The Mountain Times

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The lesser known wine culture of Russia and its neighbors

Russia is the largest wine producer in Eastern Europe, but does not make enough wine to satisfy the domestic demand and is therefore also one of the largest wine importers.

While vodka is the most famous and popular alcoholic beverage, Russia is historically best known for sparkling wine. The best is said to come from the Crimea, which is now part of the Ukraine. Most imports to Russia are inexpensive bulk wine from Soviet Union countries such as Bulgaria or from overproducers in Europe like Spain. Given the domestic demand and perceived overall low quality of wine, little Russian wine is exported and is rarely seen abroad.

Ukrainian wine has yet to find an export market in the rest of the world. The Crimean Peninsula, which is practically an island in the Black Sea, has the best viticultural growing conditions in any of the former Soviet Union countries and is the main production area for the Ukraine.

Bulgaria and Romania have spent most of the last century making large volumes of bulk wine to be shipped to the Soviet Union and have struggled to restore quality to its wine industries since the fall of Communism. Many vineyards are being replanted with international grape varieties, but exports to the West have so far been minimal, most of the production still follows the old routes into Russia or other Eastern European countries.

However the entry of both of these countries into the EU in 2007 is expected to lead to increased investment and influx of winemaking expertise eventually. Both countries have already adopted appellation systems based on the EU model with quality wines being designated 'Controliran' in Bulgaria and DOC in Romania.

Of all the old Soviet controlled satellite states Hungary is most famous for its wine with a rich and centuries old tradition. The flagship of its production is the dessert wine 'Tokaji' (previously known as Tokay). This lusciously sweet wine managed to survive the Soviet control. It is made in northeastern Hungary, mostly around the town of Tokaj (hence the name), which has an ideal climate for encouraging the development of botrytis in the vineyards.

Tokaji is produced in varying levels of sweetness, referred to in 'puttonyos'. Three- or four-puttonyo Tokaji is moderately sweet with an alcohol content of around 14 percent. The highest level of seven puttonyos is known as Tokaji Aszú Essencia and is the sweetest version with a lower alcohol level of around 10 percent. Primary grapes used for Tokaji are Furmint and the native Hárslevelü, which provide enough acidity and aromatic character to keep the wine from being too cloyingly syrupy.

About seventy percent of the Hungary's wine production is white, but there is a full-bodied red made from Kadarka grapes, called Bikavér or 'Bull's Blood' that is somewhat familiar in the West.

Tagged: Russia, Wine