Raising a Glass to Ukraine

Wine and the Bottle
Wine and the Bottle
Raising a Glass to Ukraine

Sara delves into the turbid and ancient winemaking history of Ukraine. Featuring Shabo Grand Reserve Chardonnay, Shabo Royal Story Korolevskoe, and Taipobo Kagor – which were very difficult to find. Shout out to Best Buy Liquor Store in New York for shipping to California. Sara will donate $10 to United Help Ukraine for every listen/download of this episode between the initial release and May 1st. Cheers!


Hello, Enthusiasts and welcome to another episode of Wine and the Bottle. I am your Wine and Spirits Education Trust level three certified host, Sara and today’s episode is in support of Ukraine. You probably haven’t heard much about Ukrainian wine, and honestly, there’s an American blind spot when it comes to Eastern European geography. I don’t know much about Ukraine to begin with. I thought Ukraine was a small country like Luxembourg or Monaco. So when I found out that Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe, I knew that my public education had failed me. At 233, 031 square miles in size. Ukraine is nearly the same size as the state of Texas, which also happens to be the second-largest us state. Ukraine has 103,290 acres of grapevines. Acres versus square miles…Let me do some quick math. One square mile is 640 acres, which means that the percentage of the landmass of Ukraine covered in vines is 0.06%.

Okay, so it’s a small industry, but it is important to the culture, and it has one amazing history. It all began in Crimea, a Hawaii-sized peninsula that separates the black sea from the sea of Azov. Crimea was once the pride of Ukraine’s wine industry. Anthropologists have discovered grape presses and amphorae that date back to the fourth century BCE, ancient winemaking that predates many of Europe’s other notable wine regions. Winemaking officially became the main basis of agriculture in the region in the late 19th century due in part to Russian czar, Nicholas II (yes, that Nicholas, the last czar of Russia, whose daughter Anastasia sparked that whole Anastasia legend). Czar Nicholas commissioned a winery and complex celler system for his own personal collection, which eventually became the Massandra winery. And Massandra still produces wine today with a focus on sweet dessert wines, such as Tokaj and Muscat.

Like the rest of Ukraine, Crimea has had a troubled history. It is in a precarious spot geographically and is connected to Ukraine via land bridge and connected to Russia via manmade bridge. In the 1980s, the USSR was still a thing and prime minister Mikhail Gorbachev went on a rampage against alcoholism, stripping Crimea of almost half of its vineyards. Then in 2014, Russia decided they wanted Crimea back and invaded and annexed the region as part of Russia. And just like that, Ukraine lost its viticultural star. Not to say that there aren’t other noteworthy regions in Ukraine on the mainland. There are five other wine regions, or as they say in Ukraine, oblasts. There’s Odessa, Kherson, Nikolayev, Zakarpattia, and Zaporozhy. All of them border the Black Sea, except Zakarpattia, which is the westernmost oblast of Ukraine and borders four other countries. Overall, the country has a cool continental climate with very cold winters and warm sunny summers. The black sea helps moderate the cold winters in the four southern regions, but the contrast between summer and winter is still striking. Ukraine only has five winemaking oblasts because the climate is too harsh in many places in the country for vines to grow.

Today we have two examples from a winery in Odessa called Shabo. Shabo is a waterside venue, more of a wine production community than simply a winery. In addition to the winery and production facility, the venue has a sprawling cultural center that celebrates the region’s millennia-old viticultural history and shows off technological advancements in winemaking. Known today as the Shabo wine company, this producer can track its personal history back to a Swiss winemaking settlement founded in 1822. In true Western fashion, the colonists couldn’t pronounce the original name of the village so they gave it the name Shabag, which morphed over time to Shabo. Shabo produces over 2 million bottles of wine every year under 80 different labels, so our example wines are just a small taste of the wide variety available from Shabo.

First up is a Shabo Grand Reserve 2016 Chardonnay.The Grand Reserve label boasts limited production wines, only a few thousand bottles per year. In California wine country speak, that is still a lot of wine. I’m used to limited production meaning maybe three barrels. Okay, so the grapes used for this label are the best of the best and are totally quality controlled from harvest through vinification, even to bottling. All of the wines under this label are matured in French oak for at least nine months for white wine and 12 months for red wine. The individual bottle number is printed on the label. Ours today is number 8499. There’s also a bottling date on the back of the label: March 11th, 2020. The grapes were picked in 2016, probably put in barrel to start maturing a few weeks later, once fermentation had concluded, and it was bottled after three years with two years of bottle age before consumption. I’m expecting a complex wine – Chardonnay with long oak maturation and a smidge of bottle age. I’m thinking spice, nuttiness, probably still fruit-forward with a round full mouth feel. Let’s dig in.

Okay. So we have a lovely pale lemon color in the glass. Nice and clear. Interesting on the nose. I do get a little bit of spiciness to it. There’s a nutmeg kind of characteristic to it, and it’s still very fruity. Um, there’s citrus lemon-lime, a little bit of under ripened peach, apple. There’s a creaminess – kind of cheesy, which would be from the lees contact during maturation. And it’s almost floral. And it almost has that clover-like characteristic if you’ve ever, um, picked clover out of the garden, like a clover flower and tasted it. It has this sort of pungent tanginess to it that I actually kind of get in this wine. Okay, time to take a taste very round and balanced, actually less acidic than I was expecting. The acidity is very well balanced out. There’s kind of an almondy characteristic. It almost feels sherry-like to me, like a round, full, less pungent sherry it’s like nutty lemon-lime. It’s like lemon meringue pie, not sweet, and if the crust was with almond flour. Very well done Ukraine, this is an elegant wine that I will very much be enjoying. Onto the next one!

The next example is from the Shabo Royal Story label, the Royal Story wines are all semi-sweet, representing a popular regional style. Sweet wines actually make up the majority of wine produced in Ukraine while sparkling comes in as a close second. Historically many of these sweet wines were vin doux naturel. Made in a similar way to Port. A wine is fortified with grapes spirit to stop the fermentation process, leaving residual sugar, but with vin doux naturel, it’s often made in a more laissez-faire, minimal intervention type vinification philosophy, allowing the terroir of the winery and the unique factors within to shine through.

Anyway, this example wine is just a regular semi-sweet the name of the blend is Korolevsco and notably it’s nonvintage, meaning that this is a house blend of grapes potentially picked in different years. The bottle date is April 24th, 2019. I guess I should mention the grape varieties to this blend is made up of rkastelli and aligote, two aromatic white varietals often used in sweet winemaking throughout the world. Because it’s a sweet wine, I’m not expecting to notice the acidity as much, but it will probably still be fairly acidic. This wine is super pale, almost completely colorless. White flour and nectarine, orange marmalade and something biscuit-like, doughy yeasty, something that makes me think that this was produced in a vin doux naturel style. The aromas and the flavors are quite delicate and there is a lot going on. So it wins the point for complexity, but the flavors fade quickly, and while I do like the floral element of this wine and the fact that it’s low alcohol, so you can drink more of it, (laughs) I don’t think that I would repurchase. However, I do think that this would be a very nice table wine/ porch wine/ enjoy with your friends on a warm summer’s day, maybe with an ice cube.

To finish off our tasting today is a wine from a winery called Taipobo. I couldn’t find any information about this winery, but the style is interesting. It’s a style called Kagor, which is actually named after Cahors, France but there’s very little connective tissue actually linking the two. It’s more of an homage. And Kagor is a fortified dessert wine often made from Cabernet Sauvignon and other tannic red varieties, and this wine originally started as a sacramental wine in the church and Peter the Great was the one who brought the wine out of the church and into public consumption. So it’s another example of Russian royalty directly influencing the course of Ukrainian wine history. The Taipobo very proudly states on the bottle “product of Ukraine” and actually has religious imagery on the front hearkening back to those sacramental days.

So I gave myself a little one-ounce pour. It’s 16% ABV and fortified wine is really good at kicking you in the chest. It is a beautiful, deep, deep, deep ruby – looks just like a Napa cab, but it’ll tell you what it does not smell anything like a Napa cab. There’s a woody, cedary quality, actually makes me think of church pews. And on top of that is sort of a, a sweet syrupy cherry plum concoction. It has kind of a musty character, something that you’ll often hear referred to as cigar box. For me, it just reminds me of being in a library or a very old building. There is kind of a strawberry fruitiness to it. I was expecting a little bit more dark fruit, and like with a lot of fortified red wines that have been aged, at least there’s a figgy jamminess. Oh my gosh. I just got a sense memory. What does that taste like? That’s delicious, first of all. Not quite lusciously sweet. Brown sugary. Brandied blueberries. Maybe that’s it. It tastes so distinctly different from Port. It’s really, really interesting, I think the best way I can describe it is it tastes purple like grape soda mixed with Cola syrup and dried blueberries. It is kind of weird because it does kind of taste like old church in a glass.

Well, Enthusiasts, we have made it to the end of our episode today. And I hope that you learned something about Ukraine because I certainly did. I learned so much more than I knew before. And much of the research for this episode came from world news. Era’s article “Raise a Glass to Ukraine’s Wine History” also the Wines of Ukraine website, urk.wine, and Wine List. And of course, I wouldn’t have this wine if it wasn’t for http://www.wine-searcher.com and their fabulous database that helped me find Ukrainian wine. Cause I’ll tell you what, it was very difficult to find wine from Ukraine here in California. And from what I can tell, it’s just not available in my state. It’s hard to find Ukrainian wine unless you already know what you’re looking for. So I went listing by listing on wine-searcher.com through the category of Ukrainian wine, sifted through a lot of vodka, and eventually found these three bottles, plus a whole handful of a lot more at a shop called Best Buy Liquor Store in Brooklyn, New York. And they were willing to ship to California. Honestly, I paid as much in shipping as I did for the actual wine itself. I think I paid $35 for the three bottles of wine total and $35 for shipping. Was it worth it? Absolutely. If you can go out and get some Ukrainian wine, taste some Shabo with me. You can get it at Best Buy Liquors online, Brooklyn, New York. They have fantastic customer service too. Um, the Kagor was listed on the website in a different bottle shape, and they called me to let me know, “Hey, it’s going to be a different bottle shape. We just want you to know it before it arrives.”

Okay, Enthusiasts once again, thank you so much for joining me. Please subscribe if you want to hear more stories about the wide world of wine and drop a comment below if you want to keep the conversation going, I’ve been your host, Sara, and until the next glass – cheers.

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