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Ukrainian wine, hanging in the balance

The long-term impact on the Ukrainian wine industry is unclear.

Since February 24th 2022 the world has quickly learned a great deal more about Europe’s second-largest country, Ukraine.

Most notably will be our profound admiration for the Ukrainians’ continued resistance to the invading Russian Army. This is but one item on a long list that includes such things as Ukraine being one of the world’s top exporters of wheat, barley and sunflower seeds. However, many people are also now learning that Ukraine not only has a thriving winemaking sector, but also a rapidly-growing wine-consuming public.

A European history of wine

Given that Kyiv sits at the 50th parallel, the vast majority of Ukraine, down to the Black Sea in the south, sits within what had been traditionally thought of as the optimal climate to cultivate grapes for wine.

The Crimean Peninsula has seen wine presses and amphorae discovered that were from the 4th century BCE. In the following centuries, there would be wine production all along the coast thanks to the establishment of Greek and then Roman towns.

Historically, there has also been winemaking in the Transcarpathia region (Zakarpattia in Ukrainian) which shouldn’t come as a surprise given that it’s a region only 70km away from Hungary’s Tokaj.

But the winemaking through most of Ukraine’s history was largely for personal consumption. Things would change a great deal with the creation of the Soviet Union.

Wine gets big

In the 20th century wine in Ukraine grew massively in terms of volume, but not in terms of quality.

While Georgia has seen the most amount of attention in terms of wine from a former-USSR country, it was actually Ukraine that was the biggest producer. It’s estimated that in the 1980s, before Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign arrived from 1985-1988, Ukraine laid claim to 250,000ha of vineyards. This means that it was an even larger producer of grapes than Languedoc, France’s largest region.

To accomplish this, vineyards were located primarily down around the Black Sea regions where the landscape is flat and easy to work with tractors. Given the deep, rich, alluvial soils, production was massive. These choices in the vineyards, combined with winery facilities that were focused on quantity over quality, led to a massive decline in the perception of domestic wine.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union the collectivised wineries collapsed, vineyards either died or were grubbed up for the more sensible production of grains and the industry shrank on all fronts.

Credit: Courtesy of Beykush Winery

The seeds are replanted

Today, while yet to form a central wine body at a governmental level, Ukraine categorises its wine regions into four parts: Transcarpathia (which borders Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland), Bessarabia (which sits between Moldova and the Black Sea), the overall Black Sea region that runs across the south of the country and has mild winters and then the peninsula of Crimea.

The illegal Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 had a profound effect on Ukrainian wine production. Currently, unoccupied Ukraine holds 41,000ha of vines; about the same as all of Piemonte, Italy. In Crimea there is an additional 30,000ha of vines where wineries from all over Ukraine were sourcing grapes. This included one of the main sparkling producers, Artwinery, despite them being located in the caves of an old salt mine very close to the frontlines in Donetsk.

Also getting many of their grapes from Crimea was Chizay in the Transcarpathia region, sitting just 5km from the Hungarian border. But as the export manager, Ihor Radomyselskiy told Decanter, ‘We needed to have a more stable supply of grapes and more control over the process, so in 2006, we planted 242ha of our own grapes around the valley where we’re located’.

There were many who still saw the potential of the Black Sea region, though, such as Shabo who is one of the biggest producers with 1,200ha of their own (the same as Moët & Chandon) and is located just to the southwest of Odesa. But there were smaller projects that started as well such as Beykush in the southern region of Mykolaiv. After buying grapes from Crimea for his initial experiments, in 2010 owner Eugene Shneyderis planted a relatively small plot of 11ha on a small peninsula by the Berezan river estuary.

Little by little, smaller projects started throughout the early 2000s despite losing access to nearly half the grapes grown in the country in 2014. The main obstacle to growth wasn’t actually grape availability though, but old laws that required anyone bottling wine to pay about £15,000 as a registration fee, annually. There was also no classification for a “small” winery meaning one that produces less than 100,000 litres a year.

These requirements were thankfully lifted in 2018, filing was made far simpler and now annual costs are £25. With this, there’s been a boom in terms of wineries.

As to what grape varieties are grown in Ukraine, it runs an exceedingly-wide range from the more standard fair of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Albariño to grapes that are less seen such as Pink Traminer, Cserszegi Fűszeres (a cross of Savagnin Rosé and Irsai Olivér) and then Telti Kuruk which is a white grape native to Ukraine but thought to be of Turkish origin.

Credit: Courtesy of Beykush Winery

An evolving market

More wine being produced is only good if there are more people to drink it of course. Watching this change take place has been Evgenia Nikolaichuk, an exceptionally dynamic member of the retail side of wine in Ukraine. She started working in wine back in 2005 and was one of the very first to achieve the WSET Diploma in Ukraine. She did something quite innovative in 2016; with partners Sergiy Klimov and Roman Balanyk, they opened a wine bar in Kyiv called Like a Local’s.

It was innovative not only for being one of the first wine bars but for being the first (and still the only) to stock 100% Ukrainian wines. She admits this wasn’t easy, ‘At the beginning, it was hard to find enough wineries as back then, we only had about 50 in the entire country. It’s really been in the last three years or so that we’ve seen a massive change and the number of wineries has easily doubled’.

There’s been a huge change in the wine-drinking public in Ukraine which Nikolaichuk has witnessed and even been part of. In addition to her local-focused wine bar, she also created a wine board game back in 2013 called “Winespiration” to spurn additional wine education.

Years ago the only domestic wines that people would trust were those from Crimea. Wines from the rest of Ukraine were seen as largely plonk and people would seek out imported wines which, no matter the price or quality level, were in a section labelled “Elite”.

Vladimir Shapovalov and Dmitriy Krimsky, who created the Goodwine shops as well as Wine Bureau imports back in 2006, have been leading the trends of quality imports. It may seem counterintuitive to think that an import company would boost domestic interest in wine, but as more and more Ukrainians started travelling, they came back wanting the Spanish Garnacha or Italian Sangiovese that they’d tasted while on holiday and this led to a more curious, open-minded wine drinker.

Credit: Courtesy of Beykush Winery

The change that February brought

The wine sector had been going exceptionally well in Ukraine up until 2022. The market was such that Evgenia had opened two additional locations of her Like a Local’s wine bar, other wine bars also opened serving a mix of domestic and imported wines, and the owners of Goodwine had amassed a warehouse of 15 million euros worth of wine for a thirsty market.

But the Russian Army’s invasion on February 24th changed everything.

All alcohol sales were banned, Horeca venues as well as direct sales to private individuals were shut down. While they were mostly reinstated a month later, it still remains challenging to sell wines.

On 4th March, Russian rockets launched at Kyiv hit the warehouse of Goodwine, destroying their entire million-euro inventory.

There’s a sadly-lengthy list of wineries that have been occupied, ransacked, and destroyed by Russian troops throughout the country as they engage in a scorched earth campaign. Despite this, winery owners and workers know that, if possible, work must go on as wine is an annual endeavour.

The general manager of Beykush, Svitlana Tsybak said that while they’ve not had any problems so far, a woman pruning in a neighbouring vineyard was killed by Russian artillery. The owners of Slivino winery near Mykolaiv posted an incredible photo on social media of standing in the vineyard next to a Russia Grad missile that had cratered amongst their vines. It’s hard not to recall the efforts made by viticulturists in France during both the World Wars to keep their vines alive despite often being on the frontlines.

Beykush Winery. Credit: Courtesy of Beykush Winery

But beyond the dangers of working in the vineyards the Russian invasion happened at a time when wines were supposed to be bottled. Many relied on Vetropack, a glass factory in Hostomel near Kyiv for their supplies, but it was heavily damaged in the early stage of the war.

With all the upward momentum in the wine sector, how this will affect the industry will depend, like all other aspects of Ukrainian life, on how long the war will go on. Chizay, as one of the wineries that have avoided destruction, used to see 14,000 visitors annually at their winery and they expected to sell half their produce directly from the cellar door. But now that’s simply not possible.

Export manager Ihor Radomyselskiy said, ‘We don’t know what the state of the company will be whenever this comes to an end. There’s a great deal of investment that needs to continue for the winery and for now, that’s all without any income.’

The Ukrainians have shown how powerful the belief in one’s right to exist is as they continue to fight for their survival as a nation. So too will the wine trade also endure, especially with the support of the international wine community.

When asked about unknown facts in Ukrainian wine, Yuliia Demianenko of Goodwine said, ‘Many people may not know that we make great traditional-method sparkling wines. We’ll be happy to raise a glass with our friends from around the world after our victory, in which we so believe.’

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