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Blog: From Russia with Love

Published:  26 October, 2011

Harpers news editor Gemma McKenna blogs about her trip to Russia's wine region

Supping Gorky Park (Imperial vodka, lemon liqueur, basil, kiwi, lime juice and kiwi syrup, in case you're interested) atop Moscow's Ritz-Carlton, overlooking the Kremlin, makes for a stellar opening to any Russian excursion if you ask me.

I made my way eastwards last week for a whistle-stop introduction to Russian wine. Catching an Aeroflot plane (s'alright, their safety record's much improved) over to the Black Sea's Krasnodar region, I spotted  my first vineyards along the roadside on the way to our destination, Abrau Durso. But on first sight, many seemed overgrown and unkempt - the rather odd ownership system could be to blame. In most cases the government owns the land the vineyards are planted on, and leases it to wineries, who are then responsible for planting and maintaining vines. The Catch-22 is that if they invest in new vines and improve standards, the land value increases, boosting government coffers but not their own. But if they don't do it they're left with substandard vines.

The Abrau Durso winery tour is up there on the winery tour list. There aren't many around that can boast a history as rich as this. Current owner Boris Titov, who made his fortune in petrochemicals, guided us through the labyrinthine cellars. Founded in 1870 by Tsarist decree, it originally supplied the Imperial court with luxury bubbles, while under the Soviets (when all sparkling wines were sold in exactly the same bottle), standards slipped as Stalin wanted all Russians to have access to Champagne and Caviar. During the Second World War the Nazis took up residence in the sprawling 5.5km of cellars at the winery, attempting to blow them up on their departure. After the fall of communism, it has been a slow and steady climb to improve quality, and since the Titov family arrived, it has poured $34 million into the business.

Abrau Durso is a magical place, thanks in no small part to the Titovs. They seem to own vast swathes of the town, aside from the winery, they're trying to build a tourist hub, incorporating one hotel (already built - with planning underway for a series of apartments), three restaurants, a number of fast food outlets, and a watersports area on the lake too. Explaining that there was much to be done on arrival, Pavel Titov, Boris's son and a director in the business, said they had had to buy the water treatment plant in order to speed up improvements. It seems this could also apply to other infrastructure in the area, including high speed internet provision and natural gas...

On Saturday the Titov family's winery played host to around 40 other producers from across the region, who met up for the first time to discuss what's next for the industry, and show off their wines to experts, retailers and journalists. What is suprising about the Russian wine trade is that a lot of the so-called producers are merely bottlers, importing vast quantities of South African or Chilean wine on the cheap and making it into wine that suits the Russian palate. But for the most part, this festival focused instead on those producers keen to expose their country's terroir in its home-grown wines.

Some of the wines, it has to be said, were not really what the Western palate has become accustomed to, some were very sweet, some were a bit green, while there were a few standouts. Abrau Durso's Victor Dravigny Rosé was one, Chateau le Grand Vostock had a pretty good Pinot Noir in its Chene Royal range, while I also enjoyed Fanagoria's Saperavi. Focusing predominantly on international varieties, overall the wines didn't taste as we would expect. But Pavel Titov encouraged us to taste the wines looking for the potential in the glass, rather than accepting them at face value.

The Russians themselves acknowledge they've got a way to go - but let's not forget, although they have lengthy histories, modern winemaking isn't long arrived on these shores, so it's still playing catch-up. I look forward to seeing what's next.