Needin’ your wine in Russia

in Columns/Experience by

Hard to believe, but we, Russians, are no different from you. Our taste buds are there and actually working. And even an uneducated and potentially drunk villager from the provinces can tell whether that Puglian Primitivo is good for his health and whether it will lead to a pleasant nap or to a horrible hangover.

Interestingly, the more education we get and the more we travel, the better wines we tend to consume. This simple equation is no rocket science and has been proving itself in Russia during the last 15 years on our way from wild consumption to learning the real difference. In the mid-2014 we were not quite there yet, but we were as close as one can get in those economic and political circumstances.

The pleasantly saturated picture of our taste-for-wine progress was being weirdly distorted by the market conditions we were being forced to live in despite all the common sense and the rules of free economy. In fact, those Russians with middle-class aspirations making €700-2,000 a month have been paying for their wines as though they were all Abramovichs or Mr. Putin’s rich “friendos». Meaning two-three times the European shelf price. Basic Champagne at €100 was what we were facing through these years. The oil money paid for the whole party, distributed to all economy sectors — from consulting and auto businesses to fine wines’ sales.

It is safe to say most wineries will have to start treating Russian market data differently from now on. They will probably use “before 2014 — after 2014” terminology with 2013 being an extremely successful year for many of them — big ones and small ones. With general public mostly brand-oriented in fine wine segment, a thin audience demanding something different was emerging. They wanted lighter crispy whites from Germany and Austria, they wanted unoaked California, they wanted affordable Burgundy and more complex Albariños. This coincided greatly with the fine dining trends when people finally started demanding fine food and great chefs instead of fine entertainment and golden fretwork on a restaurant’s walls. It was all very subtle, almost like the flavours of the Japanese cuisine. And very fragile, too. Yet, it was substantial enough to start the wave of wine bars launches both in Moscow and St.Petersburg, all full on Fridays and Saturdays: a view as close to the European as can be.

The distortion of many business practices still had an effect of a supermassive black hole on the surrounding galaxies — with sommeliers mostly being the puppets in the hands of restaurants’ owners, with wine importers paying their ways into the HoReCa segment and owning rare wine magazines, with journalists embarking gladly on all-paid trips to the wineries and regions. The consumer used to be at the end of the waiting line — but quite happy with many wine tastings, food festivals and enriching those taste buds. The usual anti-alcohol rhetoric of the government added nothing to the growing interest in fine wines. The absence of care about the nation’s health and using sanitary watchdog RosPotrebNadzor solely as an instrument of political pressure are two things to add to the mix.

Disproportionate investments into own staff from the side of wine distributors compared to that of big international spirits players like Pernod Ricard, Bacardi, Diageo and Maxxium are, on one hand, understandable — turnovers and profits are very different in wine business owned by Russians and spirits business owned by a multinational holding. Inevitably, government relations were way more important than those with clients. And exactly why Russian chefs seldom were restaurateurs — they were not people who “solved problems”.

Yet we were almost happy in the mid-2014. We were seeing winemakers and wineries’ owners coming to believe Russia was the heaven on Earth able to absorb all their top wines. Which was not impossible — if we just could get the allocations. For those who invested money and efforts, coming to tour cities from the two capitals Moscow and St.Pete to the Siberian Yekaterinburg or even Vladivostok — far, far east — Russia was opening its doors fast: the regions were especially hungry for wine events and new information. Spirits have been booming too, showing staggering growth in two-digit numbers year by year.

Although the government didn’t try to make business easier imposing new import and distribution regulations in different years, banning wine advertising from press and the internet and artificially regulating imports from Moldova and Georgia, we were adapting with wine businesses becoming genetically modified to manage these crises and deal with high risks — mostly building them into wine prices and focusing on short-term goals of survival and immediate profits.

In 2015 we woke up to the new reality of doubled Ruble-Euro exchange rate that cut our real profits in half, diminishing demand for expensive and luxury items, leading to new savings strategies all over the magazines for middle-class Russian Facebook population. New situation demands wines and restaurants, which are extremely fit to the new surroundings. Great price/quality ratio will be more than essential in this new Russia and could actually teach us to select wines much wiser than in all the previous years of inflated budgets and out-of-proportion spendings.

And yes, once we started understanding wine, we need it here, in Russia. Even more than before.

Anton Moiseenko for Harper’s Wine & Spirits