Russia’s Wine Lake

Wine & Food Travel is proud to present another contender for the country least likely to be associated with wine production: Russia. As of July 2011, British wine drinkers can enjoy a bottle of Abrau-Durso, or ten, at locations across the nation’s capital as its owners decide to target Europe with their wares. Britain’s first Russian sparkling wine is here, and may be staying for a while.

For the uninitiated, Abrau-Durso is Russia’s oldest “Champagne house,” founded in 1870 on the shores of Lake Abrau in the Caucasus, initially setup only to serve the Russian Royal Family’s needs. The catalyst for this interest in wine production was the passion of one man–Prince Leo Galitzine–who established a subsequent Russian sparkling wine house at his Crimean estate of Novyi Svet. He played a central role in scouting for worthy locations to produce wine fit for the Russian Tsar, Alexander II . He eventually suggested Lake Abrau in the Causaus and so Abrau-Durso was born by royal decree.

After the Russian revolution in 1917, many of the French wine makers and growers fled Russia to escape death at the hands of Russia’s newly installed Communist leaders. The Russian wine industry, however, did find a certain amount of favor with Soviet leaders, especially Stalin, and the industry rebounded somewhat in the mid 20th century. In the late 20th century, however, a man called Mikhail Gorbachov decided that Russians were getting too fond of Vodka and initiated a series of domestic reforms aimed at reducing alcohol consumption and productions. That, combined with the collapse of the Soviet Union and privatization of land, meant that former government vineyards were being put to different use. Over half the total of the nations vineyards were pulled up. Poor sods.

Abrau-Durso fortunes, in parallel with the rest of the Industry, declined in the 20th century and by 2004 the property was in a sorry state indeed. Its salvation came from a group of self-proclaimed “fixers of broken assets” but not your television sets or iPhones! In 2004, Boris Titov’s Solvalub group, a former trader of petrochemicals, bought a stake in Abrau-Durso and then in 2006 acquired a controlling share in the property. Since then, they have invested heavily in the once Russian legend, rebuilding the winery and hiring a French oenologist, Herve Justin.

When asked if they had any previous experience with the wine industry, Pavel Titov, Director of finance and Investment at SVL candidly replies, “We had zero experience in wine industry and weren’t really looking to enter at that point. It just so happened that one of our businesses was in the same region and we found out that the famous winery is for sale but in very bad condition.”

Having turned around the fortunes of Abrau-Durso, they subsequently purchased a derelict property in Champagne and recently another property in the Caucasus. The vast majority of Russia’s vineyards can be found in the Northern Caucasus, with many of the greatest vineyard sites in close proximity to the Black Sea. In general terms, vine growers must contend with a fiercely continental climate with usually hot dry summers and severe winters. So cold are the winters that many growers must bury their wines underground to protect them. There is a divergence of terroir, however, as with all wine regions and the Caucasus is far from a homogenous growing region. The area of Rostov tends to see the hottest summers with drought often an issue. This is rarely a problem during the British summer, perhaps we could export our rain?

A great deal of Russian wine is produced from the white Rkatsiteli grape, which according to Boris, originated in Georgia and is one of the worlds oldest grape varieties. Virtually unpronounceable, the grape also foxes growers with its extremely high mouth puckering acidity and is rarely picked before the end of October. We have never tried any wine from this variety but its commonly described as having a distinct spicy and floral aroma. There is also a fair smattering of Riesling in Russia, Abrau-Durso unusually use a percentage of Riesling in some of their wines, a practice forbidden in Champagne.

With another property under SVL’s control, Russia’s niche wine industry is likely to grow in future years, as other entrepreneurs are encouraged by the groups foray into wine production. Until last month, their relatively small wine industry barely registered in the global mindset, not least because it was rarely exported outside the motherland. The arrival of Abrau-Durso in the UK is seen by Pavel as the first step in changing this. If the brand takes off, more listings in Europe and Asia are likely, not to mention retail outlets in the UK. How long then we wonder before Tesco have a Russian wine shelf?

Ваше здоровье!

Tasting Notes

Abrau – Durso Cuvée Alexander II Brut

Very pronounced nose for a sparkling wine, there was plenty of Riesling in the blend it would seem. Floral and citrus notes are reinforced by a finely structured palate with no shortage of fruit. Good acidity and an underlying minerality in the wine. Only the finish lets it down somewhat–very short and slightly sharp. Other than that very good indeed!

James Lawrence

James Lawrence is a self confessed wine obsessive, passionate about discovering and promoting the lesser known wines and wine regions of the world. He is a frequent contributor to and runs an interactive, community led wine forum, In 2004, he went to study in Bilbao, Northern Spain. Luckily for him, the famous wine region of Rioja was just over an hour away by car. He began to spend a great deal of time there, visiting the wineries in Rioja and speaking to local wine makers. Their passion for the subject and their pride in the wines was infectious. He began to realise what an amazing subject wine is and how wide and complex the world of wine could be. Subsequently James moved into wine retail while finishing his degree, and was hooked. James also enjoys food and travel writing - he lives for Italian and Thai cuisine!

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