The eastern European country has a long, respected history of producing white wine
Early Crimean wine makers Lev Golitsyn Mikhail Vorontsov.
The entire world is focused on Ukraine this week. It might appear unimportant to look at the country through a less-urgent lens at this time, but considering that white wine is what I write about, I wanted to find out more about those traditions. And what a history there is.
Presses and amphorae found along Ukraine’s southern coast in Crimea date the country’s wine culture to 4th century BC. In the time between then and its more contemporary development, a file translated from Russian poetically notes “Stormy historical minutes in the life of [sic] Crimea often broke the tranquil work of the winegrower and more than when threatened the total damage of plantings. The ancient Crimean winemaking developed in durations, fading away, then resurrecting, when fate smiled at it again after difficulty.”
That resonates today.
As in much of Europe, monks cultivated vineyards in the 11th century, and some historic documents report a Genoese influence on winemaking throughout an occupation in the 13th century. However it wasn’t till the early 19th century that winemaking became a substantial endeavor, thanks to Prince Mikhail Vorontsov (1782-1856), a European-educated Russian who established Crimea as an agricultural location, consisting of vineyards. In addition to his estates at Ai-Danil, Gurzuf and Massandra, he helped establish Crimea’s first school of winemaking in 1829, the previous Magaratch White wine Research study Institute in Yalta. Today, the follower institute, renamed over lots of years, is a Russian-controlled agri-research center.
Obviously, Vorontsov also was an early negotiant, buying grapes from little growers, bottling and marketing them as “Aged in the cellars of Vorontsov.” Grappa made from the pomace was smoked for vodka and offered as “Vorontsovskaya Starka.”
Czar Nicholas II (L) in the vineyards at Massandra in Crimea.
After his death, Vorontsov’s successors offered his estates to the Russian Imperial family who, in turn, charged another fellow citizen, Paris-educated Lev Golitsyn (1845-1915), with furthering winemaking in the region. In 1894 Czar Nicholas II, who desired a prepared supply of white wine for his summer palace, commissioned Golitsyn, an amateur archaeologist, to build a cellar. The network of 7 underground tunnels he developed held 25,000 liters of wine in barrels and a million bottles, later on ending up being the Massandra winery. Credited as the daddy of modern winemaking in Crimea, he cultivated some 600 grape ranges and made sparkling wine.
Golitsyn was also an avid collector, collecting an individual cellar of 50,000 bottles. Though working at the czar’s behest, and a nobleman himself, he was said to have actually developed the market so “ordinary folks would consume great white wine, not toxin themselves with garbage.”
Massandra’s white wines have been long revered by statesmen, and the historical winery still stands today, near the resort town of Yalta, a veteran stop for visiting VIPs. It was when the repository of a few of the world’s most valuable bottles, consisting of several Jerez de la Frontera sherries dating from 1775. Bottles from the collection have commanded in the 10s of thousands at auction– certainly, in 1990, some 13,000 bottles of Crimean dessert and fortified white wine produced from the 1830s to 1945 brought more than $1 million, and in 2001, Sotheby’s sold a bottle of the 1775 sherry for nearly $50,000.
Like Ukraine, the winery is a survivor of lots of political strifes.
Nationalized in 1922 after the Russian Transformation, its cellars were safeguarded for years under a 1936 law. Joseph Stalin even more secured the winery from a Nazi robbery, eliminating some 60,000 of the most valuable bottles to Georgia and other locations, an event explained in John Baker’s 2020 book, Stalin’s Wine Cellar. The winery was exempt from Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1980s vine pull scheme, a misdirected campaign to combat alcoholism in the Soviet Union (hey, just take away the vodka!)
Nikolay Boyko, Massandra’s former director general informed the New york city Times in 2014, “Massandra is a various country, like the Vatican in Italy … “We live according to our own laws and policies.”
The historic Massandra winery in Crimea
However, in the last few years, Massandra’s uncertain fate has actually paralleled that of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 and whose status remains in conflict.
Boyko was fired in 2015 after Russian district attorneys submitted fraud charges versus him. And in a more strange twist, his successor, Yanina Pavlenko was examined for embezzlement after allegedly opening another bottle of that 1775 sherry– then stated to be worth more than $90,000– for Russian President Vladimir Putin and previous Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as they explored the winery in September 2015. A Ukrainian governmental decree required consent to present such a bottle and uncorking the bottle without such approval constituted theft, declared Ukrainian prosecutors. (Since Crimea and Massandra were under Russian control at the time, that may have been a moot point. In 2020, when Pavlenko announced her bid for head of the Yalta city administration, she was still Massandra’s director.)
As if the plot could not get thicker, in December, a month after announcement of Pavlenko’s quote, Massandra was cost auction for $72.4 M to the Yuzhny Job, a subsidiary of the Rossiya Bank. The bank is co-owned by oligarch Yury Kovalchuk, who is stated to be a partner of Putin. Kharkiv Human Being Rights Protection Group, a Ukraine advocacy group, reported the winery had actually been “plundered” upon its sale. At its peak, Massandra produced 10 million bottles a year however Market publications report at the time of sale, its production facilities were 60% diminished.
Calling the transaction prohibited under a “so-called nationalization,” some Ukrainian press outlets reported that month that the country would start sanctions and a lawsuit over the sale.
Oleksiy Reznikov, deputy prime minister and minister for Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories was priced estimate as stating, “This creates dangers for Massandra, which becomes part of the cultural heritage of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Crimea. The enterprise can be ruined, and the most valuable possessions will simply be stolen. They will need to answer for all this.”