Old world wine is often viewed through the lens of the big three producers of Western Europe: France, Spain, and Italy, with Germany given an honorable mention. This is because these countries’ wines 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 considered 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 a 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 upward aspect towards the Crimean Mountains provides additional sunlight at altitude.
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 evidence of wineries from that time. Evidence shows wineries with stone fences, the remains of vineyards, and shards of amphorae.
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 evidence has been found in the tomb of a warlord of the Scythians. They were a semi-nomadic people who came to dominate a vast stretch of land between Eastern Europe as far east as Siberia and Transoxiana, between the seventh and first centuries BC. Inside the tomb amphorae were found arranged around his body, indicating that wine was an essential part of the Scythian culture in the region.
This pattern continued into Ancient Roman times. After the Roman advance into the Balkans and the northern coast of modern-day Turkey in the first century BC, emperors such as Caesar Augustus began appointing rulers over the Bosporan Kingdom, which ruled much of southern Ukraine and south-western Russia at the time.
Extensive trade was maintained in 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 the area 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. But things began to rejuvenate 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 for the Greek Orthodox Church, and with Christianity came wine. Thus, the Ukrainian wine trade was rejuvenated.
Unsurprisingly, when the 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 and eighteenth century, Crimea was ruled by the Crimean Tatars, a confederacy of people variously descended from the Mongols, the Cumans, and the 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 into 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 north in Russia. Grapes, and the resulting wine were chief among these. Crimea quickly began making a comeback as one of Europe’s premier wine-producing regions.
The wine industry was further encouraged in the nineteenth century, as the Black Sea coast became a popular holiday destination for Russian aristocrats seeking sunnier weather. 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, and Crimea and Ukraine were becoming a center of excellence for viticulture. In 1828, the Magarach Institute was established at Yalta to conduct viticulture research.
This was fifty years before the Institute of Oenology was set up at the University of Bordeaux as a research center for French wine. At the Magarach 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. As well as 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 to serve as his residence. It was built with a winery that still produces acclaimed fortified wines today, notably a white port.
In 1878, Prince Leo Golitzin founded the Novy Set Winery. In 1900, its Shampanskoe (sparkling wine) won a gold medal in Paris. The winery still exists and continues to produce sparkling wines today. But undoubtedly, the most successful of these long-enduring nineteenth-century Ukrainian wineries is the Massandra Winery of the Crimea. It was established in 1894 when the Black Sea was still a Russian colony. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia granted Prince Kynaz Lev Golitsyn the right to set up the winery 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 these developments the amount of vineyard land throughout Ukraine ran into hundreds of thousands of acres by 1910. Still, calamity struck in the years that followed as phylloxera began decimating the country’s vineyards. The First World War broke out in 1914, with Ukraine becoming a theatre of the Eastern Front.
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. This made 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, the wine industry also suffered from punitive measures employed to reduce alcohol production throughout the Union. By the early twenty-first century, the industry had only recovered to producing some fifty million gallons of wine per year.
In recent times, the dominant grape varietals grown in Ukraine include Rkatsiteli, Chardonnay, Aligoté, 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 were port wines and Kagor, a deep-colored sweet red wine.
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.
June 9, 68AD – 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 into Eastern Europe around modern-day Moldova, Odesa, and Crimea. Even in this 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 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.
May 25, 1985 – On this day in 1985, the General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party and 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 as well. Ukraine’s wine industry, particularly that of the Crimea region, was severely impacted by this. Many wineries were destroyed and converted into extract plants.
Want to read more? Try these books!
‘Crimea’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
Theodor Mommsen, The Provinces of the Roman Empire, from Caesar to Diocletian (London, 1996), p. 317.
Ukraine’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
E. Khavalkov, The Colonies of Genoa in the Black Sea Region: Evolution and Transformation (New York, 2017).
Andreas Schonle, ‘Garden of the Empire: Catherine’s Appropriation of the Crimea’, in Slavic Review, Vol, 60,
No. 1 (Spring, 2001), pp. 1–23; Thomas Seccombe, ‘Redding, Cyrus’, in Brian Harrison and H. C. G. Matthew (eds.), The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 60 Vols. (Oxford, 2004).
‘Magarach’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
‘Ukraine’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).
Jay Bhattacharya, Christina Gathmann and Grant Miller, ‘The Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign and Russia’s Mortality Crisis’, in American Economics Journal: Applied Economics, Vol. 5 No. 2 (April, 2013), pp. 232–260.
Alan W. Fisher, The Russian Annexation of the Crimea, 1772–1783 (Cambridge, 1970), pp. 57–59.
Daniel Tarschys, ‘The Success of a Failure: Gorbachev’s Alcohol Policy, 1985–88’, in Europe-Asia Studies, Vol
45, No. 1 (1993), pp. 7–25; Jay Bhattacharya, Christina Gathmann and Grant Miller, ‘The Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign and Russia’s Mortality Crisis’, in American Economics Journal: Applied Economics, Vol. 5 No. 2 (April, 2013), pp. 232–260.