Sparkling Wines from Uzbekistan
28th April 2023
Village of Champagne. Background history.
Not far from Tashkent (less than an hour by car) there is a small village with a strange name for those places. It is called Champagne. Similar names on the territory of the former USSR (For example, the village of Fershampenoise in the Chelyabinsk region of Russia or New York in the Donbass) most often they have a memorial origin, but this does not seem to be the same case here. Something tells me that the name is associated with wine. In fact, Champagne is located in the Parkent district. In the middle, if not the best, then certainly the most famous terroir of Uzbekistan. There is also in this village a winery called ‘Cháteau Hamkor’ to be one of the largest in Uzbekistan. The staff of this winery will certainly tell you the legend about the origin of such a strange name that seemed to have developed on its own. Local people used to repeat the word ‘Champagne’ after the Russian entrepreneur Pervushin, who arranged vineyards in this area for his Tashkent winery, as well as for the export of raw materials. It is hard to say whether this is true or not but the fact that the village of winegrowers and winemakers is named after the French region that is famous for sparkling wines and the fact that this is a legally fixed name can be considered an undoubted fact.
The Pervushins, Ivan Andreevich and his son Ivan Ivanovich are vivid characters of the business life of Tashkent at the end of the XIX century. It was reflected even in the toponymy of the city. The area with the unofficial name “Pervushka” was located in the vicinity of the winery founded by the Pervushins. At present it is JSC AI “Combine Tashkent”. The Pervushins, who came to Tashkent, conquered by the Russian Empire, following the Russian troops and administration in the 60s, successfully proved themselves in many types of business. There was also winemaking among them, as well as the ‘production of sparkling waters’. Apparently, in the hot climate of Central Asia there was a demand for drinks saturated with carbon dioxide.
Thus, we see three components of a puzzle: the name ‘Champagne’, vineyards with a winery and a sparkling drinks factory. Combine all this together and you will get the production of sparkling wine. Unfortunately, it will not work for several reasons. Firstly, because of the entrepreneurs-winemakers of Russian Tashkent, the topic of sparkling wines is more concerned with another, although no less well–known person Orenburg merchant Nikolai Ivanovich Ivanov (1836-1906), was the largest wine producer in the Tashkent region approximately by the mid-90s of the XIX century. However, he also did not produce sparkling wine in Tashkent, although, like Pervushin, he had his own production of lemonades. The latter will be considered further down.
In the meantime, a few words about the winemaking of Uzbekistan in the context of the production of sparkling wines. It is known that in Uzbekistan summers are very hot which causes difficulty to gain the necessary acidity for grapes. However,the berry ripens easily. It makes Uzbekistan one of those regions where nature sort (plenty of sun and heat for the full ripening of the berry) pushes for the production of sparkling wine. On the contrary, the absence of cold makes it difficult for the grapes to acquire acidity, as well as some technological processes at the winery. In general, the winery requires good cellars and in the absence of natural underground cavities, these cellars require serious investments. Sparkling wine was not made in Central Asia during the Russian Empire because a consensus noted that it was advisable to develop local winemaking in the direction of sweet, dessert and fortified wines (here the acidity of the grapes is not so significant), and in some specific places to develop dry wines, decent, but still not of stellar quality.
The real history of sparkling wines of Uzbekistan began in 1942. By the decision of the Council of People’s Commissars (Government) of the USSR on October 17 and the People’s Commissariat of Food Industry No. 722 on October 24, it was decided to organize a Champagne factory in Tashkent. The combine was formed on the basis of the ‘Degress’ branch of the Uzbekvino winery No. 7, once created by Nikolai Ivanovich Ivanov and nationalized in the USSR. Another decree of the authorities transferred the grape state farms ‘Kibray’, “Bulgur’ to the new combine located in the Tashkent and Samarkand regions, respectively. It was assumed that the vineyard areas of varieties suitable for sparkling wines would expand to other regions of Uzbekistan and even to adjacent regions of Kazakhstan. However, the project of sparkling wine factories for the cities of Alma-Ata and Frunze (now Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan) started in the following year of 1943. The initial production capacity of the plant was set at 1 million bottles by tank (acratophoric) method and 250 thousand bottles by the classical method.
This decision was very mysterious, if we take into account the date of its release. The end of 1942 when the Battle of Stalingrad is in full swing. Hitler’s troops are at the Volga and in the North Caucasus, the German flag is flying over Elbrus, the highest mountain of the Caucasus – and the government is deploying a sparkling wine factory in the deep rear, acting in the same style in which it deployed ‘clones’ of military factories evacuated from the occupied Germans there and frontline territories. In fact, the equipment of evacuated Champagne factories of Kharkov, Tsimlyansk, Rostov-on-Don and Inkerman was used. Specialists were also taken out from those territories. Specifically, the enterprise being created had a so called ‘union subordination’, which was controlled by Moscow and not by the local Tashkent authorities as was in case with an ammunition factory. This was not typical procedure for food processing plants.
I really have no explanation for this phenomenon. I can only note two things: at that time, the USSR really lost a significant part of its traditional wine-producing regions that produced champagne. Besides, since about the mid-thirties, a certain canonical aesthetics of the Stalinist USSR has been formed. Within its framework, in particular, the population was offered to drink sparkling wines on all occasions and as a demonstration of the availability of an ‘aristocratic’ drink to every citizen. It was suggested as an attribute of some kind of endless holiday, the lightness of being, as well the distraction from the impoverished existence in conditions of constant political terror.
Wine production in the socialist economy
There was socialism in the USSR. In fact, the state was the sole owner of the assets and the sole investor. Accordingly, there was no market competition and the consumer’s choice of goods did not affect in any way on its production. There was no choice anyway. The state, for some own bureaucratic reason, decided what and how much to produce, and what exactly its citizen would drink and eat. In addition (and this is not a bug, but a feature, as the youth says) there was always a lack of anything. The consumer was happy with goods of any quality offered. The only alternative was the absence of goods at all. The so-called “planned economy” was largely a fiction. Decisions on what to produce, where and to what extent were made from various kinds of subjective considerations, with a large share of lobbying. One more important point, the authorities were not interested in the quality of the product. It was difficult to check it, and the consumer’s opinion, as I mentioned above, was worthless. But the quantity was a measurable criteria and the plant manager was punished for not fulfilling the production volume plan. Thus, production managers were faced with a dilemma all the time. Fail to execute the plan or execute (and over-execute!) by reducing the quality of the product.
In the context of wine production, this dilemma is particularly acute and it is obvious which choice is easier and safer. In other words, wine specialists were constantly in conditions of humiliating disregard for their professionalism, when their desire to make good wine was broken both by the requirement to issue the required number of decaliters, and by the lack of discipline in logistics and supplies, due to the same state ownership in any sphere.
What did this mean in practice? For example, unpretentiousness in relation to grapes depicts not only berries from their own vineyards, but also quite random grapes and even ready-made wine materials imported from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and others were used. This is what called the ‘bulk’ nowadays. This is despite the fact that the vineyards assigned to the plant can just be called premium by the standards of Uzbekistan: they are located in the foothills at an altitude of 400-1200 m above sea level, on well-lit slopes with a significantly lower sum of temperatures than those located on the plain. In general, imported grapes and imported wine materials were obviously inferior to their own. It was also a blind eye turned to defects, non-compliance with state standards and etc. Furthermore, there were reported production increases in output. So 1.8 million bottles were produced by 1960, 6.2 million in 1975, 6.8 million in 1978, 7.9 million in 1981 every year. By 1985 it was planned to increase production to 12 million bottles. Surely, almost all of this was done by the reservoir method. Planned in a 1942 government decree of the production of sparkling wine according to classical technology with secondary fermentation in a bottle, and not in a tank started rolling in a small amount only after the reconstruction of the plant in 1957.
And yet, despite socialism, which strives to bring everything in the world to a single and at the same time very low level, we can talk about the features of Tashkent sparkling wine. First of all, it is probably the varietal composition of the grapes used. The flagship brand here was Bayan-Shirey – a wine (technical) white variety bred in southern Transcaucasia. Its share in the blend sometimes reached up to half, and the area of plantings in the vineyards controlled by the plant was twice as large as that of the ‘silver’ prize–winner – riesling. The rest of the varieties used were divided into two groups: ‘temporarily permissible and accidental’. For example, the Central Asian table variety nimrang, and ‘improver varieties’, among them is a very interesting variety, supposedly brought in from China in ancient times, but considered an aboriginal variety Soyaki (Parkent white), Georgian variety Rkatsiteli, Aligote, Semyon and even the reds: Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. The latter is the only thing that Uzbek sparkling wine has in common with sparkling Champagne. It is curious that absolutely no other main variety of French Champagne is used – Chardonnay!
I have already mentioned 1957, when the factory was modified in order for sparkling wine to be produced in a classic way. The same year (in the USSR, the year of tangible liberalization of life, which resulted in the beginning of an increase in the welfare of citizens, which apparently also affected their wine preferences) was marked by another bright event in the life of the plant. The production of sparkling from muscat Hungarian grapes started there. It was a really successful wine – in the USSR it was awarded two medals, gold and silver, of the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy in 1958.
In 1996, in independent Uzbekistan, the Tashkent Champagne Factory was transformed into JSC ‘O’ZBEKISTON SHAMPANI’. Production volumes have been decreasing for a long time which started from 7 million bottles in 1990 to 2.8 million in 2007. Then the growth gradually began – for example, 6.5 million bottles were already produced in 2010. Unfortunately, the volume of sparkling wine production in Uzbekistan continues to decline in 2023.
However, it is known that at least two wineries intend to launch the production of high quality sparkling wines under new brands by 2024. Both are intended to be for the domestic and foreign markets. It is possible that a decrease in production volumes will also lead to an increase in its quality.
In general, if we talk about the prospect of producing sparkling wines in Uzbekistan, it may be related to the use of autochthonous varieties which distinguishes Uzbekistan from some other countries which are on the contrary are fond of their own autochthons. No doubt it is useful for them to strengthen the accent on international varieties. In general, it is important to find your own niche. Nevertheless, to achieve this the quality of the produced wine has to be improved. This requires the development of the wine culture of the country as a whole as well as all its aspects.
To be sure the competition would be useful so sparkling wines in Uzbekistan are produced not by one factory, but at least two.
Title image photo credit: Stanislav Boyko
Author, Judge and Sommelier. Writer of the book named 'Wine Non-fiction Sommelier's Book'. Owner International Sommelier School WineJet.