The fortified and dessert wines of Massandra are legendary, with a distinctive, full flavour that sets them apart from European and New World wines of similar ilk. More than that, the wines of Massandra occupy an important place at the heart of Russia's Imperial and cultural history. The winery there was built in the late 19th century in order to supply wines for the Tsar's Summer Palace, calle... Read more
The fortified and dessert wines of Massandra are legendary, with a distinctive, full flavour that sets them apart from European and New World wines of similar ilk. More than that, the wines of Massandra occupy an important place at the heart of Russia's Imperial and cultural history. The winery there was built in the late 19th century in order to supply wines for the Tsar's Summer Palace, called "Livadia", near Yalta. Over the next few decades, Massandra produced wines to cater for the Tsar's every conceivable need, from wines for Church Communion to those for the Court, for social functions and for the Tsar's own personal pleasure. The winery has continued to produce first-class wines ever since and this, combined with the extraordinary architectural merit of its cellars and other buildings, has earned it a position as one of Russia's most revered officially-designated sites of national importance.
Produced from vines that stretch almost the entire length of the South Coast of the Crimea, Massandra wines embrace a huge range of sweet wine styles, from Sherry to Madeira, from Port to Marsala, as well Tokays and Muscats. The tradition of wine-making in the Crimea goes back to the early 19th century - the result of one extraordinarily rich man's passion for wine. Reputedly richer than the Tsars themselves, Mikhail Vorontsov spared no expense in his quest to satisfy his insatiable thirst for good wine. To this end, he imported and planted innumerable types of vine from Western Europe and from these he managed to produce a number of successful wines.
In 1894, encouraged by Voronstov's success in the region, Tsar Nicholas II decided to build his own winery there. It was an enormous undertaking. Work on the cellars took three years as miners dug deep into the mountainside to create a labyrinth of 21 tunnels (each over 150 metres long) that to this day rank among the finest cellars in the world. An ingenious feat of engineering (a series of carefully positioned air shafts ensures the temperature remains constantly cool, and fresh spring water creates a natural humidity of 90-95%), the cellars are also exceptionally solid and strong - when violent earthquakes caused widespread damage in the region in 1920, the cellars of Massandra were completely unscathed.
In order to ensure that his wines were the best, the Tsar employed Prince Lev Sergervich Golitzin to oversee production at the winery. An extremely accomplished winemaker, Golitzin devoted himself to developing the wines that suited the region best, and it is these same wines that define Massandra's output today. Golitzin also had an extraordinary talent for blending wines, and his "creations" are legendary. His note-keeping, however, was not so consistent, and he took the recipe for many of his greatest blends with him to the grave. To this day, no one really knows how he made his legendary "Honey of Altae Pastures" and "Seventh Heaven" wines (although, after years of experimentation, the winery feels it has finally cracked the mystery of the latter and is about to release its own recreation).
When, in 1920, Soviet Regime came to Crimea, Stalin ordered to preserve both the winery and its historic collection, and all wines found in the Tsar's many palaces to be moved to the cellars. Some wines bear the Tsar's seal. Production continued and Massandra maintained its impeccable reputation for exceptional wines.
Wine is still made by the Massandra Collective, established under the Soviet time, where a number of member estates employ 5,000 people and farm 4,400 acres of vines. The bread and butter of Massandra is fortified wine, in a style similar to Port, and dessert wine made from Muscat, Tokay and Pinot Gris.
The Massandra Collection is a treasure trove of ancient wines. The Massandra library retains a minimum of one bottle of every wine, but limited numbers of these historic wines are released for sale periodically.
Today, at the most prestigious international wine auctions the list of Massandra wine is fascinating, from a single bottle of 1865 Yquem bottled for the Tsar at a cool £7,000, to a 1948 Massandra Tokay for £165, and rated at 96 points by Robert Parker. Younger wines from the 1980s are available from as little as £20 per bottle. Read less