March 05: Russia has criminally assaulted Ukraine in the 10-day war (so far), but wine, as always, has always been a story about peace and comradery, as narrated here by John Salvi MW, our Bordeaux Correspondent, who has been frequently traveling to these parts on wine expeditions although he was declared a persona-non-grata in Ukraine, being guilty of connivance with the usurpers of Crimea.
The story starts with Prince Lev Sergeyevitch GOLITSYN (1845-1915), a noble and wealthy aristocrat in the time of Tsar Nicolas II (cousin of King George V) with whom Lev was great friends. Lev was totally passionate about wine and founded a number of wineries, one of which was Novy Svit (Svet in Ukraine) in1878.
After the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, Novy Svit was one of the first State owned enterprises to be privatised. It was bought by Yury Valentinovitch Kovalchuk, in 2017, for 1.5 million roubles (then $26.4 million). Yury was head and chief shareholder of Rossiya Bank and known as Putin’s personal banker. He was one of the people sanctioned by the USA. It was officially bought by a subsidiary of Rossiya Bank, Yuzhny Project.
Novy Svit was a Sparkling Wine Company, and its wine was served at the coronation of Nicolas 2 in 1896, won a Grand Prix at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris and was served again in the Kremlin in 2014, to celebrate the annexation of Ukraine in the presence of Yanina Pavlenko.
Lev founded the now famous Domaine Massandra in 1894, where he created a fabulous collection of wines from all over the world, some already in Russia but 90% imported. Stalin put what was left of the Tzar’s cellar in Russia into it (some of the Tzar’s cellar, taken over by Stalin, was in Tbilisi, Georgia, where Nikita Khrushchev had taken it over). The collection was hidden in 1917 and again from 1941-44 and emerged practically intact. In 2001 Sotheby’s auctioned a selection of bottles and a 1775 sherry went for $43,500.
Lev also founded a well-known winery, Abrau Durso, in 1870, under the Tsar Alexandre II. After a complicated and mainly catastrophic history it was bought in 2006 by Boris Titov. In 2010 it won medals at the IWSC. It was here that Robert Joseph and I judged at a tasting competition between some carefully chosen Burgundies and the finest Russian wines. A Russian wine, Lefkadia, won, but it was never mentioned that the winemaker was Patrick Léon who used to be the winemaker at Mouton Rothschild and Opus One.
Novy Svit International Sparkling Wine Competition
Back to Novy Svit. At Mundus Vini I met a wine writer who was the head of Drinks Magazine in Kiev. She was very friendly with the boss of Novy Svit, Yanina Pavlenko and got me invited to the Novy Svit International Sparkling Wine Competition. Novy Svit is situated in a charming tourist resort of the same name on the Black Sea, with wonderful beaches and fine restaurants.
My first visit as a judge, and the first competition was in 2008. I managed to persuade Yann Yuban of the OIV to come and assess the tasting. We had to change a lot of things. We had to remove the word “Champagne” from all print and from all but the genuine articles, we had to buy proper Champagne flutes and we had to apply the OIV rules. At the end of the tasting Yann was so impressed that he accorded the tasting the OIV patronage henceforth. In 2009 I was made President of the tasting and continued till it was discontinued after 2013.
One year even Federico Castellucci, the then Director General of the OIV, attended. He visited Massandra first and then brought to Novy Svit by yacht. It was very rough, and he was very sick. Sadly, as the Crimea did not pay its dues, the OIV was obliged to exclude them eventually.
A visit to Novy Svit
On one of my visits to Novy Svit, Yanina had arranged for me to visit Massandra. Olga Gherardini, my professional interpreter, picked me up in Simferopol, we stayed the night in Yanina’s apartment and drove to Massandra the next morning. We did the grand tour of the property and the collection. The lady in charge of this fabulous treasure, Elena then very generously opened for me two bottles, my birth year and that of my wife, 1937 BLACK MUSCAT and 1953 PORT. When we left, having had them firmly recorked, I was allowed to take the three-quarters-full bottles home with me, where being very sweet, they were still amazing.
Yanina Pavlenko (a native of Vinnytsia) had made quite a name for herself. She was a feisty, outspoken and ambitious lady who I liked very much. She treated me royally and I hugely enjoyed my visits. I was fortunate in having a wonderful interpreter, Olga Gherardini, who looked after me like a mother hen. After the annexation Yanina was bidden to the Kremlin and then, in early 2015, appointed to be Managing Director of the much larger and more important Massandra Winery near Yalta.
Not long after her appointment, on Friday 11th September 2015, Putin visited Massandra with Silvio Berlusconi. They visited the famous collection with over one million bottles, saw the rare old wines and asked if they could taste one. To please such important and famous people she opened a bottle of the 1775 XERES (there are only five bottles left).
History does not relate if it was drinkable, but Ukraine was outraged. The Fiscal General pronounced it Grand Theft and banned Berlusconi from visiting Ukraine for 3 years. They said the wine was the heritage of all Ukrainian people. The Ukraine office of prosecution opened a judicial investigation for “appropriation of national patrimony and heritage” and said it was no less than embezzlement. Yanina was sentenced in absence to 12 years’ imprisonment, but some lawyers say it was a death penalty.
Quite a Grand Finale for a bottle of sherry! Massandra, were offering a bottle for One million roubles in 2019, but whatever its value it was written off in the books at the equivalent of £0.60 (44roubles and 12 kopecks). This bottle had not been imported by Lev, but by Count Mikhail Vorontsov (1782-1856), son of the Ambassador to London, during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796). He founded the Magaratch Wine Research Institute in 1829, which today boasts over 3,000 grape varieties. The Count had a personal collection, which Lev obviously acquired.
Yanina and Massandra went from strength to strength and in 2019 she organised a major international tasting competition at the estate. Five foreign judges were invited. Federico Castellucci (ex-Director General of the OIV), Oz Clarke, Annette Scarfe MW, Ying Hsien Tan MW and I. I asked for first class travel and got it!
The Luxury Tour of Massandra
This was to be the luxury tour to end all luxury tours. We were met at the airport by Olga, who as mentioned above had been my personal interpreter at Novy Svit, and drove the 3-hour journey to our hotel- The MYRIYA RESORT AND SPA. Designed by the famous architect, Sir Norman Foster, who designed Millennium Bridge, City Hall and the new chais at Château Margaux. It belongs to Sherbank, Russia’s largest bank, and only three years old it was named the best leisure resort of the year by World Travel Awards.
I was allocated a young man with an electric cart who was to look after me exclusively, 24 hours a day. He drove me to my suite which comprised three double bedrooms, three bathrooms, two salons, a private swimming pool and a view of the Black Sea. I decided to splurge with my money and give myself the ultimate luxury – caviar. I requested a bowl of Beluga each evening in my room. After 5 bowls of caviar, I was in mortal fear of the final bill. Caviar is not cheap even in Russia! The last morning, I asked the young man to drive me to reception to settle my extras and was told that it was not necessary as Massandra would cover all expenses. I do not know what the accountant thought when he saw the bill, but I was long gone!
Yanina pushed the boat out all the way. Lavish meals, limousines, unlimited drinks of all kinds and a grand Gala evening where she was the star of the show. For me, the most exciting moment was visiting the “collection,” which I had visited when tasting at Novy Svit. ELENA gave us a tasting of several sweet and delicious wines back to 1970. She is worried by the threat that Massandra might be privatised and wonders what might happen to the “collection.”
The tasting took place, in the grand reception room of Massandra, over two days. Olga held my hand. Sadly, for Yanina, it did not go as smoothly as hoped. We each had I-pads and the system broke down half-way through the first day. We were forced to go back to paper tasting sheets. The next day the technicians were happy that all was perfect, but it happened again. Frankly, it did not bother us very much, but I do not envy the fate of whoever was in charge of the technical arrangements!
After the tasting we had a day of visiting vineyards and cellars and then, to my delight, a day visiting Novy Svit. Here we were treated like royalty. My old friend who danced with me at the Gala evenings was now the Managing Director and gave me such special treatment that I made a serious effort and made a ‘Thank You’ speech in Russian (I learned to be a Russian interpreter in the British Army at Bodmin, Crail and Cheltenham G.C.H.Q. and the Intelligence Corps 1955-57). There is no doubt that (apart from the technical hitch at the tasting) the event was a roaring success and a very fine feather in Yanina’s cap.
Success leads to promotion. The head of the Crimea, Sergei Aksenov, proposed to Yanina to become “Head of the Yalta Administration”-effectively the Mayor. She replaced the man who Ukraine still described as the “so-called-mayor,” Andrei Rostenko, in 2020. On the 14th of December 2020, Yuzhny Project (Southern Project) bought Massandra in its entirety for 5,327 billion roubles. Yuzhny belongs to Rossiya Bank, which is the already mentioned Yury Kovalchuk. This was a fabulous, if doubtful, deal as Massandra has over 10,000 hectares and 4,000 hectares in production. It produces forty million bottles per year.
Igor Serdyuk, who writes for Forbes Russia informed me that Yury Kovalchuk and Gennady Timchenko (of Russo-Finnish birth)- both of Rossiya Bank, founded a company Moey Vino My Vino) in 2019; it owns Novy Svit, Massandra, Inkerman Winery and Usadba Divnomorskoe (which they acquired from Abrau Durso). Vineyards have become a significant part of dealings by Russian oligarchs. Yury has a PhD and was responsible for creating the first ever Russian law on wine. Rossiya bank and Yury were both sanctioned by the USA Treasury, as was the Mriya Resort and Spa, which belongs to Sherbank, Russia’s largest bank.
On the last day Olga accompanied me to Simferopol airport. I flew first class to Moscow where I was lodged in the very comfortable Sheraton airport hotel. The following day I returned home with my precious bottles of 1937 and 1953, thanks to Massandra.
Persona-non-grate in Ukraine
Interestingly, after our visit, all five of us foreign judges received a missive from what purported to be the Ukrainian Defence Department saying that by our visit to Crimea we were guilty of connivance with the usurpers of Crimea and would in future be persona-non-grata in Ukraine.
John Salvi Master of Wine