mEET THE boss
Call Me a Wine Patriot
Igor Serdiuk is a wine expert, journalist, and caviste, as well as Deputy Director at Crimea's Alma Valley wines, and an all-around kind, interesting, extremely knowledgeable person.
It was our pleasure to spend a morning with him (the early hour didn't stop us from trying some Pinot Noir) at his Alma Bar, a hidden space proudly lined with bottles from his vineyard. Each one seems to have a story behind it, which, lucky for us, he was as eager to tell as we were to hear.

Can Russian wine compare to wine from other regions? Crimean winemaking does have a long history, after all, connected from the start to the Mediterranean.

Russia is an organic part of the world's wine culture. Whenever modern journalists call Crimean wine New World wine, I'm like... "What?" <Laughs> The wine culture of these southern Russian regions is as old as that in the South of France. Both were founded by the ancient Greeks, and the oldest indigenous varietals of Crimea and the northern Caucasus date back to that time. In climate and in latitude, our conditions are very similar to Europe's. The latitude of Crimea and the northern Caucasus is the same as that of Bordeaux, Piemonte, or Veneto. It's the famous Western Crimea. What does that give the producer? The wine grape has two measures of maturity – sugar content (from heat) and phenolic content (from light). Normally, when both are mature, when there's enough of both, we have fully matured grapes. There are other climatic influences, like rainfall, wind, and so on, so that alone doesn't necessarily guarantee excellent wine. But the 45th parallel creates practically optimal conditions for maturation in both regards.

Does it have to do with the dry climate?

Yes, exactly. First of all, the 45th parallel has excellent soil, akin to the right bank of Bordeaux, which is basically chalky clay. But it's a much drier climate, with more continental influence. It's hot, but still near the warm Black Sea, which creates Mediterranean climate conditions. So there's this unique composition of Bordeaux soil and Bordeaux's latitude and Mediterranean climate. Like Sicily and Bordeaux in one place. The obvious advantages – heat and light necessary for grape maturation, come with challenges – without much water, we need to irrigate.

Manually?

No, using drip irrigation. Water supply's an issue, so it's absolutely essential to find and save water. We're working on what's called sustainable viticulture. We need to supply our water sustainably, keeping in mind our environmental conditions; all the water we have needs to be stored and reproduced. In this regard, Crimean winemaking resembles Chilean. But another important thing is that this climate naturally protects the grapes from illnesses like oidium mildew. Our vineyards don't require a lot of chemical sprays.

Whereas, in the Mediterranean, they use chemicals and pesticides?

There's much more water; they have to use them.

So it sounds like you could almost fit into the natural, or "natty," wine movement that's gaining popularity especially in the west.

Yes, we produce as naturally as we can, but we're not too fanatic about the organic movement. We're almost organic; we have domestically-issued organic certification and are aiming next for an international one.
And that's basically thanks to the climate.

Not just the climate – we're also replacing mineral fertilizers with organic ones (compost and manure). Compost fertilizer production is quite costly, as are the water conservation methods and all the modern equipment involved.

Do these challenges affect the wine itself?

Our wine is healthier. Healthier soil, healthier wine. You might say it tastes organic and natural. But, trust me, good wine is always natural. Everything extra is absorbed by sediments, filtered out. Good wine is always clean and natural.

Tell us about Crimean varietals.

So far, we only have European varietals that were planted by our predecessors, foreign consultants who were invited to explore the terroir. At the time, they couldn't advise us to plant indigenous varietals, because they didn't know any. Even now, it's difficult to find good, young plants, because the Crimean nurseries that had those native, indigenous plants have been destroyed, a consequence of the difficult period following the economic crisis of the '90s. When we first came to Crimea, the surrounding vineyard areas were just devastated land.

No one had been maintaining it?

Winemaking demands long money. The economic crisis caused hyperinflation throughout the former Soviet Union. You can't produce wine in those conditions. Now we're trying to get long money back to Crimea, to winemaking. It's a huge challenge.

Are you looking for foreign participation?

No; now big capital is returning to this long-term investment. Russian capitalists are going back there, which is very encouraging. That makes me optimistic.

Is it about politics or sanctions? Some people are putting more money into more local products.

It started before sanctions. The first signs of long-term investment began in the early 2000s with new Russian wineries producing quality wines in a variety of more European-oriented, customer-oriented styles. Then, between 2006 and 2008, new Crimean vineyards were planted. Store shelves previously stocked only French or New World wines; suddenly, domestically-produced wine was emerging as a competitor. Russian wineries were coming back.

How has wine production adjusted to suit the customer's taste?

Since the mid '90s, wine has been becoming a part of everyday culture, at least for certain people. The market grew more saturated with different wines, more affordable wines arrived from abroad, prices fell due to overproduction. Which was good – more people could buy wine regularly. But then foreign wines were cheaper than domestic ones. That's challenging for us. And sanctions limit our equipment supply. So not everyone wants to supply barrels or plants to Crimea. But we look ahead, we're optimistic.

Grape growing on the land of the ancient Scythians
Are those components beginning to be made locally?

Some, yes. There's a domestic nursery revival program, which provides more plants for us, including local and indigenous ones. That means new varietals for us – old, forgotten varietals that used to be there and were abandoned.

Like what?

There's one called Kefesia, an ancient Crimean red varietal, but it needs more research before we can produce quality wine from it. There's also Kokur, a white varietal. We'll be planting it next spring. Kokur is actually a very promising varietal, especially for the elegant dry wines, popular now.

Imported wines acclimated the consumer to drier wines, with bright fruity tannins, juicy aromas...that style of dry wine hadn't existed in Russian winemaking. Now it's back, because the Russian consumer wanted us to produce it for them. Producing this kind of wine, based on international taste but made by local vineyards, we saw a growing wave of interest. Russian consumers are coming back to Russian wines.

So are there feelings of pride, maybe some nationalism, involved in that?

Let's call it patriotism. I don't like the word "nationalism." Yes, we are wine patriots. Call me a wine patriot.

Or maybe a wine historian, bringing the culture back.

Winemaking is about heritage – and not only the ancient culture we've inherited. It's also about the 19th century aristocrats like Count Vorontsov, who's famous for resurrecting Crimean vineyards, but also for selling his family's Russian estate to pay for Russian officers' wine while they were fighting in Paris. After the war, they came back to Russia and started rebuilding wineries. Guys like Prince Golitsyn spent a lot of money (his own, his wife's, his lover's, and some of his relatives') to build wineries in Crimea. It probably wasn't the best way to spend money, but it goes to show that it was a passion for them. It's a part of our heritage. We're doing something that deserves the same care and attention as the wine they produced in the 19th century.

Another aspect of this heritage: as far back as 6 B.C., the Scythians, skilled craftsmen, produced gold jewelry, which they used to buy wine from the Greeks. [Some of the artifacts have even turned up in the Alma Valley vineyard. Ed.] Crimean wines, produced by Greeks, drunk by Scythians, who paid in gold….

Has domestic winemaking continued to survive the more recent economic crisis?

So far, we're getting help from the government, actually. Maybe not for long, but we're getting subsidies to plant new vineyards. That's important.

So, the government is recognizing that this is an important thing to support.

Yes, that's true. But the government could also be helping through taxes. When I was a student in the '80s and early '90s, a bottle of vodka cost 10 rubles; you could buy three bottles of quality wine for that much. So, in the '70s-'90s, Russians were consuming much more wine, 20-21 liters per capita, compared to 5-6 liters now. Now, wine is more expensive than vodka and beer. The government used to regulate it; now it doesn't. If the government is really interested in changing the model of spirit consumption and shifting it toward wine, taxation should change. It's a huge challenge, because cheap vodka has become a new tradition, a commodity product. It'd be difficult to make it expensive again. It'd be produced locally, at home, in villages, but the government would have to do something about it.

Sounds like there's a lot more history to cover, but we'd also like to ask a few personal questions.

What was your own introduction to wine like? Do you have any particular memories, any first favorites?

Well, first of all, there was this tradition of giving children a spoonful of wine…. I don't even know why, but every single mother at the time would do it. A spoonful, for example, of the famous Kagor, a sweet, full-bodied version of the French Cahors. It's supposed to be good for your health, for some reason. So, good mothers would give you a spoon of it either to sleep well or...

Calm you down so that Mom can take a break….

Maybe so. So it started from there. Later on, I was in Moscow State University's journalism department, and journalism students tend to drink. But it was the aftermath of Gorbachev's notorious 1985 anti-alcohol campaign, and then there was the early '90s economic crisis and the end of winemaking. So it was very difficult to find something good to drink. My interest in wine grew out of this contrast, that a bottle of wine could contain something very bad or something truly amazing.
Igor Serdiuk
After graduation, I was invited to be Assistant Photo Editor at The Moscow Times. My specialty was journalism, but I also had photography experience, and I needed a job, which weren't easy to find. I was left enough freedom that I started working as acting Photo Editor and eventually became Deputy Photo Editor. The other photographers called me the Senior Port Editor, because we'd always drink port wine in the dark room at the The Moscow Times office. The dark room was also our tasting room.

And that's how I was actually introduced to wine, in The Moscow Times's dark room. Back then, there wasn't much dry wine, so port was almost synonymous with good wine. It marked the very beginning of the new wine market in Russia, the first imported wine, in 1993. In '94, I published an article for the first issue of Vitrina magazine, about La Galerie du Vin, the first wine company to present quality wine from France.

So, from that first little spoonful...

To the crazy university times, to the dark room/tasting room.

Was there a point when you felt qualified drinking wine?

Yes. Step by step, story by story, interview by interview. Talking to wine-makers, sommeliers, you get some experience. After 20 years of writing about wine, talking with wine people, you get a lot of it. So, 20 years in, I started receiving invitations to be on tasting panels for wine competitions and producers. They wanted my opinion, my advice. They wanted to know how foreign winemakers would do it, and, having traveled and talked to people about wine all over the world, I had unique experience with that. Then I was invited to join the Abrau Durso production team, tasting and blending wines. The wine blending process is really essential, and that gave me the unique opportunity to learn how blends are created. One of my most important teachers was Hervé Jestin. He's still in France, doing excellent work for producers of Champagne and other sparkling wines.

Of course, we have lots of different teachers and trajectories. One of my local teachers, Nikolay Mekhouzla, is a native Georgian who actually explained to us all the basics of winemaking, what winemaking is about. Every time we tasted together, it was a lesson.

So, I may not have a diploma in winemaking, but I have a great deal of experience.

How did you move into wine production?

After those years creating blends for Abrau Durso, I was already an experienced blender. I wasn't yet a part of Alma Valley when it first started in 2006. I was invited in 2014 when a new market for development appeared in Russia. An investor invited my friend and business partner Andrey Grigoryev to become General Director, and he invited me as his deputy.

So this all happened kind of naturally. You hadn't predicted you'd end up here.

Never. But maybe it's part of my personal heritage; my parents were agronomists. My father, being from the Kuban region, was a Kuban kozak, all of whom were winemakers by definition. We never talked to my father about it, but he was certainly close to wine.

And, now, do you have children of your own?

I have a daughter of 15. She likes wine, but she still hasn't decided what she wants to be.

Does she have a sophisticated palate?

Oh, yes!

Because she's been taught well?

And because she's traveled with me to a lot of wine regions.

Do you have a favorite wine?

All the Alma wines are like my children. I love them all. And they're all different. You can start an evening perfectly with Riesling and finish perfectly with Merlot.

Some people take it so seriously, like wine and food pairings.

That's up to you. You can do that, or not. <Laughs>

It's all about enjoyment.

So what would you say to people who are still intimidated by wine? When I was younger, I really wanted to know about wine, but there are so many bottles to choose from. Finally I learned just to relax and pick one.

First of all, you shouldn't be afraid of wine. Wine is good for you. Wine isn't dangerous, if you can drink it. It's like, don't be afraid of the sea – just learn to swim. If you know how to swim, it's not dangerous, you can enjoy it. If you're a sophisticated wine connoisseur, you really enjoy your wine tasting. It's a pleasure, and it's actually good for you.

Do you have any advice for starting out in the wine industry, for those who want to build a career in wine?

First of all, you need to be in love with wine. You asked about my favorite wine. I couldn't say now. But, to start out, you need to have a favorite wine, to find your perfect ideal that awakens your enthusiasm and passion. You start with love. Once you love it, you cherish it. And it's not about exploiting the subject of your passion. When you love it, you feel deeply involved with it, how dear the wines are to you.

What do you love most about your work at Alma Valley? Is there one particularly rewarding aspect?

I'm tempted to say it's being a part of the process of creation, a part of the team, feeling in your fingers the creation of something that's almost ideal. It's very touching.

What can we expect to see from the region?

More and more beautiful wines and other products, including distillates, sparkling wine, and unexpected products and styles.

And what about those old and new varietals?

Both! Stay tuned.
Meet the Boss at
Alma Valley Bar
Pogodinskaya street, 4