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Russian wines - tasting notes

22 Oct 2009 by Jancis Robinson

For the first time on a wine trip I felt rather like an explorer on my recent visit to Russia (see From Russia with love). On Saturday I'll be publishing an overview of what I discovered in the Kuban region across the Black Sea from the Crimea to the east. Below are notes on about half the wines I tasted when I was there. I also tasted another 120 from a quite extraordinary collection of supposedly the best wines made in the Soviet Union during the Soviet era and I plan to publish notes on them next week.

One major endemic problem in Russia is sorting out which wines labelled as Russian are made with some or all Russian-grown grapes and which constitute the 70% or so that contain non-Russian wine imported in bulk - problems similar to those in China and Canada. The Russians are good at record-keeping, however, so I can at least report that Spain, Ukraine and Argentina were the major exporters of bulk wine to Russia last year. I did see extensive and very well managed vineyards, and I assume that London-based wine consultant John Worontschak, whom I have known for 25 years and whose idea this trip was, was keen to show me the proper, Russian-grown wines with which he has been involved at Fanagoria and Myskhako for some years.

The wines have relatively modest alcohol levels and sometimes need chaptalisation. They have good but not excessive acid levels and Kuban, named after the local river, seems to me to have good potential as a wine region. The major viticultural challenge is winter kill, though vines are not banked up in the autumn since winters here are not as severe as in Russia's other wine regions to the north and east. Another potential challenge is the lack of fresh water for irrigation. Mean annual rainfall is only 350-400 mm, with 2008 the driest year ever. Harvest is from the beginning of September to mid October with flowering in the first 10 days of June.


Named after the Ancient Greek settlement on the relatively cool Taman peninsular between the Black and Asov seas, Fanagoria is a privately owned business that used to specialise in top-quality fruit juices, including varietal grape juice. Click the Russia tag at the bottom of this article for more videos and pictures. John Worontschak, London based and of Ukrainian extraction (like many members of the management here), has been consultant winemaker for the last four years as part of a very determined modernisation and expansion programme. They have 2,300 ha of vines, almost two-thirds of them new. New vineyards have been planted with only 1,700 vines per hectare and yields are a robust 10 tonnes/ha for everyday quality wine. The sprawling winery and distillation site is no oil painting but new equipment is arriving all the time. Cru Lermont, named after Russia's second best known poet, is their top range. NR, standing, oddly to English speakers, for Numeric Reserve, is their next quality down. They make a range of fortified wines labelled rather confusingly 'Since 1957' flavoured with herbs. Products such as Black Healer and 'Cahors' (written 'Kagor' in Cyrillic script) Balsamic are popular for their 'medicinal' properties. The company is particularly famous for their bitters, packaged in hand-thrown clay pots modelled on treasures in the local archaeological museum. Good for tourists? I also tasted a medium-sweet sparkling Cabernet - definitely odd but possibly something for a turkey? Fanagoria, Pompadour Sparkling Wine NV Kuban 14.5 Drink now

Very pale lemon with busy bead. Made by the Charmat method, rather than the traditional continuous process used for Soviet sparkling wine. Fresh nose with some sweetness and in fact something a bit odd and sickly. Good enough persistence of bubble. Vaguely metallic. One month on yeast lees! Very, very faint autolysis nose. Made from Pinot Blanc, Aligoté, Sauvignon Blanc. Not for the UK market. (Acratophore - is the name of the tank. One huge tank, like a bottle for fermentation, for 24 tonnes of fruit.)

Fanagoria, NR Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Kuban 15+ Drink now Fresh enough nose though rather low key and lightly sweet - sort of faint Styria? Good crisp fruit and acidity though not very strongly varietal by the standards of, say, NZ. A well-balanced punchy white wine. Quite long. 3 g/l RS. Well balanced. Made from three-year-old vines. From a new vineyard, cf the Fanagoria, Cru Lermont superior bottling (see below). 12.3%

Fanagoria, NR Aligoté 2008 Kuban 15.5 Drink now Rather darker greenish straw colour than the Sauvignon Blanc. Reminds me of a punchy Pinot Blanc, made from their oldest vineyard, 27-year-old vines planted in the Soviet era. Very confident. Bumptious and well rounded though without huge character. Very clean. Much fruitier than most Burgundian examples! 12.7%

Fanagoria, NR Chardonnay 2008 Kuban 14.5 Drink now Fermented in tank on medium-toast French oak staves bought from Radoux. The fruit very slightly struggles to escape the oak layer. A little bit heavy - not as frank and fresh as the other two whites. Vines 27 years old. Though in 2009 they have new clones yielding for the first time. They will yield fruitier wines. 23,000 bottles per batch. 13%

Fanagoria, NR Cabernet Rosé 2008 Kuban 15.5 Drink now Very, very slightly syrupy - fashioned expressly for Russian women(!) apparently. Mid rosé colour. Definitely some Cabernet, good acid and then quite a bit of sugar, but all in a nice package. Remarkably like a Cabernet Rosé d'Anjou! We enjoyed it last night with fruit at the end of the meal. They ask whether they should make a dry version. It may be a bit early for a dry version on the Russian market?

Fanagoria, NR Merlot 2008 Kuban 15.5 Drink 2009-10 Healthy ruby. Malolactic fermentation on medium-toast staves from Radoux. Lightly leafy nose. Nice freshness. Not enormous in impact but well balanced.

Fanagoria, NR Tsimlansky Black 2007 Kuban 16 Drink 2008-11 Deep ruby. Originates from the banks of the Don, 300 km NNE of Kuban. Very slightly industrial on the nose. Then it cleaned itself up. Dusty, bone dry, rather interesting flavours with good round tannins and acidity and plenty of fruit weight on the palate. Very dry finish with good confidence. These wines have been slightly chaptalised. 13%

Fanagoria, NR Tsimlansky Black 2008 Kuban 15.5 Drink 2009-11 Looks a little paler than the 2007! Malty nose. Tastes lighter though still with the confident, bone dry Very long. Same price as Cab and Merlot. 'Blackthorn, smoked cherry, black fruits', says Valentina, the white-coated lab matron (see below with me and Vladimir Pukish, head of communications, able translator and someone who claimed during the tasting that he was 'almost not overlooking' at the notes I was making on my laptop). During the 1812 Russo-French war the Cossacks came back to the Don from France and somewhere en route they found this variety, apparently. In the 19th centry they made fizz from it. Pushkin alluded to it in several of his poems. Very good for secondary fermentation. Used to be made in kveri à la Georgian winemaking? Reminds John Worontschak of Barbera. 12.8%

Fanagoria, NR Saperavi 2007Kuban 15 Drink 2008-09 Very dark crimson. Looks much bluer than the Tsimlansky. Simple red wine without the fire of better Georgian examples. A little dull and muted. With quite a bit of tannin, and acid, but slightly dead and industrial. Northern Saperavi = Saperavi Severny, but this is not the same as Georgian Saparavi - it is the progeny of it.

Fanagoria, NR Saperavi 2008 Kuban 15- Drink 2010-12 Very dark crimson. Hint of rhubarb on the nose and then very obvious sweetness and acid on the palate. Not very knit - sweet and crude - but livelier than the 2007. This is Saperavi Severny again, but they will have some Georgian Saperavi from ENTAV in France ready for 2010 or so.

Fanagoria, NR Cabernet 2007 Kuban 15 Drink 2010-12 Very dark crimson. Fresh nose. Easy and well balanced and very frank. Still quite a lot of acid and tannin.

Fanagoria, NR Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Kuban 15 Drink 2009-10 Looks a little older than the 2007! Fresh and lively and well balanced. Juicy and easy. Early maturing. Relatively simple. But easy to like if cheap.

Fanagoria, Cru Lermont Sauvignon Blanc 2007 Kuban 16 Drink 2010-11 A year's lees contact with six months' bâtonnage. Pale lemon straw. Fresh and lively. From a very old vineyard - probably not 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Very lively and mineral. Lots of structure. I'd pay £7.99 for this.

Fanagoria, Cru Lermont Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Kuban 16.5 Drink 2010-12 Tank sample (T86). Fresher, greener notes on nose. Very tingly and Sancerrey. The Sauvignon Blanc here really is quite promising.

Fanagoria, Cru Lermont Chardonnay 2007 Kuban 14.5 Drink 2010-11 Too much oak on the nose - and not very nice oak at that. Then rather watery on the palate. Unappetising.

Fanagoria, Cru Lermont Pinot Noir 2007 Kuban 16 Drink 2009-10 Transparent ruby with quite a bit of development. Sweet nose with sufficient freshness. In the mushroom spectrum with a bit of richness. This would be very flattering for many Pinot lovers to taste, though it seems to have developed quite fast. Vines are seven years old. John Worontschak felt the barrel room got a bit hot.

Fanagoria, Cru Lermont Pinot Noir 2008 Kuban ?? (30% barrel / 70 % T11 blend) First bottle: Quite a different colour from the 2007 - bluer, much deeper. Oxidised nose. Awkward. Did it collapse while being blended by hand? Second bottle: Just a little fresher. Bit like confectionery. John Worontschak was very disappointed by this as he reckons Pinot has a great future here.

Fanagoria, Cru Lermont Merlot 2007 Kuban 15 Drink 2010-13 Bright ruby. Fresh and lively and lots of tannin and acidity. A bit too tough for the moment. Very brisk! Actually rather more painful to taste than the NR version. Needs quite a bit of time!! All vertically shoot positioned, lower-yielding vines.

Fanagoria, Cru Lermont Merlot 2008 Kuban 15.5+ Drink 2010-13 Very dark crimson. A bit beetrooty without much personality. Sweet start. Brutal.

Fanagoria, Cru Lermont Cabernet 2005 Kuban 14.5 Drink 2007-09 Classic varietal Cab from the 1990s! Some sweetness and a bit of syrup. Some green. A taste of history.

Fanagoria, Cru Lermont Cabernet 2006 Kuban 15 Drink 2009-11 Dark crimson. Very well melded and more interesting and sophisticated than the 2005 by a leap. Ready and easy even if a bit New Worldy. Acid a bit obvious. No obvious oak.

Fanagoria, Cru Lermont Cabernet 2007 Kuban 16 Drink 2009-13 Cask sample. But the problem, according to John Worontschak, was that all the casks were new, so there is quite a bit of oak here. Dark crimson, more interesting notes. Nicely balanced and not too heavy a hand. Very natural, not OTT. Must have been very good fruit not to be overwhelmed! Very vigorous and healthy.

Fanagoria, Cru Lermont Cabernet 2008 Kuban 15.5 Drink 2010-12 Cask sample (50% T112 and 50% barrel). A little rhubarby on the nose. Lower yield for Cab because of frost. Jam. Valentina loves this, and finds smoked sugar plum in it. Very slightly too ripe for me. Fanagoria Maria, Sweet Collection Traminer 1992 Kuban 16 Drink 1996-2006 This wine, one of the oldest in the winery’s collection, was opened in my honour when I arrived in their offices. Very dusty tall, straight sided half litre. Potential alcohol 24%, grown on sandy soil. It won a grand prize in a Moscow competition in 2002. Dark tawny. Smells of brown sugar, and definitely walnuts. Aged in 15,000 litre wooden barrels. Even a little rancio and good acidity. Difficult to see Traminer character but a very well balanced sweet wine with good length and freshness. RS 16 g/l, TA 5.5 g/l, 16% http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/a200910212/layout/print.html

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