How the Fall of the Soviet Union Changed Wine Forever

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One of the 20th century’s most seminal moments occurred in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and communist rule ended across much of the Eastern Bloc. With the fall of communism, agricultural land seized and operated by the state was returned to its original owners. It was among the most significant seismic shifts in the history of wine.

In 1992, some of the world’s oldest wine regions were born. Again.

Nomenclature and Geography

The Soviet Union (1922–1991): Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan.

Eastern Bloc (1947–1991): Soviet satellite states in Europe (Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania), Asia (Cambodia, China, Korea, Laos, Mongolia, Vietnam), Cuba, plus Nicaragua and Grenada.

Wine Behind the Iron Curtain

Decades earlier, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had sought global dominance for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) through accelerated industrialization. He seized private farms and consolidated them into large, state-run cooperatives, in part to feed industrial workers. Any resistance was stamped out through economic pressure, resettling and deportation.

State control of property, production and products meant that vines or other crops could be uprooted and replaced with anything, at any time. Any goods produced must be sold at low cost to the state. Distribution was limited to Soviet states and their allies. And perhaps most damaging to wine production, quantity was valued far more than quality.

Farmers were allowed to keep small lots for personal use. Unless you knew a home winemaker, though, your wine was generally made in large volumes from high-harvest vineyards and offered average quality at best. Cleanliness of cellars was questionable. Sometimes, water was added to dilute the wines.

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Jan Stávek, Ph.D., a fourth-generation winemaker in the Czech Republic, recalls that his grandfather and father aged wine in glass demijohns because large cellar barrels had dried up from lack of use. Reduced to hobby-like production, regional farmers throughout the Eastern Bloc were responsible for keeping local grapes alive.

“Every malovinař [artisan] worked to determine the most suitable varieties for the local terroir,” says Stávek. Some even held contests to compare products and encourage quality.

The Impact of 1992, 30 Years Later

Many vineyards and production facilities in the former Eastern Bloc were in poor shape. After the fall of communism, some could not compete without state subsidies. Many closed and sold what they could, often to neighbors who sought commercial success.

Restitution of private land complicated finances. It was hard to move forward, especially for those who experienced retaliation or a relatively high standard of living due to job security and cooperative success.

Stávek co-founded the Czech Young Winemakers Association to help break the influence that communist practices had on winemaking, like to prioritize low production costs or discourage national styles and diversity. Stávek was 10 years old when his family reopened their winery and slowly began to reclaim their land.

“The time after the revolution was very uncertain,” says Stávek. “Fear created by communism still prevailed.”

The co-op in his village still operates, owned by about 60 families that surrendered land to establish it decades ago. Across the former Eastern Bloc, many co-op members work by choice, managing themselves. Others simply lease their land to the co-op.

The breakup of collective farms was problematic, particularly in terms of ownership. In some cases, it continues to be an issue. However, the wines being made are achieving international appreciation.

Many attribute this success to the biodynamic practices, the use of indigenous grapes, upgrades to facilities, health and sanitation inspections and a connection with international peers.

“It was necessary to rebuild or to change everything a bit,” says Zoltán Kovács, wine director at Royal Tokaji Wine Company, founded in 1990. That year, Hungary and the European Union began to subsidize the wine industry through grants to develop infrastructure, vineyards, education and marketing.

“The wine region wasn’t a lost land,” says Kovács. The third-generation Transylvanian-Hungarian winemaker says that the basic vine growing and production practices of today came from that time. Kovács says that Royal Tokaji uses some grape clones bred during the communist era, suitable for botrytis.

The Tokaji (Tokay) wine region’s most famous style, Aszú, has been on record since 1571. The region itself was classified in 1732. Since 1920, the region has been divided between Hungary and what’s now Slovakia. Slovaks follow their own Tokaji-making rules.

The post-World War II years between 1945 and 1989 nearly destroyed any linkage to the wines once so renowned and popular with royals. Like other Soviet satellites, Hungary’s wineries became state run and dedicated to volume.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, isolated winemakers needed to connect with global peers, be receptive to advances in science, technology and ideas, and to embrace quality.

They also needed to convince consumers all of this was happening.

Investment and Infrastructure

These newly liberated Eastern European winemakers needed money. Growth through profits was challenging and slow. It proved a major hinderance to the ongoing emergence of these “new” wines. By contrast, foreign investment could quickly infuse the winemakers with badly needed cash. Markets opened, and the West saw opportunity.

“The time after the revolution was very uncertain.” —Jan Stávek, fourth-generation Czechoslovakian winemaker.

As both new and resurrected private companies acquired land, cultivated vineyards, built wineries and crafted a wide assortment of wines, they attracted business partners from abroad, says winemaker Bondo Kalandadze. He has more than five decades of experience in the Georgian wine industry, said to date back at least 8,000 years.

For more than 20 years, Kalandadze worked for Georgia’s Ministry of Agriculture under communist rule.

While some producers achieved rapid success after 1992, things did not improve quickly for all.

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“For some, it is an ongoing process,” said Kovács. Tokaji was in a good position, and foreign ownership came fast. But its distance from Budapest and the western border limited initial demand.

The Benefits of Open Borders

Many former Eastern Bloc winemakers traveled to established Western wine regions to learn all they could. Armed with knowledge, they returned home and put it to practice. “The industry skyrocketed,” says Stávek.

This boom included variety. In Russia, says Kalandadze, the most popular wines were once semi-sweet and Port-style wines. Suddenly, there was demand for dry wines, sparklers and more.

Miljenko (aka Mike) Grgich, a fourth-generation Croatian winemaker, studied oenology before he left then communist-ruled Yugoslavia, and landed in Napa Valley in 1958. He founded Grgich Hills Estate. A Chateau Montelena Chardonnay made under his direction won 1976’s legendary Judgment of Paris blind tasting. In the 1990s, he returned to his homeland, now Croatia, to found Grgić Vina.

Ivo Jeramaz, head of production for Grgich in both countries, says it was impossible to find equipment in Croatia. So they shipped temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks from the U.S. This was a first for a country where wine has been made since the 5th-century B.C.

Team Grgich introduced their peers to “new” vineyard management and production methods. They recommended practices like the addition of cooling technology to wineries and tanks, and to change oak barrels every few years. Jeramaz was impressed by how the industry improved.

“The impact of a fast-learning curve, much faster than in California, and E.U. investments make today’s wine [rise to] a world-class level,” he says.

Winemakers also had access to modern packaging including labels. It allowed their products to be shown at international exhibitions and sold abroad.

“It was exciting to be part of,” says Kalandadze. In 1993, Kalandadze launched Georgian Wines & Spirits as part of a group that included Levan Gachechiladze, who ran for president of Georgia in 2008. Not only does the company produce wine, but it was also the country’s first private wine exporter.

In the past five years, exports to the U.S. have increased. “Even more significant is the increase of the average price per bottle,” says Mirena Bagur of Boston-based Croatian Premium Wine Imports Inc.

Today, says Kalandadze, “our main challenges are to constantly tend to our vineyards, to ensure the highest quality grapes to reach the wineries, and to continue to grow new markets.”

Or, put another way, they’re embracing opportunities that have only been possible since 1992.

Published on August 9, 2022
Topics: Drinks History