As sanctions and counter-sanctions between Moscow and the West persist, Russian wine producers have gotten an unexpected boost
Not long ago, wine was mostly seen as a luxury import in Russia. The country's oligarchs bought European vineyards, and Moscow's newly wealthy learned to savor French Cabernets and Tuscan reds at elite restaurants.
But as tensions between Russia and the West persist, drinking wine has been transformed into a patriotic act.
Russian wine production-on the wane before the Ukrainian conflict-jumped nearly 25% in 2015 from the year before, according to Russian market research group Ciffra, and vintners say it is on the rise again this year. Leading Russian business figures are investing in vineyards at home. And Russian oenophiles boast that their wines, once deemed inferior to their European counterparts, are winning over new drinkers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin imposed a ban on the import of Western delicacies in 2014, after Washington and Brussels imposed economic sanctions over Moscow's annexation of Crimea. Though the counter-sanctions never applied to wine, they unexpectedly boosted the country's vintners as they spurred interest in locally and nationally produced goods.
"Russians are starting to realize the wealth of wines their own country has," Russian wine critic Vladimir Tsapelik said while recently hosting a wine tasting at a leafy park on the banks of the Moscow River. Russian red, white and rosé wines flowed at the event, their tastes rounded out by accompanying dishes of pickled herring, carp and dill-seasoned crayfish.
"We have grapes here that exist nowhere else on earth, he said, as he sipped a rosé from the country's southern Don region. For years, Mr. Tsapelik has been an advocate of wines unique only to Russia-Krasnostop Zolotovsky or Tsimlyansky Chyorny, to name a couple. "We're starting to come around-the rest of the world will as well."
Moscow's incursion in Crimea provided another, more direct boon to domestic wine production: In annexing the peninsula and its sandy soils, it also reclaimed the once-pearl of the Russian Empire's wine industry.
Under Ukrainian rule, Crimea's vineyards fell largely into disrepair because of lack of investment. But since the annexation, which remains largely unrecognized internationally, Russia has started selling off plots of the land in the once Ukrainian state-owned Massandra vineyards to private investors in a bid to revive the region's wine industry. Though Crimean wine still makes up just a fraction of total Russian wine production, the peninsula is soon expected to be one of the country's fastest-growing wine regions.
One of the more recent big investors in Crimea's vineyards is a company linked to Vagit Alekperov, the head of Russian oil company Lukoil, which earlier this year bought land in Massandra, once one of the Russian empire's largest vineyards, according to several industry officials. Mr. Alekperov couldn't be reached for comment.
"The elite love the idea of producing wine in Russia," said Dmitry Kovalyov, one of Russia's most respected sommeliers. "It makes them look patriotic."
Russia's wine renaissance doesn't mean it has been easy for the nation to replace imported burgundies and Riojas. Konstantin Pilberg, the chief sommelier at Lavka-Lavka, a farm-to-table restaurant that boasts locally sourced cuisine, said he tried 550 Russian wines before finding 33 that made the cut to be featured on restaurant's rotating wine list.
"After sanctions, people started to worry that they could be cut off from foreign wines," Mr. Pilberg said. "People have simply gone from European wines to Russian wines."
Apart from a rise in demand, Russia's fascination with its own grape varietals-many of which Mr. Tsapelik says originally came north from Iran-is being fueled by the country's elite. With Russian sanctions on Western products, many of the country's well-heeled are finding a way to play at a more elitist hobby while boosting patriotic credentials, some industry experts say.
"Russians, those who had come into their own, used to buy vineyards abroad-California, Italy," said Alexei Sidorov, the president of Russia's Association of Sommeliers, a man who once poured Georgian wines for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Kremlin banquets. "Now Russians are buying up vineyards here in Russia."
One of the first to buy into the industry was businessman Boris Titov, now Mr. Putin's business ombudsman, who started buying shares in the imperial-era Abrau Dyurso vineyard in southern Russia in 2006.
Before Mr. Titov took up his government post, he transferred the vineyard to his son Pavel, who now runs the company's operations. Under the Titovs, the vineyard has started to make sparkling wines using what the Russians describe as the same methods for producing Champagne.
"For years, Abrau Dyurso has been the locomotive of development of the wine industry in Russia and the renaissance of winemaking," said the younger Mr. Titov, adding that he expected a rise in sales of up to 17% this year.
Other Russian businessmen have invested in the country's vineyards along the Black Sea hills of Krasnodar and increasingly in Crimea. The ownership of the Crimean vineyards isn't always transparent: Given Western sanctions on Crimean wine, producers often face a limited export market, and many investors don't want to be associated with the international taboo.
Igor Serdyuk, deputy general director at Alma Valley wines, a Crimean vineyard that has already won medals in international competitions, described the company's owner only as a Moscow banker. "Unfortunately we can't comment on who it is, due to the sanctions regime that has been introduced against Crimea," he said.
Intrigue over which vintner is making wine for which high official, be it Mr. Putin or the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, is a ripe topic for discussion in industry circles, though most agree that Alexei Tolstoy, a vintner in the Black Sea region, is Mr. Putin's favorite winemaker.
In fact, Mr. Putin's own love of the grape has helped the industry. Since late 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, the Russian leader has changed federal laws to stimulate investment in the wine sector, including tax breaks for those who invest in Russian wines.
The resurrection of Russia's wine industry, however, hasn't come easy. In the mid-1980s, Mr. Gorbachev implemented a sobriety campaign, during which most of the country's grape vines were cut down.
"We've had a long and hard road to get where we are," said winemaker Pavel Shvedov. "But soon, Europe will be buying wine from us, while their own bottles sit on the shelves."
Source: The Wall Street Journal