Authorial winemaking in Ukraine is on the edge of being leisure hobby and commerce. Some winemakers manage to turn their hobby into a profitable business, others having been engaged in the production of wine for the purpose of moneymaking, get addicted to this forever. We collected three stories of entrepreneurs who have come to the production of authorial, exclusive wines for various reasons. Though, all three of them sincerely fell in love with this occupation.
Back to the roots
On August 5, 2013 a man knocked the gate of the ancient English winery Chapel Down Winery, located in the town of Tenterden, Kent. After the interview, it turned out that the stranger was originally from Ukraine, and was very much into the process of winemaking. The Ukrainian was hired as a worker. However, he had his own mission. New winery employee carefully watched how British producers were making their sparkling wines. A few weeks later, the Ukrainian went home. The strange employee turned out to be the owner of the Ukrainian “Colonist” winery – Ivan Plachkov. Two years later, the first bottle of sparkling wine under its own brand “Biser” was sent to mature in the wine cellars.
Their own sparkling wine is the newest product of the Plachkov’s winery. He was one of the first to run authorial winemaking in Ukraine. Now his factory produces about 140,000 bottles a year, and his own vineyards cover approximately 30 hectares. Over the past year the revenue of “Veles”, which owns the wine brand, totaled UAH 6.5 million.
In 2005, the then Minister of Fuel and Energy Plachkov returned from the capital to his homeland – Krinichnaya, the village in Odessa region. It was the place where his ancestors had once moved from Bulgaria. Plachkov brought precious load to Krinichnaya – some vine seedlings purchased from French winemakers. At the family meeting it was decided to revive the business, which once fed the entire Bessarabia – winemaking.
Vineyard was founded on the shore of the largest freshwater lake in Ukraine – Yalpuh. The location wasn’t chosen randomly, the vineyard receives a double dose of sunlight. The rays reflected from the water warm it up to 60 degrees Celsius. This temperature kills mostly all pests of the vines. The remaining insects are blown away by a strong wind as the lakeshores form the wind tunnel. Krinichnaya is situated on the same latitude as French Bordeaux, and Italian Piedmont. “The local climate is similar to the Mediterranean. In the first half of the XIX century Bessarabian wine was vastly exported to Europe “, said Plachkov.
In 2007, famous French oenologist from Bordeaux Olivier Doga became the adviser to the novice winemaker. Experienced Doga advised to take advantage of good village location and plant there some traditional European grape vines: “Riesling”, “Cabernet” and “Merlot”. For his exclusive production Plachkov bought the expensive equipment – German grape destemmer Clemens, Italian bottling line by Borelli and Velo pneumatic presses. Computer controls all the process. For example, before the work of the press is done the program calculates the average diameter of the grapes for the press to crush the berries without injuring seeds. On the bottling line the computer controls air removing from the bottle while blowing an inert gas and corking the bottles. It saves time and prevents still wine from oxidation. The wine is poured in specially ordered French oak barrels made by Seguin, Moreau, Vicard and Vinea. In 2010, 39 of such barrels were bought for a price of 600 euro each. Plachkov borrowed a loan of UAH 5 million for the new equipment.
However, 6 tons of grapes harvested from his vineyards were not enough to load the winery, designed to process 130 tons of grapes. Plachkov agreed to purchase raw materials from local farmers. He offered to buy their grapes for the highest price on the market only if they don’t use chemicals on their fields. “Predunaiskyi” vineyard in the neighboring Reni became a place, where a part of the grapes was bought from. “We are not looking for volume, and grapes are grown according to the rules, so our grapes are the best raw material suitable for the authorial winery”, said Victor Dimchev, the director of the vineyard.
Plachkov chose the most effective way to promote his alcoholic beverage, by means of wine tasting and participation in thematic exhibitions. For example, he presented his wine made of original Ukrainian wine grape varieties – “Odessa Black” and “Sukholimansky” in 2009 in the Palace of Westminster. The wine was successful. In a year, the first batch of 2,000 bottles of Ukrainian wine went to the UK. Another great event suitable for “Colonist” to present their wines was EURO 2012. Wine from Krinichnaya appeared at the festival in the London art center Rich Mix, dedicated to the European football Championship. “Then we found our wine in the cafeteria of “Albert Hall” when we came for anniversary concert by Eric Clapton”, says Plachkov.
By 2012, the vineyard area of “Colonist” increased to 22 hectares, and the volume of production rose up to 80 000 bottles per year. This is a drop in the bucket compared to major wineries, which produce mass product. For example, Inkerman and “Koblevo” wineries produce about 20 million bottles each. But the producers of authorial wine such as Plachkov do not chase volumes. They have different target audiences and different product value. “Colonist” costs about twice as much as a mass product. However, the buyers of this wine are ready to pay for quality.
In the middle of 2015, “Colonist” appeared on the shelves of the popular store “Good Wine” in the capital. During the year the company’s revenue rose by 60% up to 8.2 million UAH. “This wine will take its significant place in the wine history of the world”, claims the chief editor of the French magazine “La Revue du vin de France” Deni Savro, who often visits Plachkov’s wine tastings.
In 2013, “Colonist” became the first wine from the Eastern Europe represented on the main wine exhibition – Vinexpo. A year later, the story of the Ukrainian wine from Krinichnaya hit the pages of authoritative almanac “l’Amateur de Bordeaux”. The accumulated reputation of the first authorial wine opened the doors for “Colonist” to the embassy of wine fashion trendsetters – Italy and France. Now Plachkov’s wine is exported to the UK and Poland. Simultaneously “Colonist” is negotiating the possibility to export their wine to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. “For now these contracts are not as profitable as the ones on the domestic market, they are more brand-forming. The sense of such supplies is to show that our wines meet the strict requirements of the EU”, explains Plachkov.
“Colonist’s” founder made his Bulgarian roots a strong point for the company. The winery announced the opening of the tours around their wine production with tasting programs and visiting local attractions. The most popular tours are on the Day of St. George, Gergovden, and during the vines pruning Trifon Zarezan holiday. The main point of interest for the wine tourists is the tasting room, which cost Plachkov 2 million UAH. The winery is visited by about 3 000 people per year and the cost of a tour differs from 150 to 900 UAH. “For example, during the holidays in May about 400 people come to visit us”, says Plachkov.
Plachkov has invested about 10 million UAH in the production. However, that is not all. He plans to bring a new product to a market, sparkling wine. By the end of 2015, 6 000 bottles of sparkling wine will have been sent to the cellars. Businessman is inspired by the growing demand for the product. It is popular because, with European quality Plachkov’s sparkling wine is sold for Ukrainian prices. Devaluation of the national currency led to a sharp rise in the import wine price. Moreover, according to the “Winegrowers and Winemakers of Ukraine” association director – Sergei Mikhaylechko, even despite the falling demand for sparkling wine in general, it is still an attribute of the holiday, even for the most frugal Ukrainians.
Over the next five years the company plans to increase its production of still wines up to 200 000 bottles per year and cork 100 000 bottles of sparkling wine. “We have a dream that Ukrainian family as any French and Italian one, along with kefir, butter and ham from the store could bring home a bottle of Ukrainian wine”, says Plachkov.
In addition, the entrepreneur is going to start the production of balsamic vinegar, the most expensive grape product on the market. For this purpose, 2 hectares of new vineyards have been already planted by “Colonist”. They have to wait for 15 years until the vinegar is ready, but the winemaker is ready for it. “Wine-making is a long lasting business that pays off within 25-30 years”, says Plachkov. Losses in the first 10 years are normal. After it has a reputation and its brand, business starts working, and your descendants receive the profits.”
In 1965, employees of the winery named after Lenin in Kherson village Veseloye gathered for voluntary clean up. The main task was to dig up the entrances to the old wine cellars, which remained from the times when the area was a wine farm of Prince Peter Trubetskoy. Suddenly the excavator bucket bumped into a solid object. It appeared to be a case of wine from 1914 – the latest crop, harvested in the household of Prince before it was expropriated and renamed by the communists. In the box Soviet winemakers found a detailed description of the production of several varieties of wine and data about its shipment to the imperial palace.
The products of the winery haven’t lost their reputation even after the October Revolution. In the nineteenth century the Trubetskoy’s wine was served for the table of the Russian Emperor, in Soviet times, the same wine was tasted by general secretaries. The name of the winery continued to work for the company even after the collapse of the USSR. Reputation developed over two centuries became the main capital of the company. In 2003, despite the fact that the winery was on the edge of bankruptcy, it was purchased by successful businessmen, owners of the capital office center “Kubik” Alexei Dyakov and Vladimir Prysyazhnyuk. Over the last two years, sales increased seven-fold, up to 550 000 bottles. In 2014 revenue increased by more than a half, up to 11.3 million UAH.
Dyakov’s office doesn’t resemble the real estate agent’s working space. On the table there is a collection of wine corks, there are glasses on the shelves and the walls are decorated with pictures of the grape harvesting. The whole entourage appeared when Dyakov and his partner Prysyazhnyuk engaged in winemaking.
When the entrepreneurs arrived at the place of the prince chateau for the first time little was left from the historic place. The house was completely destroyed, the winery was working at a loss, and the famous Trubetskoy’s cellars were ready to collapse and bury the winemakers. The only thing that wasn’t destroyed neither by time nor by the Soviet authorities, were the vineyards. With their unique location on the banks of the widest strait of the Dnieper, and soils with a small amount of neutral salt, grapes have a perfect balance of sugar and acidity. “Then, one thing was clear – this place is unique. Under a layer of loam there is Pontian limestone, soft mineral rock. Minerals give the wine some extra tones”, explains Dyakov.
The new company was named “Prince Trubetskoy.” Plans for the prince estates reconstruction were ambitious. It was decided to launch the production of wine and rebuild the ruined mansion. They planted new vineyards of European varieties on 300 hectares of fields. The seedlings were bought from the famous Italian farm – Rauscedo. The equipment was delivered from the same place. Together with vineyards Dyakov and Prysyazhnyuk decided to revive the wine-list of the facility, with which the prince, and then his Soviet successors conquered the market. “Troubetzkoy was known in Europe for his Riesling, while in Soviet times “Oksamyt Ukrayiny” wine was a hit”, said Dyakov.
Partners made no mistake with choosing wine variety. Now the plant does not meet the demand for “Oksamyt Ukrayiny”. This variety of wine is known in Ukraine since 1946. Moreover, after it appealed to one of Ukrainian presidents – Leonid Kuchma, it received the title of “Presidential”. Earlier this famous wine was produced by several manufacturers, but not everyone survived until the mid-2000s. For example, the neighboring large wine company “Tavria” put emphasis on the production of cognac, and the other competitor, the agricultural firm “Belozersky” had this wine only as one of many types of products.
Foreign gourmets, in their turn, appreciated the tar pitch of Kherson Riesling. In 2014, Germans and Poles arrived to taste the wine. After the tests both of them took “Trubetskoy” wine to sell in their countries. Every year, about 8 000 bottles of wine from Vesoloye are exported to the European market. Now they are negotiating the possibility to supply it to the Czech Republic and Slovakia. “It is easy to understand them (the foreigners – LL). For example, the premium Riesling has price about 150 UAH, that is about €7, and in Europe for the same Riesling you need to pay at least €20”, says Dyakov.
The historical heritage of the Trubetskoy’s estate has also become a good marketing tool. In 2006, factory workers found the descendants of the chateau’s founder. The farm was visited by the great-grandson of the prince, and then “Oksamyt Ukrayiny” was taken to the Trubetskoy’s granddaughter to Canada. The approved status of the only historic chateau in the country helps the company promote their products even on the markets taken over by the competitors. That way “Trubetskoy’s” wine is a hit in the restaurants of Odessa. “We are very happy to enter the market of Odessa, where people love and understand wine, where you can find such manufacturers as Plachkov from “Colonist” and Guliyev brothers. There’s a great demand for our wines and it is an indicator of quality”, Dyakov shows off his joy.
In 2007 the famous French oenologist Olivier Degas was invited to set up the processes and control over the new winery. The plant acquired the drip irrigation system Netafim, which increased young seedlings germination percentage. Degas also changed the rules of vines pruning, as a result the harvest volume became less, but the quality was much higher. “This way it is possible to achieve a higher concentration of sugars and the desired flavor. It makes the future wine better”, says Andrey Vasilenko, chief agronomist of the company.
As a result, the harvest became smaller so the cost of the wine became bigger, but high grapes quality overcame the costs. For the production of aged dry wine from their new harvest Dyakov and Prysyazhnyuk bought some new French Seguin, Moreau and Vinea barrels.
In 2011, the company released the first wine made with the new technology of grapes growing. In the same year “Trubetskoy” wine was presented at the famous wine critic Ozzano Clark tasting in London. In a year the drink from the village in Kherson region was tasted at the prestigious European forum “Vinitaly” in Verona. In 2013 the factory opened brand store in Kiev, and a year later “Trubetskoy” wine appeared in the wine list of 20 “Kozyrnaya Karta” restaurants in Kiev. During the last year the company’s revenue has doubled, up to 8.1 million UAH. “The status of authorial wine allows these producers to sell their goods at a higher price, covering its costs, which are higher than average winemakers’”, says Mihaylechko a representative of “Winegrowers and Winemakers of Ukraine” association.
Besides, E58 route – the largest European route that crosses Slovakia, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine, passes directly through the chateau. Partners decided to use this location as an advantage. A 15 room hotel, a restaurant and a tasting room were built on the territory of the winery. Their latest project was the reconstruction of eight wine cellar galleries, where they store wine, made starting from Trubetskoy time. Now about 1500 tourists a month visit this historical place where the wine for the imperial court was made. The tour costs about 150 UAH.
In order not to lose their revenues due to market crisis, businessmen plan to offer another sort of wine – rose wine. Their first rose wine will be made from their own “Syrah” grapes. The plantation was laid last year. “At our latitude, “Syrah” grows well, rose by itself is a trend that rapidly develops in the world, and the demand for it is growing”, said the businessman.
They plan to strengthen the tourist component by Kakhovka water reservoir boat deck reconstruction. Winemakers plan to resume tours along the Dnieper. The sailors who go down the Kakhovka reservoir and the Dnieper River to the Black Sea will bring the part of the income. Each year, 100 yachts pass the gateway to the Kakhovka hydroelectric station. Also the reconstruction of Prince Trubetskoy estate is in Dyakov and partners’ project list. It will become another object of tourist attraction. “So far, only the project is ready, but it will be a significant investment”, said Dyakov.
The day before the new 2013 a dressed up man came into the “Kurin” winery, he was somehow reassembling Santa Claus. «Verse-moi le vin rouge» («Pour some red wine for me”), – he said in perfect French. The owner of the winery was ready for such a request and quickly poured a glass of red wine. This guest was a famous French actor Gerard Depardieu. Nikolai Halupenko, the owner of the winery was the person, who poured the wine for him.
Wine making is the aspect of interest these two people share. Depardieu grows his grapes at home and in Crimea. Halupenko is one of the first people who started making authorial wine in Ukraine. Now he uses his 40 hectares near the village of Stepanovka in Kherson region, to harvest and process 60 tons of grapes annually. “Kurin” brand is sold in two brand stores and about 100 000 people come every year to see how the wine is made on Halupenko’s farm. “We are the first family winery in Ukraine, that makes its own wine”, says the farmer.
Halupenko began farming immediately after the collapse of the USSR. When the collective farms were liquidated, he received an area of 50 hectares for farming. Halupenko planted fruit trees on the first part of the field, while on the second there was wheat, watermelons and tomatoes. However, the income was just slightly bigger than expenses. Farmer was a professional agronomist but he was on the verge of despair. In 2011 he decided to change the purpose of the garden and next year he planted there the grapes bought from “Belozersky” farm. However, the grapes harvest wasn’t big enough. A frustrated farmer decided to find out the scale of the disaster and to determine whether it is possible to do something on this piece of land. He took some of his grapes to the “Prince Trubetskoy” laboratory in a neighboring village. Halupenko’s grapes laboratory results struck even experienced oenologists. The sugar level reached 36%, which was larger than the standard indicators not only in Kherson region, but in Crimea. The acidity was also at the level of luxury European grape varieties. “The secret of the grapes was that no one fed them up. It was impossible to make bad wine from the grapes”, says Halupenko.
The results of this study decided the fate of the Halupenko’s garden. He started planting grapes almost everywhere on his entire area. Also, he took a loan for winemaking equipment and dug a cellar to store the future wine. Catherine Mikhalkina, who was previously responsible for winemaking direction of the “Sadvinprom” in Soviet times, was asked to set up wine production. Together with an experienced Mikhalkina, Halupenko developed his own technology for wine production. The main feature of the technology is to do nothing special. Grapes in “Kurin” are harvested only manually, which allows to get rid of damaged and unripe grapes while harvesting. Within an hour after the grapes are picked up, they are delivered to the plant that prevents them from oxidizing. Barrels for vintage wines were ordered in the Krasnodar region of Russia and in Ternopil, Ukraine. This allows the company to save on imported barrels, popular among private winemakers.
Fabrication simplicity and natural production of the wine played their role. Provincial winery’s product quickly gained popularity. In the same year Cabernet of unknown before winery won the second place in the tasting competition Best Drink 2012. Not only casual tourists started to buy “Kurin” wines, but also wine lovers who came to the farm with a purpose. Sales were improving, and in 2012 the businessman became the first private winemaker who acquired serial production and wine retail license. “I consider I got lucky with the technologist – says Halupenko. – Everyone knows that if she makes wine, there is no compromise on quality. Mikhalkina in winery equals Shevchenko in our football.”
When the number of regular chateau visitors exceeded one hundred, Halupenko built the hotel for 25 guests, opened “Kurin” brand wine shop and a restaurant where they serve their own wine. The route to Crimea, passing near Stepanovka played its role. According to Halupenko’s opinion, before the war, their chateau was visited by up to 100 000 people a year. In 2012 the company’s revenue rose by one third, up to 0.9 million UAH.
In 2013, an active enthusiast-winemaker was invited to participate in French government project, which involved a lot of master classes on French winery for Ukrainian winemakers. Halupenko brought some new technologies of planting after the business trip. For example, the technology to plant vines not at five, but one meter distance. Therefore, it saves space on the field, but allows vines to grow. The secret was in the special scheme of bush pruning. The ideas of French winemakers allowed Halupenko to plant on a small field, not only classic European grape varieties, but also those, which industrial winemakers prefer not to deal with. Besides traditional “Cabernet”, “Chardonnay”, “Saperavi” and “Merlot” ther are “Bianca”, “Traminer”, “Odessa muscat”, “Ottonel muscat” and rare in Ukraine “Irsha Oliver” on Halupenko’s fields. Halupenko chose “Irsha Oliver” for his new product – dessert wine. It became a bestseller, and its first batch was sold out in a few months. In 2013, small winery’s revenue increased by 20% up to 1.1 million UAH. “At first we planted half a hectare of this variety, but now we increase the number of hectares”, says the businessman.
In addition to wine production Halupenko continues to sell wine base to his colleagues. JSC “Prince Trubetskoy” is one of the clients. Nowadays wine brings 50% of the total revenue, while the second part is provided by selling raw materials. However, almost all the revenue is spent on license fee, which is the same with industrial winemakers – 500 000 UAH per year. To compensate license costs the farmer plans to develop a network of branded stores and increase the production of wine. In 2015 he took a loan for automatic wine bottling line purchase. “Now sales are not very good, but if our stores make 3000 UAH a day, it will be good”, he said.
The current crisis affected the small Halupenko’s enterprise. With the beginning of the war in the East, and the annexation of Crimea the number of tourists staying in Halupenko’s estate critically decreased. The farmer wants to compensate the losses with wine range expansion. He plans to release his first liqueur wine. For the new wine a sector of a few hectares of elite ‘White Muscat’ grapes variety was already planted. Along with production expansion the vineyards area will increase. “I am ready to destroy the remaining part of my fruit garden to plant some new vineyards there”, says the businessman.