Russian wines fit for diplomats

A winery located near a Russian seaside resort has well-connected new owners. Anton Moiseenko pays a visit.

Usadba Divnomorskoye winery
Usadba Divnomorskoye winery

Tight security is nothing unusual for wineries: when there are multimillions worth of liquid assets being aged in the cellars, it’s often a must. Yet the security at the gates of one estate near the Black Sea shore is a bit more demanding. Not only do the guards check everybody’s IDs and put visitors through metal detectors, but well in advance of the scheduled visit, visitors are obliged to provide the model of their mobile phone and details of their current employment. 

When they do get through the gate, visitors will find themselves inside one of the most technologically advanced wineries in Russia: Usadba Divnomorskoye, a name which translates as “beautiful place by the seaside”. It lies near the town of Gelendzhik, a well-known seaside resort 1500km south of Moscow and just 250km from the Olympic city of Sochi. Not surprisingly, given the extensive chunk of seaside land covered with pine forests, this is the region where many of the rich and influential build their estates and summer houses. Usadba Divnomorskoye (‘Usadba’ means manor house in Russian) is typical. 

Russia’s Bolgheri

The winery, which has been the focus of plenty of Russian media attention, was founded in 2009. It has a total of 27ha of vineyards, shared between two sites on the Black Sea shore, surrounded by pine forest on three sides and overlooking the sea on the fourth. In 2015, the vineyard was extended by another 20ha in areas close to the seashore.

Until recently, Divnomorskoye was managed by the Titov-owned Abrau-Durso Group, which includes the former Czarist winery Abrau-Durso, the biggest sparkling wine producer in Russia. At the beginning of this year, Divnomorskoye was bought by Gennady Timchenko (number five on the Forbes Russia rich list 2018, with an estimated wealth of $16bn) and Vladimir Kolbin. Both men are involved in oil, construction and many other businesses – and have known ties to the Kremlin. While both declined to comment on either the deal or the future or the winery, Vedomosti, Russia’s business newspaper, suggests they “see winemaking as a prospective development”; one of Timchenko’s many companies even used to be called Carignan, demonstrating knowledge of indigenous Spanish varieties. 

This region has a striking resemblance to the coastal Maremma of Tuscany, home of many of the cult wines that are so familiar to Russian oligarchs. “Not just Maremma, but Bolgheri,” says Riccardo Cotarella who, together with his team, has been visiting the area as a consulting winemaker since 2017. Cotarella, one of the most prominent figures in Italian winemaking, and president of the Italian winemakers’ association Assoenologi, has been asked to oversee the work of the winery, to help maintain and boost the overall quality. He joins the core team of two Divnomorskoye winemakers, Matteo Coletti and Oleg Nichvidyuk.

The winery itself is mostly an underground structure built into the hill and making use of gravity. No expense has been spared when it comes to facilities. The spacious cellar is full of modern, mostly Italian, equipment. “We are currently working with 11 commercial grape varieties and harvest 200 tons of grapes a year,” says Nichvidyuk, who has worked at the winery since day one. The most planted varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Marselan, Muscat Ottonel, Chardonnay and Riesling. The wines produced include both single varietals and blends, such as the white East Hill Blend and the red West Hill Blend. 

To combat hot weather during harvesting, dry ice is used to avoid quick oxidation and maintain the freshness of white wines. Soft vacuum pressing is used along with free-run juice extraction, high-quality Portuguese cork, and hand riddling for the classic method sparklings. There is a modern laboratory, and even a drying room to use for the rare Rebo grape, to turn it into apassimento wine, the top bottling of the estate. “The soils are loamy, rich in clay, with white stones,” says Cotarella, noting that the soils aren’t deep and are exposed to the winds from the sea.

Although it’s early days yet, the estate wines are already of a commercial quality, with the sparkling wines in particular drawing praise from professionals. 

Tight security

Despite looking like an ordinary winery, if one that is clearly cashed up, the meticulous security suggests that Divnomorskoye is something more than a place where free-run juice from hand-picked grapes is transformed into Russian wines. The pressure to become commercially successful has led to a certain degree of openness: a guided tour is available on YouTube. Even so, security at the facility itself remains tight. However, while taking pictures inside the vineyards and in the winery is fine, visitors were kindly asked not to point cameras in the direction of the shore, despite the fact that almost nothing could be seen. Google images, however, reveal a couple of buildings or manor houses there. 

Although the winery sits physically on the Black Sea shore, Russian newspapers report that in legal terms, Divnomorskoye has been travelling from one offshore company to another, from Panama all the way to the British Virgin Islands. Since 2014, when Russia faced sanctions over Crimea, oligarchs have been investing their money closer to home, by the seaside – and in wineries, as rich people do everywhere. And like many of those rich people, Russia’s oligarchs go to great lengths not to declare assets. Properties such as Alma Valley and Château Côtes de Saint Daniel in Crimea, and Gai-Kodzor and Château de Talus in the Krasnodar region, among others, all belong to bankers and ex-politicians. Even the Russian Orthodox Church has invested in southern terroirs; in 2016 it was reported to have obtained 70ha of vineyards near the same seaside village of Gelendzhik.

But the connection to Russia’s inner political circle clearly gives Divnomorskoye’s wines a boost –  they are often served to international leaders during their visits to Russia. One sales manager explained that despite not being exactly cheap (the still wines sell at $28 in Moscow while the sparklings reach $39), government-owned companies are buying the wines with great enthusiasm. “The motivation is clear – if Mr President is drinking it, so will we,” he said. With interest in Russian wines growing inside the country, Divnomorskoye wines are often seen on Moscow restaurants’ lists.

Guaranteed future

So what is Divnomorskoye, exactly? For the winemaking team of Coletti, Nichvidyuk and Cotarella, it is a real winery to be run with commitment. Given the privileged financial position of the owners, they have the resources to improve the wines and to research and experiment in a way that would be impossible if it was an ordinary winery dependent on wine sales. Dmitry Kovalev, the head of the Wine Lab school in Sevastopol, observes: “The winery is a pure act of perfectionism, the project developed from scratch to a logical end. And the wines are clean and clear.”

To the outsider, Divnomorskoye might look a lot like a nice yacht with an extremely capable crew, but where is it headed and, more importantly, who exactly is at the wheel? 

As the visitors are ushered out of the winery, it’s clear that question is not going to be answered.

Anton Moiseenko

This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine.


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