Despite their differences in politics, Nicholas Romanov, Russias last czar, and Communist strongman Josef Stalin had one thing in common: their thirst for the sweet wines of Massandra, produced just south of Yalta, in the Crimea. Prized in Russia for more than a century, Massandra is still among the best-selling brands there. Now these historic and unusual wines are becoming available in the United States.
Massandras wines recall a distant age when indigenous grape varieties and traditional vinification styles flourished without regard to the pressures of an international market. Among the best of the winerys current releases are dessert and fortified wines such as White Muscat, Pink Muscat, Black Muscat, Pinot Gris and Tokay. (A two-year-old Pinot Gris scored 90 points in the Oct. 15, 1999, issue.) All these are non-vintage wines, bottled after two years in old oak barrels, selling for about $35 per bottle.
Czar Nicholas II founded the Massandra winery in 1894 to provide wines for his summer palace at Livadia, along the southern Crimean coast. Historical records show, however, that a winery had existed on the site since 1849. In 1936, the Massandra Collective was formed, which included the same nine state-owned wineries that are part of Massandra today. All told, they produce 1 million cases per year from 4,400 acres of vineyards. Wines are vinified at each of the wineries and cellared at Massandra.
In addition to this annual production, Massandra also has an inventory of old wines, a collection started in the late 1800s. Massandra wines first came to modern Western notice in 1990 and 1991, when Sotheby's auctioned a wide range of older vintages in a London sale of Russian artifacts. In January 1999, the British wine merchant Whitwhams International, based in Altrincham, signed an exclusive agreement with Massandra to distribute its wines worldwide.
Today, the Massandra collection consists of 200,000 cases of wine dating back to 1775. Except for vintages prior to 1891, the majority of the collection is available commercially. This includes wines that Massandra adds to the collection every year: White Muscat and Pink Muscat are made into special cuvies, the former aged for six years and the latter for 20 years.