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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
14 Apr 2018

A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also Doing business in and around Crimea

When Theresa May criticised Vladimir Putin at the Lord Mayor's Banquet in the City of London last November, the Russian foreign ministry responded by suggesting she switch from City claret to the sweet, long-lived wines of Massandra, Tsar Nicholas II's showcase winery on the coast of Crimea. He is seen visiting the local vineyards below.

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With more than three kilometres of tunnels excavated by Georgian miners, it was designed in the 1890s to make and age wines for the nearby palaces where the Russian court spent their summers. Stalin also clearly valued the contents of the Massandra cellars, which included treasures from all over the world. He had them shipped off to the Tblisi Number 1 winery lest they fall into Nazi hands, and shipped them back again straight after the end of the Second World War. Below is a picture from a brochure of the wine being prepared for evacuation in September 1941. They let the wine in bulk run off into the sea, turning it red for miles around.

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The Yalta peace conference was held at the Livadia summer palace (pictured above right), whose vines supply one of Massandra's finest wines, a long-lived sweet, pale Muscat that tastes like a fragrant orange-peel essence. In another vineyard at Balaclava is a monument to the Charge of the Light Brigade. Soviet premier Krushchev and Tito of Yugoslavia's ceremonial visit to Massandra is captured in a contemporary photograph below. Massandra wines had such a reputation in the Soviet Union that their vineyards were specially exempted from Gorbachev's draconian vine-pull scheme of the 1980s, designed to sober the Soviets.

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All this would be of interest only to historians rather than wine lovers except that some of the Massandra wines have been shipped, with great difficulty, to the West. For £298 plus VAT Mrs May could get her hands on a bottle of Massandra Pinot Gris 1949, made before President Putin was even thought of.

The first time a shipment of Massandra wines came up for sale in the west was in 1990 after Sotheby's ground-breaking sale of Russian art in Moscow. The Sotheby's wine department was encouraged to cosy up to the Soviets too and the result was such a substantial purchase of sweet Massandra antique liquids that Sotheby's devoted a second sale to them, in 1991. They were shipped in metal cases that looked like giant filing cabinets. I remember the staff in Trapps' cellars under London Bridge station wondering what to do with them.

After the fall of communism, Ukraine, then including the Crimea, declared independence. At about the same time Tim Littler, while running his family's Cheshire wine company Whitwhams, was also starting up a travel company based on the trains he had been obsessed by all his life. He even chartered the Flying Scotsman in his teens, prompting his father to write to British Rail to state explicitly that he would not be responsible for any debts incurred. In 1993 Littler visited the Crimea to plan a rail tour that included a visit to Massandra. He was so impressed by both the quality and quantity of the wines that make up what is called the Massandra Collection, the oldest one per cent of the million cases produced annually in its heyday, that he put in an order for $50,000 worth of them.

This apparently involved handing over the money in cash to a gold-embossed Cadillac-driving Ukrainian nicknamed Mr Big at a seedy airport hotel when he arrived with his tour party in 1994. Within a week they had all arrived at Massandra and Littler expected to pick up the first part of his order. The winery refused, on the grounds that no contract existed. After two days of fruitless negotiation, he asked the staff of his hotel to find him a lawyer. Nyet was the answer. He was told that, like banks, lawyers were unknown in this part of the ex Soviet Union that he then came to call the Wild East. As he explains it, 'Prior to independence in mid-1991 it is likely that a central command economy such as the USSR would only have had lawyers (needed for external work) in Moscow. There may have been banks in the Crimea in 1994 but we would have been prohibited from dealing with them.' His only recourse was to try to contact Mr Big.

Nothing happened and, reluctantly, he left Yalta with his party of well-heeled tourists. But further along the route, when his train had reached the Crimean capital Simferopol, a truck appeared out of the blue with the wine that he was able to transport to Kiev. After several months of bureaucratic wrangling, he was eventually able to have it air-freighted to Britain and did in the end receive all the wine he initially ordered. (Below is one of his beloved steam trains by Lake Baikal on a more recent, less troublesome, rail tour.)

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He continued to order wines from Massandra in the early 1990s, as did Fassbind, a Swiss company, which started ordering the Massandra Collection older wines in 1997 when they made one large purchase of around $1.5 million. When Fassbind were sold two years later, Whitwhams bought Fassbind's stock. In all, Massandra received about $2 million worth of orders from Whitwhams and Fassbind, and the somewhat beleaguered staff were presumably grateful. As Littler puts it, 'they needed the money'.

Today about a thousand or so of the bottles Littler bought remain and the London wine broker Fine+Rare, who bought Whitwhams in 2003, are currently listing 16 Massandra wines on their website, back to a White Muscat Livadia 1900 at £2,012 plus VAT. EU sanctions against Russia will presumably ensure that there is no danger of Massandra wines flooding on to the market.

Massandra also featured in the news in 2015. Soon after the Russian annexation of Crimea, Putin took Silvio Berlusconi on a much-filmed Crimean walkabout. They were shown Massandra's historic wine collection and were reported to have opened one of a handful of remaining bottles of a 1775 sherry, thought to be one of the oldest bottles of wine in the world. This sparked outrage among oenophiles and charges of embezzlement by Ukraine against the director of Massandra, who had already been accused of treason for her support for Russia. Her pro-Ukrainian predecessor was dismissed by the Russians and is now said to be making wine in Moldova. 

In 2001 Tim Littler had sold one of these 1775s to a Malaysian buyer for £32,000. When he recently enquired about buying another, the winery quoted a price of a million euros. He declined.

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At one stage Littler worked quite closely with Massandra, buying ancient bottles like the ones above. He also encouraged them to try making a more marketable dry Muscat which, he admits, was 'horrible – their hearts weren't in it'. Their speciality is sweet wines, made from early-picked grapes ripened along the balmy south-east coast of Crimea, the tsars' playground, with spirit added to the still-sweet fermenting wine to reach about 16% alcohol. The wines are then aged in oak for two years and left to mature in stack after stack of bottles deep underground for decades.

According to Littler, Massandra Collection wines are supposed to reach maturity at 45 to 60 years, and he says he always decants them a day or two before serving. (He also says that a bottle that had been opened for the American wine critic Robert Parker and then kept in a fridge for 11 months tasted fine.) Those I recently tasted went from a callow 1983 White Muscat to a wine described as a Tokay Ai-Danil from the first vintage ever made at Massandra, 1894. It tasted a little like fermented brown sugar but was certainly alive and kicking. Littler also showed a wine believed to be an 1880 tawny port kept in the Massandra cellars.

The Crimean wines include sweet, strong Muscats white, pink and black, a wine they call Tokay and made in particularly large quantities, one called after the local white wine grape Kokur that once dominated Ukrainian vineyards, and what they call Kagor, inspired by Cahors of south-west France, a special favourite of Tsar Nicholas and a sweet red of special significance in the Russian Orthodox church.

THE PRICE OF CRIMEAN HISTORY
These are the duty-paid, VAT-free prices per bottle quoted by Fine+Rare Wines for the seven Massandra Collection wines I tasted last month and described in Doing business in Crimea, although only the 1949 and 1964 are among the 16 currently listed on their website. Others may be supplied, if Littler decides to sell them.

White Muscat 1983 – £139
Kokur Surozh 1971 – £115
White Muscat Livadia 1964 – £188
White Muscat 1959 – £247
Pinot Gris 1949 – £298
Kagor Ayu Dag (red) 1939 – £372
Tokay Ai-Danil 1894 – £2,651