Ukrainian wine may have a metallic edge this year as Russian rockets hit vineyards

·5-min read
Georgiy Molchanov in his vineyard on the Black Sea coast where an eight-foot missile casing is still wedged into a row of vines
Georgiy Molchanov in his vineyard on the Black Sea coast where an eight-foot missile casing is still wedged into a row of vines

His grapes are still ripening in the spring sunshine on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, yet even now, winemaker Georgiy Molchanov knows that 2022 may be a unique vintage.

For one thing, it will be the first time he has made wine while his terroirs have been part of a warzone. And for another, this year’s Chardonnay may have some unique extra tasting notes: a hint of gunpowder maybe, with a full-bodied metallic finish.

For buried in the sandy soils of his vineyard overlooking the Southern Bug River are several Grad rockets - fired by Russian forces during their attempts to capture the nearby city of Mykolaiv two months ago.

“The rockets landed here one night when the Russians were battling our Ukrainian forces on the other side of the river,” said Mr Molchanov, as he stood by an eight-foot missile casing still wedged into a row of vines.

“A bomb disposal team told me they’re not dangerous, but I can’t get them out of the soil myself - they’re dug very deeply in.”

Georgiy Molchanov says he can't get the missiles out of the soil
Georgiy Molchanov says he can't get the missiles out of the soil

While a “Grad Cru” 2022 might have a certain novel marketing allure, the war has otherwise been tough on Ukraine’s wine growers. Viniculture has enjoyed a boom here in the last decade, as a nation steeped in Soviet vodka-drinking traditions embraces wine as a subtler, more European alternative.

But with Russian forces threatening much of the Black Sea coast where the vineyards are concentrated, many of the country’s wine makers may not be offering a 2022 vintage at all.

The vineyards around the port city of Kherson, for example, now lie in Russian hands, while some of those further west towards Mykolaiv remain active combat zones. Further north, a major wine bottling plant at Hostomel, just outside Kyiv, was destroyed during the Russian siege of the capital.

“We are facing quite a few logistical problems this year,” said Ivan Plachkov, founder of the Kolonist vineyard in the Bessarabia region between Odesa and Moldova.

“As well as the bottle plant being hit, there’s also been shortages of fuel, and not enough time to apply pesticides. The weather this year has been good for growing, but it may be difficult to recruit people for the harvest if many are still fighting in the war.”

It may be difficult to recruit people for the harvest if the war continues
It may be difficult to recruit people for the harvest if the war continues

Kolonist is one of Ukraine’s biggest vineyards. Its Odesa Black is one of the few to make inroads into Europe’s market, including a few restaurants in Britain. Its smoky bouquet is a long way from the cheap, semi-sweet wines that dominated Ukrainian production during the hard-drinking Soviet era, when strength was often prized over taste.

That has all changed now at places like the Wine Wish Club in Mykolaiv, a new boutique wine bar overlooking the sea. Its proprietor is wine buff Yaroslav Jakovishan, who sports a hipster beard and ponytail with shaved back and sides. He typifies a new younger generation of Ukrainians exposed to European wine culture while working or travelling abroad.

“Ukrainians want to be more sophisticated, we are moving away from the days when people would just drink strong spirits,” he said. “People nowadays want to sit and talk, not just get drunk. Wine is good for that as it isn’t so heavy.”

Colin Freeman (left) and Mr Molchanov drinking wine
Colin Freeman (left) and Mr Molchanov drinking wine

Mr Jakovishan, too, has paid a price for his passion. His newly done-out bar, complete with fittings made from wine barrels, was due to open on March 1, a week into the war. Since then, there have been evening curfews and restrictions on selling alcohol outside weekends.

“Hardly anyone has come in yet,” he said. “I also know people in Kherson whose wine businesses have been totally destroyed - the Russians stole everything they could and drank all the alcohol in sight.”

Ukraine’s wine industry has already suffered during past fallings-out with Russia. Its Crimea region was famous for its budget champagne - once nicknamed the “Coca-Cola of the Soviet Union”, and promoted as an example of how communism would give the working classes luxuries enjoyed by the rich.

After Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, all the champagne houses there were expropriated by the Kremlin, cutting Ukraine’s wine producing areas by roughly half.

Mr Molchanov owns Slivino Wines - labelled in honour of his village
Mr Molchanov owns Slivino Wines - labelled in honour of his village

The industry has bounced back, helped by a recent bonfire of red-tape that used to require winemakers to obtain 140 different documents to open a vineyard. Mr Molchanov’s Slivino Wines - labelled in honour of his village, whose name translates as “plum” - is one of dozens of new craft wineries to open since the laws were simplified in 2018.

He follows in the footsteps of his ancestors in the Gagaus, a Turkic-speaking people from Bulgaria who helped introduce viniculture to Ukraine.

Together with other local craft winemakers, he organises an annual wine and jazz festival in his village, and plans to build a hotel on his vineyard for foreign agro-tourists.

For that reason, he may leave the Grad missile for visitors to see. And afterwards, there will hopefully be a bottle to toast his grapes remaining in Ukrainian hands, rather than Mr Putin’s.

“I think we might call it Victory Wine,” he said.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting