Did you know that wine production in the Ukraine dates back to the 4th century BC, when the Scythians, the inhabitants of the actual Ukraine, drank their wine pure(1)? A tradition that continues today, mainly in the west and south, with 670,000 hectoliters of wine produced in 2017(2). The Ukraine has now moved away from its Soviet heritage of sweet wines(3) and has seduced us, both with the determination of the winemakers we met, and with the quality of their wines. On the way to visit a vineyard in full reconstruction.
After two days of waiting in the Tokaj region of Hungary, because of a document missing to enter the Ukraine, we finally arrived in the country, amazed by the beauty of its landscapes.
Our first meeting was with Oleksandre Kovatch, in the oblast(4) of Transcarpathia, in Uzhgorod, where this charming mustached winemaker established his tasting cellar. Montagnard and woody, Transcarpathia has embarked on the production of dry white wines, which are getting more and more popular.
A renowned tourist destination, both for winter sports (with its ski resorts and thermal springs), and wine tourism (with no less than nine wine festivals per year).
The vineyard of Oleksandre – 32 hectares of vines planted a two-hour drive south-east of Uzhgorod – is part of a prestigious former wine heritage of the Carpathian Valley, due to its proximity to Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Here, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Traminer, Muscat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are cultivated on clay-loam soils.
"The Ukrainian wine industry is dominated by big companies, but in the last few years, some small and authentic winemakers like us have started making wine in a more artisanal way", he said.
A strong message for the Ukrainian viticulture, which is gradually rebuilding its history, especially after the massive uprooting of its vineyards in 1986, under the anti-alcohol policy of Gorbachev. And because being a small winemaker in the Ukraine today does not seem to be easy.
"Only 50 major Ukrainian companies have licenses to market and sell their wine everywhere, while small producers can only sell from their tasting rooms", Oleksandre explained.
Blame it on a lot of bureaucracy for small vineyards, with no less than 136 documents to provide, from seven ministries. It can be really discouraging.
Visiting the Ukrainian vineyards aboard our motorhome was a real challenge. An unforgettable and unclassifiable trial of patience, during which our nerves were put to the test.
Indeed, the distance between the two viticultural regions is huge, and the roads in very (very) bad condition sometimes, requiring us to drive carefully all the time.
After almost 2 days on the road and some 1100 kilometers traveled, running against the clock after the time lost at the border (at the beginning of our journey), we finally reached the Odessa Oblast, near the Black Sea.
We were exhausted but happy to be there. Because we discovered Beykush estate, a lost paradise and a vineyard that we did not expect at all.
Imagine : 11 hectares, planted on a peninsula and surrounded by water, with a lake on your right and the Black Sea on your left! A breathtaking discovery. This incredible family project, created by Eugene Shneyderis in 2010, works for him as an open-air laboratory.
"I like to experiment constantly and relentlessly", Eugene explained by telephone, as he was in Spain during our visit. He planted grape varieties from all over the world: Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Rakatsiteli, Albarino, Aligoté, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinotage, Merlot, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Saperavi, and even Telti-kuruk, an indigenous white grape from the Odessa region(5).
A very nice range of wines, which we had the chance to taste with Olga Romashko (Winemaker) and Lida Lelechenko (Marketing Director).
Beykush winery also includes a small Bordeaux style "castle", originally created by Eugene for his daughter, and which has become with time the emblem of the vineyard. A nice story.
An unavoidable winemaker of the Ukrainian wine scene for the past ten years, Christophe Lacarin is an outstanding figure and one of our great encounters in 2018.
This Frenchman, a Marquis of Bordeaux origin, settled in 2006 in the village of Shabo, south of Odessa, where he fell in love with the region. Christophe is a winegrower of character. "I like making wines of immediate pleasure and I never mention the varietals on my wine bottles", he confessed with a smile.
Also, the labels of his wines are printed at home, on normal paper. Of what importance is the packaging sometimes, when the wines are delicious?
He welcomed us to his home, at Château Lacarin, with overflowing enthusiasm and joy of life. His estate, of about 40 hectares, is a real treasure, with 80 year old vines. His house – an old farmhouse of charm crazy – looks like a painting: where dogs, horses and sheep roam free. A picturesque place where you feel good and where life is epic.
However, Christophe lives from day to day. His vineyard, located just 12km from the sea, arouses much desire.
His vineyards have been the victims of 23 arson attacks since its establishment; and in 2016, his wines were confiscated by the local authorities, who wrongly accused him of illegal trade. Today, his license is OK and everything seems to be back in order. "But I stay careful...", he confided.
We concluded our stay with a superb session of disgorgement(6) in the cellar of Château Lacarin. An old underground shelter built to accommodate the population during war and where temperature and humidity are ideal for making the sparkling wines of the estate.
“There is just a simple fermentation on my sparkling wines. I like this old fashion style". Christophe prepared some bottles for his friends and we were pleased to be part of this incredible moment, in a mystical atmosphere. The Ukrainian vineyard is definitely full of surprises.
Thank you to Oleksandre Kovatch, Christophe Lacarin and the whole Beykush team for their warm welcome.
NB: Wine Explorers is an apolitical project, so we chose not to visit the Crimea Peninsula, even if the region has been known for a hundred years for its production of sweet wines and 60,000 hectares of vineyard.
(1) To the chagrin of the Greeks and Romans, who cut their wine with water.
(2) A significant decrease in production since the loss of Crimea.
(3) The production of dry wines in Ukraine has increased by 7% per year since 2015, according to the figures given by the Winegrowers' Association.
(4) An oblast is an administrative unit , or a type of "region" existing in Ukraine, but also in Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Bulgaria.
(5) There are about 70 hectares of Telti-kuruk in the world, a native Ukrainian white grape from Shabo in the Odessa region, exclusively planted in Ukraine.
(6) Disgorging is a step in the production of sparkling wines fermented in bottles. After the second fermentation, the wine ages on dead yeast cells (called "lees") for a period of time; usually a minimum of 15 months. Disgorging is the process of removing the sediment from the bottle, so when we buy an effervescent wine, it is clear.