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In the 13-plus months since Russia launched its brutal war on Ukraine, the country’s once-blossoming wine industry has suffered incalculable damage. Storied chateaux have been bombed into wreckage, century-old cellars have been looted and prominent winemakers have been killed. With battles continuing and upcoming offensives rumored for the spring, the situation remains in flux. Yet even with Ukraine still fighting for its very survival, insiders point to hopeful signs for the country’s wine industry and ways for outsiders to support it.
A quick recap: Over the course of roughly a decade prior to the Russian invasion, Ukrainian wine experienced a renaissance, turning away from the high-volume industrial production of the post-Soviet Era and embracing quality. Some of that shift was inspired by Georgia, the country’s regional neighbor across the Black Sea. It also built on historic influences from the Swiss and French winemakers who set up many of Ukraine’s vineyards in the 19th century. While most of the country’s production is made with well-known grapes, local vintners were also starting to find success with their own varieties, she notes.
“We grow a lot of international grapes, and Georgian grapes, as well—Rkatsiteli and Saperavi,” says Evgenia Nikolaichuk, a sommelier who works as an ambassador for Wines of Ukraine. “But during last five years Ukrainian wineries started to work more and more with our local grapes, like Odessa Black and Telti Kuruk.”
But that burgeoning renaissance was stomped by the Russian invasion that started on February 24, 2022. Vintners, sommeliers and grape growers—including the former tennis pro turned winemaker Sergiy Stakhovsky—left their cellars to enlist in their country’s defense. Due to Ukraine’s sprawling geography and Russia’s earlier invasion and purported annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, many of its wineries quickly found themselves on the front lines.
An Overload of Challenges
Even if it were limited to the world of Ukrainian wine, a list of every atrocity committed by Russian forces would be too long to include here. For Anatolii Pavlovskyi, a U.K.-based Ukrainian expat who holds an advanced WSET Level 3 certificate, the biggest crimes include the destruction of Prince Trubetskoi Winery and the looting of its historic cellars. Founded in 1889 on the banks of the Dnipro River near Kherson, Prince Trubetskoi was occupied by Russian troops at the start of the invasion. While it has now been ostensibly liberated, the area remains under constant fire, preventing management from even assessing the extent of the damage.
Another great loss, he says, is Artwinery, the country’s largest maker of sparkling wine. Previously, it produced as many as 19 million bottles annually, all using the traditional method. However, its home city of Bakhmut has been a focal point for the war recently, with both sides fighting furiously to win it.