Russian Wine Country
Text and photos by Charles W. Borden
Two months have passed since Russia’s wine crisis began, and supermarket Sedmoi Kontinent still has only a handful of wines. The bureaucrats have crippled Russia’s wine industry and it is difficult to understand how they can fix it anytime soon. Despairing over our inability to provide a wine tasting in Moscow, we set off on a tour of Russian Wine Country, just as harvest was about to begin. September and October are the bakhardniy (velvet) season in the south, a beautiful time to take a few days to see one of Russia’s bounteous wine areas, the northern Black Sea coast in the Krasnodar region.
Russia’s principal wine producing area stretches from the port Novorossiysk on the south, through the coastal children’s resort at Anapa, and then north through the Taman Peninsula at the south end of the Azov Sea where wines were produced in Greek settlements over 2,500 years ago. Although there are now approximately 20 wineries in this area, only a few still produce authentic wines from their own grapes. Unfortunately, some wineries import bulk wine or grape concentrate to produce wines labeled as Russian – I have heard of one winery that imports one type of cheap red Spanish plonk to produce 11 different “Russian” wines.
There are numerous daily direct flights of about two hours to Anapa, from all of Moscow’s airports. By September, the hotels that line Anapa’s golden sand beaches have emptied and prices are low, and there are many full service health resorts around Anapa (called sanotoria) that have first class rooms. We check in at the Ural, with pool, large sauna, three meals a day from the Swedish buffet, and European class rooms at just 1,500 rubles per day during this “low” season. We had already made arrangements to hire a car and driver at $100 per day plus fuel.
We first head south from Anapa; it takes about 45 minutes to reach Novorossiysk, Russia’s largest warm water port, and home to USSR President Brezhnev’s favorite winery, Myskhako. This winery is situated on Wizard Mountain overlooking the city. Brezhnev fought in a famous battle here in World War II and Myskhako’s cellars were used as a field hospital and bunker for his unit. For the past few years, fly-in Australian winemaker John Worontschak has helped Myskhako improve their wines. Myskako’s crisp, white Aligote and Chardonnay wines have made it into Moscow through the current wine shortage crisis and are bargains at just 140 rubles a bottle.
Heading north about 20 kilometers and back towards Anapa, we find the legendary sparkling wine producer, Abrau Durso, which is located a few kilometers towards the sea off the main highway. Abrau Durso was founded in 1870 and in 1896, Prince Lev Golitsyn, the godfather of modern Russian winemaking, arrived with French specialists to make sparkling wines. Caverns and tunnels were dug under the hillside at the winery. Abrau Durso continued operations during Soviet times as a vinsovkhoz (state wine farm) and today still produces sparkling wine according to classic methods.
A few kilometers further towards the sea brings us to the home and winery of newcomer, Winemaking House Karakezidi. Here, musician and artist Ivan Karakezidi makes just one wine, a full-bodied red he calls Stretto. We finish the day at a table on his front porch, watching the setting sun over the Black Sea, with Shashlik, Stretto, music from Ivan (flute) and his son (guitar).
The next morning, after a refreshing dip in the Black Sea, we are picked up by the black Mercedes van from Chateau Le Grand Vostock, for the 45-minute trip inland to this leading area winery in the village of Sadovy. The “Chateau” and its 400 hectares of vineyards occupy an entire valley of this hilly, forested area. This is a new completely modern winery constructed with French technology, equipment and specialists in 2003. Its wines are readily available in Moscow through their website and at some of the city’s most fashionable restaurants. We take a guided tour of the winery from resident French winemaker Frank Duseigneur and his wife, quality manager Gael Brullon. Amid its gleaming stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels, we try the full range of the Chateau’s wines from its Terres du Sud (150 rubles) to the top of the line, Chene Royale, named for a stately oak that sits on a nearby hilltop overlooking the vineyards.
Two buildings in the village have been remodeled into small hotels. We spend the remainder of the afternoon wandering the village and surrounding vineyards and forest. We dine at the neighborhood stolovaya, the only place that could be called a restaurant, and this is not typical stolovaya food; its menu has been modified to please its regular French guests. Sadovy is very peaceful and quiet, without the modern background noise that is ever present, even in small towns. At night, a dog’s bark breaks the silence like a knife.
In the early morning, a van arrives to pick us up for our next destination, the Taman Peninsula. The drive to Fanagoria winery takes about an hour and we drive past some of the area’s famous mud volcanoes; cones of clay created as hot water rises from deep in the earth. Fanagoria is the largest winery in the area, and also a former state wine farm. Australian winemaker Worontshak recently began working at Fanagoria as well and new French crushing equipment has been installed. Fanagoria produces its best wines from French grape vines planted in 1999. Fanagoria’s herbal wines, Cherny Leker (Black Healer) and Bely Leker (White Healer) are specialties.
From Fanagoria, we drive to Taman where we visit the small, very well kept archeological museum that displays artifacts from the many civilizations that have populated the region. We drive on to Port Kavkaz where we can see the Crimean peninsula across the strait that passes between the Azov and Black Sea. The drive back to Anapa (and the Ural) takes us by the Lenina Winery and Vityazevo Winery, directly across from the Anapa airport. Vityazevo is home to many Russians of Greek descent that were forced out of northern Turkey and Greece. Vityazevo Winery is run by Valery Aslanov and his sons, who have made many improvements since its time as part of a state wine farm. They produce a decent red Krasny Pontiskoye and white Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, but the velvety, deep red dessert wine, Kagor Vityazevo, is their most interesting creation.
There are other signs of an awakening of the sleepy Russian wine industry – rumors of a European joint venture which has purchased land and is planting vineyards south of Anapa, and a Swiss winemaker has started a small winery east of Anapa. At the same latitude as Bordeaux and the Piedmont, and as one of the oldest wine regions in the world, French winemakers recognized its potential in the late 19th century. Perhaps, 15 years after the end of the USSR, this region will waken to its future on the world wine stage.