We talk to Jenia Nikolaichuk, co-founder of Like a local’s wine bar, WSET Level 4 graduate, sommelier, and wine educator.
About the experience and perspectives of Ukrainian wine
I’ve worked with wine since 2005, for 13 years already. The last two years, since Like a local’s wine bar opened I’ve been working with Ukrainian wine. At some point before 2013 I had a year of working in the distribution of Crimean wines but the biggest part of my career I devoted to imported wines.
I think that working with Ukrainian wines today is impossible without previous experience and understanding of global wine business. You need to understand what is happening in the wine world, what are the quality samples, what is French, Spanish, and Italian wine.
Even though my colleagues and i actively promote Ukrainian wine, I admit that it has a lot of room to grow. Realistically today we only can recommend 4% of all the wines produced in the country. This percentage is growing, but we need to be realistic in order to understand what to do to move forward. Ukrainian specialists require international education and a better understanding of the global wine situation.
Mysterious Eastern Europe
There are several types of wine drinkers. Some of them just drink, and some have a deeper interest in wine. Some of our sophisticated and knowledgeable customers know everything about French wines, perfectly familiar with the Bordeaux appellations. They’ve tried Burgundy wines, and are well aware of what is happening in the wine life of Italy.
There is a lot of open information about these wines that they have studied. However, East European wines are still a mystery for them. Here in Eastern Europe, we have another climate, different types of grapes. Here we have an interesting mix of Soviet past, new technologies, and old ‘grandfather’s’ recipes.
There are no degustations where you would like 100% of the wines you try. That’s why during my degustations I try to offer different wine styles. So each of my customers can find something to like.
Benefits of Ukrainian wine
One of the Ukrainian strong sides today is sparkling wine production. Our climate is good for the sparklings, and historically we have produced a lot. With today’s global interest for the sparklings, our country has lots of potential.
We are not bad at the more aromatic types of grape, particularly in the Transcarpathian region. There is a growing trend of Moscato dry wines and Traminer.
Red wines however, our climate is not the best for them, besides, the best samples of red wines are usually aged. And Ukraine, unfortunately, still has a short history of good quality wine. The oldest you can find in the market is from 2013-2014. If you’re very lucky you can get something from 2009 or 2011.
In France or Spain, for examples, you can find wines from the 1980s and 1990s. Wines from 2002 are the norm.
However, when people taste Ukrainian wine they usually have good feedback. My best indicator is when a person decides to buy a bottle of something after the degustation to bring home.
About the climate
It’s true that the climatic zones suitable for grape growing in Ukraine are limited. However, the climate is changing rapidly, so are the technologies. Before planting your grapes, you should figure out what wine styles you want to get out of it and adjust to your climatic conditions. After analyzing your climate you can understand, what are your risks. Ask yourself, what can you grow here? How can i work with it, how do i take care of it? What technologies and scientific findings you can apply to get good results even in cooler climates?
About the changes within the last years
There have been many changes within the last few years, but unfortunately, they are not as rapid as we expected them to be. Four years ago a huge market niche previously occupied by the Crimean wines was opened for the Ukrainian producers from other regions. But sadly, it appeared that neither Odesa nor Transcarpathian producers were ready for it. Only today, four years after, we can see that improving.
In the Odessa region, there are several big factories, that own hectares of vineyards. Before they used to sell their wine materials to Crimea, that was easier than developing their own product line. Only now, after they lost the Crimean market, they started opening their own bottling lines, developing their own brand, and thinking about quality as opposed to quantity.
On the other hand, the producers who were already established on the market before 2013, had a chance to grow. This is a delicate situation where one should watch for increasing production and sales not to lead to a lower quantity.
The Laws are getting more producer friendly. This year the whole process of licensing small wineries got much easier. Hopefully, this will help them to find new markets and to grow.
Training the specialists
In Ukraine, there is a big problem with wine specialists. The few existing establishments that teach new winemakers, unfortunately, use very old books and programs. but thanks to the efforts of enthusiastic individuals, this situation is shifting to the better.
For example, Odesa National Academy of Food Technologies actively sends their students to do internships abroad. Graduates travel to experience grape picking and production technologies, sometimes as far as USA or Chile. When they come back they can offer their incredibly unique experience.
Investors and Foreign consultancy
I see great interest from investors. Even though wineries are a very long-term investment, that pay off the earliest in 10-15 years. I think rich people are often interested in winemaking because it is a beautiful side business to have. I would say in about 5 years we can start to see good results of today’s investment trends.
Ukrainian winemakers today often use services of foreign consultants. French, Italian or even Hungarian specialists can help with their knowledge and technologies.
I have a project called Drink&Travel. It started as an idea to travel around wineries with friends and like-minded people. At the moment it’s not a profitable project, mostly we do it for fun, experience, and education. People who go on tours with me think that drinking without traveling is just as boring as traveling without drinking.
At the moment we mostly travel to Western Europe (France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany) and Georgia. It is important for me to travel around different wineries and see how it is there.
Even in different wine regions of the same country, wine tourism can be organized differently. Recently we’ve visited Douro valley in Portugal, their vineyards are considered to be amongst the most beautiful in the world. The wine tourism is very active there, you have to book months in advance. And you can see that everything is organized there for a large visitors flow: strict degustation timing, prepared wine speeches etc.
But at Beaujolais region in France, for example, everything is totally different. There you mostly visit a winemaker in his own house, he lets you see his wine barrels. Everything is very informal, heartwarming and less openly touristic that in Douro.
In Germany, you will also unlikely get to see the barrels and the cellars, just the vineyards and degustation rooms. In each of my trips, I learn something new and try to adapt it to my work.
Wine tourism in Ukraine
In Ukraine, there is a demand for wine tourism too, and it is developing. Shabo Wine Culture Center, for instance, is a very touristic spot. I really like Prince Trubetskoy Wine Household. They have a beautiful territory with a real castle.
Some wineries are cozier and more sensual, Beykush Winery, for example, is a private house turned into the winery. It is very nice and less touristy.
There are some very interesting wineries in Transcarpathian. Here you can combine your wine experience with gastronomy, particularly cheese tasting. In my opinion, wine tourism in Ukraine will develop faster than winemaking itself.
If you want to be more keen on wines, I suggest starting with the theory. What is wine? What do its quality, price, and styles depend on? What wine styles exist?
Later, if you are a consumer, you need to figure out what types of wine do you personally like? Let’s take white wines, for example. Do you like light, fresh and young wines or full bodied, oaky and buttery white wines? Then you can look which countries produce the wines you like. What does France have? What does Germany have? What can you find here in Ukraine?
And you always should support your theory with the practice. Visit the degustations. Ideally, travel to a winery. After visiting wineries and certain wine regions you can rethink your views on wine, grape, and technologies.
Appreciating the work
Recently I’ve visited the Mosel region in Germany. Their hills are 40-45 degrees steep, can’t imagine how extreme grape picking must be there! Thinking how hard people work on those hills, you begin to feel that 15-20 Euros for a bottle of wine is underpaying.
Ukrainian market is only a very small share of wine produced in Western Europe. In general, only a small percentage of the wine is available for export. Many types are being produced locally, you only can taste them on the spot. Visiting wineries helps to find new types of grape, new winemakers, unseen technologies.
Wines, that impressed in the recent trips
Mosel in Germany is famous for its Riesling production. I’m a fan of Riesling wines. Often sommeliers contrapose German Riesling wines to the French ones, from Alsace. Before this trip, I preferred French Riesling. But after visiting Mosel, meeting its producers and tasting some good Rieslings samples aged 8-9 years, or older, I really felt in love with German ones.
There are very few white grape types that can age so nicely. Riesling ages beautifully. It is different depending on technologies and other factors, but it’s very graceful. I opened a whole new Riesling palette of taste.
Experiments, changes and the future
Like a local’s wine bar gave me a lot of new experiences. I saw the interest of customers in Ukrainian wine. They are eager to try and learn. Nevertheless, there are still a lot of snobs in the wine world, many people are not opened for the experiments. And if they aren’t they will unlikely come to appreciate Ukrainian wines, at least not at the moment.
It is also very weird to me that some people (like distributors, sellers) want to develop consumer’s interest in Ukrainian wines faster than Ukrainian wineries actually want to develop themselves.
Not all the wineries are ready for the experiments either. But those who are can surprise you. There are some wineries that I wouldn’t recommend a year ago. But now, after changing their technologists, and working on their vineyards they improved into reaching top-3 of sales in our bar.
There are still very few of such success stories, but I think there will be more of them in the future. There is almost no competition on Ukrainian winemaking market, it is a very open niche.