Wine has been made in Russia since the time of the ancient Greeks, along with its Baltic neighbours such as Georgia, Slovenia and Romania. Most of the northern regions of the country are far too cold and bleak to produce wine. But in the most southern regions one can find more favourable conditions, near the Azov, Black, and Caspian Seas. It was in the 1800s when Russia began to produce quality wine in commercial volumes.
The most famous of these early endeavours was the sparkling wine of ‘Crimea’ produced by the Prince Lev Sergeyevich Golitsyn at the 'Novyi Svet' winery, winning a gold medal at the 1889 Paris Expedition. With the success of what was known as ‘The People’s Champagne’, Golitsyn continued to study French viticultural methods.
With him planting vineyards with noble European varietals along the coast of the Black Sea. Today ‘Novyi Svet’ still exists as one of Russia’s more famous wine producers. Like most regions, Russian wines had many things against them into the 20th century, as Phylloxera was wide spread and many wineries having heavy government restrictions. Winemakers who tried to avoid control over labelling and pricing would send their half-finished wines elsewhere for bottling, which would often ruin them. Things didn’t improve much once the Iron Curtain collapsed, as most wineries equipment had been seized and they were reliant on concentrates and juice from other sources to make up for the lack of resources. In the 1980s, leader Mikhail Gorbachev imposed a prohibition, and most of the agricultural areas that had once been vineyards had been re-purposed.
Since the 1990s the Russian wine industry has been slowly recovering with a focus on quality. On the plus side, historically most winemakers had been unable to afford chemical additives and fertilizers, resulting in Russian wine being traditionally organic. Wild grape vines have grown around the Caspian, Black and Azov seas for thousands of years with evidence of viticulture and cultivation for trade with the ancient Greeks found along the shores of the Black Sea at Phanagoria and Gorgippia.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 the knowledgeable wine professionals fled Russia, but the industry gradually re-established itself, starting from 1920. The wine industry experienced a recovery in the 1940s and 1950s during the Soviet era, until the domestic reforms pushed by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 as part of his campaign against alcoholism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the transition to a market economy with the privatization of land saw many of the countries prime vineyard sites being utilized for other uses. By 2000 the entire Russian Federation had only 72,000 hectare under vine cultivation, less than half the total area used in the early 1980s.
The climate of the North Caucasus region, where most of Russia's vineyards are located, is typical of a continental region. To counter the severe winters many vine growers will cover their vines over with soil to protect the vines from severe frost. In the area of Krasnodar there are anywhere from 193-233 frost free days during the growing seasons, that allow the vines in the area to fully ripen. The area of Dagestan has a varied climate with some areas semi-desert. About 13% of Russian wine is produced in the area around Stavropol which has 180-190 frost free days. The region of Rostov is characterized by its hot, dry summers and severe winters which produce grapes in lower yields than other parts of the country.
Russia produces wine of several different styles including still, sparkling and dessert wine. Currently there are over 100 different varietals used in the production of Russian wine. The Rkatsiteli grape accounts for over 45% of production. Other varieties grown include Aligote, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Severny, Clairette Blanche, Merlot, Muscat, Pinot Gris, Plavai, Portugieser, Riesling, Saperavi, Silvaner and Traminer.
Industry experts generally agree that Russian wine have a significant potential, driven by a new generation of younger wine-drinkers with higher levels of disposable income. Though a key influence in the sluggish performance of wine is the fact that Russia fundamentally remains a vodka and beer country, so it is thought wine is unlikely to achieve the levels of popularity experienced in other European countries. It is agreed that the development of mid-priced wine category, will be crucial to the establishment of a solid wine culture in Russia.