The history of viticulture in Russia is older than we might first imagine for a landscape associated with cold winters. Nevertheless, historians believe that Russia started wine production around the same time as the Greeks, but access to the product varied greatly across the vast territory. Whereas most people will have heard about vodka as the favorite Russian alcohol, a unique wine from Portugal once enjoyed an even higher stature. In this blog, we will talk about Russian wine culture and its storied, if little-known, past.
Same Old Taste
It is reported that regions of present-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were devoted to the agricultural production of the specific fruits used to make vodka. Although the Russian Czars of the seventeenth century loved their vodka, their obsession with quality alcohol was not fulfilled by vodka alone. They wanted something innovative and crisp — a taste found in Madeira wine. Peter the Great imported Madeira wine at great expense all the way from Portugal. He imported it through three different ports into the empire, he was so affected by its quality, prestige, and taste.
Did You Know: Madeira is made in many different of styles, and ranges from very dry all the way to very sweet.
During the mid-1700s, Peter the Great commissioned the production of wines to rival his Portuguese favorite in the regions around the Caspian, Black, and Azov seas, but the results did not meet expectations. The imitation of Madeira wine was officially dubbed ‘Imperial Madeira’, but few found its taste compared to the original wine and was infamously known as ‘cheaper vodka’ in the region. Royal family members quickly switched back to their imported Portuguese drink.
Russian czars and Madeira Wine
Treaty on Commerce
Catherine II (known as “The Great”) focused a large amount of her foreign policy on establishing better ties and trade relations with Portugal, as well as improving transportation of goods across her Empire. The 1787 Treaty on Commerce opened the doors of Russia to Madeira wine sellers. This was the first time that Russians outside the royal family were able to taste a Madeira wine, and they loved it. Catherine II’s plans to improve logistics across Russia were less fruitful, and outside a few choice enclaves, the general public was still unable to get their hands on the wine.
In 1823, a Russian tourist named Piotr set sail to the south of Spain to pick up and bring goods to sell in the Russian markets. While on his trip a thunderstorm appeared and he was forced to take refuge in Madeira. His time on the island amazed him, and he recognized the scale of the Russian market for Madeira wine. In 1828, he returned to Russia and established a network to import Madeira for the general public at a lower price than was previously available. By the 1860-70s, Russia was the greatest importer of Madeira wine.
The End of the Affair
The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 ended almost a century of positive trade relations between Russia and Portugal. The Soviet government kept Madeira wine out of their marketplaces until 1991. This is not to say that the Russian people had lost their taste for fortified wine. Several similar wines were produced in present-day Armenia throughout the Soviet period. In the late 20th century, Russia began the production of alcoholic products other than vodka, and with better education and technology has made impressive progress to expand viticulture in the region.