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The Massandra Collection (June 24, 2011)

If you're thinking about a wine with which to celebrate your 100th birthday, the best place to look is not in Bordeaux, the Loire, Germany, Madeira or Jerez but in the Crimea.

Near Yalta, on the Black Sea, is a winery called Massandra that dates back to the mid nineteenth century. Its cellars consist of seven 150-metre tunnels bored into the side of a mountain. Contained here are over one million bottles, the oldest of which is a sherry with a vintage date of 1775.

This winery once housed the private cellar of Tsar Nicholas II and today its wines of great antiquity are for sale.

Nobody knows exactly when the Massandra collection was established but the impetus came from a Sorbonne-trained lawyer and multi-linguist, Prince Lev Sergeivich Golitzin. In the 1870s Prince Golitzin built an estate called Novy Set close to Sudak in the Crimea, not far from the Tsar's summer palace at Livadia, and over the next two decades he devoted himself to making wines and "champagne" here. So good was his sparkling wine that he was awarded the Grand Prix in Paris in 1900, beating out many of the established French champagne houses.

In spite of this accolade, the Prince decided that the future of the Crimea lay in dessert and fortified wines and he looked to Spain, Portugal, Hungary and Italy for his inspiration. The Crimea already grew such varieties as Semillon, Aligoté, Pedro Ximenez and Cabernet Sauvignon, thanks to Count Mikail Voronstov, who had planted them in the 1820s to supply his winery at his Alpuka palace.

When Tsar Nicholas II set up a winery near his summer palace at Massandra in the early 1890s, Prince Golitzin was appointed winemaker and he presided over the cellars until his death in 1915.

In 1898, Prince Golitzin hired a winemaker named Alexander Yegorov. Yegerov survived the Revolution and lived to the age of 95 thanks to the patronage of Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan, a statesman who himself managed to survive serving under Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev. In 1936, Mikoyan invited Yegorov to consolidate several of the state-owned wineries under Massandra's control.

During his lifetime Prince Golitzin had bought a lot of wine in Europe and he donated much of it to the Tsar's cellar at Massandra, along with the wines he had made himself. His purpose in establishing the cellar was to create a permanent resource for studying the ageing effects of fine wines – the better to improve quality – as well as to amass commercial quantities of mature wines ready for sale. Approximately 10,000 bottles are added to the collection each year, the only stipulation being that they must be at least ten years old.

You might have thought that the original collection would have found its way down Bolshevik throats during the Revolution, but miraculously it survived thanks to the simple expedient of bricking up the tunnels in which the wines were stored. When the Red Army took control of the Crimea in November 1920 the collection was discovered intact.

In 1922 Stalin ordered all the wines found in any of the Tsar's palaces to be brought to Massandra. Though there was a hiatus in the early and middle 1920s during which no wines were added to the collection (when the Soviets took control there was no-one who knew how to make fine wine) the vintages of the late 1920s are said to be "exceptional."

With the threat of a German invasion of Crimea in 1941, Mikoyan instructed Yegorov to evacuate the entire collection. The final shipment left Yalta on September 21 for Tbilisi in Georgia. German troops entered Yalta on November 8.

In October 1944 Yegerov began the herculean task of shipping the wines back to Massandra from three separate locations. When Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met in Yalta in 1945 all the bottles were back in place. (As a vinous note to history, the three leaders stayed in Tsarist palaces: Stalin at Massandra, Churchill at Alupka and Roosevelt at Livadia, each with its own place in Russian wine lore.)

Today, Massandra produces 24 different styles of wine, mainly in the sweet and dessert categories, many of which can live 100 years or more. The Crimea's south coast where the vineyards are located is a sub-tropical zone where the Muscat grape has been raised for 2,500 years. No wine is produced at Massandra now but the historic facility acts as a bulk and bottle ageing centre for most of the south coast wineries.

In 1995 I acquired a bottle of Massandra White Muscat 1939. The colour was amber with olive tints. The nose had a white chocolate sweetness which followed through on the palate. Its driving acidity cleansed the palate of its honeyed sweetness and prolonged the flavour in the mouth for a long time. When I consulted the website of the distributors of Massandra products, Fine and Rare Wines in the UK, this very wine was still offered for sale.




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