April 7, 2017

Abkhazia: Burgeoning Wine Industry Boosts Local Opportunities

Photo courtesy of Financial Times and Fursov Aleksey

With its distinctive balance of subtropical and temperate climates, Abkhazia has a long history of wine production dating back to the early Bronze Age. Abkhazia has limited access to channels of international commerce due to its unrecognised status, which makes it difficult for the government to attract business and improve the state’s economy. The hurdle for local purveyors of wine is not in adapting their product, but in securing a place for that product on the international marketplace. As the regional wine industry continues to develop, so will the opportunities for local businesses to transcend their borders.

 

The article below was published by the Financial Times:

The flight from Moscow to Sochi, host to the 2014 Winter Olympics, takes about two and a half hours. Due south from Russia’s capital, the city of 350,000 is one of the country’s most popular resorts on the Black Sea, immortalised in the novels of Bunin, Pasternak and Babel.

Mountains signal the approach into Sochi, as the plane turns to land at the airport, recently revamped to the tune of Rbs14bn ($233m).

Outside the terminal, a pack of taxi drivers are poised to pounce. Yet the request “Taxi to Abkhazia?” does not elicit any immediate takers, despite the border being just 10 minutes’ drive along the coast.

When I visited in 2014, there were no road signs for Abkhazia or its border. Russia had removed any indication of political alliance to the breakaway region during the Olympics.

Once at the border, the entrance is situated down a narrow street with vendors selling everything from gas cylinders to swimming costumes. A glum Russian soldier stands ready to check passports. He nods me through after the requisite half-hour wait.

The Abkhazian side of the border is comparatively straightforward. Soldiers take the passports and immediately hand them back, there is little point in trying to outdo Russia’s strict border control. Once through the border, stray dogs are usually the first locals to greet people into Abkhazia.

Heading down the subtropical coastline along the main road is not for the faint hearted — cows and horses wander across the road, often resting in the middle and there is no clear speed limit. It is about a two-hour journey to Sukhumi, the capital.

Abkhazia has been in international limbo since its 1992-93 war with Georgia, when it sought independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition to Russia, it is recognised only by Nicaragua, Venezuela and the tiny Micronesian island of Naura. Georgia still lays claim to it.

The place is frozen in time but it is difficult to pinpoint which era exactly. Along the road, Soviet buildings decorated with Communist stars compete for attention with ruined castles half-hidden by layers of ivy.

Flora and fauna thrive in a landscape untouched since the collapse of its coal industry in the mid-1990s. It is no surprise that the locals take advantage of the lush vegetation resulting from the territory’s subtropical climate. Small, private vineyards create natural walls between houses and the main road, but this is not their only use.

Abkhazia is one of the world’s oldest wine-producing regions. Clay jugs have been found locally that still contain grape seeds dating from 3000BC.

Traditionally, Abkhazians have produced wine for its medicinal qualities, as well as for practices in ancient pagan rites. Now the grapes, which produce both red and white wines, as well as “chacha”, a highly potent pomace brandy, provide much-needed income in a country with rampant unemployment. Homemade wines are sold by the roadside, available in recycled water or Coca-Cola bottles for as little as Rbs70 a litre.

Wines and Beverages of Abkhazia, the region’s largest wine producer, offers a range of blends, from red semi-sweet to dry white, selling for about Rbs150 a bottle. Two popular blends, Lykhny and Bouquet of Abkhazia, have even won international prizes.

The company is the only producer in the region to sell wine into the Russian market, with 10 varieties available for approximately Rbs320 a bottle. Annually, the company exports 8.5m bottles valued at Rbs687.6m, accounting for 42 per cent of Wines and Beverages’ total turnover.

The family of Nikolay Achba, the company’s director, have been producing wine for centuries. Direct descendants of the noble Achba dynasty of Abkhazia, his ancestors reigned in the region from as early as the 8th century.

“My aunt always thought I would be a navy captain — probably a fantasy,” Achba laughs. “But constant exposure to my father’s vineyards and factory as a child directed me to this profession and to continue the family tradition.”

But while Achba might be eyeing international opportunities — the bottles are made with sturdy Bohemian glass and finished with high-quality Portuguese corks — the country’s isolation from the world markets remains starkly apparent. “As a huge fan of international wine myself, I dream about presenting our wine further afield than Russia,” he says.

The company’s vineyards stretch to 600 hectares, yet security is lax. Only a small wire fence and a handful of lethargic guards protect the valuable produce from outsiders. With the perfect climate nurturing the grapes, until production there is no need to do much more than sit, watch and wait.

A few miles north along the coast back towards Sochi, Gudauta, a town of 8,514 inhabitants and host to the much-disputed Bombara Russian airbase, is home to a small wine factory built by Vianor Avidzba and his brother, Zaur. Together, the brothers bought the land their ancestors had used to cultivate grapes and produce wine more than a century ago. Only a few things have changed: the building is new and now welcomes a steady flow of curious Russian tourists during the summer.

Employing 20 people, many of whom are relatives, Wine Yard Avidzba still uses ancient Abkhazian techniques to produce two of their most popular wines, Stariy Sukhum and Apskha. These are left in wooden casks for maturing, unlike the steel bowls often used in modern techniques.

Abkhazia looks and feels as if it has been forgotten by the rest of the world. Its economy is in tatters; its buildings are still being repaired more than 20 years after the war.

President Raul Khajimba said his government was working to create conditions for young professionals to stay in the country. “We pay for and send young people abroad for training and then they come back and work for the good of the country.”

The aim was to make Abkhazia “a prosperous country”, he added, “even more attractive for living, recreation and investment”.

The wine industry offers hope, not least to its economy, but also to put Abkhazia on the map. “Wine — it’s a part of world culture. God gave our country the resources to enter into the elite arena of international wine production,” adds Achba. “But we are still far from reaching our full potential in the international marketplace.”