Russia is the world’s largest country, though its population of 138 million ranks it ninth most populous in the world. It is one of those old world countries, with a multi-millennia history of vine cultivation, once again diving into the modern and new world of wine.
Russian wine judge Vladimir Tsapelik, introduced his country’s wines at a May 2012 tasting in London.
The country has more than 70,000 hectares of vineyards, virtually all them located some 1,500km south of Moscow. This is significantly down on the Mikhail Gorbachev-era vineyard area. In 1980 per capita wine consumption was around 20 litres per head, so Gorbachev started an uprooting scheme in the late 1980s that saw the vineyard area shrink to 90,000 ha by 1995.
By the end of 1991, the USSR had been dissolved into 15 independent states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Most of the old USSR’s vineyard area was outside of Russia, which had been the Soviet Union’s biggest state, and this left its industry’s source of grapes ostensibly depleted.
By 2000 per capita wine consumption had fallen to 3 litres, and it is in the last decade that consumption has been on the rise again as standards of living have been improving in the new millennium. It’s now around 7.5 litres a head.
Even such a modest per capita consumption makes the market a big one, some 10.58 Mhl (million hectolitres) in 2011. The figure is split between sparkling wine at 2.65 Mhl, and still wine at 7.93 Mhl, according to figures compiled from official data by the Asti Group. In 2000, these consumption figures had been just 0.69Mhl (69 million litres) and 3.4Mhl respectively, a huge growth.
As well as consumption, production since 2000 has also shown huge growth, and it is still not keeping pace with demand. Still wine production is double what it was in 2000, at 4.8 Mhl in 2011, though vintage 2010 saw the country’s biggest production for 20 years, at 5.4 Mhl. Around a third of Russian production feeds into sparkling wine.
It is expected that production of both still and sparkling wines will continue to grow, which should mean the practice of making “Russian” wines using imported bulk diminishing over time. At the moment though, Russia has to import a third of its still wine needs, and around 20% of its sparkling wine needs.
Russia’s main vineyard areas are in the far south west corner of Russia, between the Black and Caspian seas, in the territories immediately north of Georgia. Rostov on Don (east of Ukraine), Krasnodar, (south of Rostov on the north-eastern shore of the Black sea), Stavropol (east of Krasnodar), and Dagestan (further east still, on the western shores of the Caspian sea) are the regions to be conjured with as the Russian wine industry re-establishes itself.
The moderating influence of the Black and Caspian seas are vital in this region of extreme continental climate, which requires vines to be buttressed with earth to protect against the winter freeze.
Given Russia’s ancient and modern vinous history, it’s unsurprising that the country grows more than 100 grape varieties. Indigenous varieties include krasnostop zolotovskiy, tsimlyanskiy chorny (black tsimlyanskiy), plechistik and sibirkoviy. Saperavi and rkatsiteli, from neighbouring Georgia, are also widely planted, and more recent imports include the usual Western European suspects such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, riesling, chardonnay and pinot blanc.
Russian producers such as Abrau-Durso, Fanagoria, Kuban-Vino, Myskhako and Vinodel’nya Vedernikov are reinventing themselves for the modern market, using modern equipment and techniques, and there is plenty of foreign investment and winemaker expertise flying in, such as at French-influenced Château Le Grand Vostock and Château Tamagne from Kuban-Vino.
Tasting and notes, London, May 2012
South Wine Company, Viorika Muskatnaya 2011
A dry white wine from viorika grape variety.
Aromatic, with muscat-type nose, grapey and floral then card/tarry note at back of nose and front of palate, funky, feral notes (negative connotations).
Tsapelik said “this is not completely vitis vinifera. There is some labrusca/amerensis.”
Whilst this would not pass muster in a UK competition, he said this wine wins medals in national competitions.
Kuban-Vino, Château Tamagne, Mer Noir Blanc 2011
From sauvignon blanc and muscat. More of an international standard here. There is a French consulting winemaker.
Not too aromatic on the nose. Clean, fresh, slightly citrus with modest acidity perception. Nicely balanced in light, aperitif style, with light-ish alcohol (11.5%). Sound and decent, with good length of finish.
Myskhako, Cabernet Sauvignon Grand Reserve 2008
Spicy black fruit on the nose, followed by medium weight body of cassis and hints of classic farmyard maturity beginning to show. Dried fruits with hints of black pepper. Fine-grained tannin, with gravelly notes. Wholesome, flavoursome and nicely balanced. Good.
Tsapelik said “this is one of the best Russian wines and quite expensive.”
Garage Winery Klyuch Zhizni, Krasnostop Zolotovskiy 2010
Dark ruby, youthful colour. Closed nose, berry fruit palate attack, with a lot of raw, new oak tannins. Fruit is sweet/sour cherry and forest berries, but the tannins are chewy and chunky, and drying on the cheeks. The 15% alcohol is not so obtrusive.
Vinodelnya Vedernikov, Krasnostop Zolotovskiy 2010
Deep ruby colour. Dark berry nose, with sweet perfume of cherry and strawberry fruit. Decent mid-palate texture, with full, ripe red fruit flavours, and oak still overt, young and with firm grip on the gums, but not dominant. Has some layers and shows as balanced and tasty.
Fanagoria, Ledianoe Vino Saperavi 2010
Tsapelik said “this is not ice wine. It is late harvest then frozen in refrigerators. We have cold winters but at time of harvest there is no time” of naturally icy weather.
Fallen rose petal colour. Quite funky nose (a bit of vidal about it). Floral and funky and sweet and faintly cloying.