The biggest surprise you can come across in Russia’s wine country which sits in the Caucasian region known as the Kuban, is to stumble by chance on a garage winery.
For the unsuspecting wine visitor staying at the surface of things, Russia can be looked at like being mirred for ever in industrial mega-production of wines of lower quality. If much of the wine sold under Russian labels is of dubious quality (with other questionable practices dwarfing the debate in Western countries about the use of additives to correct the wines), there is in this country a potential for outstanding wines. There are in this country a handful of inspired winemakers who have started making additives-free wines from well-chosen varieties planted on some of the best terroirs of this Russian region. What I tasted at Guennadi Oparin’s Semigorie garage winery gave me a delightful hint of what we could drink on a more routinely basis in Russia if the administration and the lawmakers behind the regulations got back to elementary common sense and let independant vignerons work as they want.
In spite of an untimed interference which certainly disturbed Guenadi’s and Alexei’s schedules, we were warmly welcomed after presentation of the motives of our visit.
This is light years from much of what is produced around here, but oddly, our host Guennadi Oparin is the former general director of Russkaya Loza (русская лоза), a big winery of the Kuban region. When he quit Russkaya Loza, Guennadi says that he made a thorough reformating of his thinking about many things, including about what winemaking should be. Imagine : Russkaya Loza used to have an output of 17 million liters a year, this is enormous ! Even if it later downsized to a "mere" 1,5 million liters (something he considers was good for the overall quality), what he is setting up here in this new venture is about such a smaller scale and different quality that it must have represented a complete turnaround for him indeed...
On this vineyard, Guennadi planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon (the three being French clones), and Rhein Riesling. The plantings took place 4 years ago and the vines are still very young but they produced their first vintage in 2009. Guennadi’s garage facility being small in terms of vats and volume, he sells most of the grapes to established wineries looking for quality grapes, including for example Ivan Karakezidi, another artisan winemaker (the first maybe to have launched a similar artisan winery) who, Guenadi says with a laugh, tends to pay late by the way.
The reason behind the small volumes of Guenadi’s winery is also a typically-Russian problem : it is virtually impossible for individual winemakers in Russia (as talented as they can be) to get a license to sell wine. The administration blocks most demands and years of filling paper forms and financing the normated infrastructure doesn’t help. For now, Guennadi can just pour the wines to his visitors, which is allowed as long as it happens inside the property. If the law changes (which is far from certain in the near future), then he could sell it outside and make more wine.
__ Semigorie Merlot 2009. 100 % stainless steel. A delicious wine with liquorice aromas. Nice soft tannins, gourmand (chewy), that wine just lets itself drink so easily... No additives of any kind, all the way from the incoming harvest, no SO2 except to wash the bottles. First natural wine in Russia for me (and for my friends too who discover how real wine tastes). We feel good, and it’s hard to resist another pour. Vadim alone isn’t enjoying the feast because he is the one at the wheel, and Russians are very serious in their respect of the zero alcohol when driving.
With his former experience in a big winery and his present determination and expertise in real winemaking, I think that Guennadi Oparin can make a great job for the future of Russian wines. But this doesn’t seem to be an issue for the wine & alcohol administration, and he still can’t sell his wines up to now.
It seems unjust to me that the Russian wine lover can't freely purchase this wine. Especially that the question for a wine amateur in Russia is often as simple as "has this wine been made with grapes in the first place ?", and when it is actually made with Russian-grown grapes, the question is " how many other substances and additives have they put in there to make this wine taste so weird ? ". And oddly, all these industrial wines reffered to by this TV report and this other TV report (even if you don't understand Russian, you'll get the message about some doctored-or-artificial wines here) are fully legal stuff on sale everywhere in the country.
On the side of the "vatroom", there are two big grey plastic boxes full of must (picture on right). Guennadi says that they makes chacha (Чача) with it, some sort of local samogon with which he makes what we could call a brandy or a grappa. I find this really cool : this micro-winery is not only making natural wine, but it is making its own artisanal alcohol...
I understand that if Guennadi could open a winery and sale his wines and products in the outside, he would vinify much more grapes than today. The fact that he planted and managed his vineyards the right way and on the right soil gives him access to a raw material of first quality when the law changes, and if it changes.
Our unregistred camping near there (a stone throw from the shore) was not only free, it was beautiful. Relaxed, cool evenings (but under warm temperatures) with food cooked on the improvised fire. We were a group of friends split in 4 tents, of which 2 were beige soviet-era tents, very basic military-type tents that worked well. It seems that generations of Russian & Soviet campers have spent good time in this free-camping spot under the trees. We had to clean the area first, though, as there was lots of trash, empty bottles and other stuff left over by previous campers (I should be given the Russian honorary citizenship just for all the cleaning I did there with Lena).
These sort of places where you can set up your tent freely kind of slowly disappear in contemporary Russia with the appetite of real estate developpers, but if you look hard, there are still quite a few good spots like that along the Russian coast. Don't be mean with me if I don't give the exact locations of these cool spots... Not only it's cool to set up camp in a place like that so close from the pebbles beach, but you spend on good food and vodka all the money spared on the accommodation. Made us a good number of heartening evenings...
In an other occasion, we camped in a sandy wild spot on the black-sea coast of this part of Russia (still the Kuban region) This was north on Anapa, near some sort of land's end pointing toward Ukraine. Lots of wind but very beautiful setting, with the sea at about 300 meters from our spot (which you can guess in the far at the end of the video). At dusk, we made a fire with small pieces of drafted wood to cook something hot and also keep us warm, as the wind comlbined with the cooler temperature of that particular day made us feel cold. The next day, we moved to another place, and the warm weather settled back over the region. September is hot in this Russian region while further north, inland Russia cools fast.