Saturday, April 30, 2022

Wine and War in Ukraine

Unless you have been hiding under a rock (and I don’t blame you for that), you have been bombarded with headlines about Ukraine. For over two months, the world has watched in horror as Russia invaded the country and inflicted devastation on its infrastructure and its people.

Unbeknownst to many, myself included, Ukraine has a rich wine history. That is not top of mind as Ukraine vineyards are being pummeled with Russian missiles and artillery. But it does draw a parallel to the resistance of French wine families against the Nazi regime during World War II. While today’s history is still in the making, let’s look back at the origin of wine culture in Ukraine.

Ukraine Wine Regions by WSET

Early Winemaking

Winemaking in Ukraine dates back to the 4th century BC on the south coast of Crimea. There is evidence of wine presses and amphorae from that era. Crimea and the southern Ukraine areas that hug the Black Sea have always been considered the oldest wine regions of the country. Ancient Greeks and later Ancient Romans that settled along the area had found it to be ideal for growing grape varieties for table wine. In addition to Crimea, these would include modern day Odessa, Mykloayviv, and Kherson.

North of the Black Sea regions and on the west side of Ukraine is the Transcarpathia (or Zakarpattya). It is believed that winemaking in the area was started 2,000 years ago by the Celts and Dacians. The first documented mention of Transcarpathian grapes was found in a letter dated 1093. It was written by a Hungarian king to gift the village of Sevlyush (translated as “grape village”) to the monks.

Melitopol vineyard by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

From Russian Royalty to Russian Revolution

In the early 19th century, Crimea thrived as an agricultural area under Russian Prince Mikhail Vorontsov. He also developed vineyards and helped establish Crimea’s first school of winemaking. Upon his death, his estates were sold to the Russian Imperial family and then placed under the charge of Paris-educated Lev Golitsyn. Golitsyn was considered the father of modern winemaking in Crimea and had cultivated 600 grape varieties. Golitsyn also had great success making sparkling wine in Crimea so much so that his sparkler defeated all French entries to claim the Grand Prix de Champagne at the 1900 Paris World Fair.

1952 poster advertising Soviet champagne

Following the Russian Revolution, wineries in Ukraine and other Soviet Union countries were subject to the changing agendas of the Kremlin leadership. During collectivized agriculture in the 1920s, quantity of wine was preferred over quality. In 1936, Stalin decided that sparkling wine should be made available to all people. This led to the introduction of Sovetskoye Shampanskoye (or Soviet champagne). Ukraine, with 250,000 hectors of vineyards, was the largest wine producer to the USSR. In the 1980s, however, a third of its vineyards were destroyed as part Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign.

Post Soviet Era

After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine in 1991, many vineyards were pulled and repurposed for other forms of agriculture. As the dust settled, the remaining Ukraine vineyards were generally categorized into four regions, three of which hug the Black Sea:

  • Transcarpathia on the westmost part of Ukraine and within close proximity to the Hungarian Tokaj region
  • Bessarabia between Moldova and the Black Sea
  • Rest of the Black Sea Region
  • Crimea peninsula
Vineyard in Crimea by Alexey Fedenkov on Unsplash
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and took half of the Ukrainian wine production with it. Most of the wines produced in Crimea were semi-sweet and dessert wines. The Ukrainian wine industry then moved its focus to making Western-style dry wine. Since then, Ukraine’s production of dry wines has grown by seven to nine percent every year. This was further accelerated with the lifting of an archaic law that required a steep registration fee of US$19,000 to bottle wine. This was replaced in 2018 with simpler requirements and an annual fee of US$30. 

What now?

As one knows, the modern Ukrainian wine boom was short-lived. Since February, many of the wine regions around the Black Sea were shelled. Russian troops occupied, looted, and destroyed numerous wineries. Russian missiles peppered the vineyards. The fallout from the war also impacted supply chain and wine tourisms in neighboring countries, such as Poland, Georgia, and Hungary. 

The international wine community has been showing support for Ukraine in different ways. Several European wineries got organized to provide accommodation for Ukrainian refugees. Renowned British wine media, Decanter, will be cancelling entries of Russian wineries for the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards while waiving fees for Ukrainian entrants. 

Quilceda Creek Winery fund raising for Ukraine

Several fine wine auctions are being held to raise funds for emergency relief efforts and humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees. One private member club, Crurate, raised US$130,000 that were distributed to the Red Cross, Save the Children, UNHCR, and UNICEF. 

Many wineries are also raising funds for Ukraine. Top Washington winery Quilceda Creek is donating 100% of the gross sales from the release of their first and only planned production of white wines to the José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen to feed Ukrainian refugees. Upon release on April 20, the wines were sold out in under an hour. It was estimated that over US$300,000 would be raised. I was among the several privileged winery members to secure the 2020 Quilceda Creek Horse Heaven Hills Sauvignon Blanc and 2020 Quilceda Blanc Columbia Valley White Wine.

My Verdict: In today’s world, it is hard to comprehend the atrocities that are committed against a sovereign nation. I hope that many will contribute to humanitarian aid for displaced Ukrainians. Check out your local wine shops, wineries, or communities for opportunities to help. Or you can donate to the efforts of José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen. Peace to you.

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