Autochthon was one of the kings in the legendary island of Atlantis. You may or may not believe in existence of the wealthy and mighty ancient kingdom that disappeared a long time ago, but Russian wine producers consider local autochthonous varietals to be antique treasure inherited from a mythical land.
Despite the shortage of quality saplings, a growing number of Russian wineries, both big and small, are planting indigenous varietals and looking to develop their own signature styles.
“Autochthonous sounds trendy now,” said Leonid Popovich, president of the Russian Union of Winegrowers and Winemakers. “More and more wine estates plant those vines, a few hundred hectares each year. I spent the years of my childhood in the valley of the Don River, among the vines of Poukhlyakovsky” a local grape that “seemed to be a commodity — raw material for the everyday wines. No one could imagine that, a few decades later, these varietals would become fashionable.”
The Don Valley, Dagestan and Crimean vine families have up to 100 members between them, even if they are mostly forgotten today. Names include Krasnostop, Tsymlyansky, Sibirkovy, Poukhlyakovsky and Kokur, among other varietals.
According to Popovich’s estimates, Russian autochthonous varietals now occupy between 2,500 and 3,000 ha, or up to 3 percent of the total Russian vineyard surface. Many of the vineyards uprooted during Gorbachev’s 1985 anti-alcohol campaign, or abandoned during the economic crisis of the early 1990s, are now being replanted.
The first comparative blind tasting of wines produced from Russian grapes took place during the 2019 International Winemakers Symposium in the city of Novorossiysk, on the Black Sea. The tasting featured more than 70 wines made of autochthonous grapes, with an international panel trying to identify and rate them. The experts, however, were stumped by some of the wines.
Oleg Repin, chief winemaker for the Amelia Wine Company, says such tastings show that it can be difficult to get consistent results from indigenous grapes. “Vignerons are willing to plant autochthones, but they do not have a consistent supply of necessary clones and, logically, cannot get stable results,” he said. “Producing wine from autochthones is a great challenge, but it’s also a huge research field and it’s very important work to do.”
The research is taking place. A limited-edition book, The Ampelography of Crimean Indigenous and Local Grapes, which has a detailed description of the genetics of 55 autochthonous varietals, was published in 2018 by the Magaratch Wine Research Institute in Yalta. Alexey Sapsay, a consultant for the Double Magnum agency and co-author of the book, says there is a new generation of winemakers who are thirsty to experiment and make discoveries. “In knowing more about autochthones, we have a real opportunity for self-expression,” he said. “We have more freedom to create new styles of wine.”
Repin hopes that the state will work with Russian wine producers to revive the autochthones. “An autochthone renaissance sounds like a beautiful story but, in fact, it has quite a long and costly way to go,” he said. “It normally takes three or four years to get virus-free and genetically approved clones before you can plant them.”
It is not easy to find a reliable nursery selling certified virus-free autochthonous young plants, as none of the four working Russian nurseries offer a choice of Russian indigenous varietals. When Sun Valley winery in Crimea decided to plant Kokur, it had to send cuttings to the Rauscedo nursery in Italy, to get certified, grafted plants.
Petr Romanishin, the CEO of Fanagoria, a large-scale winery in southern Russia, admits that the lack of young vines is a constraint on the Russian wine industry. “We have our own nursery where our agronomists work both on international and autochthonous varietals,” he said, adding that because of this, Fanagoria has been able to craft wines that have won medals in international competitions. This has convinced him that working with autochthonous grapes will ultimately give Russian producers a way in to export markets. “We should not underestimate the importance of the terroir factor,” he said, “but it seems more likely that, on the international markets, Russia will be identified with some of our autochthones.”
Where indigenous grapes fit
Repin predicts that Russia will follow the path of the Super Tuscans, basing the majority of its industry on international varietals but using its autochthonous grapes to create specialty wines.
The question of international grapes is itself a complicated one; European grapes were planted in Russia more than a hundred years ago by colonists and settlers from Germany or Romania. Today, these grapes are known locally by their Russian names, their origins forgotten. Some Russian wineries consider them autochthonous, which they put on the labels, despite having no genetic confirmation of their identity.
“I would not accuse those wine producers of counterfeit,” said Repin. “It is probably just about their personal misconception.”
For his part, Sapsay suggests that, after more than a century of propagation, these varieties may have a unique morphology and identity. He points to the Serexia Noir grape, which originated in Romania and Moldova, but which is known as Rastryopa around the Azov Sea in Russia. “Apparently it has become resistant to frost and, surprisingly, even to phylloxera,” he said. “Another interesting Azov variety, known as Dvufrannik, is likely to be Blaufränkisch, brought to the southern Russia by German colonists in the middle of 19th century.”
Arthur Sarkisyan, author and publisher of the annual Russian Wine Guide, warns of a growing amount of “dangerous speculation” around the very notion of autochthonous grapes. “The term has only recently become widely used and some marketers cannot stay away from the temptation of inaccurate use,” he said, adding that wine labels promising the “authentic flavor of autochthone wines” are misleading to consumers.
Valery Troichuk, co-founder of Vedernikov Winery, 160km from Rostov on Don, agrees. “I have seen too many labels promising Krasnostop inside the bottle, but the real Krasnostop Zolotovsky was not there,” he said.
Even if a grape is genuinely autochthonous, uncovering its origins is not easy. Mikhail Nikolaev, a managing partner of the Lefkadia Valley Winery in Krasnodar Krai, points out that the region is also known as the North Caucasus. If Georgia is the originator of varietals like Saperavi, Rkatsiteli and others, he said, “those varietals should be considered as autochthonous for us too”.
But not many Russian wine producers are ready to identify themselves with other countries’ wine achievements.
“Jancis Robinson defines autochthones as ‘heritage’ varieties,” said Romanishin. “I doubt we can talk about Cabernet Sauvignon as part of our regional heritage, despite the fact it was planted in Russia more than a hundred years ago.”
What may be true is that because indigenous varieties have adapted to the local terroir, they may withstand climate change better.
Troichuk, one of Russia’s pioneering winemakers who began working with Don Valley autochthones in 2004, agrees that indigenous grapes can deliver very high quality in difficult weather conditions.
Vedernikov, located in the northern part of Don Valley, is on parallel 47 — its continental climate is famous for both very hot, dry summers and severe winter frosts that require the burial of the vines in winter. Despite this, Vedernikov’s autochthonous wines have become well known and its Krasnostop has won numerous gold medals.
Hybrid varietals bred by Russian research institutes in late 1960s and 1970s, many of them resistant to frost, phylloxera and fungi, might be an alternative response to climatic challenges. Some of Russia’s leading winemakers are convinced that these hybrid varietals could allow Russian wineries to produce reasonably priced, quality wines.
Alexey Sapsay, who consulted to the Azov Vine estate on the organic use of domestically bred hybrids, is sure that in a few years we can see “real breakthrough in quality” of wine produced from hybrid varietals. “These varietals are highly resistant, so they need less chemical treatment,” he said, adding that they’re both sustainable and suitable for price sensitive markets. “They were bred by the old-school Russian selectionists so they are part of our heritage as well.”
New winemaking techniques have coaxed quality wines out of the hybrid grapes. Two years ago, a dry red wine produced from the Dostoyny hybrid grape, made by the Yubileynaya winery, won the Grand Prix of Russia’s Winemakers and Vintners Union Cup, judged by international panel of tasters. Other hybrid varietals, such as Rubinovy or Citronny, bred by the Magaratch institute, or Platovsky, bred by the Novocherkassk institute, are also in demand by wine estates.
“I decided to plant Rubinovy vines bred by the Magaratch Institute in my vineyard,” said Repin. “I find it very good for blending. I realise that many people are still too conservative to admit that. But screw caps were also rejected by conservative part of the wine world a few years ago.”
The majority of Russia’s wine producers have an optimistic view of both Russia’s autochthonous and hybrid varietals. Leonid Popovich does, however, see some major difficulties ahead, particularly the lack of precise clonal selection — and the complicated spelling of traditional Russian names. “Sometimes, they are difficult to pronounce, sometimes their meanings are difficult to understand, and sometimes they sound just funny,” he said.
Russian sommelier Darya Tarasova, who comes from Rostov-on-Don and who now works for the Seabourn cruising company, says clients from different countries often ask if there are interesting indigenous grape varieties in Russia. “Of course, I tell them about my native Krasnostop, Tsymlyansky and Sibirkovy,” she says. “But in most cases those conversations end up with laughter. People imagine that Sibirkovy grape is grown in Siberia.”
This article first appeared in Issue 3, 2020 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available in print or online by subscription.