Russian renaissance

Tribune Correspondent

For more than a century, vineyards that blanket rolling uplands here in Russia's prime winemaking region have been afflicted by a Soviet maxim long ago branded into the minds of local vintners.

More is better.The Soviet Union was the world's fourth largest wine producer after Italy, France and Spain, but the Soviets approached winemaking as if they were making wing nuts. Grapes were harvested before they were ready. Crude presses crushed stems and seeds into the must, giving Russian wine a sour, woody edge. Few Soviet wineries bottled their wine on-site, instead shipping it to faraway bottling plants by rail in tanker cars that didn't safeguard against temperature changes.

But something has happened in the last few years that could one day make this sleepy swath of Cossack hamlets along the Black Sea coast a surprising source for sought-after chardonnays and cabernets. Wealthy Russian investors have begun hiring French and Australian winemakers to produce legitimate wine that they hope will one day put southern Russia in the same echelon as Bordeaux or Napa.

Five years ago, Frank Duseigneur, a wiry Frenchman with an acumen and palate that comes from nurturing wines from vine to bottle in France's Rhone Valley, answered a newspaper ad placed by wealthy Russian businessmen who wanted to make serious wine in southern Russia.

Since then, Duseigneur has transformed an aging Soviet collective into Chateau Le Grand Vostock, a maker of whites and reds that sell for as much as $270 in some of Moscow's ritziest restaurants. Experts in Moscow have marveled at Le Grand Vostock's wines, produced in a place where vintners have been known to add alcohol to grape juice concentrate and bottle it as wine.

"When I presented our wine in Moscow, people who write about wine tasted it and said, 'You're from France -- where in France did you buy this wine?' " Duseigneur explains between sips from his Cabernet Saperavi Selection, a well-rounded blend of cabernet sauvignon and Georgia's saperavi grape. "I said, 'No, we did this in Russia.' They said, 'OK, maybe you are not buying the wine, but you're buying the grapes in France.' "

Duseigneur's winery is in Krasnodar province, Russia's top winemaking region. Famous as the heartland of Russia's proud, centuries-old Cossack community, Krasnodar straddles the 45th parallel, where -- from Oregon to Bordeaux to Italy's Piedmont -- some of the world's greatest wines are being made.

In Krasnodar, the soil is coal-black and layered on top of clay and limestone -- ideal for vineyards. The region's undulating knolls get more than 200 days of temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

All that's missing, says Duseigneur, is the know-how.

"You have to have more projects here like ours," Duseigneur says, as he walks through spring rows of budding cabernet sauvignon vines on Le Grand Vostock's 1,235 acres.

"We're the leaders right now. What we miss are 10, 20, or 100 projects like ours. We just have too few people working in the wine business here."

Modern winemaking in Krasnodar dates back to the 19th Century, when Czar Alexander III's winemaker, Russian Prince Lev Golitsyn, enlisted French specialists to help him produce sparkling wine at a vineyard near what is now the seaside resort of Anapa. For a brief time, Russian wine was turning heads; Golitsyn's sparkling wine won awards at the 1900 Paris World's Fair. In nearby Crimea, Golitsyn produced for the czar's court Madeira- and port-like wines that now fetch thousands of dollars at auctions at Sotheby's.

Then Soviet collectivism came to Krasnodar.

"During Soviet times, the flavor of wine wasn't a decisive factor, and there was no culture of winemaking or wine consuming," said Mikhail Shtyrlin, an expert on Soviet winemaking and general director of Legend of the Crimea Wines, a wine distributor based in Sevastopol, Ukraine. "Soviet wine consumers drank wine not for bouquet or taste but to get drunk."

Hampered by the same travel ban all Soviet citizens faced, Krasnodar winemakers during the Communist era never learned better ways to produce wine. Massive vinzavody, or wine factories, made adherence to Moscow-ordered quotas their main aim. They cut corners by shipping wine to separate bottling plants elsewhere in Russia, or bypassing bottling by shipping straight to cities by railway car.

"Quantity always meant more in the Soviet Union," Shtyrlin said. "Quality was always secondary."

The darkest days for Russian wineries came in the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev's clampdown on alcoholism in the Soviet Union included uprooting millions of acres of vineyards. By the 1990s, when post-Soviet Russia careened through years of economic distress, a full-bodied cabernet wasn't likely to make the shopping list of most Russians.

Then, as Russia's economy surged on the shoulders of sky-high oil prices under former President Vladimir Putin, wine culture here began to flourish. Wine shops selling $440 Bordeaux reds and bottles of $1,500 Dom Perignon Champagne opened in downtown Moscow. Russian magnates began buying up vineyards in the province and luring European winemakers like Duseigneur.

Moving to Krasnodar wasn't an easy choice for the 32-year-old Frenchman. In Provence, he oversaw Rhone River Valley vineyards and quality control at a winery that produced 9 million bottles a year. The Mediterranean coast was a two-hour drive to the south.

"It was Provence -- the light is so wonderful there," Duseigneur says.

His new home, Sadovy, is a tired, gray village of 1,500 decimated by the economic doldrums Russia endured through the 1990s. Most of the village's young men and women left for bigger cities years ago. On a recent rain-soaked morning, Sadovy's main drag was deserted apart from a pair of stray dogs and a huddle of scarved babushkas selling kefir from a roadside folding table.

"It's peaceful here," Duseigneur says as he leaves an empty cafe and opens his umbrella to fend off a cold rain. "Too peaceful."

Today, the only stir of movement in Sadovy happens in Duseigneur's winery, a cavernous, hangar-sized building that's only a third completed. In the winery's bottling section, a group of workers chitchat in Russian as they pack bottles into boxes stacked on pallets. Nearby, Gayane Saakyan scans every bottle in front of a fluorescent lamp for traces of sediment or cork particles -- a meaningless flaw in the French wine industry but against the law in Russia.

Across the room, Duseigneur draws chardonnay from a barrel with a pipette and vigorously swishes a taste in his mouth. "It's really what a bouquet should be," he says, leaning against barrels that steep the room in the aroma of oak. "The oaky taste and the fruit are blended well enough so that it's quite difficult to say, 'Here is the fruit, here is the oak.' "

Duseigneur's first year in Sadovy was anything but easy. Neither he nor his wife, Gael, spoke a word of Russian when they arrived in the summer of 2003. Construction of the winery had yet to begin, so his first batches of wine were produced outdoors, with presses and fermentation tanks subjected to rainstorms and cold spells.

The villagers he hired had to be cured of their by-the-book, Soviet work habits and an attitude that, no matter what the rest of the world may think or do, Russia's way is always the best way. Accustomed to harvesting in August, vineyard workers were aghast when Duseigneur told them they had to wait three weeks so that the grapes' sugar content could rise high enough to produce the right amount of alcohol.

"I told them, 'No, we won't harvest now -- instead we'll remove leaves that are shielding the grapes from the wind and the sun,' " Duseigneur says. "They looked at me as if I were crazy. Me at 27, and they had been working in the vineyards for 40 years."

Today, Duseigneur's winery runs like clockwork. He calmly issues instructions in grammatically correct Russian to workers who smile back without complaint. The Russians who run the winery's presses and man its stainless-steel fermentation tanks may not know the jargon of French winemaking, Duseigneur says, but they know how to do it right.

Wineries like Le Grand Vostock are becoming a template for wine production in southern Russia, a region blessed with the kind of soil and climate that yields world-class wine, but up until recently, bereft of the finesse and nuance needed to tap its potential. Now, as Moscow's millionaires lure French technology and expertise to southern Russia, Krasnodar is slowly decoupling itself from its Soviet-era preoccupation with output at full-throttle.

"In 10 years, there will be many wineries here in Russia able to do as well as we are doing," Duseigneur says. "What they are learning here is that if you want to do haute couture, you can't do mass production.

"For the French," Duseigneur adds, finishing a mouthful of cabernet saperavi with a grin, "making wine is not like building a wall, it's not like science. For us, it's culture. For us, to make wine is to dance."

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58,560: The number of vineyard acres in the Russian province of Krasnodar

4: The number of wine regions in Krasnodar

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The grapes

The vineyards of Krasnodar province are planted with a mix of grapes used around the world, such as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, and relatively obscure varieties indigenous to the Black Sea region. Here are the local grapes as listed by Krasnodar's Department of Wineries, Wine Production and Horticulture:


Rkatsiteli: The most widely planted grape variety in Russia. Originally from Georgia, it makes wines in styles from dry to sweet, sparkling to sherrylike. Expect high acidity and spicy, floral notes.

Viorica: Originally from Moldova, used for table wine and mild muscat-flavored wines.


Cabernet azos: A Russian hybrid. Wines can be cherry- or ruby-hued, with undertones of chocolate, prune and cur- rant.

Krasnostop: A Russian grape that produces wines with deep color and hints of currant.

Magarach: A family of wine grape crossings developed by the Magarach Institute, a wine research facility founded in 1828 at Yalta, now part of the Ukraine. Varieties include: magarach ruby, a cross of cabernet sauvignon and sap- eravi, and magarach bastardo, a cross of bastardo and saperavi. There also are white and amber-colored sweet wines made with this grape.

Saperavi: Originally from Georgia, it makes wine noted for deep color, high acidity and lively tannins. Some wines are sweet.

--Alex Rodriguez, Bill Daley

Sources: "The Oxford Companion to Wine," "The New Wine Lover's Companion,", the Union of Wine Growers and Winemakers of Russia, Magarach Winery, Krasnodar Regional Agriculture and Food Department.

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Buying the wines

While wines from Chateau le Grand Vostock aren't available outside of Russia, there are other Russian wines sold in the Chicago area:

Avondale Liquor Store, 3018 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-227-1793

Devon Market, 1440 W. Devon Ave., 773-338-2572 EuroStyle Deli, 4861 W. Oakton St., Skokie, 847-329-1430

Extra Value Wine & Liquor, 7300 N. Western Ave., 773-764-2933

Garden Fresh Market, 400 Townline Rd., Mundelein, 847-949-9210

Greenwood Market, 8716 W. Golf Rd., Niles, 847-803-0013

Krystyna's Deli, 1102 S. Roselle Rd., Schaumburg, 847-534-59

--Bill Daley


Alex Rodriguez is a Tribune foreign correspondent based in Moscow.

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