A few years ago I had been President for 5 years of an important Sparkling Wine Tasting at a large Sparkling Wine establishment, Novy Svet (New World), at a seaside resort on the Black Sea in Crimea, then a part of Ukraine. The big boss of Novy Svet was a feisty young woman by the name of Yanina Pavlenko.
Times have changed a lot now. When Russia took over the Crimea, the pro-Russian Yanina was honoured and promoted as the boss of Massandra-the largest and most important winery in the Crimea.
Massandra is also a tiny village, virtually a suburb of Yalta on the Black Sea. Both Novy Svet and Massandra were founded by the same nobleman, KNYAV LEV GOLITSYN, Prince Golitsyn, who devoted his life to wine and was a close friend of the Tsar. Massandra was founded in 1894. He also founded a third winery Abrau Dyurso.
Massandra Winery has one of the oldest wine collections in the world. There have been auctions of these wines in London by Sotheby’s in 1990 and 1991-I still have a bottle of 1937 Black Muscat from the auction. The oldest bottles in the collection were 5 bottles of 1775 Sherry. These were brought to the Crimea during the reign of Catherine the Great by Count Mikhail Vorontsov.
We visited the collection of about 1 million bottles including 4 of these bottles. The 5th bottle is now infamous like Yanina. Putin came to visit Massandra in 2015 with Berlusconi. Yanina showed them the collection and was asked if they might taste a bottle which she dutifully opened. Ukraine was up in arms as it considered this collection to be still the heritage of Ukraine. Yanina was accused of embezzlement and of depleting the Ukrainian heritage. She is also wanted in Ukraine for High Treason for voting in favour of the Russian Annexation of Ukraine.
One of the four remaining bottles is apparently available for sale for Rub 1 million (US 15,666). The collection was regarded so precious that the greatest bottles were moved by Stalin to Number One Winery in Tbilisi before the Germans arrived and shipped back again after the war. Fortunate for them, because when I visited the warehouse in Tbilisi the humidity was terrible and almost all the bottles in the cellar had lost their labels and many corks had rotted.
At the end of a long journey from Bordeaux to Simferopol in 3 legs during the last of which I met Federico Castellucci, past Director General of the OIV, we were received by Olga Gherardini who had been hired as interpreter for the tasting competition.
Mriya Resort and Spa is a highly awarded set of palatial ultra-luxurious buildings with 422 rooms, built at $300 million. It was designed by the famous Sir Norman Foster who designed the Chais at Château Margaux, close to my home. Grant Babasyan is the Resort Director. We were each appointed a “butler” who was to look after us 24/7 throughout our stay.
Some of the rooms had sea-view but mine was a suite with 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a salon the size of a restaurant. After drinking Russian tea and eating caviar it was a happy end to a long journey.
Day 1: Tasting Panels
After a sumptuous breakfast with European, Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Russian dishes on about 200 silver salvers, we were driven in a series of black limousines to Massandra in 30 minutes, where Yanina was waiting for us. We were 15 judges divided into 3 panels of 5 each. Federico Castellucci was seated next to me on my jury and was our panel leader. Annette Scarfe MW from Singapore was on another panel and the well-known Oz Clarke from the UK was the Chairman of the competition and on the third panel. We were 6 foreign judges in all including Ying Hsian Tan MW and Esther Duley from Singapore. I did not hesitate to mention that Oz had been my student many years ago when I taught him about Bordeaux Wines.
We worked with I-Pads and the OIV tasting sheet. The room was comfortable, well lit, airy and spacious. We had plenty of good glasses, changed all the time, a metal, cylindrical spittoon, Kiriaskaya mineral water, white tablecloths and bread. We were seated at built-in tasting sinks with running water. The main problem was a mixture of poor sound and incomprehension, which we strove valiantly to overcome.
A bronze medal required 80 - 82 points, a silver medal 83 – 85 points, a gold medal 86 – 92 points and a double gold over 92 points. When the average of the marks of the 5 jury members was calculated, any mark over 7 points outside that average was discarded and the new average was the final score.
Nothing lacked, but it was incredibly slow process. There was no set lunch, but vast amounts of cold dishes were set out in a room next door, together with delicious hot fish soup on which we feasted at every break. Sadly, half-way through the day the computer system broke down and we had to go back to writing our marks on paper tasting sheets. It was repaired but kept failing and it was a distressfully long day of tasting that did not finish until almost 19.00.
We were asked to do yet another series of red wines, but Castellucci declined, invoking the OIV rule of 45 wines per day, while the two other juries accepted. We were driven back to our grand hotel where Yanina hosted an excellent dinner of Tapas, Mussels, Shrimps, Flounder, Lamb, Tofu Cheesecake and a fascinating Sea Buckthorn Mousse. She had me served quickly halfway through the meal.
Day 2 of Tasting
The next day was a repeat with long tasting hours and the system breakdown again. Nonetheless, we completed the 266 wines eventually and were taken for a visit to the Livadia Palace, the summer home of Tsar Nicolas 11 and his family. This was a magic moment and some of the pictures and portraits are supreme. The palace is very beautiful, and they seemed such a delightfully intimate family to have ended so tragically.
It is also the palace where the Yalta Conference took place in February 1945 (often known as the Peace Conference) with Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt. Here they agreed to demand Germany’s unconditional surrender.We were treated to cocktails in the palace before being removed to a magnificent restaurant Verdi in Yalta, for a very long slow dinner with the host calling upon various guests to make impromptu speeches. Once again, I pleaded age and Castellucci and I were driven home early. I went happily off to my red caviar.
The next day we were driven to the winery where there was a Wine Show in the cellars and many wineries had set up small stands. The place was packed with hundreds of busy people. We were left very much to our own until it was time for what I had most been looking forward to- the tour of the famous wine collection under the expert guidance of Elena who remembered my previous visit from the Novy Svet days when the 1937 and the 1953 vintages were opened in my honour. We had a wonderful tasting of some of the older wines.
Six of us found a nice little room with a round table and enjoyed an excellent lunch. Evening was the Gala Dinner-a magnificent event in a ballroom the size of an ocean. The ladies were dressed to kill, but most of the men wore casual clothes. The meal was long and complicated and the noise beyond deafening. Yanina made a brilliantly Massandra-supporting speech and we all applauded. It was the last word in glamour, glitter and gloss.
Day 4-Vineyard Visits
The next two days were dedicated to vineyard visits. First we visited the small winery belonging to the hotel. There are people who can make dull things fascinating and others who make fascinating things dull. Sadly, our host was of the latter ilk and talked us interminably through half a dozen wines. However, we were shown a film during the welcome dinner, of the winery to be built on the property and it surpasses the imagination in size, luxury, expense and ambition. It will have a park, a lake and a cheese factory. It is certain they will achieve as planned and soon.
We were then taken in hand by a jovial, plump young lady who styled herself a “winemaker” and took us for lunch and a visit to a winery that seemed to belong to Massandra. We were given a “typical” lunch in a charming arbour followed by a visit. We then drove to other premises where, shuddering with cold, we dragged tediously through a tasting of another half-dozen wines. Personally, I was happy to be back at the resort by 19.30 and had dinner at the resort Café.
The last day was the one I had been looking forward to-a visit to the winery Novy Svet. It was founded in 1878 by Prince Golitsyn, under Tsar Nicolas 2 because it was on the same latitude as the South of France. It won the Grand Prix at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris. It was privatised in 2017, bought by Southern Project LLC owned by Yuri Kavalchuk who we did not meet.
It was a long, twisty, scenic and beautiful 3-hour drive from the hotel. We were welcomed warmly, and I was fondly embraced by old friends – Tatiana and Alexey, then production manager- now Managing Director. We were taken on the most marvellous boat tour round the coast in perfect weather with blue skies and calm seas.
This was followed by lunch at the restaurant where we always lunched during the competitions, with the perfect unspoiled view over the blue sea and the bare mountains. This was followed by 125 steps up the conference room where we spent over 2 hours in a technical conference on Sparkling Wine.
The journey home was long and wearisome. Deepest thanks and also warmest congratulations go to Yanina and to all the staff for a truly remarkable event. From Massandra’s point of view it was a huge success as it got enormous publicity in the Crimea and will help keep Massandra on the world wine map.
John Salvi Master of Wine
Due to space constraint, the Article has been carefully edited by me. I hope it has not lost any of its flavour- Cav. Subhash Arora, editor