The extreme temperatures endured in much of Russia dictate that wine production can only flourish in specific regions. The Russian wine industry might face some challenges, but lessons are quickly learned.
RUSSIA MAY be the largest country in the world but much of it is too cold for sustainable viticulture, with winters getting down to -15 to -30°C. Vines can tolerate -15°C but they’re dead in the water at -30°C. A short growing season restricts the choice of cultivars further.
The exception to this situation is in the far south-western corners of the country, around Anapa and Novorossiysk on the northeastern tip of the Black Sea, which coincidentally runs along the 45th parallel, famed further west for being home to Piedmont, the Rhône valley and Bordeaux. This focus area for viticulture is the Krasnodar region, one of four main designated wine-producing regions.
Two of the other regions – Stavropol and Dagestan – stretch eastwards either side of the 45th parallel, immediately north of the Caucasus Mountains to the Caspian Sea. Georgia abuts these regions to the south. The fourth Russian region is some way north of Krasnodar region and the Black Sea, around Rostov-on-Don, in a climate so continental that viticulture takes on unique attributes.
Temperatures in Krasnodar region’s Taman Peninsula, by the Azov Sea, can vary annually from around -15°C to 40°C. When the wind blows from central Russia, from Siberia, it goes to the Taman Peninsula, largely being deflected from the north coast of the Black Sea, around Anapa and Novorossiysk, by the western tail end of the approximately east to west running Caucasus Mountains.
• Much of Russia is too cold for sustainable viticulture, with temperatures in winter getting down to -15 to -30°C.
• Suitable regions with the appropriate climate for wine growing in Russia include Krasnodar, Stavropol, Dagestan and Rostov-on-Don.
• Wine production in Russia in 2011 was 7.3 mhl, including 2.2 mhl of sparkling wine.
• The participation of Russian wines in international competitions reveal a steady annual increase in the quality of its wines.
Kuban-Vino is a prominent producer in Taman. Their viticulturalist, Maxim Gruner, explained, “The problem of this territory, is that once in 10-12 years we get a cold winter, -24 to -26°C. Some vines die.“ They do, however have wide selection of vines including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Blanc, Syrah and Muscat, plus the more regional Saperavi and Krasnostop.
The modern era of the internationalising Russian wine industry provides a prosaic learning curve, as Gruner said, “Last year (2011/’12) was a cold winter. We had three clones of Syrah. Two froze and one made it, so we know we can work with that one.“ The biggest challenge here, he emphasised “is the cold winters, especially when the very cold comes suddenly and kills the vines”. In 2006/7 Kuban-Vino lost 1,600 hectares of vines, out of their about 6,500 hectares. “Vines don’t get old here,” Gruner said wryly. The average vine age generally in Russia appears to be about 25 years.
But the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. Gruner pointed out: “The temperature is relatively high here, it’s the warmest place in the whole region because it’s close to the sea – we have about 300 sunny days a year, and the wind in the sea channel cleans the vineyards and keeps them fresh.”
An hour or two east along the Black Sea coast, and the western tail end of the Caucasus creates two viticultural zones. The mountains protect the commercial port city of Novorussiysk from the cold northerly winds, and the Black Sea keeps the temperatures up. One of the country’s oldest wineries, Myskhako, is situated in this warmer spot.
Then just behind the hills is a cooler area and it is up here where the likes of Château le Grand Vostock and the recently planted Lefkadia and Villa Victoria are located.
The winter freeze defines viticulture, and grape varieties, in Russia. Hybrids, such as Saperavi Severny were bred to withstand the winters, making it a popular choice in the Rostov region. This variety is different, however, from the Georgian cultivar Saperavi.
Indigenous varieties such as Krasnostop, Tsimyliansky Cherny and Sibirkovy are well adapted to the cold. But international varieties are puny by comparison, and always require burying to survive winter. It is in the Rostov region that the winter freeze takes on a life and rhythm of its own. Summers may reach 40°C, but winters get down to -30°C and the approximately 350mm of annual precipitation mostly falls as snow.
This is the region where the more cold- tolerant indigenous varieties come into their own, as well as hybrids, which provide fruit for local table wine. The hybrids, such as Golubok and Saperavi severny don’t need to be buried – they have thick permanent wood having been bred to survive these temperatures.
Tsimliansky Wines general manager, Igor Gubin, explained the process: “We take the vines off the wires, then lay down the vines and cover them with soil using a tractor. It costs about US$500/ha to cover and uncover them.” The vines are covered by November 15th and uncovered by the end of March. This means the growing season is effectively April to August/September. The winter freeze even informs the planting density, the machines don’t allow a tighter density than 2m rows x 1.5m between the vines.
The new era of Russian viticulture is mainly a feature of the new millennium. Another feature of any aspiring winery is the international consultant. John Worontschak is a consultant in Russia, having started work in 2002 with Myskhako, a 600 hectare property founded in 1869. It is situated by the Black Sea, near Novorussiysk, and Worontschak stayed on even when the company changed hands. Since then he’s added to his Russian portfolio, Fanagoria, and Villa Victoria, an 80ha “boutique” winery which is owned by Sergei Yanov, one of the directors of Myskhako.
In a story that’s already known from other re-emerging regions, some of the quickest wins are in the winery. “Without question,” Worontschak said, “oxygen management immediately improved quality and shelf life. Initial oxygen levels were approaching saturation point in the old days. We are now down to 1-3 mg/l post bottling as opposed to 6-8. It’s still high-ish but it’s much better.”