Russia, the largest and economically most powerful state of the CIS (Confederation of Independent States), is vast (the largest country in the world), but has less favourable climatic conditions than formerly “union” countries – Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Krygizistan, and Azerbaijan.
Before the dissolution of the U.S.S.R, the country was he third largest wine producer (after France and Italy) in the world.
South Dagehstan, north of the Caspian Sea, is the only ancient viticultural region with a history of more than 2000 years.
Northern Caucasus and Low Volga regions’ viticulture started in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 17th century vineyards were planed in Astrakhan to supply the tsar’s residences with grapes and wines.
After 1660’s, vines were planted in Kursk, Tamboc, around Tula and Moscow, but phylloxera devastated all in 1880,
The fist vineyards in Krasnodar were planted with riesling and portugieser.
By 1914, Russia had 50,000 hectares of vineyards, but World War I helped reduce this number by half, and recovery occurred very slowly. By 1940 there were only 42,000 hectares of vineyards, but in the following decade the government decided to effectively increase wine production to curb the insatiable appetite of Russians to wine and beer. To this day, Russian per capita alcohol consumption is the highest in the world the most preferred alcohol being vodka.
Average per capita wine consuption is 14 litres. When M. Gorbatchev was “elected” general secretary of the Communist party and president of the U.S.S.R, he realized quickly the absolute necessity to reduce alcohol consumption in general and vodka in particular.
He decided to curb alcohol production, including wine, a move that encourages home distillation and caused a severe sugar shortage.
The U.S.S.R (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) had sufficient satellite countries (Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgizistan, and Kazakhstan) to cover much of the needs supplemented with imports from Hungary, Romania, Georgia, and Bulgaria.
Additioan, unexpected demand, if and when it occurred, was covered by imports from Argentina, and Algeria with low-end bulk wine.
Most fo the vineyards in Russia are around Krasnodar (45 degrees north), Stavropol (44 north), Rostov-on-Don (47 north), and Daghestan (42 – 44 north), a semi-autonomous region along the north-western shores of the Caspian Sea.
Along the Don River, vines must be buried before the winter sets in so as to protect them from freezing, and uncovered in spring; this is a time consuming and expensive undertaking. Vines can stand up to – 25 C but anything below that temperature will kill the plant.
Krasnodar krai (region) is responsible for 50 per cent of Russia’s wine production and rkatsiteli, (a white grape variety from Georgia) constitutes 45 per cent of total wine output, New improved grape varieties with resistance to fungal diseases, frost and cold temperatures have been developed at Potapenko Research Institute for Viticulture and Ecology. They are stepnia, fioletovy ranni. In other regions high-yielding grape varieties such as vydvizhenets, muscat derbenski, zala gyongye, sibirkovy, tsimlianski cherny, plechistic, narma and dahgestani are planted.
The most important contribution of Soviet vitiviniculture to wine production is the “Continuous Sparkling Wine Production Method.
Russians love sparkling wine, and in general sweet wine with food. At one time Tsar Nicholas II imported 800 000 bottles of sweet champagne annually for his “household”.
Prior to the dissolution of the U.S.S.R, the population drank Ukrainian sparkling wine from Crimea, which they erroneously called champagne, but now the EU (European Union) has been able to outlaw this false claim.
The “Continuous” method involves keeping the blend under constant pressure, rather than in batches during the second fermentation.
This method requires five separate and interconnected tanks. The wine, sugar and rehydrated yeast are fed into the first tank, which starts the all important and crucial second fermentation. The pressure is kept at five atmospheres. During the second fermentation the carbon dioxide increases the pressure, which prevents yeast’s from multiplying. More yeast is added. The second and third tanks are partially filled with wood shavings allowing dead yeast cells to cling to them thus creating autoylsis. In the fourth and fifth tanks there are no dead yeast cells and the wine is relatively clear.
The whole process takes on average of 20 – 28 days and cerates an acceptable sparkling wine at low cost. Autolysis is the destruction of cells by their own enzymes. Dead=d yeast cells (a.k.a. lees) on which the wine rests change the flavour of the wine. The natural occurrence of this in the bottle takes up to five years (minimum 18 months). The “Continuous: method creates more or less the same effect in much shorter time and less expensively.
The largest sparkling wine production factories are located in Moscow, Rostov-on-Don, St. Petersburg, Niznhy Novgorod and Tsimlynask, producing a total of approximately 60 million bottles.
Abrau-Durso region produces sparkling wine using the champagne method.
Grape growers use for white wines the following grape varieties: aligote, traminer, welschriesling, riesling, saperavi, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot grigio, sylvaner, rkastsiteli, and several varieties of muscat family grapes.
For red wines growers prefer cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, saperavi cherny, cabernet severnyi, plavoit, tsimlamsky, fioletovy, ranin golubok (cabernet sauvignon X alicante bouchet), and a few others fore experimental purposes.
New improved fungal disease – and frost resistant vareites such as stepnaih and others which were developed at the Potapenko research instutite fro Vitculture and Ecology are now planted for field trails.
In some regions, high yielding table grape vaeiteis which are marginally suitable for winemaking are planted i.e muscar derbenskim zala gyongye, sibirkovy, vydvizhenets, tsimlanski cherny, plechistic, narma, gulaibi Daghestanski, Muscat of hamburg, ugni blanc (a.k.a tebbiano d’Abruzzo).
Cold-resistant cabernet severnyi and saperavi severny are hybrids that were developed in Russia’s grape research institutes. Severny is a hybrid of vitis amurensis and seianetz malengra.
Since “Soviet’ times, much of the low-end wine was shipped in bulk to processing centres in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Niznhi Novgorod, and other major cities fro blending, stabilizing, filtering, refining, and bottling. While this is environmentally a sound practice, it leads to tampering and fraud.
Now several joint venture wineries exist making superior quality products.
Chateau Grand Vostock with 2000 hectares, Fanagoria with 1000, and Kuban are only three that attempt to market high quality wines.
None of these wineries has attempted to export to North America, but they are likely to endeavour to do so in the near future.
The Russian wine market has immense potential, and Italian, Spanish, French wineries and shippers have now started supplying their best, mediocre, and low-end products to gain a foothold.
Whether or not the majority of Russians can be persuaded to enjoy wine instead of vodka or beer remains to be seen.