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Ukraine’s Fine Wine Industry Endures and Grows in Wartime

Sergiy Stakhovsky’s post-tennis retirement plan was to focus entirely on his winery in Western Ukraine. The former professional player—whose defeat of Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2013 is considered one of the tennis world’s great upsets—launched Stakhovsky Wines with the 2018 vintage to prove to his countrymen that delicious wine could be made in Ukraine.

But when Russia launched its full-scale invasion Feb. 25, 2022, his plans were derailed. He headed to the front lines. “For me it was simple,” he said. “I was born in Ukraine and played on the national team and saw the flag raised for us at the Olympics. I had to fight.”

Speaking to Wine Spectator from the basement of a military compound in Kiev, Stakhovsky reported that morale was low in his division. After weeks of relentless shelling, the city of Avdiivka in Donetsk fell to the Russians Feb. 17, making it the first major territory to be captured in more than nine months. Ukrainian units are running low on ammunition.

“We are tired. We don’t rest, and we feel the world’s support is slowing down,” he confessed. “But we keep fighting because we have no choice—if we stop, we crumble.”

[article-img-container][src=2024-03/ns_stakhovsky-vineyard-030624_1600.jpg] [credit= (Courtesy of Stakhovsky Wines)] [alt= Stakhovsky Wines’ vineyards in the Zakarpattia region in Western Ukraine.][end: article-img-container]

Winemaking as an Act of Resistance

As Ukrainians brace for an uncertain future, an unlikely and somewhat miraculous bright spot in dark times has been the country’s flourishing craft wine movement, which seems to have taken on greater cultural significance in the midst of the war. Since the Russian invasion, 35 new wineries have popped up (some having relocated out of conflict zones), making for a total of 160 producers throughout the country.

Powered by defiance and resolve, Ukrainian producers have become increasingly reliant on international markets to stay afloat. Stakhovsky Wines, along with two other notable estates, Beykush Winery and Château Chizay, are now available in the U.S. with the launch of a new importer, Vyno Ukrainy.

“I’m amazed by the courage and determination of Ukrainian producers,” said Vyno Ukrainy founder Bruce Schneider, a longtime wine industry veteran based in New York. Schneider traveled to Ukraine in 2019 to visit Pereiaslav, south of Kiev, where his maternal grandparents were born. There he discovered many dynamic wine producers. “The country’s wine industry is entering a new chapter of diverse terroirs and rediscovery of local grapes. And right now, there are so many people who want to show support for the Ukrainian people.”

[article-img-container][src=2024-03/ns_beykush-amphora-030624_1600.jpg] [credit= (Courtesy of Beykush)] [alt= A winemaker at Beykush works with amphora.][end: article-img-container]

Ukrainian Wines Are a Reclaimed Tradition

Evidence dates winemaking in Ukraine back 2,800 years ago in the Odessa region. The industry stagnated under Soviet rule, and during former president Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1980s campaign to reduce alcoholism, many of Ukraine’s most historic vineyards were ripped out. As with many former Soviet republics that gained independence in 1991, Ukraine had to resurrect its wine industry from scratch. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 was another blow, as half the nation’s wineries were located there, in soils where ancient Greeks once cultivated vines.

Beykush Winery is located along the Black Sea coastline in the Mykolaiv region near Odessa, which was attacked in the first days of the war. The area is still under Ukrainian control but sits near the border of Russian-occupied territory and suffers regular bombardment.

Svitlana Tsybak, CEO of Beykush and head of the Ukrainian Craft Winemaker Association, said that it was too dangerous to leave the winery for the first few months of the war. They have since resumed work in the vineyards and adjusted to the new normal. “There is still a lot of shelling, but our vineyards are just out of the range of the rockets, so they can’t be hit,” she explained.

[article-img-container][src=2024-03/ns_trubetskoi-after-bombing-030624_1600.jpg] [credit= ] [alt= The bombed château-like home of Prince Trubetskoi Winery.][end: article-img-container]

The historic Prince Trubetskoi Winery in the nearby Kherson region was not as lucky: The famous 128-year-old winery was heavily damaged by Russian bombs, and the vineyards remain full of landmines, so they sit neglected. (There is a project underway to fund its future reconstruction, reported Schneider.)

Founded more than a decade ago by Ukrainian tech entrepreneur Eugene Shneyderis, Beykush is on a peninsula surrounded by water and crafts blends from a myriad of imported and regional grape varieties—Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines from France, Tempranillo and Albariño from Spain, as well as Saperavi and Rkatsiteli and the somewhat-native-to-Ukraine Telti-Kuruk.

“We are not sure where the grape came from,” says Tsybak. “Possibly Turkey?” Historical accounts suggest it came from Armenia and was planted here by Turks during Ottoman times.

Thanks to strong domestic demand, Beykush’s owners did not export their wines before the war, but Tsybak now sends 40 percent of production to outside markets—a critical lifeline to stay afloat. “Many people want to support us, but when they place their fifth order, we know it’s because our wines are good.” Ukraine’s wines can serve as an ambassador, too, she believes. “Wine can play a very important role—it is a tool to communicate that we stay strong.”

A Blend of Western and Eastern Grapes and Techniques

Situated at a safer distance from the intensity of the fighting, Stakhovsky Wines and Chizay are located in the Zakarpattia region in Western Ukraine, near the border of Hungary and Slovakia. A longtime teetotaler, Stakhovsky acquired a taste for wine during the 12 years he played for the Bordeaux tennis club team, Villa Primrose, in the French Team Championship. The team is sponsored by top châteaus including Mouton Rothschild, Haut-Brion and d’Yquem, and when he founded his estate in the limestone soils in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains he still had “one foot in Bordeaux.”

The inclusion of French oak barrels from a top producer in St.-Julien boosted quality in his second vintage, the ACE Cabernet Sauvignon 2019, a polished and elegant wine which will appeal to fans of Napa reds. He’s also trying his hand at orange wine with the lightly honeyed Traminer OW 2022 (OW stands for “walkover”—all his wines are named for tennis terms).

Since Stakhovsky rejoined the military in 2022, his brother has run the winery. “We survive through exports,” he said. Exports accounted for 60 percent of his sales last year. He’s encouraged by the support of the outside world, including a group of Estonians who tried to smuggle out a truck full of wine to sell back home on their return from delivering humanitarian aid.

[article-img-container][src=2024-03/ns_beykush-vineyard-030624_1600.jpg] [credit= (Courtesy of Beykush)] [alt= The vineyards of Beykush are planted on a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea.][end: article-img-container]

Wine Made in Ukraine

As part of the elite National Guard division, Stakhovsky rotates in and out of the front lines and has done everything from ground combat and street patrols in Eastern Ukraine to serving in a mortar unit and conducting anti-terrorism missions. He has been a firsthand witness to the destruction of several Ukrainian cities. “At this point, we are just trying to slow them down.”

It depresses him to think of what will become of his winery if Ukraine loses the war, he said. “The whole point would be meaningless—I created this project for Ukrainians to see the possibility of quality wine our country can create, so it makes no sense if we lose the war.”

In that grim scenario, he sees his career as a soldier extending indefinitely, as he’s convinced the fight will move elsewhere. “Ukraine is not the target. [Russia] wants to go back to the old borders, so that means Poland, Georgia, the Baltic states—all of it,” he said, in reference to what he believes are Putin’s true imperialistic ambitions. “If I’m not fighting them here, I’ll be fighting them in Budapest.”

Still, the wine produced at his and other Ukrainian wineries remains more important than ever, he asserts. “We still carry much hope that we will win. But if we don’t, these bottles will be proof that we existed. They will carry wine that was made in Ukraine by Ukrainian people with Ukrainian grapes. Even after we drink them, the empty bottles will still say ‘Made in Ukraine.’”

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