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How Kazakhstan Is Becoming The Next Frontier For World-Class Wine
High-quality wine is coming out of an unlikely place along the Silk Road.
After traveling through the great wine producing regions of Europe, Zeinulla Kakimzhanov had an idea: why not revive wine culture in Kazakhstan? Knowing that his country once had a great wine tradition, he formed a cooperative, pursued investors, and began cultivating 70 hectares of forgotten vineyards near the village of Karakemer, in the Assa Valley just outside of Almaty, Kazakhstan's most dynamic and populated city. Kakimzhanov called his new winery Arba Wine, and high-end wine began being produced in Kazakhstan once again.
Kazakhstan doesn’t necessarily come to mind when we think of the world’s great regions for viniculture, but the country actually has a long — ancient, in fact — tradition of growing grapes and producing wine.
“It is mentioned in the old manuscripts, the old Chinese manuscripts,” Kakimzhanov began. “In the sixth or seventh century, a Chinese monk traveled here. He wrote about the very nice grape culture.”
Grapes made their way to Kazakhstan via two separate migrations. The first was along the Silk Road, as traders brought grape seeds and the knowledge of wine making up from Europe and Turkey, and the second was from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, as stronger religious conventions pushed wine production out to the fringes of Central Asia in the 10th - 13th centuries. Although neither of these traditions were to last.
“A lot of changes happened here,” Kakimzhanov explained. “Ghengis Khan, the Chinese Han Empire. To survive during any war it's better to be mobile, but for grape culture you have to be settled, you have to stay in the same place, you can't leave, not even for a month. So logically this culture had been lost.”
Although viniculture was bound to return to Kazakhstan. This time it was the legendary agronomists of the Soviet Union who would spearhead the reintroduction.
“When the Soviet Union started making plans to develop the country they decided that this region should be for grapes, for wine and for the table,” Kakimzhanov explained.
The Soviets did an extensive survey in the 40s and figured out what parts of their ream would be most productive for growing what types of crops, and what varieties of seeds would perform best in what conditions. This lead them to discovering that Kazakhstan produced superior grapes, and they subsequently sowed over 60,000 hectares with more than 500 varieties, always searching for the the precise combinations to obtain optimal results.
It turned out that the climate in the Almaty region, being located in the Eurasian steppes 1,000 meters above sea level, right beneath snow capped mountains and glaciers, was perfect for producing wine. There is a stark difference between the warm daytime and cold nighttime temperatures here, an extreme which is rare in the world and extremely beneficial for producing grapes that have the proper sugar and amino acid levels for high quality wine. The region is also too cold for vineyard-consuming fungi to survive but warm enough for the grapes to grow and for the stalks to make it through the winter.
Due to these conditions, for a period of time the Soviet's Kazakh wine was exceptional. “Very close to classical wine culture from Europe,” Kakimzhanov said. But with industrialization came more expedient methods for producing wine, which by that time was primarily being cultivated for the sole purpose of getting intoxicated. The quality drastically decreased, as things like aging the wine in quality barrels became irrelevant, as the spoils would be cracked open and consumed within a matter of months anyway. Then came Gorbechev's policies against alcohol production, and many of Kazakhstan’s vineyards were cut down and the rest ceased being cultivated. It was pretty much moot when post-independence agricultural reforms broke up the giant old vineyards and redistributed the land among many different farmers.
“They were finished,” Kakimzhanov laments. “All these vineyards didn't have any cultivation because it was all destroyed.”
Although the relics of some of these Soviet-era vineyards were still out there when Kakimzhanov decided to revive his country's wine making tradition.
“Then I came to this place,” Kakimzhanov explained. “The feeling was very strong — nature, a nice environment. It was in a very bad condition, the vineyard, so I decided to try to do something.”
He then started Arba Wines, the first 21st Century operation to begin producing fine wine in Kazakhstan. He brought in quality seeds from France, hired Mario Fregoni, a world-renowned wine expert, as a consultant, and began replanting the old vineyards.
Then an auspicious twist to the story occurred. After Fregoni made several advisory trips to the new vineyards at Arba Wine, one day Kakimzhanov decided to take him on a visit to the old, dilapidated former Soviet vineyards that were nearby.
“We went to the old vineyards which were in very bad condition," Kakimzhanov recalled. "He said ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, what did you do here to prevent them from getting disease?’ I said for thirty years nobody worked here. For thirty years there wasn't any protection from disease. He was surprised, completely. He then did an analysis and he was surprised about the quality of the grape.”
Fregoni declared the quality of the old Soviet grapes to be exceptional. Kakimzhanov then began a program to re-cultivate and renovate the old vineyards using the same stalks the Soviets left behind long ago.
“So we did this job and after the first year of cultivation we had this fantastic harvest. A fantastic crop by quality and by number. When we started to do wine from this grape that was cut from the old vineyard it was of fantastic quality. By aroma, by taste. From the old roots they took all the nice elements and gave them to the grapes. It was fantastic wine,” Kakimzhanov proclaimed.
Arba Wine began with the ambition to produce good wine for Kazakhstan and Russia, but after the superior batch of wine that came from the old Soviet vineyards the game had changed. Fregoni eventually took Kakimzhanov aside and asked him what his goals were. When Kakimzhanov replied that he was content with the local market, Fregoni just looked at him and said, "Please listen to me. What we have here, the nature, the climate, the old vineyards, if you don't want your target to produce world top quality wines, which you can produce, there is no reason for me to come here. I have to do something special. If you want to do this on a serious basis we are going to continue."
Arba Wine then set out with the new goal of producing world-class wines. The result, so far, has been to the tune of two gold medals at the Concours International Des Vins Montagne in November 2014, a gold medal at the Strasbourg Riesling Du Monde in 2015, a Decanter World bronze medal in 2015, a silver medal along with five bronzes at the 2015 International Wine Challenge, as well as many other medals won at various Asian wine competitions.
Zeinulla Kakimzhanov’s experiment of reviving viniculture Kazakhstan has been an indisputable success, and a path has been cleared towards a new frontier for high-quality wine production.