Winemaking in the Grasslands: Kazakhstan’ Thousand-Year History with Wine

These days, people are likely to associate Kazakhstan with the 2006 comedy film, ‘Borat’. Although initially, the film was heavily criticized by the local government, the mockumentary earned rave reviews from respected film critics. It also helped boost the country’s tourism. Even Kazakh foreign minister, Erlan Idrissov acknowledged that Borat ‘put the country on the map’.

Join us here at Singapore Wine Vault, as we delve deep into the world of Kazakh wine.

 

History of Winemaking in Kazakhstan

Located within the great cultural spheres of Asia and Europe, Kazakhstan’s winemaking tradition started in the 7th century AD. Traders from the neighboring countries of Uzbekistan and China, introduced viticulture to the landlocked region. Archaeological evidences indicate that vines were initially planted in the surrounding areas of the city of Shymkent. Over time, Kazakhstan’s vine area expanded to places such as Atyrau, Aktobe, Taraz, Issyk, and Almaty.

Although the Kazakhs have been enjoying wine for over 1,300 years, the liquor was mostly made for personal consumption. It wasn’t until the height of the Soviet era that wide-scale winemaking became a popular practice. Josef Stalin’s gulags had inadvertently introduced modern winemaking to various parts of the Soviet Union. This had a profound effect on the local wine trade. Slowly and quietly, vineyards were established in remote sections of the land. By 1976, long after the death of Stalin, Kazakhstan already had 26 vineyards, with a dozen more wine storage facilities.

For a long time, only a few people knew about the existence of these vineyards. In 1987, however, then-President Mikhail Gorbachev, a self-proclaimed wine connoisseur, fell in love with the taste of the wines produced by these local wineries. His recognition of Kazakh wine catapulted the liquor into national consciousness. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Russia and Kazakhstan became wine trading partners.  

Major Wine-Producing Regions

Kazakhstan may be the ninth-largest country in terms of land area, but only four percent of the land is suitable for viticulture. Despite its limited vine area, this Central Asian country is capable of producing 6.2 million gallons of wine every year. Because of its continental climate, most of the vineyards in Kazakhstan are located in the southern regions of the country near China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Some of today’s biggest and most productive wine regions in Kazakhstan include:

Issyk Winery — Located 25 miles east of Almaty, 80% of the total wine production of Kazakhstan comes from the Issyk Winery. Though the business has been producing wine for the past 19 years, its technology received a much-needed boost when Italian and Australian experts brought in the latest viticultural practices and winemaking technologies.

Winnac Winery — Started by Artur Karapetyan, a Kazakh of Armenian descent, the Winnac Estate is a relatively new winery that started operations in 2004. Today, Winnac offers a selection of 22 different wines and five (5) cognacs.

Bacchus — Named after the Roman god of wine, Bacchus (also spelled ‘Bakhus’) is the most popular and the oldest winery in Kazakhstan. Today, Bacchus produces 80 different beverages such as wine, cognac, champagne, and vodka. Apart from its excellent wine logistics and efficiency, Bacchus’ close proximity to  Almaty allows it full access to the biggest wine market in Kazakhstan.

Turguen — The Turguen Estate is a new and promising winemaking enterprise that started in 2009. Although relatively young, the estate is capable of producing 11 million bottles of wine each year.

Top Wines Produced by Kazakhstan

Considering how long the country has been producing wine, it’s not surprising that its vineyards contain ancient grape varieties that are practically unknown to the outside world. Some of these rare varieties include the Bayan Shirley, the Kuldzhinski, and the Rkatsiteli.

Today, however, Kazakhstan is making a name for itself by planting and also producing the following classic wine grape varietals:    

Sauvignon Blanc — The country’s Sauvignon Blanc is characterized by its green and herbaceous flavor. Depending on the ripeness of the wine, its fruity notes can go from zesty lime to a lush peach.

Merlot — Like its French counterpart, Kazakh Merlot has easy tannins making for a silky mouthfeel. Its smooth, dark fruit flavors of black cherries, ripe plums, and raspberries are balanced by piquant undertones of tobacco, graphite, and cloves.

Cabernet Sauvignon — Cabernet Sauvignon is a complex wine distinguished by the fine marriage of black fruit flavors and peppery undercurrents. Because of its rich flavor, this wine is best paired with food rich in ‘umami,’ like a generous serving of marinated ribeye steak or creamy mushroom stroganoff.

Pinot Noir — This wine variety is a classic — and by classic, we mean it predates the Cabernet Sauvignon by about a thousand years. Many wine lovers praise the Pinot Noir for its light fruit flavors—we’re talking cherries, cranberries, and raspberries — and its subtle hints of licorice, vanilla, and caramel.

Riesling — Many people would describe the taste of Riesling as ‘starting from the nose’ because it is one of the most aromatic wines on the market. Due to its acidity and sweetness, Riesling makes a wonderful companion to savory dishes.

With its high-quality wine selection and burgeoning local market, the country has what it takes to become a significant player in the global wine industry in the near future. So if you’re planning on taking a trip to a wine region this summer, consider a wine tour in Kazakhstan instead.