Remember the Paris wine tasting of 1976 which was an unexpected shock for the French wine establishment ? For those who forgot the story, let's remind the facts : In a blind wine tasting held in Paris that year, the California wines which were tasted unknowingly among top Burgundy and Bordeaux scored better than their French counterparts. The event was a great day for the Americans whose wines were at last taken seriously by the French themselves.
Now, another incredible similar blind tasting took place many years before, generating an equally-shocking bewilderment : This was at the Paris World Exhibition of 1900 (the Eiffel Tower was only 11 years old). A Russian "Champagne" made by a Russian aristocrat born in 1845 and named Lev Sergeievitch Golitsyn went out first in a Champagne blind tasting, beating all the French Champagne wines taking part. Golitsyn's Novy Sviet, named from his estate and winery in Crimea (Novy Sviet means New World, can you imagine ? that's a foresight !) brought a sudden fame to the burgeoning Russian Champagne know-how. Getting a Grand Prix in Paris, the City of Light and of Champagne from the hands of the French tasters themselves was for Golitsyn a welcome reward for his tireless effort and research.
Along the years and in spite of the difficult times that the region went through, the Novy Sviet estate managed to keep its edge : Recently, a Champagne blind tasting was organized in Moscow by expat Champagne-lovers and a few Russians. With the supervision of Russian sommelier Nikolaï Lesenkov, 5 of the best Russian (actually one of them was from Artyomovsk, Ukraine) sparklings and 5 top French Champagne were tasted blind and guess which came out first ? the Novy Sviet bubbly, Golitsyn must be celebrating with a bubbly in heaven... The good news for us French is that the real Champagne (Salon, Bollinger, Billecart-Salmon and Louis Roederer) got the 4 following scores. See this Moscow website page (in English) for the detail of the tasting.
This medalled sparkling was actually Prince Lev Golitsyn's first large-scale production of méthode traditionnelle : After years of research and trials, he had become an experienced enologist and in 1899 he made 60 000 bottles of something that could compete with the best Champagne wines. The Paris World Exhibition came at the best imaginable time for him to show what Russia could make in this field...
Now, this is just part One of the story and Golitsyn died in 1915 and didn't see the ruin that would soon follow : Part Two belongs to another aristocrat who worked for Prince Golitsyn : Anton Frolov-Bagreyev. This man of noble extraction was born in Omsk in 1877 and graduated in 1902 in St Petersbourg in the field of Physics and Mathematics. He spends time there after abroad including in Bordeaux, Porto and Madeira. As soon back, he works in the Imperial winery of the Tsar, Abrau-Dyurso (nera Novorossyisk) which is managed by Prince Golitsyn since 1891. Facing problems for taking part to the 1905 soft revolution, he was sent to Siberia but soon released and back to work, first as enologist at Nikistk (near Yalta, Crimea). In 1915 he spent time at the head of the viticulture & winemaking school of Bessarabia where he was still working when the bolsheviks takeover happened. In 1919 he was working again at the Abrau-Dyurso (his taking part to the 1905 revolution made the bolsheviks put on the side the fact that he was an aristocrat) winery when an armed mob of "revolutionaries" came in and asked for the requisition of all the stock of wine lying in the cellars (good idea, I'd myself have joined the militias in that instance !...). Frolov-Bagreyev vehemently refused (many people were killed on the spot for less) and was to be shot by the vociferous crowd but happily, the winery workers succeeded to hide him among the casks and brought at the same time a complaint to the burgeoning Soviet authorities about the violent threat and misconduct of the proletarian militia. The militia had to back down and Anton Frolov-Bagreyev could keep on working. He was to be the man who would help a few years later the Soviet Union put in place on an industrial scale the production of "Champagne for the masses" as envisionned by its lunatic ruler Stalin.
The cause of this decision which would later translate into millions of Rubles of investments and massive human effort is unclear. Did the iron-fist ruler see a movie in his private quarters where Champagne played a role or did he enjoy the bubbles so much in the diplomatic cocktails that he felt some shame not to be able to offer the same at home ? Hard to tell. Anyway, the plan was to build sparkling units across the country, to which already-vinified still wine would be transported in order to be transformed into bubbly. There had been some sparkling wines made again in the Soviet Union as early as 1928, but the production was too small for the size of the country.
The document above was signed the day following the meeting with Stalin and Molotov, and it quantifies the production goals (upper page) and distribution goals (lower page) in the differrent plants in Abrau-Dyurso, Georgia and Rostov/Don. The total plan (including the production of future sparkling plants) is summed on the right column.
WW2 didn't stopped the Soviet Champagne push and it only slowed it. Some units were hastilly dismantled and rebuilt out of reach of the Germans, the machinery that couldn't be moved being destroyed. At Abrau-Dyurso, the wine and the tools were dumped into the lake Abrau. In spite of a terrible war, this wine issue was still considered and Anton Frolov-Bagreyev was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1942 for fathering this fermentation in tanks system. In 1943, a book by Anton Frolov-Bagreyev titled "Soviet Champagne" was published and believe it or not, a sparkling plant was built in Moscow this very year... After the war, German and Rumanian POW were assigned to the reconstruction of the Abrau-Dyurso winery which lasted until 1953.
There are still differences in the making of these same-name Sovetskoe Champanskoe, no strict set of rules having been edicted for the vinification. The varieties used for the base wine vary, they include Chardonnay, Aligoté, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Sylvaner and possibly other types. Some people (probably bad-mouthed) even say that the base wine isn't even wine here.
Can you believe that , a registered trademark for the Soviet Champagne ?? Stalin must have felt a short respite in hell : the Soviet sparkling that he pushed on the USSR was registered as a brand name under its original name of Sovietskoe Champanskoe !
it all began with the registration of the trademark of Sovetskoe Igriskoe (Советское игристое - Soviet Sparkling) in 1969, when the Soviet Union began to export its sparklings abroad. Without the Champagne word in the name (even in Russian, it could be a case of copyright infringement), the export of the sparkling didn't meet any hurdle and brought some foreign currency. With the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism, one would have thought that the Sovetskoe Champanskoe would have soon lost its aura but maybe because of nostalgia and attachment of several generations in the former Soviet Union for this cheap (between 2 and 3 Euro a bottle) and festive drink, the Sovetskoe Champanskoe market survived. Speaking of Nostalgia, there is a trend strong enough in Russia that a special TV channel was created there with only TV dramas, movies, news and shows from the Soviet Union time (mainly from the 1970s' and 1980s'), it's Nostagia TV (in the place of the "s", there is the hammer and sickle symbol). The TV channel is also aired in Ukraine (although with an unpleasant Ukrainian dubbing, Ukrainian-language compliance being the law in Ukraine as it seems). Among the dozens of channels available in Donetsk, that was one of my favorite, with the Russian news channel RBC. I'm sure that Nostalgia TV has a large audience in all the former Soviet republics.
Back to the sparkling : years after the end of the USSR and the privatization, the Russian State organism Soyuzplodimport (formerly Soyuzplodoimport) which was initially privatized in april 1997 and then re-nationalized in 2002 considered itself the depository of the name Sovetskoe Champanskoe and registered the brand name in 2004. Soyuzplodimport is a heavy weight in the alcohol-beverages production and it owns 43 brands including Stolychnaia, Moskovskaya vodka but this business brings lots of behind-the curtain manoeuvers and Soyuzplodimport was also targeted by feuds and legal actions.The brand registration move was a partly-successful attempt at raising money from now-independant "wineries" (plants is the right name here) which kept making sparklings under the Soviet Champagne label. The Champanskoe plants balked at what they considered as an unfair practice intended of making them pay protection money. Some stopped using the traditionnal Sovetskoe Champanskoe label and created a label under their own name. Others accepted to pay the royalties, which are said on specialized articles to amount to something betyween 1,5 and 5 Rubbles per bottle. Soyuzplodimport declared that the "brand" needed new advertising campaign and repositioning on the market, thus justifying certain expenses.
This particular Sovetskoe Champanskoye was made in Kharkov (Ukraine) by Kharkivskii Zavod Champanskikh Vin (харкивський завод шампанських вин). Phone + 38 (057) 712 89 81.
Costs a bit more than 2 Euro in the shop (in Donetsk).