Making Wine While At War – Everyday Life For Ukrainian Wineries

Food & Drink

If there was a war raging in your country, it’s hard to imagine that you would be thinking of making wine. But that’s what 160 winemakers in Ukraine do. They still make wine. February 24 marked two years since Russia invaded Ukraine. The war zone extends along all of the eastern border and the south along the shores of the Black Sea. That’s also the region where most of Ukraine’s vineyards are located. So, perhaps now is an excellent time to give a thought to those courageous winemakers and take a close look at what they do. The upcoming ProWein wine show in Düsseldorf, Germany, will be an occasion to taste these wines.

Ukraine is a very big agricultural country. It ranks on the world’s top-ten list of biggest producers of sunflowers, barley, wheat, and corn, although production has been severely hampered by the war. However, today, the Ukrainian vineyards are modest in size, around 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres). That’s about half the size of Hungary or of Bulgaria, or one-sixth of the California grape acreage. There are around 160 officially registered wineries.

Ukraine’s vineyards can be found mainly in the southern part of the country, towards the Black Sea in the Odesa and Kherson regions. You might recognise those names from the war reporting. Crimea has also long been an important wine-producing region but has been under Russian control since 2014, when Russia invaded the peninsula. There are also extensive vineyards in the westernmost part of Ukraine, on the border to Hungary and Slovakia, in the region called Zakarpattia. But there are also wine producers in several other parts of the country but on a smaller scale.

In a time when unusual and indigenous grapes have become trendy, Ukraine has much to offer wine lovers and wine drinkers who want to explore new things. There are numerous local (indigenous) grape varieties to explore: telti-kuruk, sukholimansky white, citronny of magarach, kokur, odessa black, ekim kara, magarach bastardo. I recently had the opportunity to taste Odessa black, and black it was indeed. It was dense, almost dark, intense fruit and had a strong backbone structure. It is what is called in French a tinturier, in other words, the grape juice is dark red (almost all red grapes have a clear juice). It’s a crossing between cabernet sauvignon and alicante Bouchet (also a teinturier). It was developed in Ukraine in the 1950s. But they also have many international grape varieties, of course.

I have only tasted a handful of Ukrainian wines so far, so it is difficult to have an opinion of the country as a whole. The odessa black that I mentioned above was certainly one that had great potential, as well as some made from the more “traditional” international varieties. Some were semi-sweet, which might not be so suited for the export markets.

Ukrainian wine exports were a modest $9 million in 2023, which is perhaps not surprising. More surprising is that they managed to make and export any wine at all while the war was raging. They have an export promotional organisation called Wines of Ukraine, which this year will participate in the big international trade fair ProWein in Düsseldorf (Germany) on March 10-12. Sixteen wineries, an impressive 10% of all producers in the country, will be represented there. It will undoubtedly be an excellent opportunity to discover some unusual wines as well as to support a country at war.

Several international projects are ongoing in Ukraine to help support and develop the wine sector, as well as the rest of the agricultural business, USAID, the United Nations and even the Swedish government.

—Per Karlsson

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