Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the war has caused incomprehensible losses: millions of displaced citizens, thousands of dead and wounded, as well as the destruction of untold buildings and houses, to say nothing of entire cities and towns. Another victim is Ukraine’s wine culture, which has blossomed in recent years after decades of neglect—and intentional destruction—under the Soviet Union.
While not as globally renowned as other neighboring wine regions, Ukraine has a lengthy viticultural history, with some important international connections. New York winemaking pioneer Konstantin Frank was born in Odessa, now Ukraine’s third-largest city, and used his knowledge of cold-weather viticulture to help launch the wine industry in the Finger Lakes region. In Ukraine, immigrant vintners from Switzerland planted the vineyards in Shabo, south of Odessa, as early as 1822, while the country’s oldest winemaking company, now known as OdessaVinProm, was founded by a winemaker from France in 1857.
Despite all that history, winemaker Sergiy Stakhovsky says that Ukraine’s wine culture has only recently come back to life.
“During the Soviet era, we lost all of the vines,” says Stakhovsky. “They were not just left there, they were actually cut out of the ground. We had to start from scratch at the end of the ’90s. Since then, we’ve made incredible progress.”
A former tennis pro who once defeated Roger Federer in the second round at Wimbledon, Stakhovsky now runs his own winery in Ukraine’s western region of Zakarpattia, also known as Transcarpathia, which neighbors Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. His region, he says, shares many of the excellent grape-growing conditions of its neighbors.
“We’re at the footsteps of the Carpathian Mountains,” he says. “From my hill, the Carpathian Mountains start, and in front of us you have the Pannonian plain, the plateau on which Hungary lies. So, we are able to keep that warm climate, yet we are protected from the cold fronts from the east by the Carpathian Mountains. It’s a kind of unique setup.”
That location in western Ukraine, far from the front lines, has kept Zakarpattia’s winemakers relatively safe during Russia’s invasion.
“During the Soviet era, we lost all of the vines. They were not just left there, they were actually cut out of the ground… Since then, we’ve made incredible progress.” —Sergiy Stakhovsky
Ukraine’s other leading wine region, along the Black Sea coast in the country’s South, hasn’t been so lucky. Svetlana Tsybak, general manager at Beykush Winery on the Black Sea and the head of Ukraine’s association of craft winemakers, says that many producers in her area have suffered greatly.
“We are in the Mikolaiv Region, and wineries that are located close to the city of Mikolaiv are being bombed from time to time,” she says. “We can see missiles landing in the vineyards and destroying parts of the vineyards. Still, everyone tries to keep working.”
They attempt to keep things on track despite major obstacles, from employees going off to defend their country to firefights to looting. Prince Trubetskoy Winery, a major producer in the Kherson region, has been occupied by Russian forces since the second day of the war, Tsybak says, while the small, family-owned winery Château Kurin was destroyed. Even if the wineries themselves made it through intact, many local roads did not, often rendering shipping, logistics and the timely arrival of employees impossible.
“Ukraine has some wineries which can still operate,” says Stakhovsky. “But I’m pretty sure there will be not much of a vintage in 2022. Not many wineries will survive.”
These losses will weigh heavily in a country that has only recently started to discover its winemaking potential. In recent years, Ukrainian winemakers have looked both outward and inward. They’ve embraced Georgia’s Saperavi grape and others that do well in the Black Sea region, had success with Riesling, Zweigelt, Muscat Ottonel and similar Old World classics, and explored the possibilities of autochthonous varieties like Odessa Black and Telti Kuruk.
Until the war, wine and festivals dedicated to the grape were growing in popularity with locals, Stakhovsky says.
The impact of the war weighs on fans of Ukrainian wine outside the country. At Keuka Kafé, a wine bar in Forest Hills, New York, owner Ollie Sakhno hailed Elijah’s Fifth Cup, a kosher Cabernet Sauvignon produced by Chateau Chizay in Zakarpattia, as an example of what Ukrainian winemakers can achieve.
“That red was awesome,” he says. “Full-bodied, fruit-forward, with a hint of smoke and wild berries.”
Such wines will be hard to find in the near future. Local winemakers will need plenty of hard work and assistance to get back to where they were before the invasion started. In support of that goal, Ukraine’s craft winemakers association has launched a fund to help winemakers, Tsybak says, and plans to lobby the government for more help “after the victory.”
Stakhovsky notes that many of the surviving Ukrainian winemakers are currently in desperate need of casks, fermenters, bottles and other equipment, and would graciously welcome whatever their European counterparts would be willing to donate.
Meanwhile, the future of Ukrainian wine remains an open question.
“The thing is that we don’t know the magnitude. We’re trying to see the scale of what’s going on and how big of an effect it’s going to have,” Stakhovsky says. “We’re too early, and the war is too fresh, and most importantly, the war isn’t over yet.”