A vast country, once the breadbasket of the USSR, Ukraine also produces significant amounts of wine, ranking third after Russia and Moldova in the former soviet republics.
The Crimean Peninsula is viticulturally Ukraine’s most important region. It has a strong sense of independence from Kiev because of its lucrative agricultural and tourism industries.
Grapes were grown here since the early fourth century B C. Viticulture waxed and vained throughout centuries pending on the severity of invasions from the north or east, and economic developments.
Needless to say, politics always played a very important role from as early as 1980.
Viticulture suffered after both world wars. During post-war period, soviets poured in significant amounts of funds to establish state farms and nurseries. Vineyards were laid out with mechanical harvesting in mind, and research institutes (the Institute of Wine and Vine Magaratch founded in 1828) were expanded and mandated to develop hybrids suitable for harsh climates, high yields, and early ripening.
Presently Ukraine’s vineyards cover 175,000 hectares (Crimea 62,500, Odessa 50,000, Kherson region 20,000, Nikolayev region 14,000, Transcarpathia 6,800, and other regions 29,700). Yields are very high 20 tonnes per hectare mostly to keep prices low and quantity high. Quality mattered little in the past with the exception of the historic Massandra Winery in Yalta, as practically every bottle produced was sold in a “thirsty” market stretching from Ukraine to the Pacific Ocean in the east.
Vineyards are flat lands making mechanical work feasible Rkatsiteli, Aligote, Cabernet Sauvignon, Saperavi, Riesling, Sauvignon Verte, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Sercial, Bastardo, Feteaska, Sukomlinski, Bastard Maratch, Golubok, Saperavi Severnyi, Pervenetes Magaracha, Fioletovy, Podarok Magaracha, Karmraiut, Stepanial, Olimpiiski and Sorokat Oktiibra are planted. Some are hybrids developed in the Magaratch institute of research. In addition, several other experimental varieties are planted for evaluation.
Of all the regions, Crimea has the most favourable terroir, and Massandra winery stands out. During the soviet era the advertising trumpeted this establishment as “The Massandra Winery – A Pearl of Soviet Winemaking” adding that it was awarded 102 gold and silver medals in international contests. The advertising fluff never mentioned where the contests took place.
The winery was built (1894 – 1897) with a decree of Tzar Nicolas II to supply wine to the palaces along the Black Sea where Russian nobility and royal family retreated to spend warm summer months in luxurious comfort.
During soviet times, datchas accommodated highly placed functionaries and bureaucrats of the system.
Georgian miners were brought to build long tunnels into the mountain to maintain even temperature and appropriate humidity levels.
During the 1927 Yalta earthquake Massandra’s cellars did not suffer a single crack.
Count Voronotsov had brought a number of species into the region in the 19th century, and Massandra had an opportunity to try out different styles with a number of grapes. They made Madeiras, Tokajis, Ports, Sauternes, and Sherries, completely ignoring copyright laws. Even today, one can find old dusty bottles of these styles in the cellars of Massandra, if the chief winemaker Galina Mityaeva takes a liking to you and thinks you might appreciate them. And truly, these styles seem to be more successful than regular dry wines, simply because all are fortified and sweet, able to withstand technological shortcomings, and long aging periods. Of course, it is important to remember the proverbial “sweet tooth” of Russians. The winery catered mainly to the vast market in that country.
Even Mikael Gorbatchov could not close the winery in the 1980’s when he started his now “famous” perestroika trying to shut down all plants producing alcohol.
The story goes that the management of Massandra decided to send Galina Mityaeva to Moscow with a number of select bottles. After the presentation and sampling, the Kremlin decided to let the winery continue production unabated.
Today, Massandra still employs 3000 workers although production dropped from a peak of 5.8 million hectolitres pre 1980, to 2.7 million hectolitres in 2000. Equipment maintenance is poor and one wonders how Galina manages to turn out such quantities.
An English wine enthusiast for an auction bought a considerable number of rare bottles. Although the auction was successful, another one was never organized probably because of high prices demanded by Massandra.
Old fortified and sweet wines of Massandra seem to be more successful, like Kagor 1947 (Cahor-style), Red Stone Muscat 1948, Malvasia 1924 (100 % Pedro Ximenez labelled Malvasia), Tokay 1911, Aleatiko 1948, late harvest Kokur 1980 and Bastarda (Bastardo). They are fine wines, but to taste them you must in pre-tasting, first convince Galina that you are capable of appreciating quality and subtlety. Then you are guided to the Sanctus sanctorum of Massandra and given a rare opportunity to taste museum quality wines.
Russians love sparkling wines and Crimea is famous for its sweet sparkling wines, the technology of which was brought to the region by Count Leo Golitzin (Golsyn).