Despite war, Ukrainian wines are finding a global audience

Small pleasures such as coffee and wine continue to be desirable parts of daily Ukrainian life. Just as valuable is the symbolic cultural importance of wine to Ukrainians, and for the rest of the world.
Last Updated : 20 May 2024, 10:11 IST
Last Updated : 20 May 2024, 10:11 IST

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Ukraine is one of the world's historic wine-producing regions, with a history that stretches back thousands of years. It's also reinventing its wine culture and, despite the ravages of Russia's invasion in early 2022 and the ongoing war, excellent Ukrainian wines are now showing up in the United States.

It may seem hard to imagine that anybody would care about making wine amid the constant threat of war, much less shipping it halfway around the world. Yet, small pleasures such as coffee and wine continue to be desirable parts of daily Ukrainian life. Just as valuable is the symbolic cultural importance of wine to Ukrainians, and for the rest of the world.

"It's a big step to show the world that Ukraine has wine," Sergiy Klimov, author of The Untold Story of Ukrainian Winemaking, said by phone from Kyiv, the capital. "Wine is something that civilized countries have offered, and we have had this for thousands of years. I hope that people will understand that Ukraine has something good to communicate."

It's a sentiment echoed by others in the Ukrainian wine industry.

"We would like to stop talking about the war," Svitlana Tsybak, CEO of Beykush Winery, said by phone. "We don't want to sell our wines because of the war. We would like to sell because they're individual, unique and interesting."

Tsybak is also president of the Ukrainian Association of Winemakers, a trade group. Before the war began, it focused mostly on expanding domestic sales. Then came 2022, and with the war, they not only lost sales in key markets such as Kharkiv and Odesa, but businesses were directly attacked.

"Many vineyards and wineries were occupied, and vineyards were mined," said Tsybak, referring to the land mines left in the vineyards. "But we saved many. We want to show that we are brave people and still working, and we want to present the taste of Ukraine to the world."

That winemaking continues in wartime conditions testifies to its cultural and economic importance. During World War II, winemaking in France and other countries did not stop despite the German occupation. More recently, winemaking in Lebanon continued through a 15-year civil war that broke out in 1975 as well as the country's subsequent chaos and strife.

The wines arriving in the United States include bottles such as a lively, textured 2022 Artania White, a blend of six grapes grown in the Black Sea region from Beykush; a tangy, energetic rose sparkling wine made entirely of blaufrankisch by Chateau Chizay, in Zakarpattia in southwestern Ukraine; and a floral, herbal 2022 orange wine made of gewurztraminer by Stakhovsky, a winery also in Zakarpattia owned by Sergiy Stakhovsky, a former professional tennis player who is now a soldier fighting on the front lines.

Both Beykush and Stakhovsky are relatively new to winemaking, having released their first vintages within the past decade. Chizay is slightly older; it was founded in 1995.

Ukraine's ancient winemaking history might surprise people, but the country is in the historic birthplace of wine, stretching back 11,000 years or more. Ukraine borders on the Black Sea, along with its neighbor Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Turkey. Pass through the Turkish Straits and you are in the Mediterranean, not far from Greece.

What accounts for this paradoxical notion of both old and new? It's not singular to Ukraine, it's simply a process that has played out through historic wine-producing countries at different times in their recent histories, depending on their circumstances.

Spain and Portugal, for example, where wine has been made since ancient Romans first traveled to Iberia, have only recently joined the modern, globalized wine economy. Both were held back for decades by dictatorships that quashed distinctive local styles in favor of mass production.

Although Spain and Portugal began the transition to democracy in the 1970s, it wasn't until the 2000s that winemakers there gained the confidence and experience for many different wines to fully express their own cultural identities. Now, both are among the most exciting wine-producing countries in the world.

Ukrainian wine culture, too, needed to shed its long period of autocracy under the Soviet Union.

"That was a time of quantity, not quality," Klimov said. "The wines were very poor. Those who grew the most were rewarded."

Ukraine achieved independence in 1991, but not much changed immediately.

"With independence, wine moved from a monopoly of government to a monopoly of rich oligarchs," Klimov said. "They didn't care about quality. It was just a changing of pockets where the money goes."

Although things began to evolve in the 2000s, it wasn't until 2016, Klimov said, that Ukraine finally overturned Soviet-era laws that made it difficult for small businesses to succeed in wine.

Much of Ukrainian wine production had been centered in Crimea, but it evaporated after Russia occupied the region in 2014. This vacuum created opportunities for many younger, smaller winemakers in other parts of the country, Klimov said. So began a boom in new craft wineries.

In 2014, Klimov and a team of associates organized the Kyiv Wine and Food Festival, which he said was so successful it is now held twice a year. They also organized Wines of Ukraine, a group representing small wineries, and opened a wine bar in Kyiv, Like a Local's, that was the first to feature only Ukrainian bottles from small wineries. The bar closed at the beginning of the war, but Klimov said they are planning to reopen with a selection of up to 300 wines.

It was at Like a Local's in 2019 that Bruce Schneider, a longtime wine entrepreneur in New York, first tried a series of Ukrainian wines. Schneider, a partner in Gotham Project who was in Ukraine tracing family history, was pleasantly surprised. "Many were tasty and drinkable," he said, "and some were fun and soulful."

He began to import a small amount of kosher wine from Chateau Chizay in 2021, and sold it all. He wanted to bring in more, but the war had started and, Schneider said, it became difficult to make kosher wine.

Still, he tried to keep track of Ukrainian wines. When he heard that 12 Ukrainian wineries, partly supported by the United States Agency for International Development, would be exhibiting their wares in 2023 at ProWein, a big trade fair held annually in Germany, he decided to attend. There, he met Klimov, who was representing the Ukrainian wines, tasted several wines he had tried previously in 2019 and saw major improvements. He began thinking about importing those wines and started a company, Vyno Ukrainy.

"I was motivated to try to help the wineries," he said. "But the wines must be good. People need to buy repeatedly. I'm not in it for short-term boost."

One of the wineries, Prince Trubetskoi, is a historic producer in the Black Sea region. It was bombed on the first day of the war, occupied and looted. Although the area was retaken by Ukraine, it is considered a military zone and facilities are not usable. The winery, not wanting to miss a vintage, temporarily relocated to another facility in the western part of the country, and made wine with purchased grapes. Its 2022 Stoic pinot blanc is fresh, herbal and delicious. Schneider, who said he expects a shipment of these wines in June, plans to retail it for $16.

These are not the first Ukrainian wines to be sold in the United States since the war. Saparavi USA in Providence, Rhode Island, has been importing sparkling wines from Artwinery, a historic producer in Bakhmut, which are now available in 43 states, said Gayle Corrigan, a founder of Saparavi.

Importing wines from Ukraine is no simple thing.

"You have all sorts of things happening that are unexpected, whether it's shelling, only one label-maker for all the wineries or everybody is trying to find boxes," Corrigan said. "Ukrainian winemakers have done the possible and the impossible to making importing wines to the U.S. happen."

Even with production sorted out, the shipping is circuitous. Ordinarily, the wines would be sent from Odesa through the Black Sea, but the war has shut off that route. So, for Schneider to get his wines, they are sent from Zakarpattia, on the Hungarian border, through Hungary to Romania. They then sail from the Romanian port of Constanta to Valencia, Spain, and onward to New Jersey.

For Beykush, which is near the front lines, safety is a concern. There has been shelling, Tsybak said, and a nearby town has largely been destroyed. Russians at one point abandoned a tank in one of their vineyards. It was towed off by a tractor, an event captured by artwork on Beykush's back label.

Beykush has been planning for the future. It has planted about 5 acres in the last year, with 5 more acres planned for this fall. All told, it was 17 eclectic varieties planted, including albarino, timorasso, pinotage -- "a fantastic wine," Tsybak said -- and telti kuruk, an indigenous Ukrainian grape that makes an excellent tangy, minty, dry white wine with depth and complexity. Schneider said it retails for roughly $35, the most expensive of the wines he is importing.

Small quantities of these wines are available in the Northeast and in Washington, DC, as well as from online retailer Wine.com.

"I'm very proud of Ukrainian winemakers who continue to work under these circumstances," Tsybak said. "For them, we want to survive, we want to save this winery and this area."

Klimov said that supporting Ukraine by buying Ukrainian wines is not just a message for foreigners. "I tell Ukrainians, 'You must buy Ukrainian wines, not wines from Italy,'" he said. "You can try something good, because these wines are very interesting, and you can help."

He added: "It's not just the winegrowers and winemakers. It's other businesses, like oak barrel producers, stave producers, cork production, bottle production, wineglasses, vines and nurseries, tanks and amphora. It's a big ecosystem."

Published 20 May 2024, 10:11 IST

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