The following fascinating report has just been sent to me by Anne Popoff, a Canadian wine lover currently working in Russia whom I met in Toronto last October. It's enough to make those of us living outside Russia feel rather fortunate.
These little jottings describe the wine consumption and drinking customs of Russians in the last two years (2000-2002) as I have observed them while living and working in a variety of cities for KMB-Bank, an EBRD and Soros Fund sponsored micro-finance lending project. For background purposes, I was born in Paris, France, of a Dutch mother and emigré Russian father; raised in Paris, California (SF and Palo Alto), New York (Rochester), Belgium (Leuven), then immigrated to Toronto, Ontario (my permanent home) and am presently in Samara, Russia, although not for much longer. And of course I am a huge wine lover, having taken the George Brown Course in Wine Appreciation and have plans, upon my return to Toronto, to do the WSET courses.
One thing is certain - wine consumption is rising steadily in Russia. However the type of wine consumed is another story. The general public, by which I mean the non-moneyed and the less sophisticated still prefer sweet, cloying alcoholic beverages - this is valid for Russian champagne, red and white wines. These wines are often bottled in Russia (screwcap variety) and are made in factories. Great vats of grape juice are purchased, usually from the southern regions of Russia, such as Krasnodar and the Crimea, and alcohol and sugar are added to produce 'wine'. They are then bottled (I don't think 'aging' of any sort takes place here) and sold at prices the average Russian can afford, ie, anywhere from 25 to 50 RUR (US$1 = 30 RUR). I have had the opportunity to visit several such wine-making establishments and it is not a pretty sight. The owners tell me that wine sales are not growing significantly (actually, women are probably the largest consumers at this level, since they do not drink vodka - this is a 'manly' beverage). Vodka continues to be the number one beverage and beer is the next new thing. Under Russian law, beer is not considered to be an alcoholic beverage. It is very common to see teenagers walking down the street with a half litre bottle of beer in their hands. Public drinking in this fashion is condoned, since it is also cheaper than sitting down in a cafe/restaurant. 'Portwein' is also considered a sweet wine, much beloved by winos and other undiscriminating palates. Again, this is made in factories, same as wine, bottled and sold at cheap, affordable prices in the kiosks. So this is the sorry state of affairs at the most base level.
One step up and you start buying the Southern Russian, Moldavian and Georgian wines. I don't want to repeat to you what you wrote about the Moldavian and Georgian wines in your Concise Oxford Companion to Wine, except to say that most of the Moldavian wines sold here are sweet. There are however several nuances: sweet (sladkoe), semi-sweet (polu-sladkoe), semi- dry (polu-sukhoe) - and this is still very sweet by Western standards -and dry (sukhoe) - almost impossible to find in champagne and even so, it has no relation to our 'brut', it is still mellow. The dry red wines from Southern Russia probably just don't travel well and the quality is about the same as the wines made and bottled in the rest of the country. Some of the Crimean wines are perfectly drinkable, but again do not travel very well. The Moldavian dry reds tend to be watery and very tannic, while retaining a strong grape juice flavour. Perhaps they too, are better consumed 'sur place'. The Georgian red dry wines, one has to be very careful with - many are bottled in Russia, so you are not sure of what you are getting. Those that come from Georgia, bottled there, are more expensive and a good Georgian wine can set you back from US$12-25, but there are respectable table wines for less. For the average person, this is quite a lot of money. As a reminder, in Moscow, the average monthly salary is US$100 (3000 RUR) and pensions - despite Putin's best efforts to increase them on a regular basis - vary between a paltry 500-900 RUR per month. The good Georgian wines, and there are a lot of them, are very full-bodied, deep coloured, almost inky in their consistency, long finishes and you don't need a lot to go a long way from a flavour point of view!
Then you have the New Russians and everything that entails. The rapid growth of luxury wine stores testifies to the new money flying around. I have lived in various cities in Russia - Nizhni Novgorod, Moscow, Ekaterinburg and Samara - and in each of these cities, there is a market for premium product. French cognac is of course the big thing. Russians have always appreciated fine and less fine Armenian cognacs and since the fall of communism, the French have been exporting serious amounts of their best cognacs to Russia - the quality and pricing of which I do not even see in the West! Unfortunately, Russians do not usually sip the stuff, they gulp it down and worse, they have it with dinner as a matter of course. Enough to make us Westerners blanch! Now with this acquiring of new tastes and all things expensive, premium imported wines have made an appearance. Here we have a vast selection of wines from all over the world - reminiscent of the selection (if not the quality) we get in Canada - the only problem is the pricing and the tax laws. The prices fluctuate - a bottle of Sunrise Merlot from Chile (Concha y Toro) 2000 fetches anywhere from 170 RUR wholesale to 245 RUR retail. Amongst us expats, the favourite opening dinner conversation is who paid the least for their bottle of Sunrise (it has become the house wine for most of us - affordable and pleasant). And somewhat humiliatingly, we (a bunch of expats) recently held a mini-wine tasting - five red wines from all over and we had to guess what we were drinking - list of wines à l'appui - one of them was the Sunrise Merlot and NONE of us recognized it! Shame on us! (Other wines on the list were a Chianti Rufina, Nipozzano Reserva, Frescobaldi, 1998; Baron de Lestrac, AOC Bordeaux, 1999; Dornfelder Rotwein Trocken, Louis Guntrum, Rheinhessen, Nierstein, 2000; Columbia Crest, Merlot, Columbia Valley, Washington, 1996)
Most French wines are severely overpriced especially with respect to quality, which is why we avoid them. And quite regularly you can find the better chateaux and crus but for thousands of RUR and the bottles are standing on the shelves. The other issue is taxes on the imported bottles - every single bottle must have a label, valid for three years, which is bought by the importing company. Special offices ensure that this law is rigorously applied. A friend of mine who runs a hotel in Ekaterinburg, well frequented by foreigners, has a cellar with many bottles of interesting wine (such as vintage ports from the late 70s, early 80s). The tax inspectors decided to have a look at her cellars and noticed that many bottles had been there for many years (ie, more than three) and therefore the excise tax was expired. So she could no longer sell that wine in her hotel restaurant. It came to the point that we would go have dinner at her restaurant and she would bring out the good bottles for us on the house. She probably could have paid some serious money to get new labels or to pay the inspectors off, but she chose not to.
In the right circles around the country, Beaujolais Nouveau is becoming a trendy event, as it loses trendiness everywhere else in world. One of the larger French houses well represented in Russia is Malesan. Their wines are on the expensive side - their cheapest, bottom-of-the-line bordeaux is well over US$12. Malesan sponsors all kinds of events, boutique openings, Beaujolais Nouveau parties and other tastings in restaurants.
An interesting feature in restaurants is that wine is sold by the gram, ie, 100gr, 200gr etc (like vodka). So you see a wine price by the glass and you think it is quite reasonable until you are brought a small 3.5 oz glass of wine! Very frustrating. Then you order a 200gr glass and it costs an arm and a leg. Red wine by the 100gr glass goes for about 80-90 RUR. So most people order beer or vodka at a restaurant as it is budget-friendlier.
I hope these ramblings, if not technically informative, at least provide an anecdotal description of the current wine consumption environment (there is MUCH room for growth in sophistication, wine education and availability) in Russia and a few minutes of entertaining reading.