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Cabernet Mirziyoev: Uzbek President Sets Sights On Making World-Class Wine

Some of Samarkand's finest wines -- coming soon to a tasting near you?
Some of Samarkand's finest wines -- coming soon to a tasting near you?

The bounteous vineyards of the Ferghana Valley once created a wine that had Marco Polo singing their praises. Or so the story goes.

"Samarkand, Bukhara, and other magnificent cities are places decorated with gardens and vineyards," one source quotes the 13th-century Venetian explorer as saying, although the quote could be apocryphal. "I had to drink wine from the local population...and it amazed with its excellent quality."

Although its tradition dated back to antiquity, Uzbek wine suffered greatly under Soviet rule and failed to develop after Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991.

But President Shavkat Mirziyoev, whose Central Asian state shares the Ferghana with neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, wants to uncork the valley's winegrowing potential once again.

Upon the president's return to Tashkent from a two-day state visit to France on October 10, Mirziyoev announced that 60,000 French cuttings -- Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Sauvignon varietals among them -- were being delivered to grow high-quality vintages and reinvigorate Uzbekistan's moribund wine industry.

It's part of a plan first sown by Mirziyoev in February, when he issued a decree "on measures for substantial modernization of the winemaking industry and the realization of alcohol production."

Mirziyoev's directive also ordered that predominantly Muslim Uzbekistan -- with 32 million people Central Asia's most-populous country -- hold an annual international wine festival and degustation event.

French President Emmanuel Macron (right) shakes hands with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev at the Elysee Palace in Paris on October 9.
French President Emmanuel Macron (right) shakes hands with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev at the Elysee Palace in Paris on October 9.

Ancient Wine-Growing History

Russian settlers first commercialized winemaking in Uzbekistan in the 1860s and even won prizes at international competitions in Paris and Antwerp.

The number of wineries in Uzbekistan continued to grow as it was folded into the Soviet Union in 1924.

Native varietals led many Uzbek vintners -- including pioneering winemaker Mikhail Khovrenko's acclaimed winery in Samarkand -- to specialize in dessert and semisweet wines like the once-renowned Gulyakandozes, Shirins, Aleatikos, and Farkhods.

But innovation and quality in Uzbekistan's wine industry stagnated later in the 20th century.

Generally regarded as low-priced and of mediocre, fortified quality, its vintages were widely consumed in the Soviet Union but rarely exported.

Production was devastated during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's 1985-88 campaign to combat alcoholism.

Mirziyoev's new scheme is aimed at reversing Uzbek viticulture's downward spiral, which has mostly continued since the country gained independence in 1991.

"During Soviet times...I personally worked in the winemaking industry, and we were producing huge amounts of wine daily, providing the Russian [cities] Vladivostok,... Krasnoyarsk, and Moscow with different sorts of wine," Mashrab Maqsumov, the director of the Yangiqurgan Sharob winery in the city of Namangan, tells RFE/RL.

"The wine industry has experienced stagnation because [many of] the vineyards were destroyed," he says, adding that after Gorbachev launched his antialcohol campaign in 1985, "the vineyards were destroyed, eradicated...[and most of] what is left are nonwine grapes."

Maqsumov says that if the cuttings from France bear fruit, "then not only our [winemaking] plant but other wineries in Uzbekistan will work at full capacity too."

But he cautions that the imports are just one small step on a long path to revitalizing Uzbek winemaking. "We welcome [the announcement] that 60,000 cuttings were brought from France -- but that's not enough to develop the [Uzbek] wine industry," Maqsumov says.

Experts caution that revitalizing the Uzbek wine culture is no quick process.
Experts caution that revitalizing the Uzbek wine culture is no quick process.

The government announced at an August meeting chaired by Mirziyoev that Uzbek wineries were fulfilling just 57 percent of their capacity and that the industry's production had decreased "2 1/2- to threefold" over the past decade.

"Over the past 25 years, this [wine] industry has been in a neglected state, and today the development of this industry is one of the [government's top] priorities," said Mirziyoev, who since coming to power in 2016 has sought to stimulate a dormant economy that sent millions of Uzbeks abroad in search of work under his predecessor, Islam Karimov.

Not So Fast

Mirziyoev also declared at the time that the total area of wine-grape cultivation would be doubled from 10,000 hectares to 20,000 hectares by 2021.

The Uzbek government hopes to pump some 30 billion soms ($3.7 million) into the wine industry in 2018 for modernization and marketing.

But even under the best conditions, Mirziyoev and sommeliers around the world would have to wait years or decades to enjoy a fine bottle of Uzbek Cabernet Sauvignon or anything akin to what Marco Polo enjoyed 750 years ago in Samarkand.

"It takes about three years before you get good grapes [made from transplanted vines]," says Miroslav Volarik, owner of the Vinarstvi Volarik winery in the southern Czech Republic. "It also takes great skill to make great wines."

Along with growing the fruit and finding skilled vintners, there are other significant challenges to turning out good wine.

"It's much more than just planting grapes and making wine or building new wineries," Gabor Jandrasics, executive director and co-owner of Hungary's Jackfall winery, says. "It requires a huge marketing effort, it requires great activity on the state-level -- organizing [wine-related] events, tastings -- as well as the training of [qualified] people, consumers who realize what is good wine, and [knowledgeable] salesmen who can sell your wine."

Jandrasics points to the huge success of the Hungarian wine industry, which rebounded after the fall of communism to become Europe's seventh-largest producer of wine in 2017.

"It's very difficult. Even if there is capital [in Uzbekistan]...those wines will not be good for 10-15 years.... It's not easy to start from scratch and suddenly make great-tasting wines."

Moreover, unlike Hungary, where wine is practically a pastime unto itself, Uzbeks are notably light drinkers -- officially, at least.

Uzbeks drank the least amount of alcohol in Central Asia in 2016, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And only Azerbaijanis and Turks consumed less alcohol per capita in the whole Eurasian region.

Written by Pete Baumgartner with reporting by Shukhrat Babajanov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

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