Kazakhs love their wine, and they have been drinking it for more than 1,300 years.
However, the modern winemaking industry in Kazakhstan is surprisingly young. The earliest modern day experiments took place on collective farms in the Almaty, Shymkent and Taraz regions in the 1930s. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had begun deporting hundreds of thousands of people from their original homelands further east to Kazakhstan. So it’s not surprising that these early efforts at winemaking used methods common in Georgia and the Caucasus – a major winemaking region from ancient times through today, – as well as in Moldova and Ukraine.
And these peasant refugees and survivors from those regions brought their local vine-growing and wine-making techniques with them. It was only after the hard-fought victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 that the age of modern winemaking finally came to Kazakhstan. “The climate and nature of the southern regions were recognized as ideal for wine making,” Anatoly Kisilev of the Bacchus Company told EdgeKz. “The warmth of a fruitful soil, clean air and water, the riches of traditions sung by Kazakh poets saturate the colorful bouquet of our produce and shed light on it. And the phrase ‘the Sun in a glass’ becomes crystal clear.”
By 1976, grapevines to produce wines were being cultivated on more than 22,311 hectares on 26 specialized farms. The quality was good and getting better, but no one outside what was still the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic knew about them yet. British writer Christopher Robbins relates in his delightful travel book Apples are from Kazakhstan that when then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa visited Kazakhstan in 1987, they had never heard of its local wines even though Gorbachev prided himself on being a connoisseur of internationally acclaimed vintages. They were both pleasantly surprised and impressed when the local vintages were rolled out for them.
Today, Kazakhstan’s vintages are receiving the respect they deserve. The finest varieties of grapes are grown on the lower hills and outlying ridges of the Tian Shan mountain range in the far south that extends to the suburbs of Almaty. The main vineyards and wineries remain concentrated in that area and around Taraz and Shymkent. They can be found close to the country’s southern borders with China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. A few of them are even located around the coasts of the Caspian Sea to the west. For although Kazakhstan is vast, the ninth largest nation in area in the world, only about 4 percent of its territory is suitable for high quality viticulture. But the Kazakhs have revived the discriminating tastes of their ancestors. The widespread consumption of wine goes well, as this author can testify, with the culture of hospitality and friendliness that characterizes the Kazakh people.
To satisfy this demand, the domestic wine industry today makes a whopping 6.2 million gallons (236,000 hectolitres) of wine every year, even though the total land area of the country’s vineyards has shrunk from 22,000 hectares 36 years ago to only 13,000 hectares today. The people of Kazakhstan consume 30 million bottles of wine every year, almost two bottles for every man, woman and child in the country. And only 20 percent, or one fifth, of that consumption can be satisfied by local production. The rest is purchased and imported from abroad.
The pioneer vintners of the steppes 1,300 years ago would be astonished if they could see the machines and technologies that go into modern winemaking. The volume of output from today’s wineries would delight and astonish them. But once they sipped the new “Sun in a Glass” vintages produced by these modern methods, they would feel much more at home as the ancient traditions of quality winemaking, like the culture of hospitality that accompanies it, are alive and well in the 21st century Kazakhstan.
The Taste of Wines to Come
Broadening the Local Palate
The people of Kazakhstan love their wines, but they have traditionally focused their tastes on sweet dessert wines with meals and cognacs in the evening. However, local vintners are planning to expand their range of brands as an era of exploration and experimentation has begun in the nation’s wine industry.
There’s a sense among local winemakers that Kazakhstan has great potential to move beyond the country’s traditional dessert wines, winemakers told EdgeKz. Underlining this potential is the fact that Kazakhstan is home to a remarkable variety of grapes – more than 40 of them. Yet more than 50 percent of annual production is limited to providing grapes as fruit rather than using them to produce a greater variety of wines. The country already grows the grapes to make Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling Muscat Ottonell, Aligote, Bayan Shira, Kuljinski, Maiski Chernby, Aleatico, Saperavi, Rkatsiteli and Rubinovy Magaracha wines.
Until recently, the strongest influence on Kazakh winemaking has been the more well-known Georgian varieties from the Caucasus. Local tastes still run to unsophisticated sweet red wines for which the Georgians are famous. But these traditional tastes are going to change as Kazakhstan continues to emerge onto the international stage, and winemakers say they are poised to adapt to the more global market.
The Issyk Winery in the village of Issyk 40 km east of Almaty is the shape of things to come. Over the past 16 years it has led the way in bringing Kazakhstan’s winemaking up to international standards. In 1996, the Issyk Winery was bought by Consulting Group, which is based in Switzerland. Recently, a local company, Dostar, purchased it. The Consulting Group brought in Italian and Australian experts and introduced such technological innovations as sweeping arm fermenters, air bag presses, cross flow filtration and nitrogen production. It was the first time these so-called “New World” technologies had been employed in Central Asia. Now these sophisticated systems are being operated smoothly on behalf of a local ownership.
The innovations that Issyk pioneered have been carefully studied by old and new sister companies that have also risen to the challenge of the new global market place. “We already offer more than 50 alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Every day our wine makers are working hard on creating new wine and cognac brands, elevating the production to the next level, according to international standards,” Anatoly Kisilev of the Bacchus Company told EdgeKz. Kisilev added that providing a wider range of products from the wide variety of available grapes was the key to expanding the local market and demand for his firm’s wines.
Veteran winemaker Artush Karapetyan, the elder statesman of the winemaking industry of Kazakhstan, has learned the same lesson. He told EdgeKz his Winnac Company has already diversified its output. “Winnac already produces different brands of cognac, brandy, wine and chacha wine,” Karapetyan said. “We make them from classic vines such as Rkatsitelli, Aligote, Pino, Cabernet and Saperavi grapes that were originally imported into the country. But we also use domestic grapes such as Kuljinski and Bayan Shira.”
Even frequent visitors to Kazakhstan are now finding new wines upon each return and winemakers say we have only taken the first sip of what is to come for wines in Kazakhstan.
The Elder Statesman of Kazakh Winemaking
Artush Karapetyan is a living legend. The modern history of winemaking in Kazakhstan can be written from his biography.
Karapetyan’s parents were Armenians who were among the hundreds of thousands of people forcibly deported to the steppes of Kazakhstan and dropped there to fend for themselves by Soviet ruler Josef Stalin in the late 1930s. Like so many others, Karapetyan’s parents found refuge and a warm welcome in their new homeland. And he has repaid the debt with a life of service to his country. “I have been in this business for 40 years and I know it very well,” he told EdgeKz. “That is why I was chosen as president of the Winemaker’s Union.”
Karapetyan’s 60 years of experience encompasses the old state-owned wine and cognac-producing industries of the Soviet era and the wave of innovation and diversification that have revitalized the winemaking industry of modern Kazakhstan.
Now well into his 70s, he found the idea of retiring inconceivable and since 2004 has led the successful Winnac Company, which he founded. His achievements have won him international renown, including the Association of French Winemakers Golden SPI medal in 2001 and the coveted Napoleon Medal in 2003. “Today, (Winnac) is a modern wine making enterprise with a developed infrastructure. Our wine cellars have a capacity to store up to 180,000 to 200,000 barrels of cognac for three to six years. We imported modern Italian wine-making technology that meets the most demanding world standards. Our wines and cognacs are kept and mature in oak barrels that are 80 to 100 years old. The modern bottling system we use processes up to 6,000 bottles per hour.”
Winnac produces different brands of cognac, brandy, wine and chacha (vodka wine). “We make them from classic vines such as Rkatsitelli, Aligote, Pino, Cabernet and Saperavi grapes that were originally imported into the country. But we also use domestic grapes such as Kuljinski and Bayan Shira.”
Winnac is an example of modern wine production in Central Asia. It combines high production volume, broad brand differentiation and strict quality control. Winnac wines have won 11 gold and seven silver medals in international wine expositions over the last eight years. “Today, we make four different brands of champagne, 22 kinds of wine, 5 different cognacs, three types of chacha and four kinds of non-alcoholic beverages,” Karapetyan said. “We bottle up to 30,000 bottles of cognac per month… Our products are made from local genuine raw local ingredients and we have our own vine yards in southern Kazakhstan.”
Even in his eighth decade, Karapetyan still radiates a boyish enthusiasm. “I enjoy watching our production work and following every stage of the process,” he told EdgeKz. “When I approve my signature on the bottles, I mean it. It’s the philosophy by which I’ve lived my life.”
Karapetyan said one of his biggest remaining challenges is to expand the market for high quality wines and cognacs in his own coutnry. “(Kazakhs) like to drink vodka in the evenings and sweet table wines with their meals. Our goal is to educate our consumers so that they diversify more widely, and with discrimination to explore the wide range of wines, champagnes and cognacs.”
“After all these years, wine making still enchants me with its mystery,” Karapetyan continued. “The grapes somehow transform into that aromatic, god-like beverage: The dark cognacs, the cobwebbed oak barrels, all this is an integral part of the classic repertoire of wine making. Preserving and developing the great traditions of making wine and cognac are the meaning of my life.”
Bacchus Winery Lives Up to Its Name
When tourists, educators, industrialists and engineers fly home to the four points of the compass after visiting Kazakhstan, odds are they’ll be carrying at least one bottle of high quality cognac as a gift or reminder of their time in the country.
Founded in 1948, Bacchus is one of the oldest wine-making companies in Kazakhstan and it has become a symbol of the country’s successful development. Bacchus grew fast. In 1950, it had already produced its first batch of 5,000 bottles of champagne to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. The company grew so fast, in fact, that within another two years it had produced 300,000 bottles of the sparkling drink.
Today, Bacchus lives up its name – the ancient Roman god of wine. The company produces more than 80 alcoholic beverages including cognac (brandy), champagne, vodka, wine and sparkling waters. “We’re constantly trying to advance and extend our boundaries,” company spokesman Anatoly Kisilev told EdgeKz. “We are always working on improving our production technology and quality control. And we never stop experimenting and exploring, looking to expand our range of products.”
By 1965, the production volume had soared to an enormous 300,000 bottles of champagne per year. Brandy, or cognac, rapidly grew in popularity too. By 1974, the company was importing basic alcohol to brew the cognac from Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria and France – and it was producing no less than 260,000 bottles of it every year.
The company continues to progress with the times. “In 2010, we introduced two new cognac brands – Bacchus of Kazakhstan and Dyarmen, and a new light sparkling wine called VetoProseco,” Kisilev said. “New winemaking technologies that were pioneered in Italy and Russia have been introduced and they have proved successful. They have allowed us to produce a new range of wines including our own Chardonnay, Merlot and Saperavi Classic brands.” The main Bacchus winery is in Almaty. It is an impressive complex covering 7.2 hectares with its own railway spur and loading station. The company has been re-equipped with modern equipment from Germany and Italy. And it has its own state-of-the-art production laboratory and advanced quality control system.
Bacchus needs these advantages of organization and mass production. Today, it produces an extraordinary 36.5 million bottles of cognac, wine and vodka a year. But for all its size and success, the company hasn’t forgotten the classic traditions of hospitality and good-cheer that have always accompanied the consumption of wine in the lands of the Kazakhs. “Bacchus is a hospitable host,” Kisilev said. “As is considered proper in Kazakhstan, our doors are always open for visitors. Anyone interested is invited for a tour. Our specialists will be glad to explain and show the stages of production, show our numerous workshops and halls and share the history and development of wine making in the country. “Visitors will experience the chill of wine cells, smell the heady scent of wooden barrels, and sample a wide range of products,” he said. So next time you’re in Almaty, stop by the winery and share a glass with some of the country’s most established wine makers.