A long history and a diversity of grapes drives the country’s winemaking
Tough times for Ukrainians includes the wine industry, which suffered a loss after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the formerly autonomous state within Ukraine and its historic center of production. The 2014 invasion, notes the Wines of Ukraine web site, “has been a heavy blow to the industry” with more than half its production—mostly semi-sweet and dessert wines—lost. In that annexation, 61,780 acres of vineyards seized, including the historic Massandra winery.
But those events pushed the industry to refocus its productions of “western-style dry wines,” the web site noted (understandably, no one was returning emails at this time), especially in Transcarpathia to the west. The site reports since 2015, dry wine production has grown 7 to 9% every year.
Here’s what else to know about Ukraine’s wines:
REGIONS. Ukraine consists of four wine-growing provinces or “oblasts” in the south: Mykolaiv, Kherson, Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa with the latter comprising almost 50% of the total area. The southern regions are influenced by the Black Sea, which offers beneficial conditions for the historic vins doux naturels (sweet) and fortified production here.
In Transcarpathia to the west, 8,000 hectares are under vine, a region characterized by volcanic soils, a continental climate (hot summers and severe winters) and favorable diurnal temperature shifts. “UkraineNow,” the country’s official website, notes experimental plantations such as Biologist, a craft winery in Kyiv specializing in natural wines, are thriving in the north near Chernihiv, Lviv and Ternopi.
Ukraine’s vineyard plantings have fluctuated over the decades. The Oxford Companion of Wine (2015) noted 133,000 acres in 1913, but the combination of World War I and phylloxera reduced plantings to 3,212 acres six years later. By 1940, total vineyard area was 254,519 acres and decreased post war to 168,031. When Crimea ceded to Ukraine in 1954, an estimated 988,421 acres were under vine. It hasn’t been the same since former Russian President Mikhail Gorbechev’s anti-drinking drive pulled 533,000 acres of vines—or 16% of Soviet vines from 1985-87.
The latest data available from the International Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV) reports Ukraine’s 2019 vineyard surface as103,290 acres.
GRAPES. Historic varieties include black grapes Bastardo Magarachsky, Cevat Kara, Kefesyia and Odessa Black, and whites, Telti Kuruk, Kokur Bely, Sary Pandas, and Sukholimansky, a crossing between Chardonnay and Plavaï. The white Georgian grape, Rkatsiteli, once comprised 40% of all plantings, but today’s plantings also include Aligote, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Merlot, Muscat, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Saperavi.
STYLES. Historic styles along the Crimean coast include sweet wines, and when first introduced, were called Port, Madeira, Sherry and Tokay. Kagor, a sweet red dessert wine, was named after France’s Cahors region. Muscats—perhaps the most famous of all—were white, pink and black.
Sparkling or “shampanskoye,” was introduced by Paris-educated Prince Leo Golitsyn, one of Ukraine’s fathers of wine, after the 19th-century Crimean War. His version produced in the traditional methods at Novy Svet won a gold medal at the 1900 Paris World Fair. Produce primarily around the Odessa region, sparkling wine remains popular today, comprising almost one-third of Ukraine’s production. Based on Pinot Blanc, Aligoté, Riesling Chardonnay.
MARKET. The Wines of Ukraine website has not been updated, but reports the country is home to more than 50 winemakers cultivating 180 grape varieties. OIV’s 2019 data reports the country produces 364,600 tons of grapes and 26,153,033 gallons of wine, though the styles are not delineated. According to trendeconomy.com, an open source trade data site, the value of Ukraine’s wine exports, including fortified wines, totaled $13 million in 2020, the year the latest data are available, down from $63,486,054 in 2010, and high of $81,656,108 in 2013. Its largest export market (15%) is to its northern neighbor, Belarus ($1.96M USD in value), followed by Kazakhstan, Germany and Romania. 34% of its exported wine is sparkling.
INSTITUTES. Ukraine has a long, uninterrupted history of viticultural research. The “Winemaking Bulletin” journal was first published in Odessa in 1892, by scientist Vasily Egorovich Tairov (1859-1938), an early thought-leader whose goal was to promote knowledge about viticulture and winemaking. His efforts led to the establishment of the first experimental institution in Russia for viticulture, now known as the V.Ye. Tairov Institute of Viticulture and Winemaking of Ukraine. The institute has more than 700 varieties under study, has created more than 130 varieties of table and wine grapevine, 112 clones of 52 varieties of grapes, and has more than 15,000 seedlings in its hybrid program—crossings of mostly autochthonous grapes (14 such experiments are described on its site).
Crimea’s first school of winemaking, the Magaratch Institute, was founded in 1829 in Yalta by Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, an early wine innovator in Ukraine’s history. The institute cultivated the Magarach Ruby variety, a crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon and Saperavi, in 1928. Renamed over the years, the institute is now a Russian-controlled agri-search center with a focus on viticulture.
For consumers and tourists, the Shabo Wine Culture Center in Odessa, located at the 1822 wine producer, offers tours, tastings, and interactive exhibits among the collection of artifacts.