Thursday, April 8, 2010

Champagne in Russia

Picture: Soviet Champagne Poster, around 1940s

Prokofiev's War and Peace

In the first Act of Sergei Prokofiev’s monumental opera “War and Peace”, after Tolstoy’s novel, you see a lot of Champagne on the stage, at least at the Mariinsky Opera performance which I saw. The scene is in St. Petersburg in the beginning of the 1800s, before the battles against Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. Of course, at the time, the Bolsheviks takeover was hundred years away and the Russian aristocracy at that time was very well integrated with the rest of Europe. And at the various European Courts and among the aristocrats, Champagne from France was very popular.


Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin, the future Veuve Clicquot, had just taken over. Under her tenure, Veuve Clicquot initially did very well, in part thanks to the German chef des caves, Antoine Müller, with whom Nicole-Barbe invented the system of remuage, but also because of her successful marketing efforts. Veuve Clicquot played an important role in establishing champagne as a favored drink of haute bourgeoisie and nobility throughout Europe, including Russia.

Picture: Veuve Clicquot

The remuage technique invented by her and Mueller revolutionized sparkling wine drinking. It remains a key element in the production of Champagne until today. Until the beginning of the 1800s, the appearance of Champagne was marred by the lees, the sediment of dead yeast cells that remained suspended in the wine following the secondary fermentation in the bottle. In consuming a bottle of Champagne it was thus necessary to either decant the sparkling wine before serving it or to leave it in the glass for some time so the sediment could settle before drinking the Champagne. The remuage technique put an end to that.

The system centers around wooden racks into which the bottles are placed neck first at an angle of 45 degrees. Each day the bottles are turned and tilted so that the bottle points further downwards with each day, the process gradually bringing all the sediment into the neck right behind the cork, from where it can be removed during disgorgement. Today, this manual way of riddling sparkling wine is still used for Prestige Cuvées , but has otherwise been largely abandoned because of the high labor costs. Mechanized riddling equipment called gyropalettes, invented in Spain in the 1970s, is used instead.

Sparkling Wines

Sparkling wine houses sprung up all over Europe in the 1800s. In Germany, Kessler, was the first Sekt house, founded in 1826 by Georg Kessler, who had worked for Veuve Clicqot. Fürst von Metternich started to produce Sekt in a beautiful castle overlooking the Rhein river in the Rheingau. Von Metternich received the castle from the Austrian Emperor Franz I in 1816 as a gift for his skillful negotiations as his Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Vienna congress (1814 -15). In Austria, the German Robert Schlumberger moved from the Champagne region with his future wife to Vienna and established in 1842 a Sekt House there. Schlumberger was born in Germany, worked in Reims in a Champagne house and married an Austrian, who brought him to the capital of Austria. There, he rose quickly and became the “father” of the Austrian Sekt industry. For over 150 years Schlumberger has been producing their Sekts in the méthode champenoise.

The Tsar Period

Russia also tried to produce its own sparkler, but it took almost another 100 years. Only in 1891 was the first successful winery established at Abrau-Durso in Crimea by Prince Lev Golitsyn, to to provide the Tsar Court with Russian sparklers. Lev Golitsyn was a renowned winemaker himself, but he also brought a team of French Champagne makers to Russia. Demand boomed almost immediately and at the Paris World Fair in 1900, Golitsyn's Novy Svet won the Grand Prix for sparklers, beating all the French Champagne wines taking part.

The October Revolution of 1917

But this success was short-lived. The October Revolution of 1917 came and the Bolshevik took over. The French specialists fled Russia. The days of Champagne-style sparklers for the Tsar Court were over.

Then came the period of mass production. Stalin decided in 1936 that the Soviet Union had to make “Champagne” (as well as Cognac and table wine) available and affordable for the ordinary people. Anton Frolov-Bagreyev, a former collaborator of Prince Lev Golitsyn, and also an aristocrat, became a key figure in the development of mass production of sparklers in Russia, by introducing the bulk method to Russia. 22 plants with large high-pressure steel tanks were built throughout the country, and still wine was transported from the wine growing regions to the plants in order to be transformed into bubbly there.

World War II was tough on the sparkling wine industry in Russia, followed by the creation of the Soviet Union. After the war, German and Rumanian prisoners of war were assigned to the reconstruction of the Abrau-Durso winery which lasted until 1953.

The Soviet Union

Picture: Soviet Champagne

During the period of the Soviet Union, Sovetskoye Shampanskoye was produced by the collective farms in an effort to fulfill quotas and retain an identical taste across the board. In 1969, the Soviet Union began to export its sparklings abroad. The bottles I drunk in Germany were cheap and sweet stuff.


Things changed again in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated. The dissolution of the Soviet Union resulted in the closing down, restructuring or privatization of the collective farms.

Today, in an effort to integrate with the world market, the Shampanskoye part of label of the Soviet days is gone and has been replaced by vino igriskoye, sparkling wine. Oddly enough, while the former Soviet Union countries busily eradicating most traces of their Soviet past, the Soviet part of the label has remained: its brand recognition is unparalleled with “Soviet” indicating that the bottle was cheap and the contents dependable.

Picture: Abrau Durso, Semi-sweet

In terms of taste, during the past 100 years, the Soviet sparklers have moved away from the world market trend towards dry sparklers. Soviet sparklers are almost always sweet. The most common type by far with an 80% market share is polysladkoye, which means "semi-sweet". Lots of the sparklers now came from the Ukraine and sell in the US$ 5 to 7 range.

Golitsyn's Abrau-Durso remains a major producer, and is trying to regain the world-class standards it had reached in 1900 by hand-crafting dry sparklers the way they used to. Abrau-Durso now produces about 6 million bottles of sparklers. In August 2002, the local earth dam located upstream of the Durso River collapsed, washing away some of the grape fields in the Durso Valley. Currently Abrau-Durso does not grow its own wine grapes.

Abrau Durso, Russia

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