When you think of the world’s leading wine nations, which countries spring to mind? Italy and France are the obvious two, of course, but what about when you think a little deeper. Spain likely crops up, as does Portugal. Both the United States and Argentina have booming wine businesses, plus the United Kingdom and Germany have strong wine industries of their own, despite the former also importing a lot of its wine.
But what about Russia?
You may not know it, but Russia has a surprisingly strong history with wine. It’s also an increasingly viable market for exporters, which Italian winemakers, in particular, have taken advantage of over the last decade.
We’ve spoken about growing wine markets before, placing a particular focus on China and India in past articles. However, Russia is not a market to be underestimated. Granted, it has a low population density given its vast size, with about 144 million people living in the country. Still, that’s over 100 million people for the Italian wine industry to potentially appeal to.
That got us thinking about the history of wine in Russia, and where the industry stands today. Despite its cold climate, Russian wine does indeed exist.
The Basic History
The Russian wine industry actually dates back to the era of the Ancient Greeks. Experts have found evidence of wild grape vines that date back over thousands of years more, but the first recorded efforts at cultivation came when the Greeks made contact with what we now know as Russian. The Russians made wine to improve trade with the Ancient Greeks, with the first Russian vineyards being found near the Black Sea, in areas such as Gorgippia and Phanagoria. Surprisingly, this has led some to call this area the oldest wine region in the world, though there’s plenty of people who will dispute that claim.
Wine was always produced on a small scale in the country, likely due to the limited number of places where vines could grow to be healthy. However, it’s commercial industry began to flourish in the late 19th century thanks to the work of Prince Leo Galitzine. He established a wine factory on his estate in the Crimea, where he produced a sparkling white wine that many have compared to Champagne. In fact, the wines the Prince produced were so good that the 1889 vintage won the Paris Exhibition’s Gold Medal for sparkling wines. This was despite an outbreak of the Phylloxera virus that affected vines throughout Europe only a couple of years prior.
The Prince expanded his commercial interests into the 20st century, dubbing his wine Soviet Champagne. It was also commonly referred to as “champagne for the people”, though some historians argue that Russian wine was a reserve of the country’s elite until the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Following the revolution, there was a brief lull in production as wine producers fled the country, many ending up in France. However, the Russian wine industry re-established itself in the 1920s, and was back in full swing again by the time the 1950s rolled around.
Then came Mikael Gorbachev and his campaign against alcoholism. This led to many wine producers shutting down production and using their land for other purposes. The collapse of Soviet Union, which led to the slow transition into a capitalist economy for Russia, also played a part in the industry’s struggle. In fact, by the turn of the millennium, there were only 180,000 acres of land dedicated to wine production in the entire country.
The effects of this collapse are still felt to this day. Several Russian wine guides show an industry in turmoil, with the number of wineries in the country barely reaching the double digits. The cold climate also makes growing grapes difficult, especially for red wine producers.
Still, the success of previous wine producers in the country showed that there is definitely an appetite for good wines in Russia. Naturally, this means that producers in other countries can jump in to take a slice of the pie, due to the Russian industry being unable to meet the demands of its people.
The Russian Taste for Italian Wine
The Italian wine industry probably takes Russia more seriously than any other wine producing nation. In 2003, in the wake of the Russian industries second collapse, Vinitaly created its Russian event to promote the interests of the Italian wine industry, and provide avenues for Italian producers to potentially broach a new market. The advent of the internet certainly helped with this, as it provided Russian wine lovers with the ability to order Italian wines online and have them delivered to their doorsteps.
Though still a growing event, Vinitaly Russia has accomplished its task of expanding the Italian wine industry’s interests in the country. The event typically attracts 40-100 exhibitors, all of whom are keen to showcase their wares to the Russian market. Of course, you’ll recognise that this is only a small number of the producers that Italy has to offer. However, the event has grown in renown and popularity year-on-year since its inception.
All of these efforts have paid off over the last five years. For example, in 2015, Italy was recognised as the largest exporter of wine into Russia and its surrounding territories. In fact, during the first three months of that year, sales of Italian wines increased by 25% when compared to sales from 2014. All told, the Italian wine industry accounts for about 20% of the bottles that Russia imports into the country.
The Final Word
As you can see, the history of wine in Russia runs deeper than many realise. Despite difficult climates, and several political events disrupting the industry over the centuries, there are still producers in the country who are confronting adversity and making wines.
However, it can’t be denied that much of the Russian wine industry now runs on imports, especially as the native industry struggles to recapture its former glory. The Italian wine industry recognised the potential in the country earlier than most, and is currently the leading light when it comes to exports.