Drinking at the Court of the Tsars: Wine in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Muscovy

Introduction: An Ambassadorial Feast

On the 19th of February 1664 the English ambassador to Russia, Charles Howard, earl of Carlisle, was the guest of honour at a feast held in the Faceted Chamber in the Kremlin in Moscow, one which was presided over by Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich, absolute ruler of Russia.

We are fortunate that there are detailed documents extant for this feast which itemise the food item that were served and the wine that was drank. Similar records are available detailing a meeting between Carlisle and the Tsar just over two months later on the 22nd of April, where again wine was served.

What is especially curious about these records is the manner in which wine seems to have become central to the pageantry of the Russian court by the mid-seventeenth century. Many toasts were made after which wine was drank and there were elaborate ceremonies involved whereby dignitaries went forward to receive wine cups or bowls filled with wine directly from the Tsar, the contents of which were then drained in one gulp.

The account of the ambassadorial feast indicates exactly how integrated into the ceremony of the court of the Tsars in Muscovy wine had become by the mid-seventeenth century. This is especially strange given that the wines being drunk were from Western and Southern Europe, parts of the continent which Russia had only recently established significant trade connections with.[1]

The Grand Duchy of Muscovy and the Tsardom of Russia

The fact that wine had become central to a diplomatic engagement like this between the English ambassador to Russia and the Tsar is indicative of major changes which had occurred in Eastern Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Prior to 1500 there was no Russian state to speak of.

The region which corresponds with Russia west of the Ural Mountains today was then divided into numerous different states. The southern reaches of the River Volga down to the Caspian Sea and north of the Black Sea and the Caucasus were actually ruled by the Crimean Khanate and the Kazan Khanate, two successor states to the Mongol Empire after it fragmented here in the fourteenth century. To the north there were various Christian states, of which the most powerful were the Pskov Republic, the Republic of Novgorod and the Duchy of Muscovy.

The latter would emerge as the unifying power of modern Russia in the sixteenth century. First it conquered Novgorod and Pskov and then it began gradually expanding down the course of the River Volga, taking over the lands of the declining Khanates along the way.

Much of this was achieved during the reign of Ivan IV, who ruled Muscovy as the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1584. It was also Ivan who in 1547 proclaimed himself to be the first Tsar of all Russia (a title derived from Caesar). It was this Muscovite/Russian state which the other European powers began making contact with from the 1550s onwards, in the process pulling Russia into the European trade and diplomatic system.[2]

The Wine Trade in Early Modern Russia

Right around the time that Ivan (who is more widely known as Ivan the Terrible on account of his mental instability in later life and the manner in which he dispensed with numerous wives in a manner which equalled his contemporary, King Henry VIII of England for sheer callousness) was creating the Tsardom of Russia, the amount of trade connections between Muscovy and the other major European powers was increasing.

This came through three routes. The English made contact with the Russians in the 1550s, while the Dutch trade into the Baltic Sea was increasing at this time, allowing for trade through there with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sweden acting as intermediaries. [Text Box 1] Finally, the great Mediterranean trading powers such as the Republic of Venice sent merchant ships to the Black Sea where they unloaded goods in ports such as Azov and then returned to Europe laden down with furs, whale oil, hemp and flax from Russia.[3]

Wine was central to this before long. While the commons in Russia certainly could not afford to purchase expensive alcohol like this imported from afar, the Russian aristocracy and the royal court were big markets. The range of wine which was being imported was surprisingly broad. It was not simply the case that cheap French wines were being carried by the English and Dutch and Italian wines by the Venetians.

For instance, at the ambassadorial feast in Moscow in 1664 Romanée wine from the Côte de Nuits of Burgundy, Rhenish wines from Germany, French wines from Bordeaux, Muscats and Bastard wines, the latter being a type of sack or sweet, often fortified wine from Spain or Portugal, were all served.

A mention of ‘Freaska’ wine in the account was almost certainly a reference to wine made from the Freisa grape varietal, which comes from the Piedmont region of north-western Italy. There is also evidence of the Venetians importing Spanish, French, Italian and Greek wines into the Black Sea, indicating that by the mid-seventeenth century different wines from all over Western and Southern Europe were being imported into Russia.[4]

Wine at the Court of the Tsars

As this trade increased a whole new culture around wine developed at the court of the Tsars. As we have already seen, it was central to ambassadorial feasts and other court ceremonies, but it also played a prominent part in royal patronage. For instance, the Tsars would often order wine from the royal wine cellars in the Kremlin to be dispatched to the families of leading nobles and court officials on the occasion of a family celebration.

The great majority of this was brought to Moscow from the port of Arkhangelsk on the shores of the White Sea hundreds of kilometres to the north. Here the Tsars maintained their own yard for storing vast quantities of wine imported from abroad. It is not difficult to see how so much of it was reaching Moscow. An account from the early 1670s, written just a few years after Carlisle was entertained by Tsar Alexis in Moscow, notes that in the second half of July alone nearly twenty ships arrived from Western Europe, four from England alone and many carrying wine which was destined for Moscow eventually.[5]

The Moscow Wine Market

Finally, we are lucky to have several first-hand descriptions of the wine market in Moscow during the 1660s and 1670s, which market formed part of the vast bazaar which lay next to the Kremlin in the seventeenth century. One of these comes from the pen of an anonymous foreign visitor in 1678. His account is striking, stating that ‘The area mentioned [i.e. the wine market] is so vast that it is sufficient for the commercial premises of the entire city. There vintners sell all sorts of wines, especially Romanea (that is what they call Moselle); then pepper, i.e. Spanish; then Rhenskii, Fryanskii, and others.’

A near contemporary visitor, Patriarch Macarius of the city of Antioch in the Levant, stated that ‘Opposite the rows are wine cellars built of brick and stone, cold in summer and warm in winter’, while a third visitor to Moscow, the diplomat Jacob Reitenfels, later reported to his patron, Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany, that there were up to two hundred wine cellars underground at this market to store all of the product which was bought and sold here.

Yet perhaps the most revealing testimony of all comes from the Swedish diplomat, Johann Philipp Kielburger, who in his 1674 treatise, Brief News of Russian Trade, provided the following description of the wine market and the cellars:

“About wine cellars – In the bazaar or large market in front of the Kremlin, there are many wine cellars standing nearby, which are partly owned by the treasury, and mostly by private people. But only Spanish and French wines are sold in them. As soon as you enter the cellar, various samples in bottles are immediately served to you, and the ones you choose, they are bargained for…For an appetizer, you can have bread, raisins, or almonds.”

Here is clear evidence that wine was not only after arriving to Russia, but had become a core part of the Tsarist court at the Kremlin and the trade of the city in the bazaar not far away from the palace itself by the mid-seventeenth century.[6]


Unfortunately, it is not possible to get a detailed perspective on wine consumption in wider Russia beyond Moscow during this time, as the sources which would shed light on this topic are not available. But the particularly detailed accounts which we have for the 1660s and 1670s indicate that by that time wine had gone from something which must have been a rare commodity in Russia in the early sixteenth century, largely reserved for religious ceremonies, to one which had become central to the lives of the Tsars and their court, the aristocracy and even a growing middle class in the wider city. With the accession of Peter the Great in 1682 and his love of all things French, wine would become even more widely consumed in eighteenth-century Russia.

England was the first country in Western and Southern Europe to begin trading extensively with Russia during the early modern period. This followed from England making contact with the Duchy of Muscovy in the 1550s during an expedition in search of the Northeast Passage over Russia to the Pacific Ocean.

The Muscovy Company, the world’s first joint stock company in modern times, was subsequently established in London to organise trading missions to Russia. Interestingly, these expeditions had to sail to the White Sea and then travel several hundred kilometres overland to Moscow, as the region around Karelia where St Petersburg sits today as a Baltic Sea port of Russia was part of the Kingdom of Sweden in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The English trade with Muscovy/Russia during this period centred on certain specific goods.

The English were in pursuit of hemp, hides, train oil (the name for whale oil from the Dutch traan), flax and rye, but above all furs, from beavers, sables and foxes. In return, the English brought manufactured goods, paper, books, cloth, salt, herring and wine, which there was a growing market for amongst the aristocracy in Russia. This trade continued throughout the period and was so significant that in the early seventeenth century during a period of immense instability in Russia called ‘The Time of Troubles’, King James I of England even considered setting up a protectorate in Russia to ensure that the Anglo-Russian trade routes remained open.[7]

Further Reading:

Alexander Etkind, ‘Barrels of Fur: Natural Resources and the State in the Long History of Russia’, in Journal of Eurasian Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2 (July, 2011), pp. 164–171.

A.F. Meyendorff, ‘Anglo-Russian Trade in the 16th Century’, in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 25, No. 64 (November, 1946), pp. 109–121.

Fil. Lic. Arne Ohberg, ‘Russia and the World Market in the Seventeenth Century’, in Scandinavian Economic History Review, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1955)

D.A. Petrov, ‘Wine at the Feasts of Moscow Sovereigns in the 16th – 17th Centuries’, in Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 92 (2022), pp. S447–S456.

On this Day

6 February 1555 – On in this day in 1555 the Muscovy Company was founded in the city of London, the first major joint stock company established in modern history. This was set up on the back of an expedition in the early 1550s by Sir Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor which had aimed to discover the Northeast Passage north over Russia to the Pacific Ocean. This route-way would not be found until the late nineteenth century, but what Chancellor did do was make contact with the Duchy of Muscovy, ruled at the time by Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of Russia. On Chancellor’s return to England the Muscovy Company was established to foster trade between England and what was then a very distant Russia. In the decades that followed, extensive trade between the two states was developed. This facilitated the introduction of wines from Western and Southern Europe to the court of the Tsars in Muscovy. Extant evidence indicates that this trade was considerable by the seventeenth century and many different types of wine were being imported into Russia by the middle of the century.[8]

8 February 1676 – On this day in 1676 Tsar Alexis I, Tsar of Russia, died at the end of a long reign of just over thirty years. Alexis is known for many things in Russian history, notably the vast expansion of Russia during his reign which contrasted with considerable internal instability at home leading to the Moscow Uprising or Salt Riots of 1648 and a Cossack revolt in southern Russia. His reign is also indicative of the growing trade connections between Russia and Western Europe. Extant records of a visit to the Tsarist court in Moscow or Muscovy in 1664 by the English ambassador, Charles Howard, earl of Carlisle, indicate that wine imported from countries like France and Spain had become central to ceremonies there. Other records indicate that the range of wine which was being imported was very varied, in stark contrast to just over a century earlier when the Duchy of Muscovy was a distant power which Western Europeans knew little about and had no contact with.[9]

Also read:

Want to read more? Try these books!

Wine and the Will- Rabelai's Bacchic Christianity The History Of The Wine Trade In England V2- The Progress Of The Wine Trade In England During The Fifteenth And The Sixteenth Centuries


[1] D. A. Petrov, ‘Wine at the Feasts of Moscow Sovereigns in the 16th – 17th Centuries’, in Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 92 (2022), pp. S447–S456.

[2] Isabel de Madariaga, Ivan the Terrible: First Tsar of Russia (Yale, 2006); Marat Shaikhutdinov, Between East and West: The Formation of the Moscow State (Boston, Massachusetts, 2021).

[3] Philip Longworth, ‘Russian-Venetian Relations in the Reign of Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich’, in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 64, No. 3 (July, 1986), pp. 380–400; A. F. Meyendorff, ‘Anglo-Russian Trade in the 16th Century’, in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 25, No. 64 (November, 1946), pp. 109–121; Hans-Heinrich Nolte, ‘The Netherlands and Russia in the Seventeenth Century: Economic and Social Relations’, in Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Fall, 1986), pp. 230–244.

[4] D. A. Petrov, ‘Wine at the Feasts of Moscow Sovereigns in the 16th – 17th Centuries’, in Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 92 (2022), pp. S447–S456.

[5] Ibid, p. S452.

[6] Ibid., pp. S453–S454; https://kerchtt.ru/en/gde-zhili-kupcy-v-17-veke-torgovyi-dom-v-xvii-veke-obrazovanie-i-gorodskie/ [accessed 3/2/2023].

[7] Alexander Etkind, ‘Barrels of Fur: Natural Resources and the State in the Long History of Russia’, in Journal of Eurasian Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2 (July, 2011), pp. 164–171; Fil. Lic. Arne Ohberg, ‘Russia and the World Market in the Seventeenth Century’, in Scandinavian Economic History Review, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1955); Chester Dunning, ‘James I, the Russia Company, and the Plan to Establish a Protectorate over North Russia’, in Albion, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Summer, 1989), pp. 206–226.

[8] Kit Mayers, Northeast Passage to Muscovy: Stephen Borough and the first Tudor explorations (Cheltenham, 2005); A. F. Meyendorff, ‘Anglo-Russian Trade in the 16th Century’, in The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 25, No. 64 (November, 1946), pp. 109–121; ‘The Muscovy Company: The world’s first joint stock company’, The Business Standard, 25 July 2021.

[9] Simon Sebag Montefiore, The Romanovs (New York, 2016), pp. 43–59; D. A. Petrov, ‘Wine at the Feasts of Moscow Sovereigns in the 16th – 17th Centuries’, in Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 92 (2022), pp. S447–S456.

Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: April 12, 2023Last Updated: February 28, 2024

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!