Ukraine – a promising future

The other week I had a fascinating experience that was a real eye opener. Some of you will know that I love tasting new things and experiencing wines from unusual places and never pass up the opportunity to taste emerging or obscure wines.

It has long been a mystery to me why the old Eastern Block wines have so completely vanished. Twenty odd years ago Bulgaria was a big supplier to the UK and the USSR appeared near the top of the list of nations that made the most wine. Then suddenly they were no more, you will have a difficult search for Bulgarian wine in the UK today and struggle to find the USSR’s successor nations in the list of most important wine producers.

As a consequence my experience of wines from this part of the world is very slight, but I have found decent Romanian wines in the past as well as fascinating stuff from Moldova – fine as well as more work-a-day – and most wonderously of all tasted some very old, fine dessert wine from the Massandra Winery in the Crimea.

Recently I was fortunate to get a chance to taste wines from two of the leading Ukrainian wine producers and it was a great experience.

Bessarabia – click for a larger view

What made the tasting even more exciting was that the wineries are both in Bessarabia, not far from Odessa, which is a region that straddles the Romanian-Moldovan-Ukranian border and is a place that I have only come across before when mentioned in books about the nineteenth century and in histories of the First World War – it sounds wonderfully Ruritanian and like it ought to be stuffed full of Arch Dukes and Princes galore. Other regions of Ukraine, especially Crimea, produce wine, but this tasting focussed on Bessarabia – which at 45˚ north is on the same latitude as Bordeaux.

The region is steeped in history, much of it bloody. The Romans knew this part of the world as Dacia and it was their last major conquest. If the ancient history is very lively, the more recent stuff is even more so. Early in the nineteenth century the Russian Empire seized the area from the Ottomans and invited people to work this new buffer zone between the two enemies. Bulgarians, French, Swiss and Bulgarians came, happy to settle in a place that offered them free land and freedom from taxes in return for working that land. At a time when Russia still had serfs, to be free land owners was quite something – it must have been like the early days of European settlement in the Americas.

Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy Winery

Now there is a determined effort to rekindle the wine producing traditions of the region and to go further and produce world class wines that will be sought out and enjoyed. To that end the Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy Winery, the region’s most famous producer from the nineteenth century and Soviet era has received some substantial investment and it seems to be turning out some decent stuff, but I think it will be a while before they find their feet and in my opinion need to get around the sulphur rules. Ukranian law only permits very low levels of SO2 to be added, this makes the wines seem a bit ‘funky’ and liable to alter markedly in the bottle and the only alternative – keeping the wines for a long time on the lees, adds body and weight while lowering the feel of the acidity. This makes the whites a little unbalanced and flabby – even a high acid grape like Aligoté. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is forbidden to add acid.

As a consequence of this I think their white wines were best when young, so I prefered the  2011s and 2010s over the 2009s or 2008s. If you get a chance to try their 2011 Pearl of the Steppe – Aligoté aged in oak – do, it is an attractive wine, clean and fresh when young, not great but perfectly nice dry wine.

Their 2011 Chardonnay was quite attractive too, with a little more richness and weight, while the 2011 Rieslings lacked acid punch for my taste.

Their 2010 Merlot struck me as altogether a better bet. It was very soft with easy tannins, lovely fresh blue-black fruit and no obvious oak and the tannins kept away until the bitter end, all of which makes it a perfectly decent wine to drink with any manner of foods.

Kolonist Winery

Ivan Plachkov amongst his vines on the shores of Lake Yalpukh

This brand new estate is in Krynychene near Bolgrad (see map above) in the furthest South Western point of Ukraine, near the Danube Delta and on the shores of Lake Yalpukh, the largest body of freshwater in the country. Kolonist is named for those Bulgarians who came to Bolgrad in the nineteenth century and made it their home. It was the brainchild of Ivan Plachkov who is well known in Ukranian political circles and I was really impressed by the ambition and ‘can do attitude’ that pervaded all they do. They seem very aware of what a difficult thing they are trying to achieve and so have brought in the colourful Olivier Dauga from Bordeaux as their consultant – I think his influence showed.

Looking at the photograph above got me thinking, it looks so like New York’s Finger Lakes that if I did not know it was taken in Ukraine then I would assume it was the shores of Keuka Lake. Intriguingly the man who perfected the growing of Vitis Vinfera grapes in the Finger Lakes was Dr. Konstantin Frank and he was from…Ukraine. So perhaps Dr Frank chose his site, at least in part, because it reminded him of home?

I was intrigued by some of the whites, especially:

2009 Suholymans’kyi bilyi 
This is a dry white from a local grape made by crossing Plavay and Chardonnay, but I know nothing else about it at all. I liked this because it had more acidity and structure than most of the other whites, it seemed hardy and less wild and funky, but a tad old fashioned – lacking fruit in English.

2009 Aligoté
Slightly odd and ‘funky’ with ‘natural wine’ aromas as a consequence of the low sulphur, but not unattractive. Soft creamy palate, cheese notes buzz around giving some interest as well as studs of dried fruit, like peach. The finish is a little strange though, sour like cottage cheese or yoghurt with some old varnishy oak.

Both of these were subsequently served with lovely nibbles of blue cheese profiteroles and lovely creamy arancini. They went really well and made the wine better balanced and enjoyable.

Olivier is from Bordeaux though and his work really showed on some of the red wines:

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (50% & 50%)
Good nose with some rich plummy notes and earthiness too. The palate was quite fat with  some good balancing acidity, soft tannins and freshness. Sugar plums and succulence, cherry too, touch of black fruit. Pretty good, honest stuff, most lively yet – 87/100 points.

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (50% & 50%)
Lovely intensity, deep colour, good fruit, delicate smoky, balanced tannins, sweet tannins and fruit, dusting of smoky, savoury, coffee-like oak. Very good wine, needs time to really show its form, but very good and promising. Silky in the mouth with good acidity and nice long, but delicate length. Very nicely made indeed, European in style and form – 89/100 points.

I was pretty impressed by Kolonist, the wines had an honesty about them, which is often lacking in emerging areas that can be over ambitious. I think this will be a winery to watch, for their reds in particular and I look forward to seeing how they develop.

It is very hard sometimes to judge wines from places that lack clear wine traditions. Sometimes their ambition is greater than the actuality and it will either be a long time or never before the two are in synch. I didn’t get that impression with these, it is early days and they were not all good by any means, but there was enough good stuff to make me think that in the not too distant future we could be drinking Ukranian wines regularly and that in the meantime the wines seem generally good enough to make a holiday to Ukraine an even more fascinating and enjoyable prospect.

11 thoughts on “Ukraine – a promising future

  1. Great post. I’ve always been intrigued and fascinated by wines from these eastern regions, which have a history and tradion of winemaking just as long (if not longer) than in the Western Europe. But it’s pretty impossible to actually find any!

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  3. “It is very hard sometimes to judge wines from places that lack clear wine traditions.”

    Wine growing is originally started around the Black Sea about 10.000 years ago and also in Ukraine for thousands of years ago. Ukrainian dessert wine styles have been known for hundreds of years. The arising dry ones are the new generation, but the local grape varieties are ancient. Silent information about wine making is transferred for hundreds of generations. I think there is more tradition than in the new world wines.

    • Thank you, an interesting point. Everywhere that makes wine has more tradition than in apparent to someone who s unused to the place, that it true. My point was that no tradition was clear here, which is also true.
      I hope to go there and try to understand the traditions for myself. Thanks.

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