Russia, world’s largest country that stretches over nine time zones, has a short vegetation period, which limits successful viticulture.
South Dagestan is the only ancient grape growing district with a history of more than 2000 years.
At the beginning of the 17th century, vineyards were planted around
the region of Astrakhan to supply the royal household with grapes and wine.
Ancient Greek merchants started planting vineyards on the shores of Azov-, Black-, and Caspian Seas for wine production.
In the 1800’s, a Crimean sparkling wine produced by Prince Lev Golitsyn won a gold medal in the 1889 Paris Exhibition.
Phylloxera arrived shortly after 1890, French grape farmers and winemakers had to abandon their businesses.
After the 1917 Communist revolution, vineyards were collectivized and production goals changed emphasising quantity rather than quality. Many collective vineyards switched to grape varieties that produced a lot but delivered low quality fruit.
Russians prefer spirits (mainly vodka), and beer, but since 1990 the rich (oligarchs) have taken to drinking French, Italian, Spanish, Argentine, and other imported wines
The eastern European palate (east of Germany and Austria) prefers off dry or sweet wines. Even today the wines of the Caucasus (Georgia and Armenia) taste off dry or sweet, albeit with high levels of acidity that counterbalances the sweetness to some extent.
Today, Cechnya, Dagestan, Rostov-on-Don, Crimea, Krasnodar, Gabardino Balkaria, and Stavropol are the main grape growing regions.
All are located between 43 – 47 north latitude. Around Krasnodar 193 – 233 days are frost-free.
Stavropol happens to be the best agricultural region of Russia, along with Crimea, “acquired` recently by a political manoeuvre.
Several winery owners hired French winemakers and viticulturists to maintain existing vineyards, to improve quality, and find suitable land for planting.
All Russia Potapenko Research Institute for Viticulture and technology conducts research to create new cold resistant vine stock by crossing suitable varieties, i.e cabernet, riesling, pinot noir, and local varieties that are cold resistant . New varieties from research and experiments resulted in creating sibirkovsky, tsimlianski cherny, plechistic, narma, guliabi Dagestanski, vydvizhenets, and zala gyongye.
Rkatsiteli, originally from Georgia, a white grape, constitutes the largest variety planted with 45 per cent of all vineyard acreage, followed by aligote, riesling, clairette, traminer, silvaner, muscats, pinto gris, cabernet sauvignon, saperavi, merlot, palavai, tsimlansky, severnyi, cabernet severnyi, stepniak, fioletovy ranni, muscat derbenski, and other experimental varieties.
Chateau Le Grand Vostock, Preskovoya (Stavropol), Massandra, Tsimlanskoye Winery, Fanagoria, Novy Svet, Myshako and Abrau Durso are the best known and quality oriented wineries today and make their wines exclusively from their own fruit.
Still today, huge state farms (800 hectares and bigger) dominate the Russian viticulture. Bulk wines are transported to “factories” where they are refined, bottled and shipped to markets.
Sparkling wines are impotent to Russians. Their largest production centres are Moscow (with a population of 20 million), Rostov-on-Don (16 million), St Petersburg (10 million), and Nizhnij Novgorod ad Tsimlyansk (9 million) each.
Abrau Durso specializes in sparkling wines created by the Champagne method, others use the Charmat technique, and yet others modified versions of it.
In the 1970’s U.S.S.R had 200 000 hectares under vines. When M. Gorbatchev started discouraging alcohol consumption, mainly vodka, the foremost spirit of Russians, vineyard acreage dropped to 50 000 hectares.
There are now efforts underway to establish controlled appellation regions using indigenous grape varieties such as Sibirkovsky, Tsimlianski cherny, plechistic, narma, and guliabi Dagestanski.
Russia still imports bulk wine from a variety of countries including Algeria, Argentina, Chile and others for blending.