Champagne becomes the toast of Russia

`Shampanskoye' marks celebrations -- at $1.50 a bottle

January 25, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - In December 1942, with the German army at the gates, it might have seemed as if the Russians had something more important than champagne to worry about.

But Soviet propaganda held that victory over fascism was inevitable, and it wouldn't do to greet the inevitable without a bottle or two of celebratory bubbly.

So in the dark days of the early war, Josef Stalin ordered the Moscow Factory of Champagne Wines to be built within sight of the Kremlin, where it produced plenty of sparkling wine in time for victory in 1945 and where it stands to this day, snuggled between the Moscow Military District Headquarters and the Army Prosecutor's Office.

Russians love what they call "shampanskoye." They consider their country the second motherland of champagne. It seems strange to no one here that champagne should be turned out in a factory, and that that factory should be on about the same latitude as Ketchikan, Alaska, on a bend of the Moscow River just upstream from a power plant. Or that before its second fermentation the wine is kept in a giant thermos originally built to store rocket fuel (and on which someone has scrawled the unhappy word "Kursk" because it resembles the ill-fated submarine).

There are a dozen champagne factories scattered across Russia. The northernmost is in St. Petersburg; the easternmost in Khabarovsk, which is near the North Pacific and is about as far away from a vineyard as it is possible to get.

"Our task was to make sure that every Soviet family had a bottle for New Year's," said Mikhail Gagarin, general director at what is now called the Kornet plant. "People used to stand in line for champagne the way they used to stand in line at Lenin's mausoleum. Now, of course, we're making a lot more than that."

Kornet, the smallest of Moscow's three sparkling wine factories, cranks out 15 million bottles a year, up from 6 million a decade ago. Gagarin said he could easily sell 20 million if he had the production capacity. Nationally, Russian producers sold 100 million bottles last year - about the same as their counterparts in the United States, which has twice the population.

"Champagne is a drink of joy," Gagarin said, and at a dollar-and-a-half a bottle, it appears that Russians have more and more to be joyful about, despite all the depressing news here.

"It's for holidays, weddings, New Year's, a new ship, a new rocket, a new baby, a new wife, a new mother-in-law," he said. "You can't get anywhere without champagne."

There are three ways to make Russian champagne. A winery in the south uses the French method - bottle by bottle, three years from grape to fizz. Unlicensed outfits, which abound, slap together a teeth-gritting recipe of grape flavoring, sugar, water, carbon dioxide and grain alcohol.

Then there's the way Kornet works: like the French method, except instead of making champagne by the bottle the factory uses pressurized reservoir vats, each of which holds between 1,300 and 2,100 gallons. Kornet buys new wine from vineyards in the Caucasus, ships it to Moscow's Paveletsky Station by tank car, trucks it to the factory, filters it, adds yeast and sugar for the second fermentation, sticks it in a reservoir and pours it out as "shampanskoye" about three weeks later.

Sergei Brusilovsky, now retired, was director of Kornet from 1952 to 1996 and introduced the reservoir process. Costs went down and production soared, from 250,000 bottles a year when he took over to 10 million a year when he stepped down. For his labors he was awarded the Order of Lenin.

"Our uninterrupted process of production," Brusilovsky said, "saved a lot of time and preserved the high quality of classic French champagne."

The French might object. France has won agreement from Russia not to use the word champagne except on bottles sold domestically, and then only in the Cyrillic alphabet. The Russians find this hard to understand - Kornet won an international prize for sparkling wines in 1969 in Czechoslovakia (a few months after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia) - but are willing to go along.

Eighty-five percent of Kornet's production is sweet champagne. Gagarin said he'd like to educate Russians to drink drier varieties, "but we're a northern country, and sweet wine is like nutrition."

Women are the main consumers of "shampanskoye;" the most popular brand is "Nadezhda," which is a woman's name but also means "hope." Couples drink champagne wherever couples gather - on the Sparrow Hills overlooking the city, on the excursion boats that chug along the river in the summertime, on the benches that look out at the skaters on Patriarch's Pond in the winter. The runway at the giant Ferris wheel in Gorky Park is usually sticky with spilled sweet champagne.

Women also make up most of the workforce at Kornet, where production runs 16 hours a day. "Well, women are used to monotonous work," Gagarin explained.

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