Tenders of the Vine
Russian Life|January/February 2021
Visiting Russia’s Nascent Wine Region
Nadezhda Grebennikova

You, Bordeaux, are a friend In misfortune, and in sorrow, Ready to serve, today, tomorrow, Always faithful to the end.

– Alexander Pushkin, Yevgeny Onegin (IV.46)

A TABLE STANDS IN THE CENTER OF A FLAWLESS LAWN, ALONG the shore of a mirror-smooth lake. A gentleman is sitting at the table with his lady friend. They seem entirely unbothered by the frequent droplets of light rain that drip down the collar of the gentleman’s red sweatshirt, plunge into his lady’s revealing neckline, and plink into their wine glasses.

It is ten in the morning, and the imperturbable couple is enjoying a chardonnay breakfast.

Suddenly, the woman jumps up from her seat with a blissful smile and runs off somewhere. The gentleman lazily crumbles some bread, offering it to the ducks that have surrounded his table.

“They’re stalking me,” he says, half-apologetically, as he meets my gaze.

“You should dip the bread in wine,” I jokingly suggest.

“Already have,” he replies.

The lady returns at a trot. She is carrying an uncorked bottle of white wine. The ambulatory foiegras respectfully parts to allow her through, yet they do not depart.

It became popular last year to book a getaway to a Russian winery. The country’s borders were closed and seaside hotels were overbooked. So it was an extremely wise choice to spend one’s weekend in a small chateau on the side of a mountain, watching the wind stir the young vines, and admiring how the sun dances in a glass of white wine. And then red. And then sparkling, dessert, and semi-dry…

And, it turns out, there were so many wise Russians doing this that it became very difficult to purchase such a wine tour or excursion. One often had to wait a week to partake in a tasting at a winery. And a room in a rural guest house (true enough, with a vineyard view) cost as much as a hotel room at a seaside resort.

The gentleman and his lady surpassed all in their wisdom. They had come to the vineyards of Semigorye, near Anapa, in Krasnodar Krai, just after the grapes had been harvested, the wine had been poured into barrels, and the pools of grape blood had been swabbed from the cellar floors. They arrived on a Monday, in the rain, and reveled in their solitude, doing their best to ignore the curious gazes of ducks and journalists.

“I have a French accent if you didn’t notice,” Olga chirps. “And I will speak truthfully, because I cannot do otherwise. I love this place. I simply adore it. I am resting my mind. The first time I was here was 25 years ago. There was nothing here then, just a lake, a forest, and a clearing. And three days later my son was born.”

Olga Popova lives in Anapa, and this summer she won a winery tour, lodging included, because she is a very zealous customer of this particular winery. Yet she only redeemed her prize now, in the middle of autumn.

“So it is you?” says the winery’s owner, Gennady Oparin, honestly surprised. He has only just approached us and overheard the tail end of what his young guest was saying. “Here we thought that someone had won the tour and wasn’t coming! What can I pour for you?”

“We buy our own wine. We can afford it,” Olga replies with pride.

Oparin asks me to write in my article that he is a seer. That he predicted that Russia would regain its status as a Great Wine Power. Yet I had no idea that it had ever possessed such a title. Sure: a great power on the sea, in the cosmos, in faith, and in nuclear weapons. But I had not heard anything about wine. Apparently, it is a new thing, promoted by the fact that Dmitry Kiselev is now chairman of the Russian Union of Winegrowers and Winemakers. Hated and despised by many, yet possibly beloved where it counts, Kiselev is State TV’s main propagandist.

Suffice it to consult Wikipedia and you’ll learn that our country was long ago one of the world’s top three producers of wine. And even on occasion the top producer. After the Great Collapse of 1991, that record-breaking production was spread across several independent states.

“Russia is quietly regaining its status as a great wine power,” Oparin says. “And as soon as we undertook the task of restoring that status, we realized we needed to get rid of the Europeans and their shnyaga [dregs, poor quality products].”

“Why shnyaga?”

“I will explain. There is a wine that our European wine partner-competitors (I don’t know what else to call them) produce honestly. And there is a wine that they produce in Poland and the Baltic countries. They produce wine there that, to put it crudely, is made from all the things that wineries have harvested but don’t want. Every winery has bad wine, and normally they would just dump it, throw it out. But then suddenly Russia appears, where you can dump anything.”

“Are you talking about nuclear waste?” I say, making a mental leap.

“No, no, nuclear waste is standard technology. We take it in and process it. We are the only country in the world that does this.” And then, as intelligently as he spoke previously of Russian wine, he talks about Russian fast neutron reactors. It turns out he once participated in building one.

It is difficult to blame foreigners for exporting millions of liters of worthless wine to Russia, transformed into what we have sleekly dubbed “wine materials.” Thanks to this unquenchable river of red and white, Leningrad Oblast rose up to become Russia’s leading wine appellation. (Here I remind the reader that, after the fall of the USSR, the city of Leningrad had its former name, St. Petersburg, returned to it. But Leningrad Oblast kept its Soviet-era designation.) And so, on the outskirts of the Northern Capital, in a rather inhospitable agricultural region, wine is being crafted for the entire country.

It is easy to understand Petersburgers and their regional neighbors. Potatoes don’t grow so well there, to say nothing of grapes. And so, they’re compelled to purchase grapes in liquid form, from countries that have no problem producing such things. Yet why is Russia’s southernmost region the following suit?

Krasnodar Krai is a bit like California in a Russian overcoat. Grapes have been growing here since the time of the Ancient Greeks, who long before the birth of Christ colonized these rather dry and northern (from their perspective) climes. It can get cold here, and it even snows, though there is no true winter. Yet there is also no stifling heat. The sun warms the gentle slopes of the multitudinous hills, but the climate is mild, thanks to the proximity of the sea. And it is hard to cultivate anything in the rocky soil here. Except grapes, of course.

And yet local wineries are committing the sin of pouring imported “wine materials” into bottles, which they then brand as Russian wine. It’s not that anyone is seeking to deceive or, worse, poison buyers: the liquid is more or less harmless (to which an accompanying certificate attests). It’s not personal, it’s just business. All the more so given that the ultimate consumer is, for the most part, simply choosing the price tag with the smallest numbers. “Does it get you drunk? Then why pay more?”

Starting last June, however, it became illegal to put the word “wine” on bottles of imported “wine materials.” Instead, they must be labeled “wine drink.” Will buyers be turned off by bottles sporting such labels? Time will tell. But the new law was a win for small wineries that craft wine from their own vineyards. So we may be witnessing the birth of a world-famous brand known as “Russian wine” that one day will compete for notoriety with Russian rockets and Russian vodka.

AT 8:30 THE FOLLOWING MORNING, ON A DIFFERENT SHORE OF THE very same lake, my breakfast is a glass of cabernet. By now, this seems perfectly appropriate, and, what’s more, I receive no judging glares from passersby.

Today I am visiting a classic winery. It has yet to open but promises to be incredibly modern, witnessed by the fact that the young owner, Natalya Zavgorodnaya, offers no directions on how to find her, but just sends map coordinates.

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