Russia craves a prestigious brand on the world’s wine list


MOSCOW – One year after its opening, Russian wine is always full. Located in the center of Moscow, it has become a trendy restaurant. Its wine list stands out: it offers only Russian brands, more than 200, marked in different colors in all regions of the south of the country.

Russian wine (in English on the storefront, as well as the eclectic menu) unsurprisingly includes Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula where viticulture has come back to life since Moscow annexed it in 2014.


“But let’s not talk about politics! Wine is pleasure,” says restaurant owner Artur Sarkisian, recommending a Riesling from Gunko or a Muscat from Gaï Kodzor, two benchmark labels from Krasnodar Krai.

From Greek plantations to the uprooting of Gorbachev

In this region of southwestern Russia near the Black Sea, where half of the national production comes from, legend has it that the Greeks planted the first vines. Thirty-five years after the “dry law” of Mikhail Gorbachev who imposed the uprooting of vines and devastated this territory in an attempt to fight against alcoholism, French chardonnay and sauvignon blanc vines rub shoulders with local grape varieties such as amazing Krasnostop.

“Made in Russia” has nothing to do with post-Soviet methods and red wines with strong coloring. “Under the USSR, it was quantity above all, with wines that were too sweet. We now know how to make good dry wines and the quality is constantly improving,” explains Sarkisian.

He knows what he is talking about. It publishes a guide to Russian wines. In eight years, the book has grown from 55 wines to 500. The first edition is printed in 1,000 copies, the last in 13,000. “The demand for Russian wine continues to increase among the Russians. There is of course a dose of patriotism. But also of curiosity, ”he says.

With COVID-19 and the difficulties of traveling abroad, many have come to the southern regions to experience local productions. Wine tourism is booming. At the same time, in Moscow, tasting clubs are multiplying. “The mentality is changing, including among our distributors who, for a long time, thought that only imported wines were of good quality,” explains Elena Porman, coordinator of the “New Russian Wine” program.

Boost in the Kremlin

The Kremlin gave a boost, especially as many oligarchs and senior officials from the political elite began to invest in the vineyards. “The government is helping producers. Financial grants cover planting costs. But there is also a new law which has allowed better control of the sector, ”explains Porman.

By sorting out the regulations, the production of bulk wine, for example, has been banned. One of the victims is the French company Castel, which bottled imported wines on site.

It was an amendment to this law that sparked a champagne war last summer. The new regulations concern labeling, requiring the words “sparkling wine” on the back label, behind the bottle, and reserving for Russian producers the right to display “champagne” on the front. Quite paradoxical for French Champagne producers, who want to preserve their appellation.

The “champagne” war

In protest, French producers temporarily halted sales to Russia. But as Christmas approaches, financial considerations have taken over. Exports have resumed since September 15. The Champagne industry sells around 1.5 million bottles per year in Russia. A very small bubble in a country which has always produced “russkoe champanskoe” and other sparkling wines. Among the major brands: Abrau-Durso with 40 million bottles per year from a magnificent site on the heights of a lake.

Another beneficiary is the Crimea and its ancestral producers who, since annexation, have experienced a renaissance, thanks to the total opening up to the Russian market. Coincidentally (or not), one of the main brands is owned by someone close to President Vladimir Putin.

Profitability will take a long time to come

“Russian champagne, of course, is not real French champagne. But we are making progress,” said Vladimir Gunko. This tall guy speaks from experience. Around it, some 20 hectares of land are spread out in a beautiful hidden corner of the Krasnodar Krai region.

For this mechanical engineer, wine was a passion that turned into a real business, with some 50,000 bottles per year – 100,000 by 2024, according to his business plan. Gunko is starting a champagne business and expects its first production next year. For now, it’s wine. He is “terroir», He insists, happy to offer Malbec from his cellar. He has given himself the means: he has invested some 3 million euros and knows how to be patient. “Profitability will be long in coming,” he smiles in the middle of his vineyards.

Caps and vats: everything is imported

In Gunko, like everywhere else in the Krasnodar Krai, everything is imported, from vines to corks, including reservoirs and filtration equipment. European producers and Russian intermediaries also manage to bring Western equipment indirectly into Crimea, despite the sanctions prohibiting such imports.

All machines come from France, Italy or Germany. In the wine industry, Russia is thus caught up by its insufficient industrial diversification, far from raw materials, and by the weaknesses of the network of its small and medium-sized enterprises. So, for wines, production costs and prices are high in Moscow stores.

“If Russian viticulture is reborn, the upstream sector remains in decline,” notes Frank Duseigneur, one of the many French professionals who have settled and have ambitions on these lands of the Krasnodar Krai. He watches over the Château de Talu vineyard, one million bottles per year with 100 hectares of production and, each year, 15 hectares of new plantations. After a museum, a restaurant and a tasting room, it is planned to build a hotel and a spa, as wine tourism is developing rapidly in the region.

Putin’s Palace and Talu Castle

Gelendzhik is a seaside resort that has gained international fame since Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny published a video in January on Vladimir Putin’s palace: a huge real estate estate lined with a vast field of vines.

From the grounds of Talu Castle, you can imagine this Putin Palace further down the coast. “We are by the sea but hidden by the mountains. A unique place for wine, ”says Duseigneur, who, in the midst of the Merlot harvest, talks first and foremost about business. “Another problem: there is not enough training. Russia needs to improve the quality of its workforce. When they prune the vines here, it’s 250 plants per day compared to 1,000 in France. nobody, against a ton in France ”, specifies the agricultural engineer.

When we arrived the only advantage was that the earth rested for 15 years

In Russia, with 90,000 hectares of vines (far behind 750,000 in France), the density is also lower than in France: 1,000 to 4,000 vines per hectare, against 5,000 to 8,000 in France. Barely 20 years ago, no one had grasped the potential of this region. In Moscow, it was almost impossible to find a single quality Russian wine, ”recalls Renaud Burnier. Together with his Russian wife, Burnier, who is Swiss, founded a winery in Krasnodar Krai which is today a model.

“When we arrived, the vines were abandoned, the equipment dilapidated, the population discouraged. The only advantage was that the land had rested for 15 years.” Its priority: gourmet wines, without fertilizers or insecticides. “Our wine has the taste of the Russian soil but Swiss rigor and attention to detail!” jokes Burnier, whose 50 hectare estate near the seaside town of Anapa produces 200,000 bottles a year. “Today, we are no longer the only ones.”

Drink less and better

This boom in “made in Russia” wines takes place in a context of changing consumption habits. Especially among the middle class, in big cities, Russians drink less and differently. Less vodka and less bad wines. More beer and good wine. Each Russian over the age of 15 consumes an average of 11.1 liters of pure alcohol per year, which is less than the French (11.7 liters).

Unlike the French who drink only French wine, the Russians are like the English

Fighting against alcoholism, the government managed to reduce this consumption by 43% per individual between 2003 and 2016 thanks to voluntary restriction measures, in particular on advertising and sales. Russia is going through a serious demographic crisis and fighting alcoholism means increasing life expectancy. The authorities have understood this. Society too.

“Priority to quality over quantity. A kind of maturity”, explains Natalia Vremea, renowned oenologist in Moscow. “More and more Russians are looking for authentic wines, interesting grape varieties, natural terroirs. Unlike the French who drink only French wine, the Russians are like the English. They are curious about wines from all over the world and now their own wines. In return, this is good news for French exporters: Russia is becoming more and more fond of wine and, eventually, will inevitably buy more French wines. “Especially since Russia does not yet produce great wines. wines.

For now, some even hope that Russia will export. And not just the mediocre table wines sold in large quantities to China. “The share of Russian wine on our shelves is increasing, as well as the number of stores. A boom that is proportional to the boom in production. Exports should follow, ”hopes Sandro Khatiashvili, one of the purchasing managers of Simple Wine, a growing store network. “We have launched a program to promote the best Russian wines and intensify their distribution. For this seller in Moscow as for the Krasnodar Krai vineyards, there is no doubt: Russia will find its place on the new wine list of the world.

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