Vasily Raskov: "Azerbaijan has great potential in winemaking"
In November, a group of Russian wine experts and journalists traveled through the regions of Azerbaijan, traditionally focused on winemaking. This trip gave Vestnik Kavkaza reason to discuss winemaking as a separate systemic sector in the context of Azerbaijan's agrarian policy with a wine expert, member of the Russian Wine Writers Association Vasily Raskov.
- How would you assess the current state of Azerbaijani winemaking after you visited the vineyards and wine-making complexes?
- In Azerbaijan, we saw the results of the work that has been going on for the last ten years. The winemaking business is very long-term industry, a result is slowly achieved there, but a lot has been achieved in the course of the last 10 years. It takes a lot of time for a vine to grows, and the problem cannot be solved with additional funding or some kind of super efforts. It takes three years from planting to harvesting. And then experiments begin: whether a variety takes roots in a particular place, how long to age it, when it is better to harvest it, how to process it. It's a very long process of trial and error. Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has a great potential in this industry - excellent terroirs for quality winemaking. We tried wine production of a very high level, but we still cannot talk about a systemic breakthrough. It may take another 10-20 years until the industry will have not just big businessmen, but also medium, small business and farmers.
- How good is the Azerbaijani climate for winemaking, what do you think?
- Back in the USSR, there was a strong school of fortified wines, and we saw some samples, including the Ganja Sharab. A large volume of 1990 fortified wine is sold under the Hillside Classicobrand. Almost 30-year-old wine, a great one, with a stunning structure and great aroma. Today it is probably the best fortified Azerbaijani wine. Although we tried other very interesting wines - fortified nutmeg wine, Madeira-style wine. In a word, the school is preserved, aided by Azerbaijan's terroirs. Planting varieties which gain a high sugar level, all technological operations associated with fortified wines are well developed here.
Dry wines are a different story here. Since the Soviet times, there have been no high-quality winemaking schools. Everything was aimed at producing mass product, maximum yield, maximum speed of production. Since there is no dry wine school in Azerbaijan, a very good decision was made - they invite foreign experts with a good work experience, from Italy, France. There are 11 climatic zones in Azerbaijan. Ismailly, Kirovabad, Jalilabad, Tovuz on the border with Armenia vary greatly in climate and soil. There are areas with not enough humidity, but there are soils with good drainage. Winemakers, who have been working for 10 years to find good terroirs and suitable varieties, make progress.
The invited experts are accustomed to working with international varieties, mainly French, which have a serious scientific base. Where to plant them, how to process them, where to prune, when to harvest, what to do during the season, what to do in the cellar - all this is completely thought-out. But you need to work with local varieties as well, because without them the country will not have a look of its own in the wine-making industry. I was called a dozen Azerbaijani varieties, with which they can work, but so far they are not commercialized.
The ASPI Winery winery (Savalan) does a great job. This is a team with the right approach. They did not just take some cuttings, propagated and planted them. They invited specialists, traveled around Azerbaijan, found different places where these varieties survived, took different cuttings, improved plants, took them to serious European nurseries with a huge base and practice. They conducted clonal selection, performed virus clearance, clearance of other diseases. Only 10 years later they received the first cuttings that can be planted. Experimental work will now begin on which local Azeri varieties will give the best result.
- Do Azerbaijani wines have the prospect of occupying a worthy niche in the Russian market?
- In any market, not just in Russia. The wine market is not monotonous, its has segments. It is already obvious that Azerbaijani wine sells well in the base, the lowest segment. I mean cheap wines. Over 2018, exports increased by 70%. Exports are growing from small numbers, but it has almost doubled in the base segment. In Russia, due to a decrease in household income, there is an increased demand for such cheap, affordable wines, and Azerbaijan feels good in this segment, having the opportunity to increase exports of these wines. However, this is a very capricious and unreliable market, because the price competition is the only competition here.
Any country (including Azerbaijan) has a stable position in the Russian or international market at the moment when some new entities appear on the market, for example, a new variety, which cannot be reproduced anywhere else in the world. That's what one should strive for. This is a quality, premium winemaking. These wines are unlikely to compete with best Italian or French wines in price, it will be the average price segment, but it is what they should do, creating premium products worth 1000-2000 rubles. To do this, it is necessary to constantly maintain a supporting communication policy that would signal the wine industry that there is a new variety, that there is another unique Azerbaijani terroir, that you have a new wine with unique organoleptic characteristics. Naturally, this should be linked with the cuisine and tourism. Then it may work out all right.
- What are the prospects of enotourism in Azerbaijan for the Russians?
- They are huge. We see the example of Georgia, which was literally a bomb in terms of tourism and wine exports. But the export of Georgian wine has always been on top. There was a big failure during the embargo, but Georgia caught up with the lost opportunities in the market very quickly after it was removed. Georgia has become a fashionable tourist destination, and I see no reason why Azerbaijan would not join in the same wave of love for the Caucasus, for Caucasian cuisine, for Caucasian hospitality, for Caucasian wines. We need to think a little bit wider and join the tourist flow to the Caucasus. Everyone should be friends. We should not portion out rkatsiteli, saperavi - they are Caucasian grape varieties. I dream about a festival of Caucasian wines involving both Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
- And what about the North Caucasus republics?