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By John Salvi




Even among those who participate in many of the ever increasing number of International Tasting Competitions, I think that I am among the fortunate extremely few from Europe who have ever been invited to taste in Moscow. This came about due to my having been President of the jury of the Novy Svet Sparkling Wine Competition in Ukraine, and having made friends and thus been recommended by a senior scientist, Ludmila Dubinchuk, Head of the Moscow laboratory of the Champagne and Sparkling Wine Research Institute, as well as the Assistant Director of the OIV, Yann Yuban.

I was very excited, but of course for Russia, in order to obtain a visa, you have to present to the authorities a return ticket, a confirmed hotel booking and an official invitation. All this takes time and is decidedly nail-biting, but eventually, on November 14th, I flew from Paris to Moscow in the company of Federico Castellucci, Director of the OIV. We were met at the airport by Inessa, a charming technician of 26 years old, who spoke excellent French, and by the Institute’s chauffeur driven car. He was to chauffeur me everywhere during my visit.

We were taken directly to the Hotel Metropol, a first class hotel happily of the older and more traditional Russian style rather than that of the modern chain hotels. The décor and the rooms were charming and the service excellent. There was a harpist who played sweetly every morning at breakfast and masses of old oak panelling and gold scrolling.

That first evening we were left on our own and Signor Castellucci and I enjoyed a dinner in the hotel restaurant of fish soup and beef stroganoff.

The following day was devoted to the presentation of highly technical subjects on various wines and spirits related matters. This was a whole day (10.30 - 15.00) conference and assembled together interested parties from throughout Russia and its neighbours. A light lunch was served on the spot with plenty of tea.

Approximately 100 persons, a great many of them highly qualified ladies and the majority of them scientists and oenologists, attended these presentations and Inessa did her best to translate for me as they spoke. Fortunately for me, there was one by a young lady from the Institut Oenologique de Champagne, Aurore Jeudy, in French, on minerals in Sparkling wines, and another by an Italian, in English, on specialised yeasts for Sparkling Wines. He made a very dubious claim that his yeasts could influence the size of the bubbles. There was also an important and useful speech, which was fortunately well translated for me, on the harmonisation of rules and regulations between Russia and the European Union, especially concerning the names “Cognac” and “Champagne” still currently in use in Russia. At present our rules and controls vary widely from theirs but both M. Castellucci and M. Oganesyants were in agreement to work towards closer harmonisation.

A few statistics about Russian vineyards. In 2009 there were only 64,000 hectares under vine and 66,000 are projected for the end of 210. Of these 64,000 only 42,100 were in production last year and produced 299,000 metric tons of grapes. From this, in millions of decalitres (which is the way they measure it there), still wine production was 50.3, with dry wine accounting for 32.0 of this total. Sparkling wines totalled 19.4 and Brandy 12.7. 4.2 million decalitres of fruit wine were also produced. Interestingly, at present they are only using 24.9% of their production capacity for still wines, but 62.7% for Sparkling wines and 38.1% for Brandy. This is all very small indeed and, of course, is the result of an earlier campaign by a former administration to tackle the problem of alcoholism by ordering the uprooting of vineyards. Today the Institute is totally concerned with producing quality rather than quantity and planting and production is expected to increase steadily.

To my immense delight, and with the greatest generosity, M. Lev Oganesyants, the Institute Director, had graciously arranged tickets for me and Signor Castellucci to the ballet “Swan Lake” at the magnificent and vast State Kremlin Palace Concert Hall by the Kremlin Ballet Company. Inessa accompanied us and this was a moment of sublime and unadulterated pleasure. Theatre in Moscow starts at 19.00 and Swan Lake finished at 22.00. Since nobody else seemed hungry I took myself off to an old Russian restaurant near my hotel, the Old Tower Restaurant. Here I ate Shchi (a traditional cabbage soup) and red caviar (salmon eggs) with blinis and sour cream. I drank Kvas (a non- alcoholic drink made from bread).

The next day was what I had come for – the Tasting Competition. The President was Lev Oganesyants and his assistant Alexandre Panasyuk. There were 4 juries. One was for Sparkling Wines, one for Still wines and one for Spirits (mainly Cognac). The fourth jury was for Special Wines (Aromatised Wines and Fruit Wines). The names Champagne and Cognac are still used here in Russia, although one of the presentations the day before had been about the harmonisation of rules and regulations, including appellations, between Europe and Russia. The Cognacs were more numerous than the Sparkling Wines! We were a grand total of 24 tasters – 7 each for Sparkling and Still wines and 5 each for Spirits and Special Wines. I was the one and only European apart from Aurore Jeudy who works for them in a professional capacity.

We had a total of 387 samples. These comprised 80 Sparkling Wines (we only tasted 59), 194 still wines, including the aromatic and fruit wines, and 113 Spirits. Wines came from 19 countries, which included Abkhazie, Australia, Azerbaijan, Argentine, Armenia, Belarus, Italy, Spain, Kazakhstan, Moldova, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia, USA, Ukraine, France, Czech Republic, Chile and South Africa. A silver medal required 82 points, a gold medal 85 and a grand gold 92. I was assigned to the Sparkling Wine jury and we were 7 with 59 samples to taste. The French lady oenologist was, quite naturally, in the same jury and we were the only Europeans out of the total of 19 judges (7 for Sparkling, 7 for Still and 5 for Cognac). Signor Castellucci, having made an introductory speech, had been taken of for meetings at Ministries.

Tasting conditions were perfect. Tasting took place in a large room on the top floor of the Institute, with splendidly bright and clear lighting. It was airy and cool. We had fine Champagne flutes, mineral water, dry biscuits and bread, spittoons, white tablecloths and napkins. Service was smooth and efficient, by white coated ladies. My young lady was named Gelina and her service was remarkably swift and professional. We used the OIV tasting sheet and we all sat one behind the other so that no conversation or collusion was possible. Our tasting sheets and glasses were collected after each wine had been judged. We tasted 44 wines before being taken off to lunch at a restaurant not more than 100 yards from the Institute. The only sadness (not really a problem) was that, due to the fact that I speak very little Russian (I was a Russian interpreter in 1955 but have forgotten it all over the past 55 years), I never really got to know any of my other judges even though we smiled at each other throughout lunch and toasted each other repeatedly. Considerable quantities of Cognac were consumed during the meal, which I found interesting as we still had 15 wines to taste, and what is more had only been served tea during the morning break in case our palates should be spoiled by coffee.

In the afternoon we quite rapidly polished off the remaining 15 wines and were then invited to the laboratory of Ludmila (the scientist who tasted in my jury in Ukraine) to experience a tasting of water that had had various substances added to it to show their effect on our sensory perceptions of acidity and sucrosity. After that we drank a great deal of tea and cognac, with nuts, chocolates, biscuits, herrings and sweets.

I was both thrilled and delighted when the charming Inessa came and informed me that I was again to be taken to the ballet with Signor Castellucci. This time, oh joy and bliss, to the world renowned Bolshoi Theatre. This was something that I had deeply longed to do but never expected to have the time or opportunity. We were chauffeured to the magnificent theatre and spent four wonderful hours watching Esmeralda. This was a dream come true!

It was 23.00 by the time we emerged and once again I was the only one who wanted to dine. Most restaurants seem to close about midnight, so I went back to the Old Tower again and was accepted with a time warning. Tonight I feasted on salted white milk mushrooms and salted yellow boletus mushrooms with red onions, followed by Pelmeny (Russian ravioli) stuffed with elk and bear meat. I drank Kvas again.

My work was finished. What was expected to be a two day tasting was completed in just one? Somehow it seemed almost ironical to have travelled all the way to Moscow to taste 59 Sparkling wines on one day, but also divinely pleasurable and almost a holiday. Since therefore I had no tasting to do, the Institute had organised a guide for Signor Castellucci and me to tour Moscow. We spent a long time at the Museum of Russian History, Red Square, Lenin’s Mausoleum, The Kremlin and the stupendous Petrovsky Cathedral (Saint Basil’s Cathedral). By this time it was mid-afternoon and Inessa took me off to a four o’clock lunch of a magnificent soup of vegetables with red and yellow peppers and a whole lamb shank on top of them. Then to the Institute where, with great pomp and ceremony, I was presented with my Tasting Diploma by the Director in person, M. Oganesyants, in his private office. Inessa was present, as was Ludmila, who I kissed on both cheeks but was told that in Russia it had to be three kisses so we kissed one more time for luck. Back in her laboratory she kindly presented me with a bottle of the finest Russian Sparkling Wine. My official engagements were at an end.

I will not go into the long list of medal wines but to comment briefly my Sparkling wine jury was awarded 24 medals - 17 gold and 7 silver but no Grand Gold. For the Still Wine, Fruit Wine and Aromatic Wines there were 58 medals awarded - 6 Grand Gold, 41 Gold and 11 Silver. Finally for Spirits 34 medals were awarded – 7 Grand Gold, 13 gold and 6 silver. A grand total of 116 medals. Among the few samples from outside Eastern Europe Château Moncontour from Vouvray gained a gold medal in the Sparkling wine section as well as the Still wine section. Chile and Italy also scored medals. Regretfully, as can be seen above, there were no Spanish samples in the tasting!!

The chauffeur drove me back to my hotel and I was left to my own devices. The trip was over but not finished. I had the rest of the day to myself and walked from my hotel to Red Square and visited the famous GUM stores and also the Fauchon and Fortnum and Mason of Moscow – GASTRONOM N°1. Before returning to the hotel I took a brief ride on the Moscow Metro, as I had been told that the statues and carvings on the magnificent stations were a sight not to be missed. I finished this last day with a modest meal at the famous Pushkin Café, dining on cold, sliced roast suckling pig with apple sauce, roast marrow bones served with honey toast, and the richest and creamiest beef stroganoff in the world. Kvas and black tea.

The next morning, my last, before the Institute’s chauffeur came to take me to the airport and made sure that I safely and irrevocably passed through security, I just had time to walk back again to Red Square and buy some red caviar and stuffed blinis from GASTRONOM N°1 to eat in bed that evening with my spouse and the bottle of Russian Champagne!

There was formality, there was protocol and there was discipline, but there was also warmth, friendliness, consideration, helpfulness and generosity. Generous and unstinted hospitality were ever present. I regard myself as immensely fortunate to have had the chance to experience this competition as a judge and would go again at the drop of a hat if invited! It is also a perfectly organised tasting, obeying all the rules, and many other countries would do well to submit samples for it, especially if they are interested in selling their wines on the Russian market, which many certainly are. The Institute would welcome such and initiative and it would amply, and more than, repay the minor cost involved.

Na zdarové!

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