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By John Salvi


14th Specialised International Exhibition – Wines and beverages 2011

This truly fascinating visit to the Russian viticultural area was a three-day event, and to my delight, the first day was devoted to visiting the vineyards and a winery in the “Côtes Russes de la Mer Noir”. These vineyards are close to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, almost opposite KRIM in Ukraine. The Sea of Azov is linked by the narrow (about 4 km) Strait of Kerch to the Black Sea and is the shallowest sea in the world, its depth varying between 0.9 and 14 metres. None the less these seas play an important meteorological regulatory role on the vineyards and it is too cold there for Syrah grapes to ripen. At one stage Catherine the Great gave this region to Gregory Potemkin. Circassia, part of the Caucasus, from where the Caucasian oak comes, is almost next door. Most of the vineyards are relatively new. This is for two reasons. The first is that under Gorbachev, in a misguided effort to reduce alcoholism, vines were ordered to be uprooted throughout Russia (of course it was the vodka not the wine that was causing the alcoholism!). The second is that under the communist regime quantity and not quality was all that counted and vineyards were planted at a density as low as 1,500 vines per hectare (much less work) and produced over 100 hectolitres per hectare!!

Today they are being replanted at modern densities, pruned by modern methods (double-guyot etc.) and properly grafted onto American rootstock. A lot of this is due to the international consultants, mentioned below, who are also teaching a new generation of young Russian winemakers. It is vitally important to understand that when I talk here about Russian wines I talk about wines made from grapes grown 100% inside the Russian Federation. At present a vast amount of “so called” Russian wine sold throughout the country is made from imported grapes, grape juice and must, coming in large part from South America and transformed inside Russia. A lot of it is very bad indeed!

Because the quality was so bad, any Russian, interested in wine and with a relatively developed palate, would never consider buying Russian wine. These wine lovers have to be shown that things are changing. This will take time, but medals won in competitions such as the one described here will help greatly. These regular wine drinkers will hopefully learn that fine wines are now being made, with the increasing help of international consultants and by the new school of modern Russian wine-makers, that are well balanced, of high quality and sometimes even of world class.

Figures are very hard to come by in Russia but Kuban, as this region is called, claims to be the largest winegrowing and winemaking region in the Federation and to be planted with 27,000 hectares of vines, representing some 40% of the total planted throughout the Russian Federation. In 2010 some 142.4 metric tons of grapes were produced here, being over 50% of that produced in the entire Federation. Table grapes and grapes for juice account for some of this and wine production overall remains very small. This is changing, but slowly. We looked at thoroughly modern, healthy and well-kept vineyards and visited “Fanagoria”, among the largest of the privately owned wineries owning 2,300 hectares of vines. A long and complete tasting revealed some truly excellent wine, both modern and classical, including a remarkable Aligoté. Sadly there is insufficient space to enlarge upon this emerging viticultural region. Just as a matter of interest somebody in Siberia who is officially described as a “Private Landowner” produces 5.2 hectolitres of wine!

The second day was the tasting competition, in Krasnodar, the reason for our visit. It was an INTERNATIONAL tasting contest named “Southern Russia”. There were wine from Dagestan for example. In total we had 131 samples from 29 Russian wineries. We were one single jury of 12 persons that included leading Russian experts: research officers of specialised institutes, viticultural engineers, specialised wine media, oenologists and trade professionals. Tasting was in the “Galich Hall”, a magnificent new building, spacious, cool and well lit. Tasting conditions were well nigh perfect. Individual and well-spaced tables, white tablecloths, good quality glasses, spittoons, dry biscuits, professional tasting sheets and discreet, polite and efficient service. 80 points were required for a bronze medal, 84 for silver and 88 for gold. We all tasted the red and the dry white wines during the morning. These comprised 63 samples. A copious lunch was then served downstairs. For the afternoon session we could choose whether we wished to taste Sparkling Wines or Semi Sweet and Sweet Wines, Fortified Wines and Brandy. We were therefore now 2 juries of 6 each and I chose the latter group. I was delighted that I did as some of the sweet and fortified wines were truly magnificent, won gold medals and reminded me strongly of the Massandra Collection in Yalta. During that afternoon I tasted 40 more wines making a grand total for the day of 103. This was a totally professional tasting, useful, informative and valuable. It should be continued and hopefully increased in size.

The 3rd day was spent at the exhibition “Wines and Beverages 2011” organised by the “Union of Grape producers and wine makers of Russia, an organisation whose President is M. Popovitch. It covered 7,436 square metres, comprised 160 companies from 9 countries and enjoyed 5,937 visitors, over 80% of those being qualified as experts. During the morning we visited the exhibition of “winegrowing, gardening and winemaking, beverages, techniques, raw materials and oenological equipment (Krasnodar Expo’s title verbatim). There was also a “Contest of young winemakers”, an excellent initiative to encourage young experts from Rostov, Krasnodar and Stavropol. It included tasting and both knowledge and application of oenological technologies and modern winemaking equipment.

In the afternoon we had an important “Roundtable of International Experts”. This was moderated by Russia’s leading wine writer, Igor Serdyuk. I was asked to talk about the sweet and fortified wines to which I had given gold medals and explain why. We were all asked to give our opinion on the quality of the Russian wines tasted yesterday, the reputation of Russian wines outside Russia, and how these wines might be improved and developed on the international market. Also to suggest a cohesive development strategy for Russian winemaking.

The three-day event finished with a gala evening at the “Galich Hall”. The most important event was the presentation of the awards and medals and I was highly honoured to be called on stage to present them. A gargantuan repast, ear-splitting music and brightly costumed singers and dancers provided splendid entertainment for some 600 guests.

I cannot finish without congratulating the organisers, thanking the hosts and commenting upon the warm, generous and friendly reception and hospitality. It is a useful and important event and one to which I very much hope I shall be invited again. Spasibo!

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