Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Three countries that are neighbors, each with their very own traditions and culture, different in territory and population, but with a common denominator, the history of wine. Of course, the history of all three is special. One of them is tart and originated high in the Likhi mountain range before the adoption of Christianity, in the other it is a heavy burgundy and salvaged from the last branch, while in the third it is only beginning to grow actively and gain momentum, although it originated in the times of Ancient Greece. These countries have kept their vineyards and land for hundreds of years. Of course, not without the waging of wars. Farmers lost their land holdings, and with them their vineyards and, despite everything, the tradition of winemaking in these territories was not destroyed.
When they ask what alcohol is traditional in Ukraine, the first things that come to mind are mead, tinctures and moonshine, and only when you remind yourself of Ukrainian songs do you realize that there is another unjustly forgotten drink – wine. And all because Ukraine is not associated with it. And what a pity. Perhaps we don’t not have such vineyards as they do in France or Spain, and we are still far from what they have in Chile or Argentina, but Ukraine has its own attractive features and can boast of a unique flavor palette of beverages.
It would seem that those world-renowned varieties which are grown in famous wine-growing countries, do not acclimatize themselves in Ukraine, though experts refute this view. It turns out that the climate of Crimea and Odessa Region is unique for all varieties, because the land, humidity and the sun give wine its special and unique taste. The most famous varieties of grape have been cultivated here for centuries. According to experts, a European-Asian vine was grown on the territory of Ukraine which, in turn, is divided into three ecological and geographical groups: Western European varieties (Aligote, Pinot, Riesling, Traminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre, Merlot), Black Sea basin varieties (Rkatsiteli, Saperavi, Mtsvane, Tsolikouri, Aleksandrouli, Plavay, Furmint) and Eastern varieties (Terbash, Kara Uzum, Bayan Shirei, Tavkveri, Husayn, Taurus, Muscat and Kishmish). All of these varieties were, in the main, brought into the country in the 19th and 20th centuries, and some of them acclimatized well, while others had to be replaced.
However, the history of Ukrainian wine began long before the 19th century. There is a legend that the Georgians taught the world how to make wine, first of all to the Greeks then, in their turn the Italians, while they taught the French. The technology spread through wars and migration. Archaeological finds and stories told down the ages indicate that the Greeks brought wine to Crimea, and they also taught the locals how to make it. So winemaking on the peninsula has existed for over 2,000 years. Many grape varieties come from a vine that came from the shores of Hellas, which are located in Greece.
It was in the 6th century BC that Greek colonies began to appear in Crimea. It is with the very appearance of these cities that autochthonous (indigenous) Ukrainian varieties can be linked: Kefesia, Ekim Kara, Sary Pandas, Kok Pandas, Kokour. Wine in Crimea was produced not only for consumption but also for trade. There is mention that in 1794, at the ruins of the Chersonesos of Taurida, the famous Dutch anthropologist Eugene Dubois discovered an inscription on a stone plate dating back to the 4th century BC, where the achievements of a local figure, Agasiklet, are remembered. In particular, it is noted that “the people devote this monument to Agasiklet, who contributed to the development of wine and the wine trade in villages.”
Wine flowed by the river in Crimea at that time. This drink was consumed not only at banquet and dinner tables, but also for medicinal purposes. The Greeks gave locals their experience of cultivation and production technology and tried to inoculate the culture of wine consumption. It probably did not work out. After all, even today there is the saying “to drink like a scythian”, that is, to use wine in large quantities not diluted with water. That golden age of wine-making on the peninsula has since passed.
Viticulture also developed for some time after the Greek colonies became part of the Roman Empire. Farmers would often lose their goods as a result of raids by nomadic tribes in the 4th century. Therefore, vineyards had to be revived from scratch. Numerous attacks by the Huns on the Crimean peninsula, constant raids and wars with the Ostgoths led to the death of ancient cities. But after joining the Khazar Khaganate in the VII century, viticulture did not suffer a downturn, although it did not develop either. But it was thanks to the Khazar Khaganate that Crimean wine began to make its way around the world.
Confirmation exists that wine which, according to Greek traditions, was stored in amphorae, was sometimes carried to Khazar nomads by oxen and to the distant forest-steppe villages of Eastern Europe and to the woods of Volga Region, where they were exchanged for livestock, honey and furs. As a sign of truce, the Khazars gave Crimean wine as their most valuable gift. But then Crimea became Ottoman and it forgot for a long time about winemaking. But the Ottoman Turks, fortunately, did not destroy the vineyards, which local residents have been caring for and cultivating for decades.
The history of Crimean wine as well as the wines of Bessarabia was reborn in the early 19th century. It was then that the Russian Empire began to intensify colonization of Southern Ukraine. In one of the letters of the famous wine-maker Prince Lev Golitsyn, it is written that imperial officials created special commissions that would have to study grape varieties, climatic conditions and the quality of the soil in Crimea and Bessarabia.
Prince Lev Golitsyn.
Those who wished to move to Crimea and start a wine-growing business were, in accordance with a decree from the Tsar, provided with large estates and land. In the early 19th century, there were about 8,500 hectares of vineyards in Ukraine, owned in the main by landlords and entrepreneurs. And no wonder, as scientists learned back then that Ukrainian land is unique for the cultivation of grapes, and that not only are the territories of the peninsula special, but so are those of Odessa Region and Kherson Region.
There is no doubt that the times of Golitsyn and Trubetskoy were the golden age of Ukrainian wine. The First World War changed everything. It brought terrible devastation, and later Bolshevik occupation. It was this that caused the mass destruction of vineyards. So by 1919 in Ukraine (together with Crimea) just 13,000 hectares were preserved. In Transcarpathia there were less than 3,000 hectares of grape plantations after the First World War, while in the 1920s-30s their area increased to 4,500 hectares, and the gross yield came to 20,000-30,000 tons of grapes a year.
Destruction in Crimea during the Second World War.
Even more vineyards were destroyed during the Second World War. And after the reconstruction and stabilization of the Soviet Union, and after wine was made a drink for the masses and nobody paid attention to its quality and nobility, on May 18, 1985 the country took the decision to fight alcoholism. And not to fight the causes, but the actual sale of alcohol. Then, with the permission of Mikhail Gorbachev, the only and last president of the USSR, numerous areas of vineyards – some 60,000 hectares – were cut down in Crimea and Odessa Region. Only isolated wineries managed to escape the destruction. One of them was the famous Massandra winery in Crimea.
And later came the tough 1990s, a time when everyone thought about how to survive, and not about good wine. And that is why home-made wine, so-called shmurdyak, appeared in shops, the origin and quality of which was as dubious as its price of
3 karbovantsi a liter.
But over time, the quality of Ukrainian wine began to improve. And only recently, experts argue that 10-15 years ago people in Ukraine started talking about the culture of wine consumption, and actually abandoned semi-sweet wines and switched to noble dry varieties.
And misfortune strikes once again. The annexation of Crimea took place in 2014.
Of course, some factories were able to move to mainland Ukraine, but the vineyards remained there in Crimea. With the annexation of the peninsula, Ukraine lost half of its vineyards. And Russia recently put up for sale Novyi Svit, the oldest winery and manor in Ukraine, which Prince Lev Golitsyn founded in 1878.
Monument to Prince Lev Golitsyn at entrance to the Novyi Svit plant.
With the capture of Crimea Ukraine lost not only net profit also lost a lucrative sales market, Russia. For example, prior to Crimea’s annexation Ukraine exported almost 60% of its total volume of wine to Russia, but now the export figure is barely half of one per cent. The eastern market was advantageous because the buyers were not too demanding, and the price was attractive for them. But to bring Ukrainian wine to the European market and conquer it now, changes need to be made to the quality of the drink and the approach to production. First and foremost, experts in the field of viticulture say we must
increase the area of vineyards in Ukraine. After all, if you compare this agricultural sector with the cultivation of grain crops, it is much more profitable and advantageous. For example, one hectare of vineyards provides 14 times more jobs than one hectare of grain crops does. However, there should not be support for mass production, but for small chateaux, to develop so-called terroir wineries. This way you can create as many exclusive wines as possible, which are so valued abroad and with which you can compete worthily on world markets.
There is no doubt at all that they know about this step at the Ministry of Agrarian Policy of Ukraine, and it is said that, in addition to wishes and ideas, support is still needed from Ukrainian parliamentarians. First of all, this relates to reducing taxes for such small businesses.
Here they explain: if you are the owner of an industrial wine giant, then you should pay 50 kopecks (0,02 USD) in tax on each bottle. This is a small amount for such plants. But the owner of a little terroir winery that makes much less output per annum will have to pay 50 hryvnyas (1.9 USD) on each bottle, which is a big sum of money for such a level of winery.
Therefore, in order to be able to create terroir wineries, it is first necessary to regulate legislation and the relevant demands made by the state. The draft bill, which will ease the lives of Ukrainian wine producers, has already been approved by the Cabinet of Ministers, is registered in Parliament and is awaiting consideration, since its authors are not providing any guarantees that its approval will be quick and problem-free. If the law is adopted, then Ukraine will have a chance of increasing the number of family wineries and, by the way, they are just four of them now, while in France there are 40,000.
One more gap in Ukrainian vine growing is the poor promotion of the product. For example, last year Ukraine produced 100 million liters of wine, and just 4% went for export. This is pitiful and such figures speak about the losses incurred by producers. And the reason for this level of unpopularity of Ukrainian wine around the world is not even the quality of the product, but its unrecognizability.
Ukrainian vodkas and liqueurs are usually advertised abroad, but with wine there is a problem. Consumers from Western Europe and even neighboring countries do not know about Ukrainian wines, though professional winemakers are a little better informed. But they also wonder why plants or individual brands of wines do not advertise themselves.
And the answer is obvious, it is expensive. Ukrainian winemakers practically get no support from the state, and all the expenses and risks are taken by businessmen on their own shoulders. In order for viticulture to develop in Ukraine on a level with other wine countries, there is a need to at least create a kind of agency, for example, as was done in Georgia where, after the loss of Ossetia and the embargo imposed by Russia, the popularization of wine turned into a state program. Thanks to the joint work of businessmen and state institutions, Georgian wine reached world levels in a very short time (in a total of just 5-7 years).
Georgia is the actual country where winemaking began. And this is not pathos, but scientific data. Last year, archaeologists found amphorae and the remains of pottery in which wine was stored. Studies have proven that this dish is more than 8,000 years old. This is the oldest record of winemaking that exists to date. Any doubts disappear if you were to see modern Georgia at least once, where, without exaggeration, almost every resident of the country is able to make home-made wine. You could say that the tradition they have in their genes is to blame, and they have spent centuries looking after it for future generations.
Georgia, as a state in its modern territories, was formed even under King Parnavaz, around 300 BC. It was Parnavaz who was the first to unite all the small principalities and create a great power. If truth be told, the country was called Iberia at the time, and then Kartli. The bulk of the country was located in the basin of the River Kura. Now Kartli is an administrative region located in the Gori and Muhrani valleys, where the climate is temperate, winters are warm, and summer is hot and dry and, to be honest, there is very little precipitation. Nevertheless, this region is the most suitable for growing table grapes.
The raw materials for sparkling wines and grape brandies are produced on the territory of Kartli. There are currently no industrial wines in Kartli region, but there are many terroir wineries that can now compete with the most famous enterprises of France. One of the oldest is Chateau Mukhrani.
Kartli and the whole of Georgia have always been a tasty morsel for neighboring states. Because the country is located on the famous Silk Road there has often been fighting here. In 735, a famous Arab commander and then later Caliph Marwan ibn Muhammad conquered and subdued Tbilisi. The Tbilisi Emirate was created on the territory of modern Georgia, and Georgia lost its freedom for 386 years, and with it dozens of hectares of vines, as Muslims were strangers to the tradition of viticulture.
Caliph Marwan ibn Muhammad.
There is also a legend that Marwan ibn Muhammad ordered the cutting down of all the vineyards so that Georgian soldiers would not drink wine and turn into wolves. In Georgia there is still a widespread tradition that before all fighting wine would be poured to soldiers for courage and strength and they became as fearless as wolves.
It was only in the XI century, after the ascension to the throne of King David the Builder and the restoration of an independent Georgia, that the peasants began to revive their vineyards on the scale in which they had existed before the Tbilisi Emirate. The territory of Georgia expanded under David. Thus, in 1104, he annexed the kingdom of Kakheti for the benefit of his kingdom. These lands turned out to be a rich vein for winemaking, and even today 2/3 of all grapes are grown in Kakheti. In general, the foothills of the Caucasus are famous for their unique climate and soils. It is here that the world-famous Saperavi variety of grape is grown. Locals say that wine from this variety has healing qualities, and most people who live to a ripe old age in this region explain that the longevity of their lives is due to “drinking Saperavi.”
King David the Builder of Georgia. Fragment of murals from the Gelati Monastery.
It is in Kakheti that wine is produced according to the ancient method. Here it is pressed by foot in special tanks, and then the grape juice flows into a container. The Kvevri is a special egg-shaped piece of pottery, which is now made by the ancient technology from limestone clay with the addition of non-ferrous metals (gold, silver and copper). Thus, the lime, reacting with the wine, strengthens the walls of the Kvevri and performs an antiseptic function. The same jug is then buried in the ground. Fermentation of the wine poured into Kvevri takes place over 3-4 months. While the young wine ferments, vinters have to stir it every four hours. In terms of its taste and organoleptic properties, this wine is unique, and the tradition of making Georgian wine was recently recognized by UNESCO as a significant intangible cultural heritage.
But Kakheti was not always devoted to this beloved cause. The fact is that over the course of five centuries the inhabitants of the foothills had to defend themselves from invaders. From the beginning of the 15th century until the middle of the 18th century, Kakhetians suffered from persistent raids by Iranians and Turks who tried to conquer the territory. And knowing the traditions of Muslims, one can confidently assert that neither the vineyards nor wine were left intact. There is even a legend that during one of these raids all the vineyards were destroyed, and the fields were burned. And one of the farmers came to his field and wept with grief, and it from his tears that the vine was revived.
In general, there is no region in Georgia that is not engaged in viticulture. It is just that in certain areas this is a craft, which has thousands of years of tradition, while here just a few centuries. For example, the second most important wine region in the country is Imereti. Its administrative center is Kutaisi. It is in this region that 80% of all Georgian sparkling wines are produced. Equally important is the geographical area of the Black Sea coast – Ajara, Guria, Samegrelo and Abkhazia. All these regions are located in a humid subtropical climate at an altitude of 500 meters above sea level. It is here that Ojaleshi, the most famous wine from Samegrelo, was born, which in terms of quality and taste can be compared with the wines of Burgundy. Wines were produced in Abkhazia till 1992. However, after its annexation by the Russian Federation and the creation of a self-proclaimed and unrecognized republic in this territory, Georgian wine-making stopped there. They used to produce wines from the Avasirkhava, Kachichi and Chkhaveri varieties, which produced natural semi-sweet wine.
In addition to the loss of Abkhazia in 1992-1993, Georgia also lost a significant part of South Ossetia in 2008. As a result of Russia’s intervention in this territory (in South Ossetia), a self-proclaimed republic was created. However, there were few vineyards on these lands. The 2008 war was preceded by an economic conflict. For example, Russia imposed an embargo on Georgian wine in 2006. Then, the Georgians lost their largest market for wine, as almost 80% of all their produce was exported to Russia. Of course, this hit the economy of this small Caucasian country very hard. However, the confusion and devastation lasted only 2 years. During this time, the country introduced reforms, changes to legislation and improved the quality of their wine.
The National Wine Agency appeared in Georgia, followed by the tasting chamber. It was here that they began to control the quality of the products they make. In a small room, experts who were taught in France and Spain, anonymously studied the taste features of various wines.
This chamber still operates. It is located in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, and all samples of wines that exist in the country are sent here. If the taste and appearance of a wine meets the necessary indicators, it is given an appropriate assessment and sent to a laboratory, which checks the chemical composition. And only then will a winemaker be able to purchase a license for its sale abroad.
By the way, in order to control the quality of wine products, the agency has developed another mechanism. So, every vineyard owner must report to the government agency in the fall how many kilograms of grapes that he/she has gathered. This data makes it possible to control the sale of wine and prevent it from being counterfeited or made from special powders.
In the space of seven years, Georgian wine reached a completely different level of quality. And then in 2007-2008 advertising agencies were founded with the aim of popularizing the product. It is advertised not only on the domestic market, but also outside the country. Georgia is now regarded as economically successful. Here they have set up the export of not only wine, but also mineral waters, fruit, dairy products, and recently supplied energy resources, albeit in small volumes. Of course, the loss of Ossetia and Abkhazia had, in the first 5 years, a very negative impact on the Georgian economy, but now it is practically insignificant, because the country has grown economically, culturally and politically in comparison with these self-proclaimed republics.
But not everything is going so smoothly here. The future prosperity of Georgian business and exports depends on the prudent actions of the government. Of course, since 2004, Georgia has made a significant leap, rising from 133rd to 48th in terms of rejection of corruption in the Transparency International rating. Gross domestic product has been growing since 2009 and now stands at US dollars 3,743 per capita (in Ukraine –US dollars 2,005). However, according to calculations of purchasing power parity, Georgia is not much higher than Ukraine – US dollars 9,162 versus US dollars 8,665 in Ukraine. Despite economic growth, Georgia is still a long way from overcoming poverty, despite benefit from the development of tourism, growth in exports and the growth of the domestic industrial market.
A well-known Russian blogger who visited Moldova recently said that “wine for this country is like oil for Russia.” And he was not wrong. After all, 4.2% of Moldova’s GDP is made up of the wine sector. In addition, this product represents 7.5% of the Republic of Moldova’s total export volumes. The country produces up to 15 million decaliters of wine every year, which is a huge amount for such a small state. But these are not the only record figures, if we’re talking about wine and grapes in Moldova. It is in this country that the most densely planted vineyards in the world are found. The area occupied by this agricultural crop is 147,000 hectares. Of course, the majority of this area is planted by commercial firms, but almost every farmer has a small vineyard and a small winery.
The history of wine, just like the history of this country, began much earlier. Moldovans assure us: if you can fantasize a little and not pick it up, you can be sure that the territory of their country is like a bunch of grapes. And they tell the legend about how one king went on a hunting trip. He traveled a long time, a few days. He loved hunting with a big escort and with his beloved dog, who went by the nickname of Molda. According to the same legend, the entire royal procession got lost in dense forests. They roamed for a long time but were spent through thirst. But they were saved by their dog, who stumbled upon a river. The king sat down near its banks, where the wild grapes grew in the hills,
quenched his thirst and hunger, and later called the river in honor of the dog who saved him and his entourage.
Although in reality the history of Moldova is a little different. The country was founded by the Dacians. The first mention of Moldova dates from 44-70 BC. And a kingdom was created around the territory of modern Moldova. Dacia was known even in the Roman Empire, because it was famous for its fertile lands and rich forests. Finds by archaeologists indicate that it was the Dacians who began to produce wine on this territory. And this drink was unsurpassed, because it is remembered by Homer in the poem Iliad. One of the verses states that “Greek soldiers went to Dacia in search of wine.”
After the Greeks came to Moldovan lands, they improved the wine production process somewhat. In particular, they told and showed the Dacians how it was possible to squeeze grapes with the help of a press (by the way, many families still use this improved version).
However, not only did the Greeks teach wine-making, Dacians showed the colonists their special way of storing wine. It was of little use in warm Greece, but it was used in Moldova: the Dacians left the grapes to the first frost, and that is how preservation of wine by freezing took place. Perhaps it is from here that the method of making wine, known today in the world as “ice wine”, comes.
The territory of Moldova was extremely attractive for neighboring states. Therefore, there were wars and destruction of lands here too. In approximately 105 AD, during the reign of King Decebalus, the Romans attacked Dacia and conquered it. The king committed suicide from grief. The traditions and culture of the Dacians were not changed by the Romans; this country was a profitable resource for the empire. It was precisely from here that a large number of wines and grains were exported for sale.
King Decebalus. Drawing from the beginning of the 20th century.
Ancient culture and the remnants of the local population were assimilated at the time of the Middle Ages, when these lands gradually began to be inhabited by Slavs. It was during this period that Moldova was formed as a state. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the population in this area continued to grow steadily, because the Brodnici began to settle along the River Dniester. These were Slavs who escaped from the oppression of the boyars from the lands of the Galician and Kyiv princes. In the 11th-13th centuries there was a state in the lower reaches of the River Danube called Berladskaya land, with its center in the city of Berlad (modern-day Birlad, Romania).
Stefan cel Mare, or Stephen the Great, strengthened the state, its borders and economy most of all in the 15th century. This ruler realized that Moldova’s greatest wealth was its vineyards, so investment would first need to be made before profit could be earned. It was he who introduced the position of cup bearer in the palace, whose duties were to monitor all winemakers in the country, improve the quality of the drink and invent methods for cultivating and preserving vineyards. Under Stephen the Great new varieties of vines were introduced to the territory of Moldova.
But everything was not always so calm, although there were no such dramatic reversals of circumstances in Moldova with its vineyards as there were in Ukraine and Georgia. The Ottoman Empire, which tried to conquer the lands of Moldova’s rulers, of course, tried to destroy the massif of vineyards here too, but they did not succeed. As the legend goes, it was grapes that saved Moldovan warriors from defeat. And everything happened in the following manner. Having barricaded themselves inside the fortress, the soldiers were surrounded by the Ottomans, provisions were running very low and there were no forces left to defend the city. But the brave knights were saved by storks. It was they who brought grapes in their beaks, which gave the soldiers the power to defeat the enemy and save the city and country. And that is why the symbol of vine growing and winemaking in Moldova is still that of a stork with outstretched wings.
But Ottoman raids and the destruction of vineyards were not the biggest tragedy in winemaking in Moldova. Some historians of wine and vines say that history of their country has a special section, and it relates to the rule of Russian Tzar in Bessarabia. A part of Moldovan territory was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1812.
The most fertile lands were handed over to Russian nobility. Here they built so-called “wine residences”. However, there are plus points in this story, because in order to improve winemaking, the invaders invited professionals from France, and they declared that Moldova is like a little France, because it lies on the latitudes from which it is possible to grow the best French wine. During this period, Moldovan wine changed so much that at an international exhibition in Paris wine from the autochthonous grape variety Negru de Purcari won the highest award. Imperial winemakers even created special microzones for the cultivation of special varieties of vines, which, incidentally, still exist today. In particular, the Purcari variety is still grown mainly in the Stefan Voda region, the Codru and Feteasca varieties in the Balti region, and other red varieties in the Trajan’s Wall region.
Of course, winemaking in the country suffered during periods of revolutions and wars. But Moldovan wine became the most developed during the Soviet empire, namely in the late 1970s. Then there was simply huge industrial potential. According to statistics, every second bottle that was drunk in the USSR was made in Moldova. The last major shock for Moldovan vineyards occurred during Gorbachev’s time. Fighting alcoholism he, just like in Ukraine, ordered that all the vineyards be cut down. It was then, in the 1980s, that the country lost most of its vines.
In Soviet times, the largest underground cellars were built in Moldova, where wine was stored. One of them, Milestii Mici, was included in the Guinness Book of Records as the cellar containing the largest wine collection in the world. But in Cricova, a cellar located in a former quarry was turned into a special underground town, which has its own streets and quarters.
Moldova also survived the embargo imposed by Russia in 2006. And this was done in line with the Georgian scenario: it improved the quality of its wine and entered the most demanding market, which enabled the country to sell more expensive and refined products. And then it found other sales markets. Today, Moldova delivers wine to CIS countries, which makes up 68% of Moldova’s total wine exports. The largest consumers of Moldovan wines are Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus. However, after the embargo was lifted in 2016, Russia remains in first place in terms of volume of wine consumption. The biggest buyers of Moldovan wines in the West are Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania.
Right now Moldova is, just like Georgia, developing the Chinese market. The country cares about the development of its most profitable industry. Therefore, laws and draft bills are being reworked here, often taking an example from leading global wine producers. Care is given here to wine tourism. For example, a wine festival has been held in the country since 2002. Traditionally, the center of the holiday is Chisinau. A fair is simply set up in the middle of the capital where all the country’s wine companies are represented. In 2016 this holiday was attended by over 100,000 people, by Moldovans and guests from other countries. They believe here that “wine loves quiet as it ferments, and company once the bottle is uncorked!”