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