainians to reorient their wine industry in a hurry. Famous brands from Crimea – like Novyi Svit sparkling wine – have quickly been trademarked in Kiev. Ukrainian wine producers are now making them using grapes grown in Odessa – even though the Crimean Novyi Svit is now being sold in Russia. Other brands are in a similar position. 

Through a translator, I wrote to Sergei Mihaylechko, director of the Winegrowers and Winemakers of Ukraine, and asked him how the brand swaps were working. He replied it’s going well. “Several Crimean brands are available in the territory of Ukraine,” he said, adding that whether this solution will be effective long term is hard to say. The loss of Crimea is a major blow: “Undoubtedly, Crimean wines are allotted a place of honour,” he wrote. “Firstly, Crimea is an important part of the history of Ukrainian winemaking and represents the knowledge of several generations of winemakers.” Not only that, but he said Crimean wines also accounted for around 55% of Ukrainian production.

Mihaylechko wanted to emphasise that the annexation of Crimea “does not mean the death of Ukrainian wine production. We have serious manufacturers in Odessa, Kherson, Mykolaiv and the Transcarpathian regions,” he wrote. “The vineyard area of Odessa exceeds the area in Crimea. We have the raw materials and experts.” What is missing, he said, was state support.

As to why Crimea’s vineyards are in such a bad way: “Negative trends in viticulture and winemaking of Crimea was part of the processes that took place in the wine industry in Ukraine as a whole.” He added that the entire sector benefited from financial support until 2010, when the program was abolished and excise taxes increased. “In Ukrainian wine, there is no long-term planning. This is due to the deteriorating economic climate in the country.”

Historic Crimea

Yelena Batrak, chief of Massandra’s collection department, clutches a striking gold shawl around her as she heads into the tunnels.

Massandra, two long buildings under the shadow of the Ai-Petri mountains, was built by Prince Golitsyn, the most significant figure in Russian wine history. He studied winemaking in France, set up the sparkling facilities at Abrau-Durso, established a winemaking school, and established Novyi Svit on the south coast of Crimea. Massandra, founded in 1894 in the Yalta area to supply the nearby palace of Tsar Nicholas II, is Crimea’s most famous winery. Batrak shows us old photos of the massive engineering work it took to bore seven tunnels through the mountains. These are used for wine storage.

The ‘Massandra Collection’ – essentially the Tsar’s private cellar, along with other great wines assembled until the 1940s – became internationally famous in 1990 when bottles of fortified wine from years such as 1914 and 1886 were auctioned in London. Old bottles from the Collection are still sold today, often at very high prices. 

The region’s sub-tropical climate makes it ideal for fortified wines. Only 10% to 15% of Massandra’s production is table wines, though the rate is increasing to meet market demand. The winery’s vineyards run 180 km along the south and east coasts, covering 4,000 ha. The grapes are diverse: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Bastardo, Saperavi and others in the reds, and Kokur, Aligoté, Chardonnay, Rkatseteli, Verdelho and Sercial in the whites. And exports? “Before the sanctions, we sold 55% of production to the US, UK, Poland, Europe and Russia,” says the translator. And now? “We’re planning to sell our wines to China.”

Such a loss sounds catastrophic. No, says Batrak, who mimics someone laden with shopping. Apparently Russian tourists have been buying as much wine as they can carry, now that they don’t have to pay duty. Plus, Russian orthodox priests are flooding them with orders.

We walk through Prince Golitsyn’s collection, the Hermitage Museum of fortified wines. In pride of place are several bottles of 1775 Jerez de la Frontera. They’ve survived the Russian revolution and two world wars, but didn’t quite make it past Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin, who did this same tour in September. Berlusconi asked to drink one, and Masssandra’s new pro-Russian director, Yanina Pavlenko, is accused of removing a bottle, worth up to $90,000, for him. Batrak just smiles when I ask her about it.

Ukrainian authorities are now trying to prosecute Pavlenko. They probably have as much chance of nabbing her as the Russians do of laying their hands on former director Nikolay Boyko, now a fugitive in Ukraine. Massandra is missing thousands of bottles of rare vintages, which Boyko stands accused of selling for his own personal gain.

The tasting room is new and elegant: damask walls, a chandelier, cut crystal and fine china on the table. Russian money refurbished the room and more money is promised for upgrades. It will be expensive: as well as the vineyards, there are eight other winemaking facilities, some of which are still using Soviet-style equipment, and 2,600 staff. 

No spitting allowed, says Batrak, as it’s disrespectful. The still wines – Moscato, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet – are indifferent. The ‘Madeira’, of which there are four levels, is a different matter. “Madeira is the glory of Massandra,” says Batrak, adding that in markets where the name Madeira can’t be used, it’s called Etalita instead. Normally Massandra produces 12m bottles of fortified wines a year, but production currently runs at 10m, which is the amount the Russian market can absorb. 

End game

The Crimea that I saw is a beautiful, wild place, with a spectacular coastline. And good terroir — the ‘new wave’ wineries demonstrate how a small amount of investment in Crimea has produced commercially sound to excellent wines in a short time. But if Crimea is really to show what it can do, it needs investment and, for the moment, the only source of that money is a small group of wealthy Russians. Politics aside, it’s clear some of that Russian cash is already producing some excellent wines, not to mention bringing much-needed economic activity to the region.

But, of course, politics can’t be thrust aside. As a result of military action, wine in this part of the world has been turned inside out, from Kiev to Moscow. There’s only one thing that’s absolutely clear about the situation: it may be some time before Westerners can sample Crimean wines for themselves.

Felicity Carter travelled to Crimea as a guest of the new wave wineries. With thanks to Eugene Gerden and Anton Moiseenko for help with Russian translations.

 

Snapshot of Crimea

Total production capacity: 264,000 tons of grapes

Total enterprises on the peninsula: 2,500

People involved: 200,000

Crimea’s population: 1,960,541

Total winegrowing area: 70,000 ha

 

The ‘new wave’ wineries

Alma Valley (2006)
Uppa Winery (2006)
Satera (2008)
Oleg Repin (2008)
 

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