One of the defining moments of the 20th century occurred in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and communist rule ended in much of the Eastern bloc. With the fall of communism, agricultural land seized and exploited by the state was returned to its original owners. It was one of the most significant seismic shifts in wine history.
In 1992, some of the oldest wine regions in the world were born. Still.
Nomenclature and Geography
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 Granada.
Wine behind the iron curtain
Decades earlier, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had sought world domination for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) through accelerated industrialization. He seized private farms and consolidated them into large state-run cooperatives, in part to feed industrial workers. All resistance was eradicated through economic pressure, resettlement and deportation.
State control of property, production and produce meant that vines or other crops could be uprooted and replaced with anything, at any time. All goods produced must be sold at a low price to the state. Distribution was limited to Soviet states and their allies. And perhaps most damaging to wine production, quantity was much more valued than quality.
Farmers were allowed to keep small lots for personal use. Unless you knew a winemaker at home, your wine was usually made in large quantities from high-harvest vineyards and offered average quality at best. The cleanliness of the cellars was questionable. Sometimes water was added to dilute the wines.
Jan Stávek, Ph.D., a fourth-generation winemaker in the Czech Republic, recalls his grandfather and father aging wine in glass demijohns because the large cellar barrels had dried up from lack of water. ‘use. Reduced to hobby-type production, regional farmers across the Eastern Bloc were tasked with keeping local grapes alive.
“All malovinař [artisan] worked to determine the most suitable varieties for the local terroir,” explains Stávek. Some have even held competitions 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 condition. After the fall of communism, some could no longer compete without state subsidies. Many closed and sold what they could, often to neighbors seeking business success.
Restitution of private land complicated finances. It was difficult to advance, 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 Association of Young Winemakers to help break the influence of communist practices on winemaking, such as prioritizing low production costs or discouraging national styles and diversity. Stávek was 10 years old when his family reopened their winery and slowly began to reclaim their land.
“The period after the revolution was very uncertain,” says Stávek. “The fear created by communism still prevailed.”
The cooperative in his village is still in operation, owned by around 60 families who gave up land to establish it decades ago. In the former Eastern bloc, many cooperative members work by choice and manage themselves. Others simply rent their land from the cooperative.
The break-up of collective farms was problematic, especially in terms of ownership. In some cases, this continues to be a problem. However, the wines being made are appreciated internationally.
Many attribute this success to biodynamic practices, the use of native grapes, modernized facilities, health and sanitary inspections, and a connection with international peers.
“You had to rebuild or change everything a bit,” says Zoltán Kovács, wine director of the 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 was not a lost land,” says Kovács. The third-generation Transylvanian Hungarian winemaker says the basic practices of viticulture and production today came from that time. Kovács says Royal Tokaji uses clones of grapes bred during the communist era, suitable for botrytis.
The most famous style of the Tokaji (Tokay) wine region, Aszú, has been recorded since 1571. The region itself was classified in 1732. Since 1920, the region has been divided between Hungary and present-day Slovakia. Slovaks follow their own rules for making Tokaji.
The years following World War II between 1945 and 1989 nearly destroyed any connection to the wines once so renowned and popular with the royal family. Like other Soviet satellites, Hungarian vineyards became state-run and dedicated to volume.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, isolated winemakers needed to connect with their global peers, be receptive to advances in science, technology and ideas, and embrace quality.
They also had to convince consumers that all of this was happening.
Investment and infrastructure
These newly liberated Eastern European winemakers needed money. Earnings growth has been difficult and slow. It has proven to be a major obstacle to the continued emergence of these “new” wines. On the other hand, foreign investment could quickly infuse winegrowers with the cash they sorely need. Markets opened up and the West saw an opportunity.
“The time after the revolution was very uncertain.” —Jan Stávek, fourth-generation Czechoslovak winemaker.
As new and resurrected private companies acquired land, cultivated vineyards, built wineries and produced a wide assortment of wines, they attracted foreign business partners, says winemaker Bondo Kalandadze. He has over five decades of experience in the Georgian wine industry, which dates back at least 8,000 years.
For more than 20 years, Kalandadze worked for the Georgian Ministry of Agriculture under communist rule.
While some producers found rapid success after 1992, things did not improve quickly for all.
“For some it’s an ongoing process,” Kovács said. Tokaji was in a good position and foreign ownership came quickly. 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 wine regions in the West to learn all they could. Armed with knowledge, they returned home and put it into practice. “The industry exploded,” says Stávek.
This boom included variety. In Russia, says Kalandadze, the most popular wines used to be semi-sweet and port-style wines. Suddenly there was a demand for dry wines, sparkling wines and more.
Miljenko (aka Mike) Grgich, a fourth-generation Croatian winemaker, studied oenology before leaving then communist-ruled Yugoslavia and landing in Napa Valley in 1958. He founded Grgich Hills Estate. A Château Montelena Chardonnay produced under his direction won the legendary blind tasting at the Judgment of Paris in 1976. In the 1990s, he returned to his native country, present-day Croatia, to found Grgić Vina.
Ivo Jeramaz, Grgich’s production manager in both countries, explains that it was impossible to find material in Croatia. So they shipped temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks from the United States. It was a first for a country where wine has been made since the 5e-century BC
The Grgich team introduced its peers to “new” methods of vineyard management and production. They recommended practices such as adding cooling technology to cellars and reservoirs, and changing oak barrels every few years. Jeramaz was impressed with how the industry has improved.
“The impact of a steep learning curve, much quicker than in California, and EU investments mean that today’s wine [rise to] a world-class level,” he says.
Winemakers also had access to modern packaging, including labels. This has allowed their products to be displayed at international exhibitions and sold overseas.
“It was exciting to be a part of it,” says Kalandadze. In 1993, Kalandadze started Georgian Wines & Spirits in 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 first private wine exporter in the country.
Over the past five years, exports to the United States have increased. “The increase in the average price per bottle is even more significant,” 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 that the highest quality grapes reach the cellars and to continue to develop new markets”.
Or, in other words, they are seizing opportunities that have only been possible since 1992.