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With Loss of Crimea, Tiny Ukrainian Wine Industry Gets Even Smaller

As a story in today's New York Times makes clear, among the many things Ukraine lost when Russia recently annexed Crimea was the historic Massandra winery, which was first set up by Czar Nicholas II in 1894. From the NYT:

Agriculture is a crucial sector that the Kremlin hopes to rejuvenate to make Crimea an economic success story under Russian tutelage. The new administration hopes to exploit the wine industry not least to draw more tourists, blaming Ukraine for neglecting both when it ran Crimea.

“Thank God it has not been completely ruined within these 23 years,” said Yelena Yurchenko, Crimea’s minister of tourism and resorts, speaking of viniculture. “Of course it would be in better shape if there had been investments in this field.”

Actually, while much of Crimea was bemoaning empty hotel rooms and a scant number of tourists, the bedrock of the economy, the team at Massandra was in a buoyant mood. Wines flew off the shelves at their three local stores last month, on track to double the sales volume from last year, they said.

The winery attributed the increase to many first-time Russian visitors’ eagerly snapping up potable souvenirs. The czar’s former winery now caters more to those day-to-day visitors than to the elite, producing 10 million bottles a year. Winemaking in Crimea dates back more than 3,500 years, but the intense Black Sea sunshine means it is most known for sweet wines and sherry.

Massandra has been considered a little bit apart ever since its inception. It was popular among members of the artistic high society who summered near the czar. Anton Chekhov brought friends there from his nearby villa. Nationalized in 1922, after the Russian Revolution, it remained a popular draw. Maxim Gorky penned a tribute that was carved into a metal plaque on the wall. But no one is quite sure who visited before World War II, because the Nazi occupiers made off with the guest book.

Although it doesn't compare with, say, losing access to valuable oil and gas exploration zones in the Black Sea, the loss of the winery does deal quite a blow to Ukraine's minuscule wine industry, which in recent years had been growing again after losing more than half of its vineyards during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's 1985 clampdown on alcohol production and consumption.

While Ukraine has a few wine growing regions, Crimea is without a doubt the country's most important winemaking area. (That said, a Kebabistan informant with deep experience in drinking wine in the former Soviet Union got in touch to say that despite its storied history, Massandra's Crimean wine was so poorly regarded by Ukrainian oenophiles that some (half) jokingly cheered on the Russian annexation as a way of finally getting rid of the winery and its over sweetened stuff.) An interesting post (written before the Russian annexation) on Mtonvin.net, a wine-centric blog, suggests that the politics of Crimea's wine scene is reflective of the divisions affecting Ukraine at large. From the post, which was written by wine journalist Andrew Jefford:

Existing economic interests in the Crimea are, likewise, deeply split. Many of the older enterprises and institutions (like the Sevastopol Winery or Noviy Svet) are owned by the Ukrainian state, but private enterprises often have Russian shareholders. The Russian wine trading company Legendy Kryma (Legends of Crimea) presented a major investment project to the Crimean government shortly before the recent crisis. “Among the new wineries and vineyards,” says Tetyana Bolshakova, a Crimean wine enthusiast, “I would say more than half belong to Russian people. If Russia comes here, I do not see any problems for them. Under Ukraine, it would totally depend on the new government and how wise they are going to be.”

I contacted leading local growers Igor Samsonov of the 49-ha Esse and Pavel Shvets of the 10.5-ha biodynamic domain Uppa, both sited near Sevastopol. Each stressed that life for small Crimean winegrowers wasn’t easy under Ukrainian administration – it was hard to buy agricultural land, and they were beset with regulations meaning, Igor says, “high corruption and bribes”. Worst of all, though, was that the wholesale licence required to sell
wine costs €50,000 a year. “Yes: 50,000 euros,” said Pavel. “And every winemaker who wants to sell bottled wine in the restaurants and shops of Ukraine has to have it. This doesn’t contribute to the creation of a competitive environment, and it makes it impossible for many small producers to get going.

They also both pointed out that Russia was a much more important market for Crimean producers than continental Ukraine itself. “I’ve toured many cities in both Russia and Ukraine,” said Pavel, “and there’s a big difference. The Russian market is much richer and more diverse, and the wine consumers there are more knowledgeable. Crimean wine is special there. Kiev and Odessa are lovely cities with lovely people, but a lot of wine is made in other parts of Ukraine and so our wine doesn’t seem so special in those places.” Tetyana, Igor and Pavel all stressed that the local market was potentially the most important of all — providing tourism could continue to flourish there. “The present situation kills it” said Tetyana, “we don’t have much time.”

With Crimea gone, Ukraine's next great wine region appears to be the Bessarabia area, near the border with Moldova and Romania (a bottle of Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy Winery's chardonnay, anyone?). That said, considering that area is also not far from the disputed breakaway state of Transnistria, itself a potential candidate for Russian annexation, Ukraine may yet find itself with another contested appellation on its hands.

With Loss of Crimea, Tiny Ukrainian Wine Industry Gets Even Smaller

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