In the 13-plus months since Russia launched its brutal war on Ukraine, the country’s once-blossoming wine industry has suffered incalculable damage. Storied chateaux have been bombed into wreckage, century-old cellars have been looted and prominent winemakers have been killed. With battles continuing and upcoming offensives rumored for the spring, the situation remains in flux. Yet even with Ukraine still fighting for its very survival, insiders point to hopeful signs for the country’s wine industry and ways for outsiders to support it.
A quick recap: Over the course of roughly a decade prior to the Russian invasion, Ukrainian wine experienced a renaissance, turning away from the high-volume industrial production of the post-Soviet Era and embracing quality. Some of that shift was inspired by Georgia, the country’s regional neighbor across the Black Sea. It also built on historic influences from the Swiss and French winemakers who set up many of Ukraine’s vineyards in the 19th century. While most of the country’s production is made with well-known grapes, local vintners were also starting to find success with their own varieties, she notes.
“We grow a lot of international grapes, and Georgian grapes, as well—Rkatsiteli and Saperavi,” says Evgenia Nikolaichuk, a sommelier who works as an ambassador for Wines of Ukraine. “But during last five years Ukrainian wineries started to work more and more with our local grapes, like Odessa Black and Telti Kuruk.”
But that burgeoning renaissance was stomped by the Russian invasion that started on February 24, 2022. Vintners, sommeliers and grape growers—including the former tennis pro turned winemaker Sergiy Stakhovsky—left their cellars to enlist in their country’s defense. Due to Ukraine’s sprawling geography and Russia’s earlier invasion and purported annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, many of its wineries quickly found themselves on the front lines.
An Overload of Challenges
Even if it were limited to the world of Ukrainian wine, a list of every atrocity committed by Russian forces would be too long to include here. For Anatolii Pavlovskyi, a U.K.-based Ukrainian expat who holds an advanced WSET Level 3 certificate, the biggest crimes include the destruction of Prince Trubetskoi Winery and the looting of its historic cellars. Founded in 1889 on the banks of the Dnipro River near Kherson, Prince Trubetskoi was occupied by Russian troops at the start of the invasion. While it has now been ostensibly liberated, the area remains under constant fire, preventing management from even assessing the extent of the damage.
Another great loss, he says, is Artwinery, the country’s largest maker of sparkling wine. Previously, it produced as many as 19 million bottles annually, all using the traditional method. However, its home city of Bakhmut has been a focal point for the war recently, with both sides fighting furiously to win it.
“As you could imagine, everything is destroyed,” Pavlovskyi says. Before the conflict, Artwinery managed to move some five million bottles to new warehouses near Odessa, away from the fighting, but the majority of its stock was left behind. “They have miles of wine cellars underground where they were keeping the older vintages, and we don’t know what has happened with them,” he continues. “We do know that the production facilities were completely destroyed.”
That destruction goes beyond mere buildings. Over the last year, many of the country’s winemakers, growers and sommeliers have been killed by Russian aggression. Some fell in battle after enlisting. Others—like Sergii Zolotar, a consultant who worked for the Vinoman winery in the northern region of Chernigiv—were killed by Russian bombs far beyond the front lines.
Another victim is, naturally enough, the local market for wine: People are not inspired to buy and enjoy great bottles when they’re primarily worried about rockets hitting their homes.
“You can just understand that consumption within Ukraine has decreased, because in Ukraine wine is a festive drink,” he says. “So for a lot of our winemakers, it’s really important to look to international markets.”
And then there are the vines. Not only have Ukrainian grapes been blasted by bombs and mortar fire, but many vineyards, like those at Prince Trubetskoi Winery, have also been peppered with land mines by retreating Russian forces. That makes them extremely dangerous until they are de-mined, a process that could last a decade or more once the war ends, whenever that is.
A Hopeful Future
Things are bad, but Svetlana Tsybak, the general manager of Beykush Winery and the head of the Ukrainian Association of Craft Winemakers, says that there are a few hopeful signs.
To start, there’s a renewed sense of solidarity, with the country presenting its wares under a unified banner for the first time at this year’s ProWein, the international wine and spirits trade show in Düsseldorf, Germany. A dozen leading producers, including Stakhovsky, Prince Trubetskoi and Kolonist, were featured at the shared “Wines of Ukraine” presentation booth.
“All three days, it was crowded by journalists, buyers and importers from many countries,” Tsybak says. “We’re very proud that Ukrainian wines are getting appreciated by experts and connoisseurs, and chosen by customers.”
As they look to the future, many Ukrainian wineries are effectively starting over. Prince Trubetskoi has announced that it will rebrand as Stoic Winery, and that it plans to rebuild its historic chateau and replant its vineyards, “once the land has been de-mined.”
Other producers managed to make it through despite the challenges, with 2022 ironically emerging as a surprisingly good year—at least in terms of grapes, Tysbak notes, and only in those places where it was possible to bring in the harvest.
“It was a dry year, without vine diseases, and the harvest was of good quality. It was also a bigger volume,” she says.
While much has been destroyed and the war is still ongoing, the association is already working to repair damaged wineries and vineyards with its Ukrainian Winemaking Reconstruction Fund. Only a few donations have arrived from North America thus far, Tysbak says, but the association is hoping for more.
When asked how else outsiders can help, Nikolaichuk suggests that wine lovers drink up and reach out.
“If you see any Ukrainian bottle of wine, just try it,” she says. “And if any importers and distributors are interested, just contact the wineries directly.”
After a year of war, Tsybak says that it’s important to keep trying to get the word out.
“We want to tell everyone that Ukrainian wines are very good, that we produce high quality wines,” she says. “And that we’re still alive.”
Last Updated: June 6, 2023