This is the famous Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi — the city also known as Benares, the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism. “Ghats” are a series of steps leading pilgrims to the Ganges River to perform ritual ablutions (while tourists on a moving boat try to take non-blurry pictures).
Gone are sweet Soviet wines, forgotten is the "dry law" of Gorbachev, Russian viticulture is now reborn.
MOSCOW — A year after its opening, Russian Wine is always full. Located in the center of Moscow, it has become a trendy restaurant. Its wine list stands out: It offers Russian brands only, more than 200, signalled in different colors across all the southern regions of the country.
Russian Wine (in English on the store front, as well as on the eclectic menu) unsurprisingly includes Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula where viticulture has revived since Moscow annexed it in 2014.
"But let's not talk about politics! Wine is pleasure," says the restaurant's owner, Artur Sarkisian, as he recommends a Riesling from Gunko or a Muscat from Gaï Kodzor, two reference labels from Krasnodar Krai.
From Greek plantations to Gorbachev's uprooting
In this southwestern region of Russia near the Black Sea, where half of the national production comes from, legend has it that the Greeks planted the first vines. Thirty-five years after Mikhail Gorbachev's "dry law", which imposed the uprooting of vines and devastated this territory in an attempt to fight alcoholism, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc vines from France grow alongside local varieties such as the astonishing Krasnostop.
"Made in Russia" has nothing to do with post-Soviet methods and the heavy-staining red wines. "Under the USSR, it was quantity above all, with wines that were too sweet. We now know how to produce good dry wines and the quality is constantly improving," says Sarkisian.
He knows what he's talking about. He publishes a guide to Russian wines. In eight years, the book has gone from listing 55 wines to 500. The first edition had a print run of 1,000 copies, the last one 13,000. "The demand for Russian wine keeps increasing among Russians. There is, of course, a dose of patriotism. But also curiosity," he says.
With COVID-19 and the difficulties to travel abroad, many have come to the southern regions to discover local productions. Wine tourism is soaring. At the same time, in Moscow, wine-tasting clubs are multiplying. "The mentality is changing, including among our distributors who, for a long time, thought that only imported wines were of good quality," says Elena Porman, coordinator of the "New Russian Wine" program.
The Kremlin gave a nudge, especially since many oligarchs and senior officials in the political elite began to invest in vineyards. "The government helps producers. Financial subsidies cover the planting costs. But there is also a new law that has allowed for a better control of the sector," explains Porman.
By sorting out the regulations, the production of bulk wine, for example, has been barred. One victim was the French company Castel, which bottled up imported wines on the spot.
It was an amendment to this law that triggered a champagne war last summer. The new regulation concerns the labeling, requiring the mention of "sparkling wine" on the back label, behind the bottle, and reserving to Russian producers the right to display "champagne" on the front. Quite a paradox for the French Champagne producers, who want to preserve their appellation.
The "champagne" war
In protest, French producers temporarily stopped sales to Russia. But as Christmas approached, financial considerations took over. Exports have resumed since September 15. The Champagne industry sells about 1.5 million bottles per year in Russia. A tiny bubble in a country that has always produced "russkoe champanskoe" and other sparkling wines. Among the leading brands: Abrau-Durso with 40 million bottles per year from a magnificent site on the heights of a lake.
Another beneficiary is Crimea and its ancestral producers who, since the annexation, have experienced a renaissance, thanks to the full opening to the Russian market. Coincidentally (or not), one of the leading brands is owned by someone close to President Vladimir Putin.
Profitability will be a long time coming
"Russian champagne, of course, is not the real French champagne. But we're making progress," says Vladimir Gunko. This big guy speaks from experience. Around him, some 20 hectares of land are spread out in a superb hidden corner of the Krasnodar Krai region.
For this mechanical engineer, wine was a passion that turned into a real business, with some 50,000 bottles per year — 100,000 by 2024, according to his business plan. Gunko is starting up a champagne business and expects his first production next year. For now, it is wine. It is "terroir", he insists, happy to offer some Malbec from his cellar. He gave himself the means: he invested some 3 million euros and knows how to be patient. "Profitability will be a long time coming," he smiles in the middle of his vineyards.
Corks and vats: everything is imported
At Gunko, as everywhere else in Krasnodar Krai, everything is imported, from the vines to the corks, including tanks and filtration equipment. European producers and Russian intermediaries also manage to bring Western equipment into Crimea indirectly, despite sanctions prohibiting such imports.
All the machines come from France, Italy or Germany. In the wine industry, Russia is thus caught up by its insufficient industrial diversification, far from raw materials, and by the weaknesses of the network of its small and medium-sized enterprises. Hence, for wines, there are high production costs and high prices in Moscow stores.
"If Russian viticulture is reborn, the upstream industry remains behind," says Frank Duseigneur, one of the many French professionals who have settled down and have ambitions in these lands of Krasnodar Krai. He watches over the vineyards of Château de Talu, a million bottles a year with 100 hectares of production and, each year, 15 hectares of new plantations. Following a museum, a restaurant and a tasting room, there are plans to build a hotel and a spa, as wine tourism is developing rapidly in the region.
Harvesting grapes at the Abrau Durso winery
Putin's Palace and Talu castle
Gelendzhik is a seaside resort that has become internationally renowned since the Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny published a video in January about Vladimir Putin's palace: a huge real estate domain doubled by a vast field of vineyards.
From the grounds of Talu Castle, you can imagine this Putin palace further down along the coast. "We're on the seaside but hidden by the mountains. A unique location for wine," says Duseigneur who, in the middle of harvesting the Merlots, talks business first. "Another problem: there isn't enough training. Russia must improve the quality of its workforce. When they prune the vines here, it's 250 vines per day compared to 1,000 in France. When they pick, it is 350 kg per day and per person, against one ton in France," says the agricultural engineer.
When we arrived, the only advantage was that the land rested for 15 years
In Russia, with 90,000 hectares of vineyards (far behind the 750,000 in France), the density is also lower than in France: 1,000-4,000 vines per hectare, against 5,000-8,000 in France. Just 20 years ago, no one picked up on the potential of this region. In Moscow, it was almost impossible to find a single Russian wine of quality," recalls Renaud Burnier. Together with his Russian wife, Burnier, who is Swiss, founded a winery in Krasnodar Krai that is now a model.
"When we arrived, vineyards were abandoned, the equipment outdated, the population discouraged. The only advantage was that the land rested for 15 years." His priority: gourmet wines, without fertilizers or insecticides. "Our wine has the taste of Russian soil but the Swiss rigor and attention to detail!" jokes Burnier, whose 50-hectare estate near the seaside town of Anapa produces 200,000 bottles per year. "Today, we are no longer the only ones."
Drink less and better
This boom in "made in Russia" wines is taking place at the same time as consumer habits are shifting. Especially among the middle class, in big cities, Russians drink less and differently. Less vodka and fewer bad wines. More beer and good wine. Each Russian over 15 years old consumes on average 11.1 liters of pure alcohol per year, which is less than the French (11.7 liters).
Unlike the French who only drink French wine, Russians are like the English
Fighting against alcoholism, the government has managed to reduce this consumption by 43% per individual between 2003 and 2016 thanks to voluntary restriction measures, particularly on advertising and sales. Russia is going through a serious demographic crisis and fighting alcoholism means increasing life expectancy. The authorities have understood that. So has society.
"Priority to quality over quantity. A kind of maturity," says Natalia Vremea, a renowned oenologist in Moscow. "More and more Russians are looking for authentic wines, interesting grape varieties, natural terroirs. Unlike the French who only drink French wine, Russians are like the English. They are curious about wines from all over the world and now about their own wines. In turn, this is good news for French exporters: Russia is becoming more and more fond of wine and, in the long run, will inevitably buy more French wines." Especially since Russia doesn't yet produce great wines.
For the time being, some people are even hoping that Russia will export. And not only the mediocre table wines sold in large quantities to China. "The share of Russian wine on our shelves is increasing, as well as the number of stores. A boom that is proportional to the boom in production. Exports should follow," hopes Sandro Khatiashvili, one of the purchasing managers of Simple Wine, a rapidly expanding network of stores. "We have launched a program to promote the best Russian wines and intensify their distribution." For this salesman in Moscow as well as for the vineyards in Krasnodar Krai, there is no doubt: Russia will find its place on the new world wine list.
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