Vitaly Kovach is a founder of the School of sommeliers, WINETIME wine expert, winemaker and technologist, independent wine expert, member of the Italian Association of sommeliers.
Vitaly, I’ve recently read your interview of 2009 and many of the questions seem to me up to date. One of the questions I want to ask you whether there is European level of wine in Ukraine today.
Having worked in this field for 15 years already I saw how the situation was changing in our country for the better. Previously, there was no one on the market except Massandra and Solnechnaya Dolina (Sunny Valley) (Meganom). I'm talking exclusively about dry wines; they can really be equal to European ones. Colonist (Ivan Plachkov) came to market with its wines in 2003-2004. However, we must say openly there were its first years’ crop, and they did not have a valuable product in the bottle. But Plachkov was the first one who’s tried to convince the consumer that his product is worth trying. In one of our regular trips to vine-markets I accompanied him and voiced the idea of a blind tasting. Our people are very skeptical about «Made in Ukraine» label. As a result, during our blind tastings in 80% of cases people gave preference to Ukrainian wines, not knowing what's in the bottle. It was the first step. After a year and a half, the other people have appeared on the market – people who understand that winemaking in Ukraine can and should be developed. Kniaz Trubetskoy Winery (Prince Trubetskoy Winery) appeared at that time.
Maybe our consumer just got used to the taste of Ukrainian wine and gives the preference to it unconsciously?
Those wines are radically different from our customary taste, they are similar to French. If we compare the best examples of old wines of the USSR, we may say that they were oxidized. A new generation of wines that has appeared 5-7 years ago, is different from the Soviet taste, because technology and equipment have been improved. It became more difficult to recognize the good wine of Ukrainian origin.
Within this evolution a new wine producer has appeared every 2 years. Today we can clearly indicate that the situation has changed significantly since 2009. We have Odesa region, with its main representative - Colonist. This wine you can take as a good gift to your friends in Europe, no doubts. In Kherson region there is "Kniaz Trubetskoy Winery» with “Kniaz Trubetskoy” and "Oksamyt Ukrayiny” their red wine top products. In Nikolayiv region there is “Beykush” Winery. Its owner is our compatriot who lives in Spain, he is fascinated by wine. He has vineyards on the banks of the estuary, a good young team and the best consultants. This is the only Ukrainian wine that is sold in Yevgeny Chichvarkin’s wine boutique in London. His Appassimento is incredible wine; grapes drying technology is used for its production. This is probably the most expensive wine in Ukraine; price per bottle is UAH 1,000.
In my opinion, Massandra, even if Crimea remained under Ukrainian jurisdiction, would lose many positions today in comparison to other wine brands.
Modern Ukrainian wine is sold in France, Germany, America, Israel. Chizay Winery in Transcarpathians is the only one producing kosher wine in Ukraine. While a blind tasting this manufacturer has taken a leading position among the white wines and has won many competitions.
In 2015 a new player from Odesa region has appeared on the market. I am talking about Grande Vallee winery. They aggressively came into the market, positioning their bottle of wine for UAH 150 (wholesale price). After degustations the price dropped a bit. They have an excellent Riesling, the only Ukrainian Pinot Meunier, now they produce wine similar to beaujolais nouveau.
In addition to the famous wineries some small ones started to appear, such as Alexander Kovach from Transcarpathia and many others.
Once the legislation for wineries improves (and this process has been started already), then we will see 15-20 new wineries, unknown to anyone yet. But it is important for manufacturers to produce high quality product and to be responsible.
If you want to taste good Ukrainian wine in Kyiv, there is “Like a local's” wine bar; it is a very interesting concept.
Has the growing grapes technology change already becoming more European one?
It changed partly. There are winemakers who want to get money quickly. Transcarpathia suffers from this the most, because the tourist flow has increased there dramatically. There's a kind of conveyor of cheap wine production. But this will change. The tastes of consumers are progressing, so the manufacturers have to improve their product as well. This is evolution.
Speaking about the consumer, how has he/she changed? We have such an abundance of goods now, plus the Ukrainians began to travel more, to taste more. Does it lead to omnivorous way, or do we start to understand more in terms of what we eat and drink?
I always compare us with Russia in this respect. Russia has always had more money, but we have more developed gastro culture. If we compare the consumer in Russia and Ukraine, the Ukrainians have always dominated. This is due to the fact that we earn money in more complicated way, and while buying a product, we are more careful with our choice. As a result, we choose a better product. If we compare the consumer of 2009 and 2017, there is a significant difference. The consumer’s taste has evolved. We prefer a good wine to martini. Our people choose more expensive wines, despite the fact that we have less money than in Russia. Our consumers are looking for quality, but not for a cheap product.
It should be said that today there is a global wine oversupply trend in the market. This is due to the fact that the new generation drinks less alcohol due to the trend of a healthy lifestyle and healthy interests. In this case people purchase less but more expensive and higher quality wines.
Are there any special taste preferences of Ukrainians?
If we talk about the evolution of taste, it is the same as it has been in Europe. The personal choice of wine consists of three stages: sweetness is the first one. Sweet taste is very simple to experience and to understand, so to say. The second stage includes aromatic flavor, the third – the intensity of taste and its concentration.
If we talk about the aromatics, it appeared in the world in late 70's of the 20th century thanks to South Africa, where they used a technique that allowed maintaining the aromatics. White wines are the most aromatic ones.
Talking about the taste, the more tannic and concentrated wine is, the better taste it has for a lamer in terms of understanding the wine. But the peak of wine consumption evolution is the appreciation of elegant wines. When a person drinks wine, he/she starts to get involved into fine dining as well. Ukrainians are close to this stage.
And what happens to New World wines now? Can they make a good competition to European ones?
New World wines already compete with European ones. They took away their slice of the market and these are new destinations: Ukraine, Russia, China, India. It has happened for the reason that the evolution of the taste of that consumer requires something concentrated. Chile, Uruguay and Australia have successfully entered these markets. Now New World expands their wine regions in the direction of fresher climate zones, so there will be more elegant wines. Thus, they will cover the consumer of the Old Europe as well.
Will the Frenchman drink the wine of Chile?
Yes, because it is easier for him to sell French wine for a good price and to drink a good and affordable Chile wine. Please do not forget also, that in the New World the land is very clean. They have focused on organics and biodynamics. Eduardo Chadwick and his “Sena” wine made a furor in blind tastings, it is insanely delicious and at the same time it is affordable wine.
What are the new players we can expect on the wine market in the nearest future?
China is the new player in the wine market. Today it takes the 2nd place in the number of planted vines in the world after Spain. They make wine for their market yet, but they have a lot of money. Local investors invite the top consultants from around the world. In 5 years we will be surprised at how good quality wines China produce and import. We only need to wait until the vines give a good harvest.
Australia aspires to become the number one country in the world in 2025 in terms of exporting their products to international markets, and they do fine for now. Soil diversity and favorable climate make it possible in some areas to take 2 harvests a year, according to the insider information. Conveniently selected Shiraz grape allows producing spicy wine, which is loved by British.
Wineries over there are highly automated; there is the biggest mechanization in this country that reduces the cost of wine production. Australians were the first in the world selling transcontinental wine: one bottle has a grape variety of Cabernet Sauvignon (for example) with grape from Argentina, South Africa and Australia. They were mixed and placed in one bottle. And it is very tempting, because it contains the best samples of grape from different continents. Yes, this wine has no passport. But it is technically done correctly and it has a good marketing foundation. I think very soon we will taste wine from the vines planted on Mars or on the Moon.
Of course, the old world will always be in favor. In Italy there is an overabundance of grapes and the perfect climate. Spain will rejoice because of the oldest vines fund.
Are there any highlights that, in your opinion, an educated person should know about wine?
Every consumer should know the delivery temperature of the beverage. This is the factor that can both decorate your wine as well as spoil the taste. Second tip is how to taste it, what to look for in wine. The third thing is an importance of understanding why one bottle of wine costs UAH 100 and the other one is sold for UAH 500. Once the consumer understands the technology of production he begins appreciate the taste of wine and starts understand its value. This knowledge is enough for the start to choose a high quality beverage.
By the way, modern wine connoisseurs can’t do without Coravin and cork for sparkling wine. Now you can drink wine without opening the bottle and store it for a long time.
Tell us about your Sommelier School, please.
There is a sommelier vineyard in our school. I planted 100 vines of 10 varieties of grapes, I brought them from Italy. Sauvignon blanc and Riesling do not need so much sun, like Muscat. It just needs 2-3 weeks more in our climate to ripen. Next year I hope to collect 50 kilograms, it will be a 4th year of the vine. This is an experiment and complex work. So when I meet people who take the Ukrainian wine and begin to criticize it, I always say: “Try to plant 10 vines and try to grow grapes and to produce a good wine. And then you can judge the others”.
But going back to school, I can say that today we have 3 levels, everyone can focus on the needed one. The program is very good and clear. Now there are even more people who come to learn something for themselves, than to develop professionally. One level includes 15 lectures. It allows you to understand difference in pricing, the art of degustation and to learn what types of wines and cordials exist. The course price is UAH 7450. This is the most affordable school in the city with a large audience, up to 20 students per class. The second level is studying winemaking countries and regions; the classification of wine qualities and how the wine is positioned in the world. As part of the tasting techniques, we study the evolution of wine. We are very strong with this course. When there is the peak of wine evolution and when it is the best to drink, you can learn only from me. I can say that I am a professional in this. This parameter can be calculated by knowing the characteristics of many components (alcohol content, grape type, year of collection, storage characteristics, etc.).
Dry wine is stored within 55-60 years maximum; then it becomes a history. Wine is a time machine that can take you back in dozens of years. After all, only alcohol, tea and honey are stored for so long. An old bottle of wine is like antiques for the connoisseur. In our school you can become such a connoisseur.
How do you perceive wine? What or whom do you compare it with?
It is alike with nature; it can behave in different ways. It is energy, and it can be different - in the form of wind, sea, pleasant scenery. But the wine has age. Only genius people can create this wonderful drink.
Photos: Anna Vishtak (2), shutterstock.com (7)