Crimea is often mentioned in the news, but not for the right reasons. Because the Eastern European peninsula is surrounded by the Black Sea and has strategic and commercial significance, it is frequently a flashpoint for global conflict. Today, though, we’re talking about the wines of Crimea. The region might be at the heart of a political and military battle, but it has a rich vinous culture, so let’s focus on that.
We can’t blame you if you’ve never heard of Crimean wine since it’s rarely seen outside the country — all of it is consumed in the region or shipped to Russia. However, the region is among the oldest wine-producing areas in the world! Here’s what you need to know.
Crimea, A Quick Recap
The region was once an Ancient Greek colony, part of the Byzantine Empire, and briefly a Mongolian territory. Eventually, Crimea became part of the Russian Empire, which evolved into the Soviet Union after the country’s civil war of the early 20th century. In 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR led by Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to the Ukrainian Socialist Sovietic Republic. After the fall of communist Russia, Crimea became its own country before becoming part of Ukraine with a special status for Sebastopol.
The region’s wine history is not nearly as complicated. Crimea is a stone’s throw away from wine’s ancestral home, the Caucasus, between Eastern Europe and Western Asia, so wine has been part of Crimea since the beginning of time.
Experts credit the Ancient Greeks for bringing most of the grapes found in Crimea today, including Limnio, Athiri, and Muscat. Grapes with immense prestige in the Caucasus feel right at home in Crimea as well, such as Saperavi and Rkatsiteli. Still, the country now has significant vineyards dedicated to international varietals, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.
Despite being a historical wine region, wine efforts in Crimea are relatively young. When the area was part of the Ottoman Empire, Muslim law prohibited the production of wine. The same thing happened with Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1985 Anti-Alcoholism Laws. The Russian annexation of the peninsula as well as the current so-called “military special operation’ have also made it difficult for Crimea’s wine industry to export. Is the wine any good?
“Crimean wineries make faux Madeira and Sherry, as well”
Crimean wine is the best of two worlds. Expect old-school sweet and semi-sweet wines made with Muscat, rustic reds made with Saperavi, and modern-cut oak-aged Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay.
Fortified wines, sometimes unlawfully labeled as Crimean Port, are relatively common, and the wines are reasonably pleasing. Crimean wineries make faux Madeira and Sherry, as well.
From afar, not everything in Crimea is as good as it seems. In terms of volume and quality, two of the most significant wine estates in the peninsula, Massandra and Novyi Svit, were both recently “nationalized” by Russia. According to an Interfax article: “After occupation of the peninsula by Russia, Massandra’s property was ‘nationalized’, actually expropriated, transferred to federal ownership – to the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation, then returned to ‘the ownership of the Republic of Crimea’, respectively, there was no military need for such appropriation and transfer of property. The auction of Massandra’s assets and its purchase by a Russian company confirm the fact that the occupation administration, in addition to illegally taking possession of this property, also illegally disposes of it”. Massandra Winery alone was estimated to be worth well over 20 million euros in 2014, probably excluding its unique enoteca of one million bottles.
o The Massandra Collection
This enoteca is in fact the result of the Massandra Collection, a collection of incredible wines from around the world. It was started by the Prince Golitzin, the first winemaker who helped founding the winery in the late 19th century (he received the permission to engrave his coat of arms on Massandra’s wine bottles). Almost 10,000 bottles were added each from the start with bottles already decades old at that time. Just to give you an idea of the importance of that collection, the decision was made to evacuate it (mainly in Georgia) ahead of the German occupation during the second World War. Of course, everything was back on time for the Yalta conference, so that Roosevelt, Churchill and Staline were served with the best bottles from that collection.
Today, Massandra’s enoteca is still famous for some of the best and oldest wine bottles from around the world (like a 240-year-old Jerez, for instance). It is regarded by experts as a treasure of tremendous historical value that need to be kept intact.
o Massandra wines
Located on the outskirts of Yalta, Massandra produces many sorts of wines. However, its two most famous types of wines are the Fortified wines and the Sweet Dessert Wines. These wines, especially the Sweet Dessert Wines, were highly regarded during the Soviet era and were served during diplomatic and important political meetings. Today, the Massandra winery oversees the production of many smaller satellite wineries. Its main building is mainly used for aging and bottling. The vineyards located on hills and mountains facing the Black Sea offer the best grapes to produce Sweet Dessert Wines (White Muscat of the Red Stone, Black Muscat Massandra, and White Muscat Lividia, just to name a few).
o Novyi Svet wines
The other very famous Crimean winery is Novyi Svet. Founded in 1878 by Prince Golitsyn, it produces a large variety of wines. However, it became rapidly famous for its sparkling wines. During the Russian empire, they quickly became “the” sought-after wines of the Russian aristocracy, to the point that they were served at the coronation of the last Tsar, Nicolas II, in 1896. Despite the Soviets’ efforts to eradicate all traces of Tsarist Russia, they were held in high regard by the Soviet intelligentsia. It probably saved them, but, unfortunately, made them inaccessible to many of the ‘regular’ citizens of the USSR. Facing the contradiction of communism, where the upper class had access to some luxury products while workers and peasants did not, Stalin asked Anton Frolov-Bagreev to create a process to make sparkling wines available to the masses. M. Frolov-Bagreev, a winemaker trained by Prince Lev Golitsyn, created a large-scale artificial sparkling wine through industrial use of large tanks, added coloring agents, and artificial flavors.
On July 2, 2021, Vladimir Putin amended the 345-FZ federal law, banning the use of the “Champagne” name on the label of sparkling wines made in the French region called: Champagne. Only Russian-produced wines can now be called Champagne (« shampanskoye »). Any bottle produced outside Russia (and Crimea) with a «shampanskoye» label will be considered a counterfeit product. As a result, you will probably find some Novyi Svet wines labeled as “Champagne”. Please note that Novyi Svet is now owned by Iouri Kovaltchouk, a powerful oligarch (sometimes nicknamed “Putin’s banker”) and close friend of Vladimir Putin.
The Bottom Line
Massandra and Novyi Svit now supply most of the wine consumed in Russia. Sadly, in history, no state-owned winery, from anywhere, has ever been recognized for its quality, which makes Crimean wine’s future uncertain.
Crimea has the ideal climate for growing premium wine grapes and the expertise to make world-class wine. What the winemakers in the area now need is good-old freedom to craft the wines they want to make with modern standards and quality-over-quantity practices. The world of wine is more competitive than ever, and Crimea can become a significant player in the future if only they could export their production worldwide. But the dust needs to settle first and the current situation has to stabilize.
Wine is a gourmet treasure, do not abuse alcohol!
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