Wine is not known to be Moscow’s favorite drink. As any glance at the city’s bars, menus and shops reveals, there is a vast range of booze on offer, but spirits and beer rule.
However, the situation has vastly improved from Soviet times, when wine was something close to a rarity. Upscale supermarkets now boast bottles from such global producers as Australia, Latin America and South Africa.
On the other hand, the traditional growing countries Georgia and Moldova have been hit by a political fallout with Moscow, resulting in an all-out trade ban, wiping their wines from shelves all over the country.
For connoisseurs, the situation is still far from optimal.
“Moscow is not a great place for wine, mainly because prices are so high,” said Charles Borden, who runs the web site Russiawines.com. The reason why even down-market wines sell at 200 rubles ($8) and good bottles usually go for more than twice that amount lies not in taxation but in the local market, Borden, an investment banker, said in a telephone interview.
Importers, distributors and retailers were clinging to much higher margins than in the West, he said.
And while variety had greatly improved, Moscow still had to catch up with other big cities around the world. “You now get a decent selection, but not that broad variety like in the U.S.” Borden said, adding that this was because only a small number of importers would ship bottles from certain regions of origin.
Hrachia Atanesyan, director of Wine Club Marketing and Consulting, pointed to shortcomings in the retail sector. “The biggest minus is the shortage of good staff able to consult consumers,” he said in a telephone interview. Storage and transport were also problems, exposing wine to sun, heat and vibration. And cheaper wines, he added, needed better care.
A recent wine tasting at Atanesyan’s club, which he said boasted 100 active members, turned out three favorites: Zinfandel from California, Sauvignon Blanc from Australia and Pinotage from South Africa.
Atanesyan said that while he considered the ban on Georgian wine to be unjustified, he did not very much miss the wine. There were some very good wines from Georgia, which used to sell 80 percent of its output in Russia, but its exports suffered from similar quality problems as Russian produce and wine from his native Armenia. “If I want to drink Georgian wine, I ask a friend to bring me bottle from Tbilisi,” he added.
The wine ban has been frustrating expats eager to try local produce that is rare or impossible to get in the West. Visit any Georgian restaurant in Moscow and gaze at Italian and French wines on the menu selling for 1,000 to 2,000 rubles ($40 to $80) a bottle.
A reporter trying the more affordable house wine at a midrange Georgian eatery got a glass of dry red that tasted surprisingly smooth but had an eerie scent of grape juice. When asked where it was from, the friendly Kyrgyz waiter replied “from Abkhazia” — which sounded more like a political compromise, being a breakaway republic from Georgia under Russian tutelage.
A good outlet for locally produced alcohol is the Praskoveya store (pictured on previous page) near the Krasnopresnenskaya metro station. Although it is no longer directly owned by it, the shop boasts an extensive range of bottles from the Praskoveya winery near the southern city of Budyonnovsk in the Stavropol region. Said to be Russia’s oldest and largest wine factory, Praskoveya also harvests Georgian grape varieties like the Saperavi red and the Rkatsiteli white.
The store, located on Malaya Gruzinskaya Ulitsa (”Small Georgian Street”), also sells an impressive range of local brandies, including those from Dagestan and the more famous ones from Armenia.
And even though much of the shelf space is devoted to bottles imported from Western countries, manager Yevgeny Brekhov said he made 60 percent of his turnover with local brands. “Customers are price sensitive,” he said.
When asked about good Russian wine, most experts point to Chateau le Grand Vostok. The French-run venture on a former Soviet vineyard near the Black Sea coast said it sold 475,000 bottles last year and plans to increase sales by 30 percent this year.
“The alcohol market is growing and especially in Moscow the ‘elite’ sector is on the up as consumers are moving from spirits to lower-alcohol beverages,” the winery’s marketing director Alexei Pomerantsev said in an e-mailed statement.
Atanesyan agreed. “People are beginning to live better and they demand more quality,” he said.
And Borden pointed out that importing great quantities of poor-quality wine no longer worked in Russia. “Consumers are becoming more sophisticated,” he said.
In a sign that this is also understood by Russian producers, the Praskoveya store is selling vintage bottles of its claret. The 1998 vintage is going for 1,450 rubles ($57) while the 1955 bottle costs 18,150 rubles ($73).