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Russian wine tastes are changing

Talk to a Moscow-based hip sommelier or a high-end wine trader and they will use words like “pét-nat”, “orange”, “Spätburgunder”, “Pinot Blanc” and so on. Soldera and Gravner sound like they’re the go-to names for the whole of Italy. Then, take a look at what people are actually drinking – and it can be quite different.

With the Russian economy in crisis, belt-tightening can be felt across the country. Surprisingly, that doesn’t mean wine sales are down: in some instances, things have become even better. Professionals across the market indicate that wine knowledge remains poor among the general public. But the ruble’s reduced buying power, and retailers’ desire to make better margins, have combined to expose Russians to more new wines than in the past. Russians are experimenting, whether it’s with wine from Spain’s La Mancha or Portugal’s Vinho Verde, New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc, Spanish Cava and Prosecco or affordable German Rieslings.

Dramatic changes in taste

It’s not easy to obtain hard statistics from Russian retailers, and commercial information is rarely offered to media voluntarily. What is certain is that Russian import statistics have shown dramatic changes in the past three or four years. Among the losers are Old World leaders Italy, France and Germany, which have all lost a significant share of the market compared to runners-up Spain, Portugal and Georgia. The New World is stagnating, with Australia, South Africa and Chile losing market share; the US and Argentina have been particularly hard hit. On the other hand, wine-producing countries of the former USSR, which share a cultural tie with Russia, have seen impressive growth.

Although Russia as a whole remains a consumer of sweetness-driven wines, market players sense a slight drift to drier wines. Although the effect isn’t big, it’s there, probably because there is such a great variety of dry wines, some of which can readily compete with off-dry and semi-sweet wines. The developing gastronomy scene has been another factor in the move towards dry and brut styles. While the trend is largely limited to wealthier consumers, it influences other groups too.

Russians buy their wines from several categories of retailers. The biggest combine food and wine offerings, such as X5 Retail Group’s chain of Pyaterochka supermarkets, which has more than 12,000 shops across the country and which is, by far, the biggest mover of volume wine in Russia. On the cheaper side is the Diksy chain, while Auchan is a big volume mover as well. Metro Cash & Carry, on the other hand, is a far more sophisticated wine trader dealing both with volume and quality producers. With its combined wine shops/on-trade concept, Otdokhni (“Take a Break” in Russian) is another fast-growing retailer combining food, wine and HoReCa under one roof and defining what the future of affordable wine sales might look like. Mid-level supermarket chains like Lenta and Perekryostok are showing fewer signs of a creative approach while upscale supermarkets like Tvoy Dom (“Your House”), which have an impeccable wine portfolio, don’t seem to be making it an important part of their business. The top-end Azbuka Vkusa (“The ABC of Taste”) retail chain, which has its own wine portfolio, is a powerful player catering for higher-income consumers.

The development of affordable chains shows that the general consumer likes shopping close to home at Krasnoye & Beloye (“Red & White”, about 5,000 retail outlets); Bristol (2500 outlets); Aromatny Mir (“Aromatic World”, 500 outlets) and the abovementioned Otdokhni (200 outlets). Such chains, some of which have thousands of outlets situated in uptown Russian cities, are capable of moving serious volumes. Spirits producers are also involved in the distribution of wines. Beluga Group, the producer of the eponymous Russian vodka, has importing wine for several years now, having already added about 300 specialised shops in Moscow under the brand WineLab.

Another reason for wine producers to be optimistic about Russia is the recent trend towards retailers importing on their own behalf. While the rich and stable 2000s were about the development of fine wines, and importers and distributors were able to maintain a healthy margin and still be successful, from 2010 prices were pushed downwards and they had to fight for every cent. Now, observers on three sides – retailers, importers and journalists – agree on the diminishing role of classic wine importers, as retailers invest in their own importing departments. Several national wine promotional bodies have reported an increase in value per bottle sold in Russia, despite volumes being down. Wines of Portugal have returned and German wines are expected to follow suit.

What’s hot, what’s not

Production of local wines has grown since 2010 as more wineries in the south of Russia develop a clear vision for better quality. Thirst for the national product increased dramatically after the population was cut away from the EU by sanctions and trade wars. After US-Russia relations deteriorated, the impact on US wines was felt immediately although some high-end wines remain in Russia. Interest in local wine can also be explained by the fact that many wine specialists and PR people, having lost their EU projects and employers in Russia, have been forced to work for Russian wineries or winery associations. With the addition of Crimea, the country’s areas under vine have dramatically increased. While the quality remains debatable, there are positive examples of better wines appearing, both at the high end and mass market levels.

Chile remains the leading New World supplier in Russia, but consumers are losing interest in wines from across the Andes. They are simply not trendy anymore and do not fit the price to quality ratio Russians like to see. Important brands of the past have been washed out of the stores with the likes of Luis Felipe Edwards and Concha y Toro being virtually all that have survived. With no marketing presence in Russia, Argentina and its Malbec have been unable to take root on the shelves.

New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs, on the contrary, have doubled their exports to Russia in the past few years. Although imports in general remain relatively small in comparison to Chile’s, intense, crispy Sauvignons sell faster than pancakes on a sunny Easter day.
With regards to French wine, something has gone terribly wrong so that they no longer compete on a par with Italy. Oxana Batarshina, export manager for the Gérard Bertrand Group, believes several factors are to blame: bad consecutive harvests in Bordeaux leading to a surge in prices, the ruble devaluation, and strong competition from other countries in the price level previously occupied by cheaper Bordeaux. “People are also simply fed up drinking wines of the same regions,” she adds.

Italy, on the other hand, faces equally negative developments. Expensive classic bottlings from Tuscany and Piedmont are much less attractive while booming sales of Prosecco have not helped much on the value side. Affordable Italian reds from Puglia and Sicily perform better with distributors reporting increased interest.

Russia used to be one of the fastest growing markets for sparklings. The good news for Italy is that Prosecco remains big, although DOC/DOCG distinction is mostly disregarded. Another interesting market mover has been Spanish Cava, which attracts ever more people. This interest is driven by democratic offerings that have appeared in supermarkets. Chains like Krasnoye & Beloye sell Cavas at $9.00 to $10.00.

Russians love wines with high alcohol. While professionals are calling for Pinot Noir-ish elegance and lower alcohol levels, ordinary consumers vote with their rubles for intense, powerful wines. The alternatives to $20.00 Amarones sold through Krasnoye & Beloye are Puglia’s lush reds and Georgian Kindzmarauli, a semi-sweet wine made from Saperavi grape.

Georgian wine, banned from the Russian market in 2006, is now back on the shelves and stronger than ever since the ban was lifted in 2013, although it’s more mass-market options than quality-driven wines that are available. The thirst for Georgian wines is explained by the demand from consumers who remember Soviet times and Georgia’s position as the winemaking Mecca of the Soviet Republics. The popularity of Georgian cuisine and tourism are also contributing to growing demand; Georgia is clearly becoming an important travel destination.

While the political status of Abkhazia remains an issue, it has become, alongside Georgia, one of the fastest-growing suppliers of wine to Russia, dominating the cheap wines segment; the wines are probably made from Moldovan bulk. Brands like Lykhny, Apsny and Psou cost virtually nothing at just $5.75 and are semi-sweet. There are positive trends for countries such as Azerbaijan and Armenia too. Winemaking in the latter is moving at speed and geographical names like Areni are becoming familiar, thanks to Arthur Sarkisyan’s efforts to bring these wines to Russia.

Mysteriously, Portugal, whose grapes most Russians can’t even pronounce, is making a strong comeback, with sales doubling in value in 2017 compared to 2013. The secret is, of course, attractive pricing, great quality, drinkability and Vinho Verde. The “zelenoye vino”, as Russians call it (green wine), is probably the most emblematic Portuguese wine in Russia. The Wines of Portugal 2018 marketing campaign has also helped.

Sales of Spanish wines, not including the imported bulk used to produce “Russian wine”, are also on the rise. Democratic offerings from La Mancha and Jumilla are driving the segment with distributors increasing the presence of smaller wineries from Spain’s non-classic regions.

Grower Champagne, although a niche offering for HoReCa and Moscow’s private clients, has become interesting in places where sommeliers play an important role. Instead of carrying one or two well-known brands of Champagne as they did several years ago, Russian distributors are looking for niche terroir wines of limited production, which generate all-important cash flow.

With people still figuring out which wines taste better, organic concepts are not yet attracting strong interest. While both retailers and media have made great efforts to explain the difference between organic and biodynamic farming, the population at large still remains uneducated on the matter and, in any case, it looks like organic ideals don’t really speak to the Russian soul.

Pét-nat wines, on the other hand, have attracted interest thanks to favourable reviews from hip somms and traders. While companies are still bringing such wines into Russia, it looks like the saturation point is not far away.

Overall, while times are tight, they’re also good for ordinary consumers, who have more and better wines on offer than ever before.

This article first appeared in Meininger’s Wine Business International, 22 Nov, 2018

Mindless drinking

Roman Smirnov just had a terrific day. One of this evening’s guests ordered three bottles of Grands Échezeaux and one of La Tâche, all four by one of the greatest Burgundy producers — Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The final wine bill came to a whopping 850,000 rubles (approx. €11,000). Why does Roman care? Because he is a sommelier at the celebrated Russian chef Anatoly Komm’s upmarket restaurant. Too bad Smirnov and other sommeliers at top venues cannot simply rest on their laurels anymore as the kind of prolific outlay is becoming extremely rare.

While fine wine bills have soared across the country due to the twofold weakening of national currency and economic turmoil, the question restaurant owners, sommeliers and wine traders ask themselves is why on Earth the rich man’s wine wardrobe remains so clearly driven by a small group of overpriced wines. And the broader one: why doesn’t wine culture flourish yet, after 25 years of open market?

Back in the 1990s it was looking so promising for the wine trade. Opening the market for imports and new wealth came smoothly together. What attracted Russian wine importers and sommeliers at first were classic wines. “Companies were willing to bring crème de la crème of the fine wine world”, recalls Dmitry Bazashvili, a Moscow sommelier with extensive experience in the city’s top restaurants. This meant exactly what it sounded like: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Piedmont. The blue-chip stuff of fine wine world. It hasn’t been until the 2000s when the practice of using top wines to show off took off: the talks of Petrus’ baths had already been in the air. Until recently “resolving issues” (reshat voprosy, in Russian) while drinking top Bordeaux was a common practice.

The luxury consumer

Expensive bottles which get two-three times more expensive when they reach the Russia’s capital, attract a well-defined clique of consumers. They are top managers, businessmen and, not the least, officials of all sorts. Top wines sales have often been fuelled by the money coming from the government-affiliated structures. Oil, gas, mining, construction businesses, everything that turn around tremendous amounts of money, are the most desirable clients of all, often willing to pay ridiculous money for the “right” bottles. I drink Tignanello, you drink Tignanello: like two submarines call-signs it’s a way of telling foes from allies.

Ironically, it’s not the desire to enjoy the aroma and taste of top wines that is the main driving force behind the demand for the “blue chips”. “Up to two thirds of such wines are destined for gifting,” says Vladimir Basov, running wine importing business and managing several wine bars in Moscow and St. Petersburg. “Most consumers of top wines regard them as status symbols rather than something to enjoy”. Sounds familiar: think China or Brazil. Doesn’t any developing country follow the pattern? When it comes to label-drinking, Russia has some specific features.

Label-drinking “a-la Russe”

As the rich became introduced to what sommeliers and Russian wine trade referred to as “best wines”, the interest to other wines quickly faded. Feels like the vici part of veni vidi vici never happened. At a certain stage top wine drinkers decided that they know wine because they drank the “best” ones. The will to discover new things rather than seeing to the old habits is something that never became a healthy habit in the country. Selecting wine is intimidating to the rich ones with too much at stake: their image, personal and business relations. With each new bottle a Pandora box, label-drinking came in handy.

Fabio Borgianni, Quadrum restaurant manager, Four Seasons Moscow

“Around 60% of our Russian guests want famous labels like Ornellaia, Masseto, Solaia, Tignanello. They are looking for rich, full-bodied, rounded wines with universal powerful taste,” says Quadrum restaurant manager Fabio Borgianni at Four Seasons Moscow, overlooking Kremlin. To encourage guests to break away from their habits Fabio has to go round and about and make use of tricks of all sorts. Guaranteed return of an already open bottle if the wine does not fit the guest’s taste is one of those that regularly works well.

One might think that Tuscany example is the only that of brand-driven, mindless consumption in Russia. It’s not. Burgundy, the Holy Cow of wine aficionados, follows almost the same consumption pattern. Even assuming the consumers of Burgundy should know more about wines they still choose the famous labels. “Half of those who prefers Burgundy in restaurants do so to make an impression,” points out Basov.

Professionals like an expat in Moscow Fabio Borgianni are in low demand these days: sommeliers prefer to think less, sell more and are often tied up by restaurant owners who control the wine list and benefit on specific agreements with the wine traders.

R.I.P., Mr. Sommelier

With wine advertising ban closing the possibilities to deliver the wine-related information to the final consumers in 2013, sommeliers remained one of the few legal channels to convey the wine knowledge. But the hopes that sommeliers could somehow replace media vanished fast. It’s sad to admit that “sommelier” in Russia has turned into a curse-word. It was in this decade when restaurant lists became dominated by commercial wines and regulated by the contracts between importers and restaurant owners. Money agreements, that is. Sommeliers slowly evolved from deciders to what’s called in Russian vinocherpiy — a guy who simply pours your wine. The “labels” — expensive, famous, promoted by sommeliers and wine businesses — became just the right tool.

Designed to be the guides into the immense wine world, Russian sommeliers quickly became something else: a tool for promoting a limited number of fine wines, expensive and easy to sell. Driven by the desire to serve best to their nuveau-riche guests, sommeliers seldom dare or care to persuade those to enrich their wine vocabulary with a bit cheaper wines of the similar quality as the top ones.

Nobody trusts anybody

Russian sommeliers seem to have lost unconditionally in fight against label drinking. The clear lack of trustworthy local experts added a lot to it — no Russian Robert Parker has yet been born to influence, guide and inspire. Journalists are moving to make their own wines and wine writing is still widely banned from papers by law, making the profession extremely rare and non-rewarding financially. Besides, top drinkers rarely listen to experts of any sorts and, especially, the younger ones. Prices of wines sold are directly linked to the seniority of those who sells them.

Arkady Novikov, powerful Russian restaurateur, the head of Novikov Group

It’s not only about the sommeliers per se. As a famous Russian proverb puts it, fish begins to stink at the head. Trust between the Russian venue owners, directors and sommeliers leaves much to be desired — at best. The anticipated restaurant life cycle of virtually any given restaurant is short and is a major reason behind the lack of inspiring wine lists. While most restaurants in Russia are run by businessmen rather than chefs, exclusions only make the rule more obvious. And then business goals step in: “You’re a good sommelier. Look, I’d pay you a basic salary and you go ahead and do business of your own,” the owners say. It is also about the money. Expensive wine requires expensive service — stemware, specialists, storage facilities and more importantly, time to store top wines.

Russian restaurateurs generally want quick returns, which is not good news for wine consumers. Unwilling to invest in wine cellaring, restaurants are managing smaller lists of no more than 150 wines. “As a result, we have reduced the interest in wine among guests. We stayed at the level where we like to drink Chablis but still think it’s a grape variety”, says Alexander Khatiashvili, special projects director at Simple, the fine wine importer based in Moscow. And if the lists are so limited they are bound to be filled with self-selling labels that turn around fast with virtually no effort from the sommelier side.

It’s possible that for this exact reason the most expensive wines like those of Domaine de La Romanee-Conti, distributed in Russia by Dmitry Pinsky’s company DP-Trade are among those that seldom suffer from crises. “In troubled times our best-selling wines are those of DRC. Their consumers don’t change their habits, ever”, says Pinsky puzzled himself.

Psy-factors

Back at Anatoly Komm’s restaurant Roman Smirnov says wines with a price tag of 5–35 thousand rubles a bottle (€70–450) are the backbone of top venues’ sales. Unfortunately for leading wine producers, the number of places capable of offering expensive bottles is declining fast: dealing with them proves to be psychologically hard to match short-term goals of restaurant owners.

Psychological observations of wine consumption are interesting and noteworthy. Insiders point out the Russian wine market is distorted by itself: it generates an extremely narrow interest towards a dozen of wine labels. “The rich ones start their wine journey with top commercial wines and are forced to believe that drinking such wines is a matter of prestige. In 95% of cases they will continue to drink full-flavour, commercial wines”, notes Mikhail Volkov, the co-owner of a wine bar downtown Moscow promoting more subtle wines of Burgundy, Germany and Austria. Unable to attract enough consumers in long term venues like his one rarely survive in the city.

Mikhail Volkov (right), the co-owner of Winil wine bar, Moscow

Driven by stereotypical wine beliefs Russian restaurant-goers often categorically reject certain wines (“all Rieslings are sour” or “I only drink Italy”). They limit themselves to a certain label: even the harvest year is not important anymore. The only thing that matters is the familiar name on the bottle. “For the fun of it, take a Sassicaia bottle and add another producer on the label with smaller font — no one will ever notice”, says Roman Smirnov.

Two ways it could end

So it’s a bit thick, all of that. There’s limited wine information flow, sommeliers are bound by restaurant owners, who are, in turn, bound by short-term thinking and depressing economical conditions, which are, in turn, bound by political situation. And drinkers are pressed down by psychological issues connected to the general interest to life and living. Label-drinking is a minuscule part of the wine-trade business complications and could be perceived as a natural market response to squeezing, tightening and red-tape control of the sector.

Some say it’s time for new wines for reasonable money. “The best wine bars in Europe aren’t full of wine connoisseurs, it’s just people who came to have a good time,” says Vladimir Basov. Importers and restaurateurs are seeking to bring new trends: those who don’t feed on Super-tuscans, promote subtle German and Austrian wines and the word “Riesling” sounds more often than “Supertuscany”.

“Wine is an element of culture. The more you travel, the more you learn. At least people are now taking pictures of wine labels,” says Mikhail Volkov. “We need another generation that would replace the current one, that have traveled the world and came back. Only then something will happen in this market,” dreams Khatiashvili.