“There’s no reason not to drink,” is a popular Russian saying that shows Russia’s ineradicable passion for parties and celebrations. Soon after the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020, Russian wine lovers were back in their favorite bars and restaurants to raise glasses and wish each other “za zdorovye,” or good health.
And they’ve been doing it ever since.
“Six months after the New Year parties, our customers are still thirsty for sparkling wine,” says Alexander Fomichev, the managing sommelier of Moscow’s WineMore vinotheque. “They seem to be ready to sip all kinds of bubbles: Champagne, Franciacorta, Prosecco, pét-nat…”
Wine on Moscow shelves
If you identify yourself as a thoughtful wine drinker in Russia, you are supposed to define wine by grape variety, know at least a couple of regional synonyms for your favorite “cépage,” and be able to explain why your favorite winemaker rules their region. For instance, if you are fond of red Burgundy, you ought to be ready to clarify that German Spätburgunder has somehow too much body for your mouth, unlike Pinot Noir from Crimea’s Sevastopol region, where UPPA Winery’s “Pinytch,” the more familiar Russian name for Pinot, is the most elegant because of the altitude of the vineyard. You might also drop that it costs $100 a bottle into the conversation.
You use the same formula if you talk to your friends about Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, or Krasnostop. The latter is a local Russian variety, so bringing it up shows your profound knowledge. And if the wine you propose to your friends is not a taste disaster, there is a chance that you will soon become famous as an expert.
The number of such experts is growing. According to research house ROMIR, more than half of Russians keep some wine stashed at home, while about two-thirds plan ahead when they’re buying wine.
More than half of Russians keep some wine stashed at home, while about two-thirds plan ahead when they’re buying wine.
A wine cornucopia
If you were dropped in downtown Moscow for the first time, you might be amazed by the choice of wines available for sale. You can buy wine both in specialist liquor stores or in supermarkets, whose shelves boast hundreds of wines imported from all possible wine-producing countries, alongside wines made in southern Russia. In classic restaurants, wine is a well-established partner for food, as vodka or beer were vanquished long ago. Wine bars are full of young people having parties or dates. There are also many vinotheques, the fashionable retail/wine bar hybrid, which typically have more than a thousand wines in their selection. An expert sommelier or cavist is always there to help clients discover a wine to suit.
As to what people are drinking, the wine tastes of the majority of wine drinkers in Moscow’s restaurants are “disappointingly similar to those in Western Europe,” according to one Russian blogger, from First Growths at the high end through to semi-sweet wines at the everyday level.
While sparkling wines align with the Russian love of celebration, light, fresh, and mineral white wines are also in fashion. Sommeliers and retailers report that Sauvignon Blanc is still popular, though Aligoté is on the rise. Spanish Cava is moving in to take over Prosecco’s niche in the value-for-money segment, while the smaller “récoltant,” or grower Champagnes, are highly sought after. Portuguese Vinho Verde has proven itself to be a more affordable option for summer than German Riesling. And the connoisseurs are buying natural and unfiltered wines.
Regardless of taste, wine is flying off the shelves. Although 2020 was a painful year for Russian restaurants and bars, it became a record year for many wine companies.
“Wealthy Russians had to stay inside the country and they consumed their favorite wines here instead of drinking them abroad,” explains Darya Tarasova, a sommelier at Glavny Prichal restaurant. “They are regular drinkers and usually they have expensive tastes for wine. Inevitably, that increased consumption of wine in Russia.”
Located at the Konakovo resort on the Volga River, about 93 miles from Moscow, Glavny Prichal was one of those lucky luxury restaurants that stayed open, while the bars and restaurants in the big city closed. With Moscow’s citizens fleeing the city for the comfort of their distant countryside “dachas,” or cottages, Glavny Prichal attracted a new crowd of customers, though some of them had very different tastes to their regular clientele.
“One of our clients asked me to serve him a bottle of ‘really good Champagne’ and was disappointed by its sour taste,” says Tarasova. When she asked him what he preferred, it turned out that he only drank sweet red bubbly made by Tsimla winery from the Don Valley in southern Russia.
Sergey Aksenovsky, the chief sommelier for the Andrey Deloss restaurant group that includes famous landmarks such as Café Pushkin, Turandot, and Shinok, confirms that the sales of Grands Crus from Bordeaux and Burgundy are now back to normal, meaning that at least one bottle of top investment grade wine sells per week in each restaurant.
“But we sell fewer Russian wines than we did before the lockdown,” he says. “They were mainly sold to foreign tourists or to the Russian entrepreneurs who wanted to surprise their foreign partners. Now they are all gone.” Unfortunately, “anything but Russian” remains the motto for many of those haunting high-end Moscow restaurants.
Russians go Russian
Cheap, dull, and sometimes even poisonous, the wine available to Russian consumers during the Soviet era left them with a severe, long-lasting hangover. But over the last decade, things have begun to change.
“Tourism has been a miracle,” says Fomichev. “Our clients, who spent their vacations on the Black Sea beaches bordering the Russian wine lands, excitedly tell me about their wine discoveries, talking about terroirs and vintages like real experts.”
Like their counterparts elsewhere, rich Russians have taken to building wineries, a number of which have sprung up along the Black Sea, helped along by high-end architects and international wine consultants. Many of these new investors apparently want to revisit Russia’s golden age: wine has been produced in southern Russia since the ancient Greeks sailed down the Bosporus; it became prestigious during the Czarist era.
So while rich Russians keep on ordering Bordeaux and Burgundy’s top wines in Café Pushkin, patrons at the smaller bistros and wine bars are embracing Russian wines.
One of the most exciting new projects launched in Moscow after the lockdown was Arthur Sarkisyan’s Russian Wine Bar. Sarkisyan is the author of the influential “Russian Wine Guide,” and with its in-depth selection of Russian wines priced from 1,500 up to 15,000 rubles ($20 to $200) per bottle, it’s become one of the hottest destinations for Moscow’s wine lovers, where it’s almost impossible to reserve a table on a Friday night.
In general, once a Russian embraces Russian wine, he or she becomes a loyal consumer. “Recently, one of my best clients gave me a good example of brand loyalty to Russian wine,” says Konstantin Zubkov, chief sommelier for the fashionable Karlson restaurant located on the roof of Moscow’s Central City Tower. “He wanted to order 500 bottles of Temelion 48, by Lefkadia winery.” As Zubkov says, ordering large quantities of a $30 sparkling wine is pretty unusual.
Or maybe brand loyalty isn’t the driver. Perhaps the threat of the third wave of the coronavirus is causing Russians to stock up. “A group of our good clients said they were ready to buy a truckload of our Prosecco,” says Fomichev. He thought they were joking, until they reminded him of the order.
That’s Moscow. No matter what happens, the sparkling wine keeps flowing.
Five Places to Visit in Moscow:
If you are curious to discover the taste of a new generation of Russians, spend Friday night at the Russian Wine Bar. You will find yourself among an elegant crowd enjoying their favorite Anapa Cabernets or Taman Saperavis, matched with Siberian reindeer filet, Black Sea plaice, and the intimate sound of live piano music.
Café Pushkin was mentioned in a famous song, Nathalie, performed in the mid-1960s by French actor and singer Gilbert Bécaud. But it was a reference to a café that never existed. Restaurateur Andrey Dellos decided to correct this crying injustice and built a completely new two-story building near Pushkin Square, that deliberately copied early 19th century architecture, interiors, and cuisine. Café Pushkin became Moscow’s major gastronomic attraction, where tourists and Muscovites could literally taste the flavor of Russia’s golden age with Champagne, caviar, salmon eggs, smoked sturgeon, and other delicacies beloved by Russian noble families.
White Rabbit is the brightest star of Moscow’s culinary firmament. It is number 13 in the 2019 list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, thanks to its gifted chef Vladimir Mukhin, who is ranked among the best chefs of the world. The wine list includes exclusive cuvées bottled by some of Russia’s best wineries specifically for White Rabbit. Be warned: not only is White Rabbit expensive, it’s difficult to get a reservation.
This elegant wine bar is nicknamed The Burgundy Wine Space, because it proudly presents the best selection of Burgundy in Moscow, compiled by sommelier Anton Panasenko. Another highlight of the Wine Space is its creative new Russian cuisine, by the twins Ivan and Sergey Berezutsky, two talented chefs who created a chain of trendy restaurants in Moscow.
Prostye Veschi, or “simple things,” is a chain of affordable wine bistros, with its best summer terrace located on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street, right across from the Moscow Conservatory. This is where a new generation of wine drinkers hangs out, their faces bedecked with broad and thick beards that make them look like escapees from the pages of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. To fit in, take off your neck tie and drape your jacket over the back of the chair.