I have just returned from Europe and my first visit to St Petersburg. Experiencing the rich culture and history of Russia is always amazing and when you visit its cultural capital and the acclaimed Hermitage Museum, you suddenly feel very small within the rich and complex history and heritage displayed so magnificently between 651 931 works of art, 749 582 archaeological artefacts, 13 932 pieces of arms and armoury, 1 122 369 numismatic objects – all displayed in an area of 233 345 square metres. And it is not only the sheer volume that impresses. It is how it transcends you to a time of grandeur and exceptional craftsmanship and shares European history in a way that I, as a South African, has never experienced before.
Of course I am always interested in wine and even among all the dazzling works of art and exceptional pieces of history, one can find wine glasses, decanters, wine coolers and even a wine fountain! Around 700 wine-related pieces, and the one more embellished and detailed than the other. Wine-making has come a long way, but despite the quality, drinking wine from these special vessels must have been an experience! The pieces are kept in various collections: from Antiquity to Fine Art to Oriental, to name a few and date from as early as 500 BC! The pieces are sourced from among others, Russia, France, Italy, Flanders, Holland, Attica, England, Germany, China and Spain.
Also among these wine-related artworks are beautiful still life paintings, vineyard scenes and even the Marriage at Cana painting, where according to the Biblical miracle, water was turned into wine.
And while enjoying this artistic and different perspective on wine, I wondered about the history of wine in Russia. Surely the Tsars, Dukes and Russian nobility who used the beautiful stemware must have had access to special wines?
In an article From Vodka to Vino, Joy Neumeyer writes: “Russia’s rocky history with wine started with Francophile Tsar Alexander II, who established the country’s first vineyard in the late 19th century. Considered a drink for aristocrats, wine was a distant second to the everyman’s constant companion, vodka. A famous Russian saying goes, “There cannot be too much vodka. There can only be not enough vodka.”
Despite attempts by Stalin, wine production did not succeed in Russia for a long time. In post-Soviet times however, wine imports ensure the availability of quality wine in Russia and consumption grew rapidly. With a growing demand and climate change, Russian wine production has also grown recently, although it still has to face extreme winters and has a long way to go when it comes to competing with established wine producing countries. More on the history of wine in Russia.
I enjoy bringing back wine from my travels and although a bottle of Russian wine didn’t make it back with me, my memories of St Petersburg and the rich culture of this special country surely have!