The Artyomovsk winery in eastern Ukraine is a good example of a Soviet Champagne Kombinat turned into a more qualitative sparkling outlet with the privatization and economic changes following the dismantling of the Soviet Union. At the time of the USSR, there were many Sovietskoe Champanskoe (СОВЕТСКОЕ ШАМПАНСКОЕ - Soviet Champagne) production units scattered throughout the huge territory. For those of us who travelled in the USSR, this semi-sweet sparkling is associated with memories of improvised parties with Russian (or Ukrainian) friends. In these conditions, the Soviet Champagne was always good, breaking the ice and making everyone feel good as a starter, before shifting gear with vodka. I brought Sovietskoe Champanskoe several times back to France but it seems that the magic stayed at Sheremetyevo or Borispol each time...
Artemivsk is the name of a town in eastern Ukraine not far from the Russian border, and it is about 90 kilometers from Donetsk, the main industrial hub of the Donbass region with coking-coal and metallurgical plants. This is the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine here, as opposed to Western Ukraine, which speaks Ukrainian and is more turned toward the rest of Europe. The town, an ancient Cossack fort (1571) which was named Bahmut until 1924, went through a strong economic development 2 centuries ago when (this was the Wild East then, wide open to foreign economic adventurers and investors) a German entrepreneur signed a contract with the town and got the right to exploit the rich gipsum deposits in exchange with his commitment to repair the roads of the region and to build water ducts in the city. The city was the site of endless fight between the bolshevik militias and the counter-revolutionary troops. The communists could fully impose their rule on the city only in december 1919 and renamed it as Artemivsk.
This is precisely in these deep and vast abandonned gypsum mines on the edge of the city that the Artyomovsk winery was set up in 1950. Nowadays, the city looks like a typical industrial town built during the Soviet Union times, with lots of drab apartment blocks and memorials with tanks (I saw at least two of them) and a fighter jet.
The total surface of the underground facility is said to be about 26 hectares, much of it used to store the bottles for their long elevage time and secondary fermentation. the Artyomovsk company's data tell of about 30 million bottles lying in these many mine rooms at a given time.
At the beginning in 1950, the Artyomovsk tunnels were only used for storing and aging the bottles brought from a facility installed nearby in a former salt mine. But the salt residues being a cause of problem for the machines and the tools, the winery was also transferred here. The Artyomovsk production unit produced its first load of Soviet Champagne (Sovietskoe Champanskoe) in 1954 . The next year, the production reached 1,3 million bottles and kept growing, in 1959 it was for example 2,7 million bottles. The Artyomovsk plant was part of the industriallly-planned scheme which overview the building of similar sparkling plants all over the Soviet Union. At that time in the early 1950s', other kombinats for large-scale sparkling production were built, and in the region it was in Novy Sviet, in Odessa and Kharkov. Unlike other Soviet Champagne plants, it was decorated and opened to visitors during the Soviet times, and the visual experience is particularly impressing, with these typically Soviet Art murals splashed on the walls here and there. See here on the right (click to enlarge - sorry, it's slightly blurred) this bucolic scene of a bottle of СОВЕТСКОЕ ШАМПАНСКОЕ (Soviet Champagne) surrounded by playful animals in the legendary forest...
From what the people of Artyomovsk told me, the production of sparkling here has always been made according to the true traditional Champagne way, meaning that the secondary fermentation has always been made in bottles and not in tanks as in some other Soviet Champagne facilities, with of course long laying time and the manual riddling to push the lees to the thin extremity of the bottle. As at the time of Soviet Union, the Artyomovsk bottles were labelled as Sovetskoe Champanskoe like any other sparkling produced across the USSR, that is without differentiating the winemaking method (traditional or tank-fermented), it's not clear wether these "méthode traditionnelle" sparklings were actually intended for the ruling elite or for other special uses, or just delivered to the normal food stores.
One thing is central for the final quality of the Artyomovsk sparklings : the enology team and its off-limits laboratory [picture on left], a building standing right near the entry door to the underground winery. That's where the analysis and tastings take place and where the blendings and operations on the wines will be decided in order to get the desired type of sparkling. My guide told me that two women in that lab were particularly brilliant, they are real genius, he said, looking at the mysterious two-story buildings where you could spot now and then a laboratory technician dressed in white come in or out. That's precisely to these two women that I would have been happy to speak with... if the wine amateur is not provided much detail about the winemaking here, an Internet search shows that the Artyomovsk winery buys sugar in such volumes that it makes news on the site of the Ukrainian sugar Kombinat Astarta (Word file).
The picture on the right shows the delivery section which is located in a separate building on the surface. Trucks are filled with cases of bubly bound for different Ukraine destinations.
At Artyomovsk some sparklings were made shortly after the independance of Ukraine and privatization under the label of Artyomovskoe and Krym (from Crimea, the wine region of Ukraine). The production of the "traditionnal" Sovetskoe Champanskoe continued nonetheless until 2005, when it reached the incredible mark of 300 million bottles made in Artyomovsk under that iconic label. The new era was for Artyomovsk an opportunity to invest, export and keep augmenting the output. In 2005 for example, the yearly output reached the mark of 11,5 million bottles.
At Artyomovsk, although the wines come as said from four different regions of Ukraine, the word terroir (Teppyap) is highlighted in the bilingual visitor's booklet : The basis for success of Artyomovsk Winery's sparkling wine is a unique terroir and a classic manufacturing method. We would be happy to know more about the vineyards, its soils and climates, and about the people who grow these grapes and vinify the base wine, and how they do these two crucial stages.
The Soviet Union favored elsewhere the use of big steel containers for the secondary fermentation of its sparklings. These large steel tanks with typically a volume of 5000 liters need less work force and helped make the Soviet Champagne affordable, even if in the USSR the prices didn't reflect necessarily the costs. This fermentation in bulk was invented in France in 1907 by professor Charmat in the Wine University of Montpellier. The steel tanks need to be very thick to hold the pressure as the secondary fermentation builds up CO2 gas that melts into the wine. The Charmat process is the favorite mode of production for the German sparklings, called Sekt wines. Artyomovsk incidently has a large export market in Germany and Austria through the Krimsekt range. In France, the consumer of cheap sparklings prefer to buy Crémant or Méthode-Champenoise wines from non-Champagne wine regions. The name alone would make it a harder sell in France, Krim sounding like crime in French and sekt sounding like secte ( meaning cult in French).
See on the left the multicolored-rainbow adorned mine road going down to the mine depths, and on the right the huge rock carving of the God of the Artyomovsk caves looking over the millions of bottles.
The images on left and right show another side of this strange place : On the left you can see a mural scene painted in a window-like square hole in the wall of the mine. Lighting gives the illusion of a window on the outside world but you are maybe 70 meters under the surface here. Again, this is this naive Soviet Art that you could find in many facilities around the socialist country that I find moving here in this context, and I hope that the company will keep this heritage in spite of its kitsch. The picture on the right is a detail of a mural installation with portraits of all the Artyomovsk veterans who fought during WW2, the patriotic remembrance being also a very Soviet thing.
The varieties used for the white sparklings are Pinot [Meunier], Chardonnay, Riesling and Aligoté. The red sparklings which are very popular in the region are made with Cabernet, Merlot and Saperavi, a dark-red grape variety that is said to come from nearby Georgia. As said above, Artyomovsk buys its wine to contracted wineries further south in Crimea and in the wine producing regions of Nikolaev, Odessa and Kharkov. No more details are available about the whereabouts of the contracted wineries and about their vinification practices. We just know that the already-finished wines arrive here (probably by railroad tanks, there are tracks right in front of the winery entrance) and will go through the secondary fermentation after blending.
After this solemn meditation in front of this wall, the visitors are invited to a more cheerful experience, i.e. the tasting of several wines. My notes are sketchy here, as I developped a sore throat soon after reaching Donetsk (not that it was cold in Donetsk, on the contrary this industrial town enjoys a relatively warm autumn, with temperatures at about 25°C in mid-october).
The visitors are in a happy mood, you feel that tasting at wineries are not a routine thing and at Artyomovsk, the comfort of the visitors is respected, there are plates of buiscuits to go with the wines and the pours are generous. Only one remark about the details : the glasses are ordinary wine glasses, the guide who pours and explains the wines (and how to look at the color and interpret aromas) is the only one to have a flûte glass
__White blend, a still wine, base for a sparkling.
__Red blend (also still wine).
__Krim Brut. White bubbly. Some sweetness still even though labelled as Brut. A few big bubbles at the beginning, then no bubbles at all in the glass. Some woody notes, seems to me.
__KrimArt Brut, red bubbly. This is not rosé but really red. Blackcurrant aromas. Smaller bubbles that keep going up.
__Krim semi-sweet. Seems corked on the nose. sweet indeed.
__Krim red semi-sweet. Nose : notes of Pinot, morello cherries. The bubble side of the mouth is very light and the general feel is one of a sugary still wine.
Artyomovsk is now the leading producer of méthode traditionelle sparkling wines in eastern Europe.