Tampa Bay Times
Crimean winemakers seek new rep
SEVASTOPOL, Crimea — In Soviet times, Crimean winemakers did not trouble themselves much with quality. It was all about quantity.
“They had to make a lot of cheap wine to fulfill the demand in a huge country,” said Oleg Repin, who owns a vineyard near the port of Sevastopol.
These days, though, Repin is one of a small fraternity of pioneers hoping to establish a center for boutique vineyards producing fine wines.
Pavel Shvets, the founder of Uppa Winery and the driving force behind the idea of developing a Sevastopol appellation, is another.
“There was no history here of producing good quality wine,” Shvets said. “We are trying to create a new system, a new philosophy of wine making.”
Their prospects were gliding along like a silky cabernet until the Kremlin decided to grab Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, prompting Western economic sanctions designed to isolate the Black Sea peninsula.
That forced the nascent industry to navigate new, unforeseen shoals. Perhaps most challenging, prospective sales were suddenly focused on just one country, Russia, where wine was long viewed as an effete tipple and vastly inferior to the manly beverages of choice — vodka and beer.
“When I started to work as a sommelier, people did not know what the word meant; they only drank vodka and beer,” said Shvets, who spent 15 years working as a sommelier and restaurateur in Moscow before planting his first vineyard in 2008. “Then they started to drink a little wine, and every year the amount of good wine that Russians drink increases.”
Vintners are taking the long view. They figure that Sevastopol needs at least another decade to develop as a distinctive wineproducing region. The winemakers are still experimenting with which grape will produce the best wine for their appellation.
Shvets, for example, has planted 12 varieties on his 17 acres under cultivation. So far, pinot noir has produced the best red wine, and riesling and chardonnay the best whites, but a decision is still years away, he said.
Overall wine consumption goes up about 5 percent annually in Russia, Shvets said, with Russians now drinking 1 billion liters a year. Yet, Russia cultivates only about 160,000 acres of vineyards, compared with twice that in Bordeaux alone, he noted, and Russian consumers still equate good wine with France or Italy.
“Russian wine is not very popular because people don’t know anything about it,” Shvets said. “They do not understand that it is possible to produce good wine in Russia.”
The giant Soviet wineries did not entirely ignore the idea of creating a distinctive brand, but they did it with a certain twist. One collective farm on the outskirts of Sevastopol, for example, added a soupcon of Bolshevik fervor to its sparkling wine by renaming its vineyards after Sophie Perovski, the young woman hanged for assassinating Czar Alexander II.
Her family, titled nobility, once owned the estate, and the wines made there today still carry the name “Perovski Estate Winery.”
Things muddled along pretty much the same when Crimea was part of an independent Ukraine after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, but the 2014 annexation dealt another blow to quality.
Seizing Crimea spurred patriotic fervor across Russia, prompting a run on Crimean wine. Some unscrupulous businessmen, sensing an opportunity for windfall profits, slapped “Bottled in Crimea” labels on any old plonk, some even imported from abroad.
Once the novelty (and the nasty hangovers) wore off, sales of Crimean wine nose-dived.
That was hardly the only fallout from the annexation.
Repin, 43, produces just 15,000 bottles of wine a year from his five acres. He just bought 15 more, and envisions a small hotel that would foster tourism.
To accomplish that, he would like to borrow the equivalent of about $675,000, but mainstream Russian banks have avoided Crimea out of fear of sanctions and the local ones charge a prohibitive 20 percent interest rate.
Still, Shvets has convinced the government of Sevastopol that they have time and terroir on their side. The terroir, the combination of soil and climate where wine is produced, matches that of Burgundy, he said, with warm days and cool nights.
Shvets, 39, is such a compelling salesman that one businessman guiding a group of Chinese tour operators around the vineyards later told friends, “You should drink his wine with your ears.”
Shvets’ stunning vineyard, about a 45-minute drive from downtown Sevastopol, sits in verdant hills more than 1,500 feet above sea level. Named Uppa after the Tartar name for a local river, it produces just 50,000 bottles annually of what he called — in a kind of repeat mantra — “high quality, fresh, elegant wine.”
Shvets evokes the days in the fifth century B.C. when Greek settlements around Sevastopol shipped wine to the Black Sea and the entire Mediterranean.
Growing demand within Russia will provide enough revenue, but otherwise, sanctions have clouded that vision. At a wine trade show in Italy recently, the police shuttered the booth of the one Crimean winery present, as imports are banned.
“It is a problem,” Shvets said. “It is not an issue of money, it is not being part of the big winemaking family of the world.”