Reserved for the Tsar:
Nicholas II's Private Vineyards in the Crimea
Tsar Nicholas II's private vineyard in the Crimea produced some of the finest dessert wines in the world.
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The Crimean Peninsula, with its soaring mountains that sweep sharply down to the Black Sea, is associated with the suicidal charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. Immortalised by the verses of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the region evokes images of the Valley of Death and that most noble 600. It is against this legendary backdrop that the Massandra winery stands. Over the course of the last century, the vineyard has produced some of the finest wines to have emerged from anywhere in the world, wines that have witnessed – and survived – some of the most turbulent events in history.
The Massandra winery was built between 1894 and 1897, primarily to cater for the day-to-day requirements of Tsar Nicholas II and his court. The Romanovs decamped every year to their summer palace, Livadia, near Yalta, and they demanded the highest-quality wines. To this end, the Tsar decided to appoint Prince Lev Sergeyevich Golitzin, an immensely gifted winemaker, to oversee production at the winery.
Golitzin eagerly set to work, planting vines that suited the warm climate and he put to good use his incredible talent for blending wines. (Unfortunately, he took the recipes for some of his finest creations with him to his grave.) The result was the creation of an unparalleled imperial collection of sweet wines, including Muscats and Tokay, and the Tsar’s personal tipple, the Livadia Red Port that he used to decant into a small hip flask and keep hidden in the top of his boot. Apart from the Tsar’s predilection for sweet tastes, this style of fortified and dessert wines is also influenced by the hot climate of the Crimean coast.
Bonhams is selling a wide range of mature wines from the Massandra collection dating back to the 19th century, with some of the older bottles embossed with the Tsar’s seal. Highlights of two sales in London and California include Prince Golitzin’s Honey of Alta Pastures, 1886 (£1,500 - 2,000 per bottle), and Livadia Red and White Port from 1891, in bottles embossed with the Tsar’s seal (£2,500 - 3,000 per bottle). There is also 1914 Massandra Malaga (£500 - 600 per bottle), 1929 Ai-Danil Tokay (£240 - 300 per bottle) and Koktebel Madeira, Livadia White Muscat and South Coast Red Port, all from the 1945 vintage (at just £30 - 50 per bottle).
The Massandra collection could easily have been destroyed in the bloodshed and brutality of the years following the Russian Revolution. The Crimea was a stronghold for the anti-Bolshevik White Army and it was here that they made their last stand in 1920.
In a desperate bid to protect the wine collection, the tunnels to Massandra’s cellars– which had taken three years to create, with miners digging 150 metres back into the mountainside to create seven tunnels up to 50 metres below ground level – were bricked up. The wine remained undiscovered until the Red Army finally took control of the area.
Stalin was so impressed by the wine when he tried it that, far from looting the collection, he ordered that it be preservedand production at the winery resumed. He also ensured that wine from the Tsars’ other palaces, in Moscow and St Petersburg, be moved to Massandra.
Twenty years later, the collection was once again jeopadised by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The entire collection had to be packed up and taken to three separate, secret locations. To ensure that the collection remained intact, each bottle was carefully marked with its own evacuation number. The directors of the winery were so determined that the Nazis should not get their hands on so much as a drop of the wine that the entire 1941 vintage – which still sat in vats – was poured into the Black Sea.
The collection remained secreted away until 1944, when it was reunited with the winery just in time to witness the Yalta Conference between the Allied Forces. In February 1945, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt sat in the White Hall at Livadia, where the Romanovs had once entertained guests, and planned the final defeat of Nazi Germany. It was to be the last conference of the Second World War and the last trip Roosevelt would ever make abroad.
Despite enjoying a more harmonious existence since, life at Massandra was threatened again in 1986 when President Mikhail Gorbachev imposed a wide-ranging and, initially, highly effective anti-alcohol campaign. Alcohol had always been an integral part of Russian life, but the social cost of heavy drinking was becoming increasingly apparent. Such was the strength of feeling that a large number of vines at Massandrawere torn up and production was, once again, stemmed for a time.
However, the tale of the Massandra collection is one of endurance. The winery continues to this day in its tradition for producing exquisite wines and has earned itself a position, not only in the wine world, but also in the national cultural heritage.
Richard Harvey MW is European Head of Wine at Bonhams and Frank Martell is International Director of Wine, Bonhams & Butterfields in California
Tsar Nicholas II walking in his private vineyard at Massandra in the Crimea