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samedi, 29 mars 2014

VITICULTURE IN CRIMEA

CRIMEA: UKRAINE LOSES ITS VITICURAL REGION

AND ITS ALADDIN’S CAVE


Claude Gilois

 

This is one of the consequences of the annexing of Crimea by Russia, which did not hit the headlines, but the loss of the Massandra cellars and the viticultural institute of Magaratch is nevertheless a major re-shaping of the viticulture of the region. Ukraine has ceased to be a viticultural country while Russia has become one.  Little known, even by wine buffs, Crimea is a major viticultural area and one of the best producing regions for sweet and fortified wines. Massandra and the Magaratch Institute are unique in the world. 

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In its bowels dug deep inside the mountain, there are more than one million bottles of vintage collection wines amongst which are, for example, 5 bottles of Jerez de la Fronterra 1775.  Sotheby’s in London sold one of these bottles at auction in October 2001 for the modest sum of 43,000 US$. It went to a woman bidder from Asia who admitted that she was prepared to spend as much as 100,000 US$ to acquire the bottle. Undoubtedly, Massandra is to wine what the library of Alexandria was to books.  Jorge Luis Borges described the latter as ‘created by an act of God’. If a tsar created the former, it is not difficult to see the hand of God as Massandra has such a magical and mystical feel about it.

 

Massandra has survived all the adventures and follies of Russia’s swirling history. It has seen the end the tsarist empire, the Bolshevik revolution, the force collectivisation, the Stalinist terror, the Nazi occupation, the massive deportations before and after the war, the de-Stalinization process, the perestroika and the brutal return to capitalism. It even survived the invasion of Russia by the Germans in 1941.  Stalin sent three vessels to Massandra to collect the wines in haste to be stored in three different locations far away from the war zone. When the war was over all the bottles were returned to the cellar, not a single one was missing.

 

Before the annexing of Crimea by the Russians, Massandra was still in Sovkhose, which is a state property and not a commercial enterprise.  

 

The southeast coastline of Crimea that spreads from Yalta to Nowy Svet is well suited for viticulture. There are, to-day, 25,000 hectares of land planted with vines. It is exposed to the rising sun, well sheltered from the rigors of winter and heavy rains coming from the west and the north. The sea acts as a thermal regulator, which tempers extremes of temperature. Rainfall does not exceed 600 mm a year and there are between 2,000 and 2,500 hours of sunshine a year - pretty much ideal conditions for vines that sometimes give the impression that they are falling in to the Black Sea. The ideal situation is probably the greatest threat to vineyards as the area is fast becoming a summer resort and is known to house dachas of the Ukrainian and Russian parties’ apparatchiks. Viticulture is not new to the Crimea and it is thought that Cimmerians introduced it. To maintain the vines upright and properly exposed to the sun, they probably invented the ‘maglari’ system that consists of wrapping the vines around a tree so that the plants can climb like a snake. If the first settlers to produce drinkable wines were the ancient Greeks, it is in the 19th century that modern viticulture took off.  Two passionates gave the trigger, Lev Sergueïevitch Golitsyne descending from one of the oldest aristocratic families in Russia who was the initiator,  and the Tsar Nicolas II who was the patron. After several attempts to replicate fine wines made in Europe, they decided to concentrate on sweet and fortified wines. It is not known whether this was an empirical choice or whether it was a rational one, but it was a wise choice as the terroir in Crimea proved to be fabulous for sweet wines as it contains a high proportion of schistes that can absorb heat during the day and restitute it at night. 

 

Schistous soils have proven to be great soils for the production of fortified wines as in the Douro in Portugal. The domain embarked on replicating all the great sweet and fortified wines made in the world, red and white Port, Madeira, Marsala, Bastardo, Kagor, Tokaji, and white, red and black Muscat. They are not just copies of existing wines, they have their own personalities that reflect the terroirs from which they come.

 

By 1894, Nicolas II succeeded his father, Alexander III and decided to appoint Golitsyne as his personal cellar master, as Golitsyne had, by then, built up a collection of some 30,000 bottles during his pilgrimages to France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. Shortly after his crowning, the tsar, who would be the last one in Russia, decided to create Massandra to supply the royal court with fine wines. The responsibility of the 40-hectare domain was given to Golitsyne, the project was ambitious and worthy of royal status. The Massandra Cellars which were dug deep into the mountain, which is almost vertical, has three floors with six galleries on  each floor, each measuring some 150 metres, lined up with gateways - this is where wines from the Massandra collection for every vintage ever made are stored.  Parallel to these gigantic galleries, there is another cellar, very much like a nave of a cathedral, where the ‘jewels’ are stored, for example a 1917 Jerez, the year of the Russian revolution and of the death of the tsar, as well as the famous five bottles of the 1775 Jerez.

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Now what will the attitude of the Russian authorities be towards Massandra?  Let us hope that they will maintain some sort of status quo to preserve the treasure that any nation would be proud of.

 

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Massandra Red Stone Muscat 2005

 

Derived its name from a huge stone present on the slope of the mountain where the vineyard is located and which has a curious vermilion colour. Aromas of hibiscus flower melon, peaches and apricot with overtones of banana and exotic fruits. Good aromatic definition that, together with the acidity gives a solid backbone and lengthens the wine in the mouth. 15/20

 

Massandra Bastardo of Magaratch 2006

 

This grape variety originated from the Jura Mountains where it is called Trousseau, but, in Portugal, it is named Bastardo and it is used as a blending component in Port.  It is a cross between Petit Verdot and Duras.

Purple saturated. Astonishing wine with aromas of a concentrated coulis of black and red fruits mainly figs and blackberries with hints of tapenade. It is lush, juicy, but well structured. 15.5/20.

 

Massandra ‘Madeira’  1983

 

This is a blend of Sercial, Verdelho and Albilo. Subtle, understated and dry, it is reminiscent of an old Amontillado. It is elegant with pleasant and well-managed oxidations that give the wine flavours of rancio. Nutty with grilled almonds. Crisp and sharp acidity that reinforces its length. 14,5/20.

 

Massandra ‘White Port’ 1975

 

Made exclusively from a grape variety called Kokur that bears some similarity to Semillon. It is a single vineyard selection called Suroz. The wine plays a harmonious partition in between the dry and the sweet. It is delicate and eminently drinkable with a good length. 14/20.

 

Massandra Red Stone Muscat 1966

 

Remarkably racy and elegant with aromas and flavours of apricots and peaches lifted with a hint of mint flavour. It is rich and crystalline at the same time. The finish is long with citrus characteristics, almond paste and medlar. 16/20

 

Massandra Muscat de Livadia 1975

 

This derives its name from the Livadia Palace in Yalta where the tsar used to come and enjoy the mild climate of the region. Superb aromas of old Muscat with yellow peaches and rose petal flavours. Beautifully balanced and harmonious, it finishes with a touch of oxidation giving some rancio overtones and lifting the finish. 16.5/20.

 

Massandra Muscat Rosé Gursuff 1937

 

It is difficult to make a better wine than this. Amber colour with tertiary aromas of infused herbs and incense. Its aromatic spectrum is highlighted by fruit paste and bees’ wax with flavours of rancio and dry fruits. Brilliant length without any sign of heaviness and the wine has still a long way to go. 17,5/20.

 

 

 

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