My recent Russian trip yielded many strong impressions. (Click on the Russia tag below for some of them.) But perhaps the strangest experience was my descent into the most extraordinary underground store filmed below. This painstakingly maintained collection contains thousands of bottles of what were supposed to be some of the finest wines and spirits made in all the Soviet republics between the early 1950s and the mid 1980s when the seriousness of the official collection process (a bit like the way a copy of every book published has be sent to the British Library) was shrivelled by Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign.
It's underneath Sauk Dere winery, described in my Russian tasting notes last week, and it used to be owned by the state. We had to get special official permission to open samples of 120 wines to judge them, under the beady eye of the white-coated Vera who has been looking after this Soviet wine museum since 1965 . For Oleg, the director of Sauk Dere, this was the first time he had tasted many of the wines in his charge. The new owners were fervently hoping that our tasting would confirm that they were sitting on a goldmine. As you can see from the end of the film, they dragooned a fleet of journalists and at least one television crew to film our impressions.
How the head honcho Sergei Yanov, seen here explaining things to me in the white underground gallery, managed to make intelligent comments to the assembled media after the morning's tasting, I cannot imagine. Of the dozen or so tasters, only I and consultant winemaker John Worontschak (who shivered throughout in his short-sleeved shirt) spat a thing. The Russians refused to spit, despite the fact that two-thirds of the 120 wines were very sweet and very strong, many of them around 20% alcohol.
I plan to publlish my tasting notes from this, one of the strangest tastings ever, tomorrow.