Wines From The Cellars Of The Tsara

winesON FRIDAY December 3, 2004, Sotheby’s will hold an historic sale of wines from the legendary Imperial winery at Massandra in Russia. Carefully selected from the “Massandra Collection” – the winery’s own holdings of the very best wines ever produced under its aegis – the wines to be offered represent some of the finest, rarest Russian wines ever to have appeared on the market. They will include wines from the Imperial era (many of which bear the Tsar’s personal seal), as well as other great vintages from the first half of the 20th century.

Massandra and its Wines

The fortified and dessert wines of Massandra are legendary, with a distinctive, full flavour that sets them apart from European and New World wines of similar ilk. More than that, the wines of Massandra occupy an important place at the heart of Russia’s Imperial and cultural history. The winery (illustrated left) there was built in the late 19th century in order to supply wines for the Tsar’s Summer Palace, called “Livadia”, near Yalta. Over the next few decades, Massandra produced wines to cater for the Tsar’s every conceivable need, from wines for Church Communion to those for the Court, for social functions and for the Tsar’s own personal pleasure.

wines2The winery has continued to produce first-class wines ever since and this, combined with the extraordinary architectural merit of its cellars and other buildings, has earned it a position as one of Russia’s most revered officially-designated sites of national importance. Produced from vines that stretch almost the entire length of the South Coast of the Crimea, Massandra wines embrace a huge range of sweet wine styles, from Sherry to Madeira, from Port to Marsala, as well Tokays and Muscats. The tradition of wine-making in the Crimea goes back to the early 19th century – the result of one extraordinarily rich man’s passion for wine. Reputedly richer than the Tsars themselves, Mikhail Vorontsov spared no expense in his quest to satisfy his insatiable thirst for good wine. To this end, he imported and planted innumerable types of vine from Western Europe and from these he managed to produce a number of successful wines. In 1894, encouraged by Voronstov’s success in the region, Tsar Nicholas II decided to build his own winery there. It was an enormous undertaking. Work on the cellars (illustrated right) took three years as miners dug deep into the mountainside to create a labyrinth of 21 tunnels (each over 150 metres long) that to this day rank among the finest cellars in the world. An ingenious feat of engineering (a series of carefully positioned air shafts ensures the temperature remains constantly cool, and fresh spring water creates a natural humidity of 90-95%), the cellars are also exceptionally solid and strong – when violent earthquakes caused widespread damage in the region in 1920, the cellars of Massandra were completely unscathed. In order to ensure that his wines were the best, the Tsar employed Prince Lev Sergervich Golitzin to oversee production at the winery. An extremely accomplished winemaker, Golitzin devoted himself to developing the wines that suited the region best, and it is these same wines that define Massandra’s output today. Golitzin also had an extraordinary talent for blending wines, and his “creations” are legendary. His note-keeping, however, was not so consistent, and he took the recipe for many of his greatest blends with him to the grave. To this day, no one really knows how he made his legendary “Honey of Altae Pastures” and “Seventh Heaven” wines (although, after years of experimentation, the winery feels it has finally cracked the mystery of the latter and is about to release its own recreation). When, in 1920, Stalin’s troops stormed the gates of Massandra, the future of the winery hung in the balance. But so impressed was Stalin with the wines he sampled, he decided to preserve both the winery and its historic “Collection”. Under the directorship of Alexander Alexandovich, production continued and Massandra maintained its impeccable reputation for exceptional wines. The same traditions continue to this day.

The Massandra Collection

wines1Begun by Prince Golitzin in the late 19th century, the Massandra Collection comprises examples of every Massandra vintage, as well as European wines from the personal collection of Golitzin himself. While the primary purpose of the collection was – and still is – for research purposes (i.e. to allow for study of the ageing process.), in more recent times the collection has taken on a commercial function in that it is used as a “deposit” in order to ensure that commercial quantities of mature wines are available for sale. To this end, some 10,000 bottles are added to the collection each year.

The Collection has had a remarkable history. In the years immediately following the Russian Revolution, the Crimea was plunged into political turmoil as White Russians (aided and abetted by German invaders and Anglo-French interventionists) struggled to maintain control of the area. In the midst of this, the Massandra Collection could easily have been looted, but the entrances to the tunnels in which it was stored were bricked up so skillfully that it was never discovered. When the Red Army finally took control of the area in late 1920, they discovered the collection but, rather than raid it, they added to it wines from the Tsar’s palaces at Moscow, St. Petersburg and Livadia. In the following years, wine-making at Massandra continued and the collection was further augmented. In 1941, however, the charmed, tranquil life of the collection was brutally disrupted by the imminent threat of Nazi invasion. In an attempt to avoid Nazi appropriation, the entire collection was packed up and taken out of Yalta to three secret locations. It was a monumental undertaking: each bottle of wine was marked with an evacuation number and carefully crated before being transported to a safe place. The only casualty in all of this was the 1941 vintage which could not be crated out because it was still in vats at the time. Rather than surrender it to the Nazis, Aleksander Yegorov, the director of the winery, ordered that it be poured into the sea, and for the first (and possibly last) time ever, the Black Sea turned red. The collection remained hidden until 1944, when it was returned to its original resting place.

Highlights of the Sale December’s sale will include examples of some 150 different types of Massandra wine. In all, some 400 lots will be offered with a combined estimate in excess of £500,000. For more information visit WWW.SOTHEBYS.COM

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