Busting the Myths around Russian Wines

Russian wine,  from a country with generally temperate to cold climes, tends to raise eyebrows and flare nostrils, though not in a good way. Outside of Russia (and to some degree inside). Russian fine wine has rarely enjoyed a strong reputation, for a multitude of reasons. And it stretches back to the Soviet period. Things have changed, albeit slowly, since the decline of Communism. Although challenges remain for wineries hoping to improve both the quality of Russian wine and its standing in the international wine market.

In this article, Singapore Wine Vault tackles the various myths behind Russian Wines.

A brief history of Russian wine

Like most things relating to Russian history, wine is not simple. Given the breadth of the country and its frequently changing borders, summarising a history of winemaking in the region is difficult. Russia is and has long been both a wine-producing and wine-drinking country, although in different ways over time. In 1980 the country produced more wine than the US. Naturally, Cold War-era sanctions meant little of this left the country. Most oenophiles would argue this to be a good thing, given the general quality at that time. Wine, in what is now Russia, was first produced along its Black Sea Coast over 2,500 years ago by the Greeks.  In the 20th century, number of grape growing areas developed in the Krasnodar, Stavropol and Rostov regions. During the 1980s, Gorbachev introduced a form of prohibition in the Soviet Union to combat endemic alcoholism, which proved detrimental to the wine industry. As a result,  viticulture suffered and only the poorest of wines thriving in any noticeable way. However, the fall of Communism brought hope for a renaissance in Russia’s fine wine industry.

So why does Russian wine have a bad name?

There are many reasons, some valid, some not so, as to why Russian wine doesn’t enjoy a particularly favourable reputation abroad. First, the illusions. In the West in particular, people think of Russia as a cold country, an image intensified by the Cold War. While true in some respects, Russia is one of the largest and climatically diverse nations in the world, and the aforementioned wine regions can stand up to some of the finest wine producing areas in the world. Indeed, parts of the Black Sea sit on the same latitude as Bordeaux and Piedmont, and so weather is not always such a strong barrier as might be believed. That said, even wine producing regions can face cold winters.

Acclaimed vineyards such as Château Le Grand Vostock have lost vines due to cold weather and respected wine writer Jancis Robinson notes that even in one of the country’s best wine growing region, Kuban, vines have been lost in the winter.

Still, the extreme variations in temperature do not preclude Russia from producing wine of various qualities.

So why else does the country’s vinous produce come with a bad reputation? Around 4/5ths of wine sold in Russia is of the poor quality variety. Traditionally, Russians have favoured sweet or semi?sweet types of wine, a preference introduced by Stalin. Though things are changing, many Russians still find Western or American wines too sour.

Master of Wine Derek Smedley has argued that although Russia remains, in production terms, a low to medium-priced wine manufacturer, there is an ever growing focus on premium wine. A number of improvements have taken place in the country’s industry, including the development of  state-of-the-art technology wineries, modern equipment, new tanks, sorting tables and new oak. Attention to soil fertility and maintenance have also improved a great deal, sparking hope that the country’s fine wine producers can compete with their more illustrious neighbours. Wine remains expensive in Russia due to various factors such as  sanctions from abroad and heavy taxes.  There’s also the government ban (up for review) on the advertising of any alcohol besides  beer. But as is often the case, this may benefit exclusive producers, with discerning customers holding out for top quality wines.

What does the future hold?

There are a number of challenges ahead. As Anton Moiseenko notes, Russia, like any developing economy, has a strong nouveaux riche element amongst its burgeoning upper and middle class. They  often favour price over quality. While this may line the pockets of some producers, it is unlikely to burnish the reputation of wines abroad. However, things are changing. There have been calls for the introduction of minimum price for wines in Russia by quality producers.  This may stem the tide of cheap, poor quality wines flooding the market.

Another important factor is that, while a lot of Russian wine is made with foreign grapes (from Ukraine, Iran and elsewhere) very little is produced with chemical intervention. With the growing popularity of organically made produce, there is space in the market for the country to exploit.

But perhaps the greatest hope is in the produce itself. With the main wine regions of Krasnodar and Rostov producing international variations of  Sauvignon Blanc, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and more, the quality of internationally influenced yet locally produced wine is growing. White wines in the country tend to be crisp, in direct contrast to the country’s traditional sweet varieties. Top red wines have seen producers favour a balance between depth and character without being overly heavy.

A number of regions and vineyards are making a strong name for themselves, particularly the Lefkadia Winery which, with large plots of land, is producing high quantities of top quality wine. It helps that they use  state-of-the-art technology and methods. Black Sea wineries including Fanagoria and Villa Victoria are among other wineries to have been mentioned and feted in the English speaking press. It can only do good things for the nation’s reputation. While national and international factors will continue to dictate just how well the country produce fares, the fact is quite clear: Russia can, and does, produce high?quality wine.

Busting another myth: incredible wines can be found in the most unusual places. ‘Garage Wine’ production is rife in parts of Russia. Small producers have turned their garages into wineries which you can come across on a journey through the regions. If you can find them, rumour has it that they are some of the most palatable wines in Russian production.