Wine: Vines on the front line

Crimea has a long history of viticulture that transcends violence, finds Jo Burzynska

Mahi Marlborough Chardonnay 2013; Trinity Hills Gimblett Gravels Hawke’s Bay Tempranillo 2013; Valli Central Otago Pinot Gris 2014. Pictures / Supplied.

There aren’t many winemakers who opt to enter a war zone for their work. But intrepid Auckland-based consultant, Lynnette Hudson decided she was up for the challenge and ventured to the Crimea to make wine in the midst of the turmoil in the Ukraine.

“My family and friends all thought I was mad to even contemplate the idea of going to Crimea,” she tells me.

“Going to a war zone is probably not the most sensible thing to do. Not only war, but then the Malaysian aeroplane was shot down.”

Crimea has been in the news because of its part in the recent unrest in the Ukraine, which saw it annexed by Russia last year.

Fighting still rages north of the region and when Hudson headed off to assist with the 2014 vintage at the Uppa winery in the Chernaya River Valley, travellers were still being warned there were extreme risks because of the uncertain security situation.

“Sometimes you have to live life on the edge,” says Hudson.

However, she admits to having last-minute nerves on the final leg of her journey, on which she was almost stopped from boarding her flight as the visa she had was for Russia and not Ukraine — a reminder of just how recent the major political upheaval was in the region she was just about to enter.

“I have never had so many fight or flight feelings before in my life,” Hudson recalls. “It took me all of my courage to take the final step on to the plane when all the time I wanted to run out of the airport!”

The Crimea has a history of winemaking dating back thousands of years, with some of its most famous wines hailing from the ancient Massandra winery in Yalta.

However, Hudson finally arrived at a far newer operation, the Uppa Winery established by Russian ex-sommelier Pavel Schvets in the Chernaya River Valley near Sevastopol.

“I was feeling a little nervous as I still didn’t know what to expect,” she recounts, “but I soon warmed to the area and the people.”

On arrival she discovererd that like many pioneers, Pavel had planted many of the classic varieties in this relatively new region.

“Hence no one is sure which varieties will excel yet,” she says.

Those planted included pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, gewurztraminer, riesling, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, barbera and nebbiolo.

“Though Crimea has about 200 local largely table varieties, little work has been done to isolate which wine grapes will make high quality wine. However, the potential for the future looks great,” Hudson notes.

“A white variety called kokur is having some success in the region and has recently been planted in the Uppa Winery vineyard.

“I was amazed by the limestone, which is everywhere in the region,” she adds. “The winery’s vineyards were planted in 2008, are dry farmed and only biodynamic practices are used. Walking around the vineyards, I felt like I’d entered paradise.”

With the aid of Google translation, Hudson got stuck into working with the team on the vintage from vineyards she felt had “the potential to make some very exciting wines”.

“Although it has had a long history, the Crimean wine industry seems to be in a new phase of evolution and the potential is alluring and exciting,” she says.

“In retrospect, this is one of the best things I have ever done in my life.

“This is a very special part of the world with very friendly people I long to be involved for many years to come.”

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