Winemaking in Ukraine Throughout the Ages

Old World wine is often viewed as being the preserve of the big three of Western Europe: France, Spain, and Italy, with the Rhineland in Germany given an honorable mention. This is because of the wines that fill the shelves of wine merchants and supermarkets in the Anglophone world. But venture elsewhere, and one will find Hungary’s Tokaji wines or Romania’s excellent Pinots. One can head even further east in Europe and come to Ukraine, where winemaking has flourished for thousands of years.

Like any other country, Ukraine has specific regions that are the wine industry’s heartland. Notable is the Black Sea coastal region around the port of Odesa. At the same time, other areas in the west benefit from the microclimate produced by the Carpathian Mountains as they extend into the country from Slovakia.

However, the real heartland of Ukrainian wine throughout the ages has been Crimea. This Black Sea peninsula has highly favorable climatic conditions for the production of wine, particularly around Yalta. July temperatures average about 24 or 25 degrees Celsius (75 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit), with ideal soil for viticulture, while the inclines upwards towards the Crimean Mountains provide additional sunlight at altitude.

Winemaking in Ukraine

It is unsurprising, given these conditions, to learn that Crimea has been a center of winemaking since at least the fourth century BC. Archaeological digs on the peninsula have revealed wineries dating to that time, with stone fences, the remains of vineyards and wineries, and shards of amphorae, the giant pots used to transport wine around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea during the Iron Age.

Moreover, this was not just an isolated site, and the remains of multiple wineries of this kind, most likely planted by Greek settlers who colonized the region in the fifth century BC, have been unearthed in Crimea in recent studies. Most significantly, the tomb of a warlord of the Scythians, a semi-nomadic people.

who came to dominate a vast stretch of lands between Eastern Europe as far east as Siberia and Transoxiana between the seventh and first centuries BC, was found with amphorae arranged around his tomb, indicating that wine was an essential part of the Scythian culture in the region.

This pattern continued into Roman times. After they had advanced into the Balkans and the northern coast of what is now Turkey in the first century BC, emperors such as Caesar Augustus began interfering here to appoint client rulers over the Bosporan Kingdom, which ruled much of southern Ukraine and south-western Russia at the time.

Extensive trade was maintained with the region by the Romans, principally in wine and furs, which were brought to the Black Sea from further north. The emperor Nero even considered launching a military campaign into Crimea to bring it and its wineries under Roman rule in the 60s AD, but he was deposed and committed suicide before he could see it through.

The medieval period saw a sharp decline in the importance of Ukraine and Crimea as wine-producing regions, particularly during the Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Things rejuvenated as Europe entered the High Middle Ages.

While wine production in Ukraine had been limited to Crimea in Ancient times, Kyiv’s rise to become one of the great powers of Eastern Europe between the ninth and thirteenth centuries saw wine introduced to northern and western Ukraine. Kyiv and the surrounding region became a significant center of the Greek Orthodox Church, and with Christianity came wine to recreate the Last Supper. Thus, the Ukrainian wine trade was rejuvenated.

Unsurprisingly, when the trading Republic of Genoa purchased the port of Kaffa (modern-day Feodosia) in Crimea in the late thirteenth century to establish a major trading center in the Black Sea, Crimean wine was one of the primary goods being shipped back to Italy.

For much of the period between the thirteenth century and the eighteenth century, Crimea was ruled by the Crimean Tatars, a confederacy of peoples variously descended from the Mongols and the Cumans and Tatars who had lived there for centuries. The region’s vast trade and industry declined during this period.

Then, in the 1770s and 1780s, Russia began expanding aggressively in the Black Sea region under its ruler, Catherine II, who then annexed Crimea on April 19, 1783. There was a renewed drive to develop the peninsula as it was seen as a ‘garden of the empire,’ capable of producing goods that it was simply impossible to grow further to the north in Russia. Grapes, and the wine which would result from them, were chief among these, and the Crimea quickly began making a comeback as one of Europe’s premier wine-producing regions.

This was encouraged in the nineteenth century, as the Black Sea coast became a popular holiday destination for Russian aristocrats from the north who were seeking sunnier climes. This created a large market for quality wines produced locally. Indeed, by 1833 the acclaimed British wine journalist, Cyrus Redding, stated that “Crimea wines are thought the best in the [Russian] empire.”

There was an increasing amount of land under grape cultivation during the nineteenth century, but Crimea and wider Ukraine were becoming a center of excellence for viticulture. In 1828 the Magarach Institute was established at Yalta to conduct research into viticulture.

This was fifty years before the Institute of Oenology was set up at the University of Bordeaux to work as a research center for French wine. At the Institute, which is still in existence today, several grape varietals were developed over the last 190+ years, notably Magarach Ruby, a mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon and Saperavi, and Magarach Bastardo, a combination of Bastardo and Saperavi.

The Institute has also undertaken extensive research into over 1,000 microorganisms and their role and impact on viticulture since the 1890s. Its cellars contain around 220,000 bottles, some dating to the nineteenth century.

Famed wineries also began to emerge in south-eastern Ukraine. In the 1820s, Count Mikhail Vorontsov, the governor of Crimea, began to build the Alupka Palace here as his residence. It was replete with a winery that still produces acclaimed fortified wines today, notably a white port. In 1882 Prince Leo Golitzin founded the Novy Set winery.

In 1900, its shampanskoe (champagne) won a gold medal in Paris. It also continues to produce sparkling wines into the present. But undoubtedly, the most successful of these long-enduring nineteenth-century Ukrainian wineries is the Massandra winery of the Crimea. This was established in 1894 when the Black Sea was still a Russian colony when Tsar Nicholas II granted Prince Kynaz Lev Golitsyn the right to set it up under the imperial aegis.

It quickly became esteemed for producing vins deux naturels, fortified wines, and sweet wines made from Muscat. Prince Golitzin also established the Massandra Collection in a vast cellar he had dug out of a mountain. He began adding 10,000 bottles every year, and this enoteca contains over one million bottles today.

As a result of all these developments, the area of land throughout Ukraine, which was being used for grape cultivation by the start of the 1910s, ran into hundreds of thousands of acres. Still, calamity struck in the years that followed as the phylloxera blight struck the country’s vineyards. The First World War broke out in 1914, with Ukraine becoming a theatre of the Eastern Front.

Presses and amphorae found along Ukraine’s southern coast in Crimea date the country’s wine culture to 4th century BC.

Grape cultivation had only just begun to recover in the late 1930s when the Second World War broke out, and Nazi Germany destroyed Ukraine’s vineyards. Ever resilient, when Crimea was returned to Ukraine in 1954, the amount of land under grape cultivation increased to over 400,000 hectares, making it one of the significant suppliers of wine to Communist Eastern Europe, with a net output of 5.8 million hectoliters in the early 1980s.

In 1985, a new disaster struck when the head of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, introduced measures to reduce levels of alcoholism throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. Although vodka and other spirits were the primary culprits in this regard, the wine industry also suffered from punitive measures employed to reduce alcohol production throughout the Union, inflicting a severe blow to the industry. By the early twenty-first century, it had only recovered to producing some fifty million gallons of wine per year.

The dominant grape varietals grown in Ukraine in recent times are Rkatsiteli, Chardonnay, Aligoté, Pinot, Riesling, Muscat, and Pervenets. The Massandra winery has a dominant position within the Ukrainian wine industry. By 2000, it was producing over 1.7 million gallons of wine per year. Many of these being port wines and others such as Kagor, a deep-colored wine made from must be heated before the fermentation process.

The Kagor name was created to emulate Cahors in France. Other producers continued to develop the region’s strong base as a producer of fortified wines and sparkling wines. More recent years have seen much of Ukraine’s wine industry again co-opted by Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, including the Massandra winery. However, the Black Sea region around Odesa continues to grow as an area producing high-quality dry wines, which have gained international attention.

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On This Day

June 9, 68 – On this day, nearly two thousand years ago, the Roman Emperor Nero committed suicide outside Rome. He had just been displaced from the throne by a pretender called Galba, who briefly became emperor himself. Nero’s death ended his plans to extend the Roman Empire in Eastern Europe into the region around modern-day Moldova, Odesa, and Crimea. Even at this early time, Crimea had already become a notable center of wine production in Eastern Europe.

April 19, 1783 – On this day, Catherine II of Russia annexed Crimea from the Crimean Tatars. In the decades which followed, the peninsula became one of Europe’s premier wine-producing regions. It was used to supply the Russian aristocracy with fortified wines and sparkling wines.

November 1, 1894 – On this day, Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov succeeded Tsar Nicholas II of the Russian Empire. A few days later, he authorized Prince Kynaz Lev Golitsyn to establish the Massandra winery in Crimea under the imperial aegis. It would become one of the most celebrated wineries in Eastern Europe. Heads of state have visited it. It provided wine to the Yalta Conference. It was held nearby in February 1945 to decide on an Allied strategy towards the end of the Second World War.

May 25, 1985 – On this day in 1985, the General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party and thus the head of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, introduced the ‘Measure to Overcome Drunkenness and Alcoholism’ Act. The Act was part of a wide-ranging program to stamp out drunkenness in the Soviet Union. Alcoholism had become a significant problem in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Act began to crack down not just on excessive vodka production and consumption but on wine production too. Ukraine’s wine industry, particularly that of the Crimea region, was severely impacted by this. Many wineries were destroyed and converted into extract plants.


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