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Wine has been produced in Russia since the time of the ancient Greeks, as it was with most of its Baltic neighbors such as Georgia, Slovenia, and Romania. Most of the northern sections of the country are just too dang cold and bleak to produce wine, but farther south conditions are much more favorable, near the Azov, Black, and Caspian Seas. It wasn’t until the 1800s that Russia began to produce wine commercially. The most famous venture was the sparkling wine out of Crimea by Prince Lev Sergeyevich Golitsyn at Novyi Svet winery, which won the gold medal at the 1889 Paris Expedition. With thesuccess of “The People’s Champagne,” Golitsyn continued to study French viticultural methods to plant vineyards with European varietals along the Black Sea coast. Novyi Svet still exists as one of Russia’s most famous commercial wineries.
But Russian wines had many things against them into the 20th century: Phylloxera, the exodus of French winemakers during the Revolution, and heavy government restrictions. Winemakers who wished to avoid control over labelling and pricing would send their half-finished wines elsewhere for bottling, which would often ruin them. Things didn’t get much better once the Iron Curtain collapsed. Most vintners’ equipment had been seized and they were reliant on concentrates and juices from other sources to make up for the lack of technology. In the 1980s, leader Mikhail Gorbachev imposed a prohibition, and most of the agricultural areas that had once been vineyards had been re-purposed.
Since the 1990s the Russian wine industry is slowly recovering with a focus on quality. On the plus side, since most winemakers have historically been unable to afford chemical additives and fertilizers, most Russian wine is traditionally organic.
But one can’t possibly discuss the Russian liquor industry without mentioning vodka, its most lucrative import. Vodka has been produced here since the 14th century, and is now made all over Russian both commercially and for private consumption. Vodka is a clear distillate that can be produced from almost anything from grain to vegetables to sugars and fruits. Most typically, the country’s commercial vodka is produced from rye, wheat, corn, potatoes, or beets. The word itself is a derivative of “voda,” or water. In most cases, it is vodka and not wine (or water, for that matter) that accompanies a typical Russian meal. The international popularity of vodka exploded during the late 1960s and 70s. This is perhaps not so coincidental with the rise in popularity of fictional British spy character, James Bond, who preferred his “shaken, not stirred” martinis made with vodka, which he no doubt developed a taste for in his travels. Until then, vodka was virtually unknown in the west; gin and whisk(e)y had been the favorite cocktail bases. Vodka is still considered one of the most popular spirits in the world, with many evolving styles and flavors.
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