Just Say Nyet!
The BRIC nations used to be characterized as “emerging” or “transition” economies and in the case of Russian wine these terms still apply, but in a complicated way. Russia is an important wine country (the vineyards are down south, on the Black and Caspian Seas); it produced about 7.3 million hl of wine in 2007 according to OIV statistics, which puts it just behind Chile and ahead of Portugal in the world wine league table. But the domestic industry today is just a shadow of what it was 30 years ago.
Gorbachev’s 1980s anti-alcohol campaign (which included propaganda posters like this one) targeted wine along with spirits and both production and consumption of wine declined dramatically. The Global Wine Statistical Compendium indicates that per capita wine consumption in Russia more than doubled from 6.2 liters in the early 1960s to about 15 liters in 1970s (consumption of other forms of alcohol also rose — wine makes up less than 10% of Russia’s total alcohol intake) then fell dramatically as Gorby’s program gained traction.
The Gorbachev crackdown and continuing anti-alcohol efforts pushed wine consumption down to just 3.7 liters per capita by the late 1990s. It has risen since then, up to about 7 liters per capita today. Wine is only now reemerging and is still stained by its association with spirits and alcoholism.
Good Russian Wines Exist …
I have not visited Russia nor sampled any of the wines on offer there, but the reports I’ve read make it sound like I am not missing too much. There is fine wine in Russia, including some excellent domestic products as you will see below, but the good stuff is mainly imported and very expensive. And the bad stuff is really really bad.
In fact I think the theme for this post should be that classic spaghetti western, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The good wines are certainly there. Jancis Robinson’s tasting notes from her 2009 visit to Russia include some tempting wines. A Myskhako Organic Red Cabernet 2008 from Kuban, Russia’s warmest wine producing region, received 16+ points out of 20 with the descriptive note, “Sweet and very wild and direct. Different! Very lively. Really wild tasting. Explosive.” Sounds like something I’d like to try.
A Fanagoria Tsimlansky Black 2007 Kuban (16 points) is “Dusty, bone dry, rather interesting flavours with good round tannins and acidity and plenty of fruit weight on the palate. Very dry finish with good confidence.” I’ll have a glass of that, please!
Along with the Bad …
Bad wines, and there are many of them, reflect Russia’s sorry wine history. It seems like every country has experienced the stage where wines are simple, sweet alcohol, sometimes to cover up faults and disguise poor wine making. These bad wines still figure prominently in Russia.
Wine for the masses sells for less than $1 a liter in many cases and it seems to be sourced in bulk from whoever offers the least cost supply. Imported bulk wines from countries as varied as Spain, Ukraine, France, Argentina, Bulgaria and Brazil are shipped to factories near Moscow and St. Petersburg where they are mixed with sugar (to appeal to local tastes) and water ( to bring the alcohol level down to 10.5 percent), packaged and sent to market.
Traditionally much of the wine came from Moldova and Georgia, but these countries are on the Russian government’s political black list and Moldovan wines are currently banned, causing great hardship for a country that is very dependent upon wine for export earnings. Low quality is the official excuse — a Russian health official says of Moldovan wine “it should be used to paint fences” – but it is hard to see how Moldovan wines can be worse than the sugar water wines I just described. I think it’s politics.
But Then it Gets Ugly
The ugly wines are frauds — not even made from grapes in some cases. This video report suggests that perhaps 30% of the bottled wine on offer in Russia is counterfeit. This is bad for consumers, of course, but particularly bad for legitimate producers whose reputations suffer from unhappy experiences with fake wine.
Thinking of trying to sell your wines in Russia? Despite all that I’ve said, many people see great potential in the Russian market. Some are just interested in the “bad wine” bulk market, but others have grander plans. Russia is a BRIC, after all, one of the fastest growing major economies in the world. Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 soccer World Cup; this international exposure may accelerate changing domestic tastes. It is a major market for Champagne, with more than a million bottles purchased annually.
The Future of Wine in Russia
As Russia’s middle class expands, a larger market for quality wines can be expected to emerge. So it is not surprising that winemakers are testing the waters and negotiating joint ventures of various sorts.
There are reasons to be cautious, however. Alcoholism is still a major concern in Russia and the expanding wine sector will have to swim against a prohibitionist tide. Tastes and social attitudes will change as better quality becomes available, but the transformation will not happen overnight.
And then there’s the “oil patch” problem. Petroleum is a major driver of the Russian economy and this introduces an element of economic instability. Exporters will need to be able to ride out falling oil price effects in order to benefit from high price periods.
Finally, there is the Russian legal and administrative systems, which make it difficult to bring wines into the country and to assure payment. The fact that some in the Russian government would prefer that the wines stay away – because of the alcoholism problem – probably contributes to this problem.
It is easy to be very pessimistic about wine in Russia given its current state and recent history, but I believe that cautious optimism is warranted for the long run. There are many cases of countries that have opened up their wine markets with positive results and perhaps Russia will follow this path. In the meantime, it looks like a difficult project.