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Wine and Spirits

From nation of vodka drinkers to a wine powerhouse? Uzbekistan’s winemaking ambitions

  • Its production is tiny, its wine industry a legacy of imperial Russia and its climate harsh, but Muslim Central Asian nation has big plans to raise output
  • It wants to plant chardonnay and cabernet grapes, and hopes to export fine wine to Europe and China, but it will enter a crowded market
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 4:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2018, 4:30pm

As the warm autumn becomes a distant memory and winter extends its grip over the Central Asian steppe, Uzbek grape farmer Abdumutal Yuldashev’s harvest is bottled up, bound for Russia.

While Yuldashev’s 15 hectares of land once yielded mostly grapes for the table, now he and his small cohort of workers find themselves on the front lines of an ambitious, state-led winemaking drive in the majority-Muslim country.

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This season his team harvested Bayan Shirei and Rkatsiteli grape varieties, native to the former Soviet countries of the Caucasus. But in the future, internationally known types such as chardonnay and cabernet could be the order of the day, if plans by the country’s strongman president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, bear fruit.

A decree published by the presidential office in February called for a 60 per cent increase in the state wine company’s wine exports by the end of 2021 from current levels. By then too, it also wants the area under cultivation by the company to have doubled.

Mirziyoyev has pledged to unshackle Uzbekistan’s economy, weaning it off its dependence on commodities like the water-thirsty cotton crop that covers the country in swathes, while attracting foreign investors.

The plan calls for the “organisation of cultivation of especially valuable industrial varieties of grape seedlings”, including those from France, Italy, Chile and the United States.

However, industry experts have voiced reservations about Uzbekistan’s ability to become a maker of fine wines, while a wine festival organised in the capital, Tashkent, last month as part of the drive failed to pique public interest.

That has not stopped 38-year-old private farmer Yuldashev thinking big.

“I want to expand next season by renting some of these other fields,” he says, gesturing across a vista of vineyards stretching towards the foothills of the Parkent mountains, 80kms (50 miles) from Tashkent. “It seems there is a lot of work ahead.”  

For now, local winemaking is still a far cry from the chateaux of Burgundy, and some exports are still limited to the early, unfinished stages in the winemaking process.

Uzbekistan produces around 20 million litres of wine a year, compared to France’s more than four billion litres.

It is sometimes difficult to sell abroad if you can’t show that the stuff is popular at home
Kym Anderson

At a plant near Yuldashev’s farm, a mostly female workforce dressed in white overalls watches over a conveyor belt turning out bottles of pressed grape juice, all of which will be sent to Russia for refinement.

Gayrat Ashurov, the plant’s director, says 180 local farmers, including Yuldashev, bring their grapes to the factory.

Tax breaks and other incentives for wine producers set out in the presidential decree are designed to phase out exports of raw wine and strengthen grape-to-glass operations.

In addition to other former Soviet countries, Uzbekistan is eyeing markets in Europe and China.

Nearly three decades after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Uzbeks are still more likely to drink vodka than wine, while Islam’s growing role in society is a threat to both. Yet promoting wine domestically is important for any country with export ambitions, according to industry experts.

“It is sometimes difficult to sell abroad if you can’t show that the stuff is popular at home,” says Kym Anderson, executive director of the Wine Economics Research Centre at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

Climate will be another potential hurdle, he saysid, as Uzbekistan sees more extremes than traditional wine-growing countries, including the former Soviet bloc’s most well-known producer, Georgia.

Last year, Yuldashev says, he was forced to bury his vines as deep frosts gripped the region, a practice Anderson says raises labour costs while risking long-term damage to the plants.

In the summer, meanwhile, “temperatures above the mid-40s [Celsius; 113 Fahrenheit] can damage grapes if not shaded appropriately by the leaf canopy”, Anderson says.

While winemaking in Uzbekistan has a long history, it was only introduced on an industrial scale in the 19th century during the Russian imperial period. The first winery was founded in 1868 by Russian merchant Dmitry Filatov.

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But after wine – mostly in its fortified form – emerged as a relative staple of Uzbek production during the Soviet era, output took two massive hits.

First came the anti-alcohol campaign of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s that curbed the production of spirits across the Soviet Union. Then independence and the economic straitjacket that defined Uzbekistan under Mirziyoyev’s predecessor and mentor Islam Karimov compounded the downturn.

Analysts are so far unsure whether the top-down production drive can establish Uzbekistan as a new force in a relatively crowded international wine market.

Tom Whittington, of the London-based fine-wine investment firm Cult Wines, questioned what niche the country would find.

“Uzbek wine, at least in the short term, will not compete with established fine wine from the old and new world,” he said.