Le Grand Vostock is a recent Russian winery which started in 2003 on the grounds of a former soviet kolkhoz centered on grape growing. After a careful soil selection and replantings, it started production and has now a size large enough to keep prices down and small enough to target the quality-tier sector of wines.
The winery is managed by two French expatriates, Franck Duseigneur and his wife Gaelle, who live in the village year along with their young son who was born in Moscow.
When we visited the winery in mid-september, the Chardonnay and the Sauvignon were already harvested, the harvest had begun september 7th on the property. This very day, they were in the midst of the harvest of a big 28-hectare block with Aligoté. The yields are quite uneven there, says Franck's wife Gaelle : there's been a severe frost last winter and quite a few vines died. We would shortly later go see the pickers, who are middle-aged villagers from the area.
They began to replant immediately, but not on the soviet viticulture mode which is 4 meters by 2 meters (read : 4 meters between rows and 2 meters between vineroots), which makes 1000 vines/hectare, that is not much, and was usually compensated by huge yields. In Russia, the vines usually carry lots of grapes and get tired very fast. That's why the practice around there to uproot and replant every 12 years or so. By the way, back in 1997-1998, the former director of the kolkhoz had made a trip in France and when he came back he began to plant in 3 X 1 (3 meters between rows - 1 meter between vines), which made 3000 vines/hectare and was already better. They kept these replantings in the Grand Vostock vineyard, by the way.
Now, Frank and Gaelle planted at the ratio of 1,8 X 1 (1,8 meter between rows - 1 meter between vines) which makes a density of 5500 vines/hectare. This vineyard density is an important part of the final quality of the wine.
When they arrived there, the planted surface made a total of 550 hectares, and they didn't use all this vineyard. In 2006, they had severe frost in winter with something like minus 28 ° C during a whole week and half of the vines died. They planned initially to replant progressively to ameliorate the vineyard base, but this unexpected frost forced them to accelerate the pace of the replantings. Now, they have about 250 hectares in production (312 hectares planted). In 2006 they planted some red, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. In 2007, some white, Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot Blanc for about 20 hectares. In 2008, they planted some 12 hectares of Aligoté and also some more Chardonnay & Sauvignon for another 15 hectares.
The total surface of the former kolkhoz that they took over makes 800 hectares on which there are arable land, forests and lakes. That leaves room to properly choose where to plant vineyards. They made pedologic studies of the soil across the property in 2003 and sent the soil samples in France to select the best terroirs. Gaelle says that the terroirs are very good here, there is in some parts some limestone, also clay with a thin layer of earth and rocks below, definitely not a wheat soil, but good for vines. The soil analysis opened the way to the selection of the right rootstock (something which is often disregarded), and of the variety to graft on it.
For the reds, the majority variety is Cabernet Sauvignon. They have 4 hectares of Pinot Noir and some Krasnostop which are both used for the upper-tier and middle-range wines. Krasnostop, which is quite common in the region, is a Ukrainian cousin-variety of Cabernet Sauvignon, and quite a good variety, actually. Until last year they had a bit of Saperavi, another regional variety, but there isn't much left today.
By the way, Franck and Gaelle didn't speak Russian when they landed here and they both learnt Russian on the workplace, without setting a foot in a school, which shows a great flexibility and learning skills.
For others, the hurdles of the Russian administration are so long that they end up using the bottling line, or even the vinification facility of le Grand Vostock for years : that's the case of a Swiss-founded winery near there which have been making its wine and bottling it here for years but still can't sell it. I guess the administration hopes that they will be tired and give up one day. This is quite a shame : here are passionate people who come here with the best intentions, that is make quality wines on selected terroirs (not mass-bottling wines), and someone in the administration blocks all their prospects, thus depriving Russia of very positive developments for its wine region... The lonely vertical press which waits in a corner of le Grand Vostock (picture on left) belongs to this winery, you want to cry when you see that, it's like a baby separated from his mother...
This pending-winery waiting for years for the green light of the administration is headed by someone named Marina Bernier and it is locatedin the village of Natukhaevskaya (натухаевская), east of Anapa and on the other sid eof the hills range from the village of Sadovy. I'd have liked to visit them but I guess that because of the situation, they didn't want to stir up the things and I fully understand them.
I think it's quite admirable for a now large and establish winery to help younger and smaller wineries whenever it cans. It reminds me some friendly relations between vignerons that I came accross now and then in the country that I know best, France.
Much of the tools and equipment here is imported, like for example the 100-hectoliter pneumatic Bücher press, and as usual in any winery in the world, the pumps are Italian and the filters are German (and the Press, French). By the way, on the right of the press, you can see the weird volume-checking container which is part of the tols imposed by the administration in Russia (and not really useful if I understood correctly). Le Grand Vostock also built a separate office with its own telephone line to transmit the data of visiting administration controllers, as the law makes it compulsory.
Franck says without more details that the winery spends roughly 500 000 Roubles a month to pay for sale rights and maintain a system with lots of red tape and diverse compulsory tasks. I see that the French bureaucracy isn't entirely alone in its penalizing handling of the wineries.
For the reds, he makes macerations for 1 week or 10 days, sometimes 20 days, it depends of the cuvée. He works often with délestage, which is if I understand well taking away part of the juice or the lees. He makes a good extraction at the beginning, before the wine reaches 13 °. Another thing is the reds always make their malolactic fermentation, the whites rarely.
SO2 is added when the grapes come in, then during the press stage. Most of the SO2 gets away with the lees. The norm in Russia is 200mg/liter and his wines never reach these levels. He puts 5 grams for 100 kg of grapes in total. He adds that he can limit the use of SO2 through frequent tastings and checks of the juice.
__ Grand Vostock Cadet Karsov 2008. 100¨% Sauvignon, aged in casks. Actually, 10 % in casks, the rest in vats. Lots of freshness. Costs 270 Rbs at the estate. Frank says that they working more and more on Sauvignon. He says that he tends to pick it a bit late, but he still looks for vividness and freshness, if the vintage can yield them. There's been lots of up-and-downs in the harvest date lately : This year (2010) the Sauvignon was picked seprember 7, in 2007 it was august 28 and in 2004 it was october 4th. And this, for the same vineyard...
__ Grand Vostock Chëne Royal Blanc 2007. Chardonnay. Costs 800 Rbs, or about 20 €. Quite woody in the mouth, with a vanilla feel. In 2007, there was 15 % of new oak. Richness. The wine has been stirred once a day, then every now and then. Speaking of the local cooperages, they began to work with one of them in the early years but the quality dropped quickly after, they probably couldn't keep with the demand and didn't have time to let the wood dry properly. They usually resort then with drying articially the wood which has not the same result in the quality of the wood and its tannins. So they now import French casks.
I happened to have a bottle of Terres du Sud, a cheaper cuvée of Grand Vostock (170 Rbs), which was interesting, obviously much better than any other Russian wine at this price.
__ Grand Vostock Cuvée Karsov 2008. Red. Nose more complex indeed, and appealing, some dirt. 50 % Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 % Krasnostop. The latter brings the dark color, some tannins and red fruits aromas. Tannins still present.