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The Russian attack against Ukraine is also destroying the country's wine culture. The war is raging in the middle of the 41,500 hectare wine-growing region. Rockets are hitting near the wine centre of Odessa, vineyards and wineries in the country are being shelled or have long since been abandoned. Winemakers, sommeliers and traders are now fighting on the front lines.

Until a few weeks ago, Ukrainian winegrowers were still pruning in the vineyards. Now they wear uniforms and machine guns, defending their country, fighting for freedom. Everything else has become secondary. Vineyards and cellars are abandoned, people are afraid of missile attacks, many towns and villages in the wine regions are under constant Russian fire. Winegrowers are now soldiers. Will there be a 2022 vintage of Ukrainian wines? That is completely open.

Until three weeks ago, WSET graduate and sommelier Anton (last name known to the editors) worked at the wine merchant Good Wine in Kyiv. Now he is a soldier at the front.

Where there is wine, there is war

According to the figures of the industry association "Wines of Ukraine", vines grow on 41,500 hectares in Ukraine - that is almost as much as in Austria. In 2019, 133.4 million litres were produced by around 50 wineries and cooperatives. Today, there are not only vineyards in the southern regions of the country such as Odessa, the annexed Crimea, Mykolaiv or Kherson, which has since been conquered by Russia, but also in the northern areas. Many wineries are located in the currently heavily contested growing regions of Chernihiv, Lviv, Kyiv and Ternopil. Whether some of them have already been destroyed is currently unclear.

The lively wine scene in the capital Kyiv, which was growing until before the war, also no longer exists. Ukrainian wine professional Zorick Umanskyi from Kyiv confirms this in an interview with wein.plus. Until the beginning of the war, he was the top manager of the wine importer Good Wine with around 800 employees. Just one day after the Russian attack, he packed his family into the car and fled via Moldova to the safety of Bucharest. There he boarded a plane to Tel Aviv, where his parents live. From Israel, he now coordinates humanitarian aid for his home country with his staff in Kyiv.

Bombs destroy wine and delicatessen worth 15 million euros

The Good Wine warehouse, about 15 kilometres outside Kyiv, was completely destroyed in a Russian attack shortly afterwards. "Wines and food worth 15 million euros were bombed to rubble," reports Zorick Umanskyi.

Good Wine was not only an importer, the company also owned the largest wine shop in Ukraine with a delicatessen, wine bar and restaurant. All that no longer exists. "Our shop in Kyiv is open four hours a day and now sells basic foodstuffs," Umanskyi says, "the sale of alcohol is banned throughout the country." Many of his colleagues have fled to western Ukraine, Poland and Germany, he says. Others are fighting in the army, such as Umanskyi's co-worker Anton. The WSET graduate and multi-award-winning sommelier now wears a uniform and defends his country. Others of his employees provide humanitarian aid on the ground by distributing food. "Thanks to our company's excellent logistics, we are asked by many NGOs to distribute aid from abroad. It is very important to the organisations to work with someone who has a good reputation and many reputable contacts," explains Zorick Umanskyi.

"We don't know if there will be a harvest in 2022".

Mishail Molchanov stands in the vineyard next to a Russian unexploded grenade. His son Georgiy is co-owner of the Slivino Village winery in the Mykolayiv region.

In the wine-growing area around Mykolayiv, too, Ukrainian troops are trying to defend every corner of the land. The town itself is under constant fire, there are many civilian casualties. British wine journalist Chris Boiling spoke to Ukrainian winemakers for the International Wine Challenge's Canopy magazine. According to Georgiy Molchanov, owner of the Slivino Village winery, the areas around Mykolaiv where his vineyards are located have been shelled several times. "At this point, we don't know if there will be a harvest in 2022. Now is the time of pruning, which is very difficult under constant shelling, the missile attacks and the Russian occupation," Molchanov told the magazine.

Also under heavy shelling is the cultivation area south of the Dnipro River near the cities of Kherson and Dnipropetrovsk. Part of the region as well as the city of Kherson is occupied by Russian troops, and the fate of the wineries located there is currently unknown.

During the Soviet era, Ukraine was the most important wine producer in the USSR. At that time, the wineries mainly produced sweet wines. It is only since 2014 that young winemakers in particular have been focusing on dry wines - and thus initiated a quality revolution. Many new businesses emerged, often founded by lateral entrants. "The Soviet model was industrially oriented: a lot of wine, but not expensive. There was no need to produce fine, elegant wines," explains Eugene Shneyderis of the Beykush winery, which is located in the hard-fought city of Ochakiv in southern Ukraine between Odessa and Mykolaiv.

Ex-tennis pro and winemaker Stakhovsky is fighting in Kyiv

There are three major wine-growing regions in Ukraine. The largest area is in the southwest around the city of Odessa with almost 50 percent of the total area. The Ukrainian viticulture institute, the "Vasily Egorovich Tairov Institute of Viticulture and Winemaking", is also based there. The port city on the Black Sea is of great military and economic importance for the country - and is considered a strategic target in this war. Although the situation there was relatively calm up to the time of going to press, the people live in constant alert and prepare themselves for fierce missile attacks. The largest winery in the region is called Shabo and produces more than 50 million bottles annually. Its vineyards had not been damaged by the time of going to press.

The wine region least affected by the fighting at the moment is the Transcarpathian region bordering Hungary and Romania. This is also where the winery of former tennis pro Sergiy Stakhovsky, founded in 2015, is located. The 36-year-old family man had the chance to escape to safety. But he supports the Ukrainian army and is fighting in Kyiv. Stakhovsky told Canopy magazine, "I expect that this year's harvest will be mostly lost."

Vintners and civilians build Molotov cocktails from wine bottles

At the Fathers Wine winery, also in western Ukraine, the staff are not filling wine, although now would be the time. Together with volunteers, they have instead filled petrol and Styrofoam into hundreds of bottles and used them to produce Molotov cocktails. They sew pillows and blankets, collect money for humanitarian aid and provide food for conscripts. "We do whatever is necessary to defend our country," owner Oksana Buyachok told Wine Business Monthly magazine.

Glimmers of hope and fighting spirit

The industry association "Wines of Ukraine" nevertheless plans to make its debut at ProWein in May - defying the war. "Over the past eight years, winemakers on the Ukrainian mainland have done incredible work, and they will not give up now. Nothing and no one will stop the development of viticulture in Ukraine," said the managing director of Wine&Spirits Ukraine, Victoria Agromakova.

But at the moment, no one in the Ukrainian wine industry dares to make a forecast about the future. Because every new day in the war can destroy everything, change everything. When asked if he has hope of returning to his old life, Zorick Umanskyi answers: "We all have hope. It is a question of time. First we have to drive out the enemy and then rebuild everything."

Photos: © Slivino Village, The Heart of Wine

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