Russian French Champagne Shootout
By Charles Borden
Photos by Alexey Gorov
This month’s wine tasting, one of our most interesting, started with a comment from John Ortega about a deprecatory Moscow Times article about Soviet ‘Champagnes’. I responded that “the Soviet Shampnskoye” produced throughout Russia is primarily made from imported ‘vino-material’; cheap imported bulk wine that is processed through the ‘reservoir’ method to create a sparkling wine This probably accounts for 99 percent or more of the sparkling wine produced in Russia. However, there are a couple of wineries, like Abrau Durso on the Black Sea, that make at least part of their production from local grapes and locally produced wine according to classic methods.”
A few days later John asked about a wine subject for the October issue. I proposed, “Passport Birthday Party: Sparkling Wines – Classic Russian, Crimean, and a Touch of the Real Thing.” The response, “íĺň – Russia has a long way to go on sparkling wines, they still don’t have the méthode champenoise system down to a science nor the bulk method charmat and do we want to associate Passport Magazine with poor quality??”
After another exchange, I finally got, “Ok Charles, you win! You pick Russia’s four best Champagnes and I will pick the four best that I can find and we do a Champagne Sparkling Wine tasting out of it! ! Passport’s own Russian French Champagne Shootout!”
So we end up at Bistrot, ensconced at one of the coveted big center tables on the patio, and on a Friday night; very hard to accomplish. John has picked up five top Champagnes from DP Trade’s Magnum shop on Kutuzovsky, including his favorite, Salon Blanc de Blancs Brut. I went to the Massandra shop on Komsomolsky Prospekt, which sells a wide selection of wines from “real wineries” of Russia and Ukraine, meaning those around the Black Sea. I picked four of the best from the three wineries in the CIS that still produce sparkling wines according to the classic methods developed in France: Novy Svet on the Crimea peninsula, Abrau-Durso on Russia’s Black Sea coast, and Artyomovsk Winery in Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast. I had to search further for a bottle from one of my favorite Russian sparkling wines, a red from Tsimlanskoye Winery in eastern Rostov region, but I found one at an AM shop but couldn’t find one of their best, which is apparently made in accordance with an “old Cossack” method. All of the wines, French and Russian, were brut with the exception of the Tsimlanskoye.
John Ortega and Stephen Williams
George Voloshin and Jan Heere
We were a panel of ten, / including wine expert Stephen Williams of the Antique Wine Company, who was in town to meet customers. By chance he had emailed John two days earlier to get acquainted and scored a last minute invitation. An old friend of John’s from Los Angeles also joined us, Bernie Bubman, founder of Great Earth Vitamins, who happened to be in town for a consulting gig.
We decided that this would be our first blind tasting, and Bistrot sommelier Nikolai Lesenkov helped us make it completely blind. His helpers wrapped each bottle in foil before chilling them in wine buckets, and Nikolai chose the order of presentation. We knew the names of wines that would be served but not the order. Nikolai advised us not to drink any other wine before the sparkling, but did give us a large platter of assorted cheese and ham.
The Bistrot staff under Nikolai’s direction did a marvelous job of serving the wines and replacing our glasses with each serving. The wine pours were small in traditional champagne flutes. The tasting quickly became a guessing game, the key questions being “Is this Russian or French?” And for the bold: “Which wine is this?”
For two days, John had put me on the spot, and reminded me several times that he was “expecting a lot” from my selections. I tried to downplay expectations because, despite the fact that I had tried one of the best sparkling wines of my life in the Abrau Durso cellars with their winemaker, I was not so sure these wines would show well. I thought we would easily distinguish between the incredibly expensive French Champagnes and the Russian challengers. Well, this was not the case. And in the end a Russian pulled off the top rating, though four French filled out the top five.
The top French Champagne was John’s longtime favorite, and it had a price to match: Salon Blanc de Blancs Brut Le Mesnil 1995 (WS 96) $635
This is assertive and grainy in texture, a big-boned Champagne that’s powerful and intensely flavored. Biscuit, graphite, honeysuckle, peach and floral notes come together, defined by the firm structure, and lasts throughout the complex finish. It needs a little more time for the elements to harmonize. Drink now through 2018. 500 cases imported. –BS
Source: Wine Spectator
Current auction price $216
Our top scoring Russian wine was a Pinot Noir Rose from Novt Svet. This and the Billecart-Salmon Brut, also a rose, were served together. A surprising tough choice.
Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose NV (WS 90 – Parker 94)
Parker comments: Billecart-Salmon is one of my favorite Champagne houses, and their non-vintage Rose (Lot #L85547401905M) is a consistent winner. A delicate pink color is accompanied by gorgeous sweet cherry, strawberry, and mineral-like scents, assertive mediumbodied flavors, a delicate, crisp personality, and surprising depth as well as persistence. A beautiful berry character in the finish adds to this impeccable rose’s captivating style. Source: Wine Advocate
Russia’s first documented sparkling wine production in 1799 was under the authority of Emperor Pavel I at his palace at Sudak on the Crimean peninsula. By 1812, a number of companies were producing and selling sparkling wines from Crimea, with the first opening at the Sudak State Winemakers’ Academy. From 1840, Prince Vorontsov produced well-received sparkling wines in Crimea under the label Ay-Danil. Crimean wine production ceased during the Crimean War (1854-1856) when English and French invaders tore out vineyards and destroyed production equipment, a large laboratory, and extensive documentation about winemaking and vineyard production.
By the end of the 19th century, the Russian aristocracy had become the largest foreign market for French Champagne. French winemakers even produced a sweet version for the goût russe. At the end of the century, a number of wineries were established in Russia to produce sparkling wines including a French-Russian one by Henri Roederer near Odessa in 1896.
However, it was Prince Golitsyn, the patriarch of modern Russian winemaking, who developed a real tradition of Russian sparkling winemaking. Prince Golitsyn began intensive experimentation with over 600 varieties of grapes on the southeastern Crimea coast in 1878. He studied grape variety behavior and growth in Black Sea coastal conditions and their potential for use in wine production. The grapes he selected for sparkling wines were Pinot Franc, Pinot Gris, Aligote, and Chardonnay. Golitsyn began the first experimentation with the production of sparkling wines using the méthode champenoise (classic) at Novy Svet in 1892. In 1896, Golitsyn’s wines were served at the coronation of Tsar Nicolas II and in 1900 they received the Grand Prix medal in Paris.
The wineries below have continued the tradition of classical sparkling wine production, but note that only the more expensive wines from these wineries are produced classically; the lesser wines are made by the quicker and less expensive reservoir method.
Abrau Durso Winery was founded in 1870 by decree of Emperor Alexander II on land discovered by agronomist Feodor Geiduk in a small, rugged valley about 20 kilometers from Novorossiysk and two kilometers from the Black Sea, which drops 84 meters below. The first grapes planted included Riesling, Portugieser, Aligote, Sauvignon, Saperavi, and Muscat. In 1896, it was decided to begin sparkling wine production at Abrau Durso. Prince Golitsyn, joined by French specialists, quickly began development of the winery. An extensive series of tunnels and caverns were dug into the hills beside the winery. The Prince established a school to train young Russian winemakers. It was these young winemakers that continued the Abrau Durso winemaking tradition after the Revolution when the winery became a vinsovkhoz (state wine farm).
Novy Svet Winery
In 1890, near Sudak on the southeastern Crimean coast on the Black Sea, Golitsyn started the construction of wine cellars and their connecting tunnels in a spectacular location at the foot of Koba-Kaya Mountain where the Novy Svet winery eventually would be built.
Artyomovsk Winery lies to the north of Crimea in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. It was founded in 1950 to produce classic sparkling wines, with production in the special microclimate of 26 underground hectares of abandoned alabaster mines. Artyomovsk purchases wine material from the Crimea. It produces exclusively classic sparkling wines topped by its Red Brut.
The Cossacks made a sparkling wine in the middle of the 17th century on the Don River in the Tsimlanskoi and Kumshatskoi villages in southern Russia. This Cossack wine was popularized throughout Russia by Atman Matvey Platov, the legendary hero of the War of 1812, who always traveled with barrels of Tsimlansky wine. Tsimlanskoye Winery is located in eastern Rostov region, far from the Black Sea. Its sparkling wines are deep purple and sweet, made from local grape varieties.
John Ortega, Managing Director, International Apparel
Charles Borden, Director, Meridian Capital
George Voloshin, Managing Director, Passport Magazine
Jan Heere, General Manager Russia, Inditex (Zara)
Bernie Bubman, Founder, Great Earth Vitamins
Christopher Davies, Partner, AVC Advisory
Stephen Williams, Managing Director, The Antique Wine Company
Diana Pinquette, Cosmetics industry representative
Eric Boone, Knight Frank
Yulia Mygyeva, Marketing Department, Kak Doma
Ortega Easy Rating System
|I love this wine!
|I really like this wine!
|This wine is good!
|This wine is not that good!
|I don’t really care for this wine!
Massandra Wine Shop
Komsomolsky Prospekt 15
Kutuzovsky Prospekt 24
|Novy Svet Pinot Noir 2002 (Rose)
|Salon Blanc de Blancs Brut Le Mesnil 1995
|Bollinger Extra Brut R.D. 1996
|Billecart-Salmon Brut NV (Rose)
|Louis Roederer Cristal 2000
|Novy Svet Prince Golitsyn 2001
|Abrau Durso Brut 2003
|Egly-Ouriet Brut Millesime 1998
|Artemovskoye Silver Age Brut 2006
|Tsimlanskoye Sparkling NV (Red/Sweet)