Reach for the tsars

Drink - Victoria Moore on a historical collection of Russian wine

The Russian Embassy's telephone number indicates that it is located in central London, but when I ring from my own central London number, the heavy crackling and thick sense of distance on the line suggests that the person who answers is standing in a blizzard in Siberia, trying to get passable reception on a mobile. I want to find out about Russian wine. I am passed to a series of people. Their abilities to either speak or comprehend English worsen as I go down the chain. So does the blizzard. In the end, I'm afraid, I give up.

I'm interested because someone told me the other day that Russia is the world's biggest wine producer. In fact, it is not: winemaking giants France and Italy vie for that honour. But it is true that Russians don't just make vodka - the CIS (and Russia is its dominant wine-producing state) made 2.1 million hectolitres of wine in 1998. To put that in context, Italy (which beat France that year) managed 54.2 million hectolitres. Russia's contribution to the world wine pool is smaller, but it is nevertheless a significant vinicultural force. Not that we see much of it here. When I ask for a bottle at my nearest wine merchants, the assistant's jaw drops almost to the floor: "We've got wine from just about every other continent . . ."

The Wine Society is a little more forthcoming. I speak to a chap there called Sebastian, who has actually tasted some and lived to tell the story. "We don't buy it in, although we are sent samples sometimes," he says. "It's awful. They have horribly, horribly old-fashioned methods of production and - well," he almost splutters in recollection, "the red tastes like red ink, and the white is just terribly uninteresting." It can afford to be. Russian winemakers have a captive market of people longing for alcohol-induced oblivion, and wine production has been falling (20 years ago, it was 17 million hectolitres) ever since President Gorbachev attempted to cut alcohol consumption in the 1980s. Yet Sebastian remembered that the Wine Society had included a Russian wine in one of its collections - "at Christmas, as a joke" - and that this dessert wine was "quite splendid".

Indeed. Russian peasants might have made do with wines that we would tip straight down the sink, but the tsars were unlikely to have put up with it. In the 1890s, they built Massandra, a winery on the edge of Yalta in the Crimea, to serve their summer palace. My, the Russian imperial court would have enjoyed these wines, the best of which were sweet and strong. But Massandra also gave its name to one of the world's most famous cellars.

The Massandra collection was begun by Massandra's first winemaker, Prince Golitzin, and it is really quite something. About 10,000 bottles of top-notch wine (many from the Crimea) have been added each year. These have survived some of the bloodiest upheavals of the 20th century: the Russian revolution, when the collection was taken over by the state, and the German occupation of Yalta in 1941-45, when it was painstakingly evacuated so as to elude the grasp of the Nazis. Some of its gems reached British palates a decade ago, when Sotheby's was offered two consignments to put up for auction.

Sotheby's must have been very pleased with its historic sale of "The fabulous wines of the tsars and later vintages (1880-1945)". The catalogue records the great care it took of them, removing the poor-quality corks from the bottles (the Russians would change the corks every ten to 20 years), recorking them and sealing them with brown wax embossed with the Massandra seal. Among them were white, rose and black muscats, red and white ports, Madeira and Cahors. The taster - a sample of every wine offered was first tasted - noted that "the colours, particularly of the oldest wines, are very different from the range that regular wine drinkers are used to. They are intense and really have to be seen to be believed. The greatest dessert wines are not the type that can be easily drunk in any quantity, but rather savoured and enjoyed at one's leisure." It sounds mouthwatering, but I fear that we won't find Russian wine, of any sort, on the high street for a very long time.

This article first appeared in the 04 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Cheated of their vodka and cake

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.