Climate of the Transcarpathian region is extremely favorable for winegrowing and winemaking. The Carpathian Mountains protect the region against cold Arctic air coming from north, and that’s why grapes have long been cultivated in the Transcarpathian region. Local families have been doing that for years: one can find as many as 40 wine cellars in one street. Despite the prohibition of private entrepreneurship by Soviet authorities and dry law, the locals were able to preserve their traditions, which are now being gradually restored. This story tells about Nota Bene, Chizay, Ursta and Paraska family wineries.
Active winemaking in the Transcarpathian region traces its origins back to the 13th century, even though there is the evidence that grapevine found its way over there much earlier, in the 10th century, brought by nomadic Magyar tribes from the Central Asia. In the early 13th century, after invasion of Batu Khan’s hordes, winegrowing in the region was completely destroyed. After 1254, Hungarian king Béla IV (back then, the Transcarpathian region was a part of the Kingdom of Hungary) invited winegrowers and winemakers from Italy and Germany to the Transcarpathian land devastated by the Mongols.
But even long before that, ethnic Ukrainians, Romanians and Hungarians have for centuries been growing grapes and making wine in the Transcarpathian region.
Before the beginning of Soviet era, local winemakers were bringing their wines to the Tokaj Hill in Hungary and selling them as the famous Tokaj wines. The chemical composition of local soils and climate of the Carpathian Mountains, identical to Hungarian hills, favor the growth of a strong, fertile grapevine in limestone lowlands.
So, by the time of arrival of the Soviet Union, industrial wine production in the region was fully operational. Wine cellars were actively built in the Transcarpathian region and new grape varieties were brought there from Europe, producing more and more new beverages for mass consumption, but they weren’t distinguishable for very high quality. Some of these wines include Berehivske, Serednianske, Uzhhorodske, Transcarpathian Rose, Irshavske.
In 1985-1988, an anti-alcohol campaign was spreading across the Soviet Union. At that time, Soviet authorities destroyed 14 thousand hectares of vineyards in the Transcarpathian region. That loss still hadn’t been fully recovered yet.
Today, mainland Ukraine has approximately 48 thousand hectares of vineyards, 4 thousand of which is located in the Transcarpathian region.
Before annexation, Crimea was the main winemaking center in Ukraine. In 2013, fertile vineyards occupied 20.5 thousand hectares of the peninsula’s territory, yielding 56 quintals of harvest from hectare every year. After the annexation of Crimea, the Transcarpathian region could have become the center of winegrowing in the country, but presently, it is hampered by the issues of lease and cultivation of land coupled with the problem of economic migration of the local population.
Receiving the ownership title to land is an uneasy task, and the cost of lease is too high for the locals. On the other hand, more affordable patches of land need to be thoroughly cultivated and cleared of shrubs.
And although more than half of the Transcarpathian population lives in rural areas near foothills, over 80% of the mountainous landscape suitable for growing grapevines remains uncultivated. Therefore, specifics of micro-winegrowing and winemaking in the region today envisage revival and preservation of what has been in existence there for many centuries.
For 30 years in a row, Ivan Ursta has been tending plantations in Mala Gora locality near Berehove, in Velyki Berehy village. In winter, the man prunes vines; in spring, he puts fertilizers into soil, and in summer, fights pests. Every autumn, Ivan and his workers gather up to 50 tons of grapes, from which he produces wine marketed under the Ursta Wine brand name.
Today, he grows in his vineyards 34 thousand vines of a whole number of grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Rhine Riesling, Syrah, Muscat Ottonel, Northern Saperavi and other.
In Ivan’s family, the elder and the younger were doing winemaking. Ursta’s family cellar, Sümegi Pince, is 400 years old:
— Sümegi is the surname of my grandfather. He was the one who developed in me the passion for this culture.
In the past, old cellars like that could often be found in mountains near Vynohradiv, Berehove, Mukachevo and Uzhhorod. Soviet authorities destroyed them all, together with vineyards, by blasting the entrance with dynamite to make sure that nobody can enter the wine cellars and become tempted to make homemade wines in the time of prohibition.
— I was told that I want to undermine the kolkhoz order, when over 30 years ago I took my first lease on land in the mountains.
250 meters above the sea level, wind blows from the Carpathians; the Borzhava River flows next to plantations of the Sümegi family, and Mount Stii, the highest mountain of the Polonyna Borzhava massif covered in snow until mid-May, is towering above them all:
— God created mountains for vineyards; clusters like these do not grow in flatlands.
According to Ivan Ursta, winegrowing and winemaking needs land, quality seedlings, time and money. Planting a hectare of grapevines alone costs almost half a million hryvnias.
— To plant one hectare of grapes, you need 2700 seedlings. After that, you tend them for five years, build an espalier, train wires and nets, and then you can wait for berries. There is no other way.
Up until the region was incorporated into the Soviet Union, winegrowing and winemaking were an organic part of individual households in the Transcarpathian region. They say that every hospodar with self-respect, regardless of whether he lived in a town or a village, would buy a patch of land depending on how much money he had, because land in mountains was worth its weight in gold, and grow grapevines. For those who did not have a barrel of wine could not be called a hospodar.
— The Soviets came and said that they want to mechanize winegrowing, razing vineyards of 150-year-old vines as thick as my arm. They destroyed everything: scooped the yards with bulldozers, removed soil (in the mountains!); then, rains came down, washing everything away and flooding the town.
Afterwards, Transcarpathian vines were taken to Soviet factories which cleared them of bark, lacquered twisted shoots and were making candleholders for them for 10 years in a row.
The destruction of plantations also resulted in the decline of coopering. While in the past there were more than a hundred coopers plying their trade in Velyki Berehy where winemakers lived, today there is no-one who could repair Ivan’s barrels.
In order to preserve the history of cooper’s trade, Ursta bought usable equipment to make barrels and placed it in his winetasting hall along with old wine pots and cups:
— I want people to have an idea of how it was done in the past. Today, if you need a barrel, you have to bring it across the border from somewhere in Europe, because here, we lost this craft forever. I wish your parents pass to you the work they love as continuation of the humankind.
Ivan Ursta’s hand-operated presses are over 150 years old. He also places bottles on racks himself. Sterile bottles are brought to him from the local factory. After wine is bottled and bottles are corked, the cork is additionally sealed with wax for preservation.
— I am a pensioner, and here I do what I can. My laboratory is in my mouth, in my colleagues and my grandchildren. Depending on whether or not I was getting nervous on the mountain, I come back home in the evening and every barrel is proposing itself: “Take me, take me, take me”.
Pulp is the name for ground grapes in vats. Wine starts with pulp. After grinding, grapes are poured into 300-500-liter clay vats. An hour or two after grinding, the pulp releases anthocyanins contained in berry skin, and the must turns red.
— Everything contained in the cluster, in berries and seeds, comes into this liquid. This is what richness is.
The pulp is mixed 3-4 times a day, and two days later, it is placed in a cellar for fermentation in wooden vessels. Half a year later, Ivan would come down there, remove the lid, pray the God and pump the wine over into barrels.
This way, still fermentation continues for approximately 18 months from the barreling stage; its duration depends on air temperature inside the cellar and outside.
The winemaker says that vintage lively wines must be aged for at least 18 months, best of all for 2-5 years:
— Up to 18 months is the child age of wine, and after that, it matures. Do you remember who you were when you were 10? A fifth-grader with pigtails, but at the age of 17, a girl matures and becomes a woman. The same is true about wines. But nobody is interested in vintage wine culture, because it is slow money. Therefore, the goal of our family is to preserve technology, so that wines could age for at least 5, 10, 15 years in these oak barrels.
Vintage wines are lively aged wines from renowned winemakers; they are not filtered, not pasteurized and not preserved. The filtration process takes place using cardboard filters, which arrest everything lively and healthy a wine has. An alcoholic beverage is filtered in order to extend its shelf life and preserve its color and fresh smell for as long as possible. But Ivan says that the filtration process deprives wine of its “soul” which contains the entire healthiness of this beverage.
Today, wines are consumed perhaps by the entire civilized world. According to Ivan, when a person was visiting a doctor centuries ago, he would prescribe the patient a tincture (with 12-14 percent of natural alcohol content, liquids prepared by infusion of medicinal plants absorb all salutary properties of those plants) and a bottle of wine.
For Ivan Ursta, a grape is not just a healthy berry. Vineyards are his place of tranquility, the place where his life’s work lives:
— I don’t go to church; I pray here, among the rows of grapevines. I’m here like a falcon in the sky; here, I’m happy and full of joy.
Chateau Chizay in Berehove is one of the largest producers and exporters of wine in Ukraine. The company’s founder, Hennadiy Gutman, is a native of Mukachevo and a hereditary winemaker.
Chizay produces approximately one million bottles of wine per year. The company exports its wines to the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Israel, Nigeria, Poland and Czech Republic.
Production was launched there in 1995, and in 1999, Chateau Chizay became perhaps the first winery in the Transcarpathian region to produce a bottle of lively wine.
272 hectares of grapevines are now planted near Mukachevo, Berehove and Irshava, in the place where there was only wilderness before. Over a million vines produce up to 20 tons of harvest every year.
Like Ivan Ursta, Hennadiy Gutman also inherited the love to winegrowing and the ancient technology of making wine from his grandfather:
— Before we were growing our own vines, I was buying grapes from all over Ukraine, including the Transcarpathian Oblast. It was the idea of my grandfather to plant more grapevines and make better-quality wines.
Later, the Gutman family decided to grow their own grapes. Today, their oldest grapevines are already 14 years old.
Almost 10 million liters of wine are aged in Chateau Chizay’s wine cellars. Wines made from dozens of grape varieties are waiting to be served: Cserszegi fűszeres, Sauvignon, Muscat Ottonel, Pinot blanc, Chardonnay, Italian Riesling, famous Cabernet Sauvignon and others.
The bottling of young wines starts in early March, while aged wines, such as Pinot noir, are aged in oak barrels for 18 months and only then bottled. The grape variety and date when the aging began are marked on every barrel.
Teaching to buy the domestic product
The winemaker’s work does not end after the bottle of aged wine is corked. Instead, new adventures begin and new challenges rise: finding the sales markets and, perhaps most importantly, cultivating an own consumer.
And even though the process of licensing small wineries for wholesale sales was simplified back in 2016, the government policy still requires certification of production process and confirmation of product quality from laboratories which Ukrainian winemakers are not used to, Hennadiy says.
To launch an own production after procuring a license, product certification is required. Recently, Chateau Chizay’s quality evaluation laboratory became able to provide services to local craft wineries. Based on test results, it proposes an individual plan which could help winemakers get rid of the problems with grapes and wine materials caused by low laboratory indicators of the quality of their products, and understand what they should devote their attention to when processing the next harvest. These tests are an indispensable condition for small wineries to receive a production license.
However, Hennadiy says, local winemakers are not very interested in working under control. Out of 50 invitees, only two responded to the offer.
— Our people have the habit of buying the European-made product, even if it is bad, because they have a stereotype that a Ukrainian product is of poor quality. But if you buy a wine in Ukraine for 100 hryvnias, it doesn’t mean that you bought a good Spanish wine. Today, Ukrainians travel a lot, and coming back home, they realize that they have to consume a Ukrainian product.
Hennadiy cites the example of Italy, where it is a custom to drink Italian wine, and on top of that, the preference goes to wines made in one’s own region. The same is true about France: 90 percent of wines in stores have domestic labels.
According to the entrepreneur, the government refunds to winemakers in the Bordeaux region of France half of their expenses related to participation in trade fairs and organization of winetasting. The Australian government refunds half of export costs, including costs of maintaining foreign offices. Georgia has a national wine office, while winemakers in Moldova participate in trade fairs at the full expense of the government.
— In our country, few winemakers participate in trade fairs today, and therefore, we present at trade fairs not Ukrainian wines but ourselves.
The interest on part of foreign and Ukrainian connoisseurs of wine prompts Transcarpathian winemakers to open their wine cellars to visitors and organize winetasting receptions and festivals.
Chateau Chizay’s interactive Museum of History and Culture of Winegrowing and Winemaking opened in 2019 tells about the culture of wine drinking and the history of Transcarpathian wines in various eras, from the Roman Empire till present time.
Chateau Chizay offers daily tours which include a visit to the wine storage and winetasting; it also has a location for visitors right in the vineyard: a restaurant and gazebos on Mala Gora.
Chateau Chizay winemakers work with experts of the project “Supporting development of the system of geographical indications in Ukraine” funded by the European Union. In addition to harmonization of geographical indications and development of the national legislation, the purpose of this project also includes development and popularization of wine and gastronomic tourism in regions with registered geographical indications. One of the parts of this project is the subproject “Roads of wines and tastes of Ukraine”. This way, Europe helps Ukrainian winemakers promote their products in EU markets.
— We participate in various trade fairs and wine tastings. We want to know the opinion of highly qualified specialists. And thank God, we receive high scores, but we need support from Ukraine, because with this support, we will gain world fame faster. Ukraine must value its product.
Family cellar of the Paraska family
The Paraska family cellar in Bene village has interesting history. After World War I, these cellars were built manually by POWs. They were widely used as storage facilities for agricultural and industrial products.
Between the 1920s and 1940s, these cellars were leased by the local Jews who called them kosher (meaning “fit”), because they used them to produce wine for Jewish religious rites. In 1942-43, the Wehrmacht closed and destroyed these cellars, because they belonged to Jews.
The Paraska family received their cellar in 1992, but at that time it resembled a village garbage dump rather than a unique natural storage.
The first grapevines were planted by the head of family, Yuri Paraska, a fourth-generation winemaker. After he died, the family business, Paraska Pince, was continued by his sons, Gergely and László. Back then, both of them were still in their 20s.
When the parents received this cellar, they found a dead dog in there. The mummified body of the animal indicated that the cellar has no fungi, bacteria or viruses which could damage organic matter. Therefore, the cellar was an ideal place for wine aging.
Constant temperature is maintained inside the cellar: 14 degrees in summer and 16 in winter. The fermentation temperature is 19 degrees for white and 25-28 degrees for red wines.
— Presently, we remove wines from the cellars visited by tourists to prevent damage to our products. For every person has an own body and own microbes and fungi. We have another two cellars for storage: one with oak barrels and the other for processing of wine.
In the Paraska family, children are taught from the early age to help adults. Gergely was planting vines together with the parents, pruned them and applied pesticides since he was a child. Later on, he fully assumed the responsibility for tending the vineyard, while the father handled production only.
Gergely graduated from a university in Budapest, majoring in winegrowing, and today, he conducts specialized practical trainings. Presently, the man is also studying in Romania, learning biochemistry of wine, biophysical condition of grapevines, soils and microelements which every variety needs. He says that Transcarpathian thermal and mineral waters contribute to the fertility of berries.
— My brother László is an informatics specialist and mathematician. We joke between us: one has the head, the other has the hand, working on a plantation. We help each other, and thanks to that, the results of our production efforts are better. We attend winetasting events, experiment with technologies, learn new things. If I want to make a wine which people will drink, I have to develop taste receptors myself.
They grow various grape varieties in their plantations, such as Chardonnay, Müller, Sinita, Cserszegi, Muscat Ottonel, Saperavi, Alberte and others. The Paraska family produces six names of pure and twelve names of blended wines.
— When my father began to renovate our vineyard back in 2002, he produced forty-fifty percent of dry wines and fifty-sixty percent of semisweet ones. But now, I make thirty percent of sweet and seventy percent of dry wines. I consider it an achievement, because real wines are dry, but people are used to drink aromatic, sweet beverages.
Paraska Pince red wines have the flavor of cinnamon, vanilla, prunes and forest berries, and white wines — mint or anise:
— Everyone has an own taste receptor and is looking for a product that suits them. We like Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and have it aged for a year or two to make it reveal its specific chocolate aroma, which can be felt after aging for one year, and it begins to taste like blackberry and prune.
Even if a winegrower gathers a particular variety in the same container and bottles it in different vessels, the wines are still unlike each other:
— Every vessel creates an own microclimate, and therefore, wine is aging there the way it likes. I can rub it, I can pray to it, but unfortunately, it ages the way it likes and I can’t help it. As for fermentation, you can only make a deal with Jesus and fungi.
Paraska winemakers let red grape pulp sit for five days, which gives the future wine a characteristic color. As for the white wine must, they pour it into barrels the same day the berries were harvested.
Before the beginning of fermentation, yeast is usually added to wine. However, the Paraska brothers use sulfur instead of yeast. To prevent oxidation during this process, they seal off the mix to prevent air from getting to it.
Not only grapes are growing on the four hectares of plantation in Bene. Where the soil is less fertile and easier exposed to frost, the owners grow peaches:
— The soil is dry and we have to deal with shrubs, but the Borzhava River helps us with water. Up the mountain, it is hard to drive in a stake, train wire and erect concrete poles. Every year, in spring and autumn, we have to do it again and again.
15 grape varieties are growing in the plantation, yielding up to 500 liters of juice every year. There are no forests neat the Paraska family’s plantations, and therefore, Gergely values wood: he knows how hard and long a tree grows and wants his children to see oaks with their own eyes, and therefore, he recently has been declining to use wooden dishes.
— I love nature, and I work here from dawn till dusk. If an oak stands for two hundred years, let it stand and give shadow. Therefore, we are thinking about switching to alternative wine aging technologies.
Gergely says that a wine aging method also depends on the grape variety. There are varieties which love a barrel and there varieties which don’t, such as, for example, Muscat. Micro-oxidation which occurs in barrels because of the natural pores in wood spoils the taste of a Muscat wine. To store these wines, stainless steel systems are used, in which a natural product is not oxidized.
For Gergely, winemaking is more than just work – it is his mission.
— If you make wine with your soul, heart and blood circulation and you know your profession, it is called fanaticism, love.
Vasyl Nagy lives in Berehove with his son. They steep wine in family barrels, have it aged in a 400-year-old monolithic rocky cellar, and bottle their wines only in glass bottles bearing a family wax seal “Nota Bene”:
— During my childhood, there was Young Technician magazine which had a page called “Nota bene”, which means “take notice”. For me, wine is something that needs to be taken notice of.
Vasyl and his wife bought the land with a cellar back in the 1980s. After winegrowing began to decline in the post-Soviet time, these cellars were filled with domestic waste, and enterprises of the food industry stored vegetables and finished products there.
The Nagy family bought this cellar from a Communist party functionary who emigrated to Hungary, built a house and began developing an own business:
— Back then, we started with some 20-30 hundred vines, and had little grapes. And in the Soviet time, it was de-facto prohibited. My parents were making wine, but for me, it was a punishment. I really hated to work in the vineyards. But after forty years of life, I began to love this trade.
The street in which the Nagy family now lives was formerly named “Champagne”. In winegrowing and winemaking regions, winemakers lived mostly in the same street. And every wealthy winemaker from Champagne Street wanted to have the same cellars as Vasyl’s.
There were almost forty tuff cellars like that in their street. These storage rooms in the Transcarpathian region were left since the time of Austria-Hungary, and were typical for every district or regional center back then.
These cellars are unique for their constant temperature and high air humidity. Therefore, everything else besides barrels begins to rot in cellars. Black and grey mold feeds upon organic particles found on household materials exposed to moisture impact.
Mold can spread fast, emitting specific substances, and it is a great helper for winemakers, because it kills other fungi, spiders and midges.
— Mold helps preserve oak, because it doesn’t let moisture inside the wood. All our wines are aged in wooden barrels for two to five years according to recipe.
Different volumes of barrels mean different fermentation or aging processes. Different stages of barrel burnout on the inside also produce partial impact on the finished product.
Winemaking is not the only trade in which Vasyl found himself, but it undoubtedly enables him to manifest, one way or another, his many talents.
— All my professions (engraving, metalworking, coopering) converge into one profession: that of winemaker.
Nota Bene cellars contain sixteen names of wines ready for consumption, either made from pure grape juice or blended. Dry Muscat Ottonel, Sauvignon blanc, Traminer, Italian Riesling, Chardonnay. Four red dry varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Aliberne, Isabella. It also has semisweet wines, produced by blending the aforementioned grape varieties, and several dessert wines.
— Grape varieties for a winemaker are like children for their mother. Even if she has ten children, she still loves them all, each in their own way, and all of them are good.
The Nagy family’s grapes are ground in grinders which turn them into a pulp, right in the vineyards during the harvesting, under the sun. For the faster a berry finds its way from the vine to the winery, the better quality the final product will have. After that, they take the pulp home and squeeze juice from it using an old German-made Howard press.
Unsellable wines are used to make chacha.
— The most difficult wines for aging are dry ones. Most of them are aged for up to two years, while dessert ones could be aged for as long as five years. Presently, we have eight varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Muscat Ottonel, Italian Riesling, Irsai Olivér, Cserszegi fűszeres, Blauburger and Muscat Lunel.
The sales turnover of Nota Bene vintage wines are different in different years, ranging from 20 to 30 thousand liters. The amount of harvest and the results of fermentation or wine storing change that figure every time.
But because of the low demand in recent years, winemakers are experiencing difficulties with selling their products. Vasyl believes that wine must be recognized as food, like it is presently in France, and not as an excisable alcoholic beverage:
— The Odesa, Kherson, Mykolaiv and Transcarpathian wine regions are overwhelmed with harvest left from the year before last, and that’s a problem of global proportions for them.
Ukrainian domestic winemaking is visibly technologically backward comparing to the neighboring countries.
Specialized workshops, fermentation rooms, stainless steel reservoirs with cooling system, refrigerators and laboratories — all that needs a substantial investment, and small Ukrainian wineries often don’t have that.
Ukrainian winemakers also lack specialized knowledge of winemaking and plant protection technologies which could be gained and improved in Ukraine, not abroad. Nevertheless, all that does not deter the most enterprising producers:
— We travel to France, Hungary and Slovakia to exchange experience and learn what can be aged and how, what problems can be encountered in winegrowing, which varieties are more resistant and which are less. Everything is important: on what slope to plant vines, in what area and what varieties. We are trying to bring varieties which are permitted for us and which can grow here. If certain varieties need much more sunlight than our locality has, we should not bring them over here.
Vasyl is one of the few winemakers who take samples of their wines for examination at Chizay and Kotar laboratories to confirm the product quality.
But no matter what score the wine made to a family recipe gets, every season Vasyl is again looking for people to tend vines, gather harvest, press grapes and pour juice in barrels. Finding workers can be difficult sometimes, because the population of Berehove and the surrounding places are more willing to work abroad than back home.
And finally, perhaps the biggest problem obstructing expansion of small winery businesses is, according to Vasyl, getting a lease on land or the right to use it:
— Winegrowing needs a substantial investment. Our budget does not permit that, because having a hundred plus hectares or two-three hundred hectares is a matter of big money. In this case, one needs an investor or must have another source of income to be able to invest in this profession.
And even though there is the land of former kolkhozes which could be legally privatized, after thirty years of irrational use this land has grown wild and needs cultivation.
Presently, the Nagy family privatized four hectares of land and wants to have a 15-hectare plantation. Later, it will pass to Vasyl’s son, who today helps his father:
— I hope that this profession will be his full-time occupation, and afterwards, some grandson will continue the trade. I want to put all that together for them: land, skills and knowledge to make it relatively easier for them to start and reach higher.
By Anastasia Salashna