It’s like adventure travel but without bungee cords and raging rapids. It’s a culinary destination, but it combines modern cuisine with portions of 18th-century extravagance. Most times of the year it’s as cold a place as you’re likely to visit outside the Poles, but the warmth, indeed, the passion, of your hosts warms you every minute of your stay. It’s Russia, of course, and I was pleased to pay a visit there recently. Here’s a few snapshots from my trip:
My welcome in Moscow was both stimulating and shocking. My host, Armen Vardanyan, one of Russia’s largest and most respected wine and spirits importers through his company, Vagr Vina Vita, took me to a banya, or bath house. After a sweltering interval in the steam bath, with only a towel to protect my head from the intense heat, I was told to lie down head first on a wooden bed. There, as I dripped sweat, an attendant beat me with branches of eucalyptus for 15 minutes. He then plunged me into a pool of freezing cold water.
A short while later, still reeling from this fire-to-ice experience, I was escorted to a private club (again, dressed only in a towel) and found myself sitting in a circle with eight “comrades.” In the center of our group was laid out a feast of epic proportions—sitting on a bed of fresh vegetables was an immense filet of steamed red snapper, flown in fresh that very day, and grilled lamb chops. Luscious grilled breads stuffed with mushrooms and beef were passed with large jugs of homemade red wine from Moldavia. The seven of us devoured the feast with our bare hands, taking frequent breaks for elaborate and impassioned vodka toasts.
In the days following I paid visits to the Tretyakov Gallery and the museum of Alexander Pushkin, and was dazzled by the spectacular architecture found in Red Square and the Kremlin. I saw a production of Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Ballet so thrilling it brought tears to my eyes. Every turn in the road in Moscow and, later, St. Petersburg, brought discoveries to marvel at and mysteries to explore. One great discovery, for me, was that the wine shops in both cities are filled with investment-grade wines and rare vintages from Europe as well as New World wines from the U.S. and abroad.
For an alluring mix of the exotic and the familiar, for the music, the museums, the architecture and the food, visiting Russia is an adventure.
The best Russian cuisine is as cutting edge as the best in Western Europe. Moscow’s Nostalgia restaurant is a case in point. I sat down with Armen and owner Igor Bukharov for a five-course meal that compared favorably to meals I’ve enjoyed in the best three-star restaurant in Paris. We started with a tall glass of the purest cranberry juice I have ever experienced followed by blini stuffed with Beluga caviar and artfully prepared fresh sea bass. In St. Petersburg, I was welcomed by Alexey Logunov in his Mama Rosa restaurant; to accompany the masterful Tuscan cuisine, I enjoyed a great 1997 Ornellaia. Fine wines are available in the great cities of Russia and—eat your heart out, cigar enthusiasts—the tobacco shops routinely carry the best Cuban cigars.
One travel caution: Muscovites’ tolerance for vodka surely exceeds that of Westerners. During my eight-day visit I tasted some of the purest vodka on earth—though, candidly, I am not sure how pure most of the toasts were when we were imbibing, as the language barrier prevented me from a complete understanding of all but the gist of many of these poems and tales. I can merely assure you that if you are hosted by the locals you should be prepared to toast articulately and often.
For a unique experience of wine, food and history, Moscow and St. Petersburg are relatively untapped, safe and exciting destinations for wine enthusiasts. You can travel the world in your armchair with this issue, since it contains our worldwide harvest report. This month, you can read up on the harvest in the region that produces your favorite wine, and get an idea of how those 2003 wines will turn out on release. In this issue, you’ll find our 2004 Vintage Report, a handy summary of our evaluation of the vintages of the past 15 years in all of the major winegrowing regions.
It’s February and bitter cold here in the Northeast, so naturally my thoughts turned to my experiences in Russia. But whatever climate you find yourself in at this time of year, I hope your thoughts will turn to fine wine and good companionship.