Discovering Black Sea wine

The Black Sea has a long and often turbulent history but is perhaps now emerging from its past. Six countries directly border the Black Sea - Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey, and Georgia – and many other neighboring countries have a history closely connected with it. That history includes a long and wide experience in wine making.

The region

Way back in history, the Black Sea was a freshwater inland lake. It may be surmised that the lands around the lake were well populated and agriculture and fishing prospered. Around 5600 BC it is believed that the Mediterranean Sea broke through the Bosporus and led to its formation as a sea rather than a lake. The breaching of the Bosporus created a Niagara style flood of water into the lake that continued for several years. This “flood” is considered by some to be the origin of Noah’s Ark. The rise in water levels caused a major dispersion of the population into the surrounding areas and is believed to be a reason for the wide mixture of ethnic groups across the broader region around the Black Sea.

The Black Sea is over 168,340 square miles (436,000 square kilometers) which is almost twice the size of the UK. Its position meant that it was once a busy crossroads in the ancient world at a time when the eastern Mediterranean and surrounding areas were of major trade and political importance. It was colonized by the Greeks in the 8th century and later by the Romans. Its importance abruptly changed when the Ottomans occupied Constantinople, and changed its name to Istanbul, in 1453. For the next four hundred years, the Black Sea was virtually closed to foreign commerce. It was not until the Treaty of Paris in 1856, which ended the Crimean War, that the Black Sea was opened to commerce of all nations.

However, many of the countries in and around the Black Sea became part of the Soviet Union and western access to the Black Sea was limited. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s led to independence for many countries. The breakdown of the Soviet Union also coincided with the collapse of soviet linked Yugoslavia and the emergence of new countries: Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, many of the emerging countries have joined the EU or are planning to do so. In just a few short years, therefore, a large swathe of countries has changed its focus from the northeast Moscow and communism to the West free enterprise and opportunities. The emergence of these opportunities has coincided in some cases with a straining of relations with Moscow, trade restrictions and hence a greater need for access to western markets. Wine is an important asset for many of these countries and a major element in their expanding economies.

The wine

The history of wine in the area goes back at least 6,000 years and several countries, including Georgia and Bulgaria, claim to be the birthplace of wine. Successive Greek and, particularly, Roman colonization ensured that wine production prospered. The Mediterranean climate meant good growing conditions for the wines.

The Turkish control of the Black Sea, however, led to the decline of wine production in the region. Phylloxera, in the late 1800s was a further devastating blow. The wars and conflicts in the area also had a negative impact. Any revival in the 1980s was curtailed by Gorbachev’s major anti alcohol campaign. This continued to have a major impact even after independence. In 2006, President Putin banned the import of wine from Moldova and Georgia. The pretext was that the wines were contaminated. The ban has since been lifted.

Nowadays, each of the countries in the region is anxious to export. Exports to Russia have dropped significantly and new markets are essential. Importers see many reasons to be excited about the region. The climate is good, costs are low and, perhaps above all, the region is a source of new wines waiting to be discovered. Importantly, also, the long tradition of grape growing and wine making has led to rules and regulations, and classifications that both help to delineate regions and protect quality. These regulations and classifications can give an importer added assurance on both quality and character. The new free enterprise economies are also attracting investment and with it modern production know how, and facilities.

Although still early days, modern DNA and other testing techniques are revealing a store of different, often unique, grape varieties. Sometimes these grape varieties are ones that have originated in the region and then moved out through colonization. One example is the Crljenak Kastelanski grape from Croatia. This was revealed in 2001 to be the grape that moved to Puglia in Southern Italy where it is known as Primitivo and then on to California where it is known as Zinfandel.

Large wine importers in Western Europe are focusing on the Black Sea and surrounding region, identifying and listing an increasing number of new wines. This emerging trend is also evident amongst other retailers. Problems faced by such innovative retailers are perhaps not so much the wines themselves but convincing western consumers, who currently have a huge choice of wines from more accustomed sources, to try them. Within this problem, there is the very significant issue of many of the grape names not only being unknown to them but also unpronounceable. Given that many western consumers buy wine on grape and familiarity, it might well be difficult to persuade people to buy an unknown, unpronounceable grape from an unfamiliar country.