Raise a glass to Ukrainian wine history
The Eastern European country has a long and respected history of wine production
The whole world is focused on Ukraine this week. It may seem trivial to look at the country through a less urgent lens right now, but since wine is what I write about, I wanted to learn more about these traditions. And what a story there is.
Presses and amphoras found along Ukraine’s southern coast in Crimea date the country’s wine culture to the 4th century BC. Between this time and its more modern development, a document translated from Russian poetically notes “Stormy historical moments in the life of [sic] Crimea often violated the peaceful work of the winemaker and more than once threatened the complete destruction of plantations. The ancient Crimean viticulture developed in periods, fading, then resurrecting, when fate smiled upon it again after adversity.
It resonates today.
As in much of Europe, monks were cultivating vines in the 11th century, and some historical records report a Genoese influence on winemaking during a 13th century occupation. But it wasn’t until the early 19th century that winemaking became a major enterprise, thanks to Prince Mikhail Vorontsov (1782-1856), a European-educated Russian who developed Crimea as an agricultural area, including The vineyards. In addition to his estates in Ai-Danil, Gurzuf and Massandra, he helped establish Crimea’s first school of winemaking in 1829, the former Magaratch Wine Research Institute in Yalta. Today, the successor institute, renowned over the decades, is an agricultural research center under Russian control.
Apparently, Vorontsov was also an early merchant, buying grapes from small growers, bottling them, and marketing them as “aged in Vorontsov’s cellars.” Grappa made from the pomace was smoked for vodka and sold as “Vorontsovskaya Starka”.
After his death, Vorontsov’s heirs sold his estates to the Russian Imperial family, which in turn commissioned another compatriot, Paris-educated Lev Golitsyn (1845-1915), to promote viticulture in the region. In 1894, Tsar Nicholas II, who wanted a supply of wine for his summer palace, commissioned Golitsyn, an amateur archaeologist, to build a winery. The network of seven underground tunnels he created held 25,000 liters of wine in barrels and one million bottles, later becoming the Massandra winery. Considered the father of modern winemaking in Crimea, he cultivated some 600 grape varieties and produced sparkling wine.
Golitsyn was also an avid collector, amassing a personal cellar of 50,000 bottles. Although working at the behest of the Tsar, and himself a nobleman, he is said to have developed the industry so that “ordinary people would drink good wine and not poison themselves with rubbish”.
Massandra wines have long been revered by statesmen, and the historic winery still exists today, near the resort town of Yalta, a longtime stop for visiting VIPs. It was once the repository of some of the world’s most valuable bottles, including several sherries from Jerez de la Frontera dating back to 1775. Bottles in the collection have sold in the tens of thousands at auction – indeed, in 1990, some 13,000 bottles of Crimean dessert and fortified wine produced from the 1830s to 1945 fetched more than $1 million, and in 2001 Sotheby’s sold a bottle of 1775 sherry for almost $50,000.
Like Ukraine, the winery is a survivor of many political conflicts.
Nationalized in 1922 after the Russian Revolution, its cellars were protected for decades by a 1936 law. Joseph Stalin further protected the cellar from Nazi looting, taking some 60,000 of the most valuable bottles to Georgia and other locations, an event described in John Baker’s 2020 book Stalin’s Wine Cellar. The winery was exempt from Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1980s vine-grubbing program, a misdirected campaign to combat alcoholism in the Soviet Union (hey, just take the vodka off!)
Nikolay Boyko, former CEO of Massandra, told The New York Times in 2014: “Massandra is a different country, like the Vatican in Italy… “We live by our own laws and regulations.
But, in recent years, Massandra’s uncertain fate has paralleled that of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 and whose status remains disputed.
Boyko was fired in 2015 after Russian prosecutors filed fraud charges against him. And in a more bizarre twist, his successor, Yanina Pavlenko, was investigated for embezzlement after allegedly opening another bottle of that 1775 sherry – then worth more than $90,000 – for the Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during their tour. the winery in September 2015. A Ukrainian presidential decree required permission to offer such a bottle, and uncorking the bottle without that permission constituted theft, Ukrainian prosecutors alleged. (Given that Crimea and Massandra were under Russian control at the time, this was perhaps a moot point. In 2020, when Pavlenko announced his candidacy to head the Yalta city administration, she was still Massandra’s manager.)
As if the plot couldn’t thicken, in December, a month after Pavlenko’s bid was announced, Massandra was auctioned for $72.4 million to the Yuzhny project, a subsidiary of the Rossiya. Bank. The bank is co-owned by oligarch Yury Kovalchuk, believed to be an associate of Putin. Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, a Ukrainian advocacy group, reported that the cellar was “looted” when it was sold. At its peak, Massandra produced 10 million bottles a year, but industry publications report that at the time of the sale, its production facilities were depreciated by 60%.
Calling the deal illegal as part of a “so-called nationalization”, some Ukrainian news outlets reported that month that the country would pursue sanctions and legal action over the sale.
Oleksiy Reznikov, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories reportedly said: “This creates risks for Massandra, which is part of the cultural heritage of Ukraine and Ukrainian Crimea. The business can be destroyed and the most valuable assets will simply be stolen. They will have to answer for all of this.