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Beneath Ukraine's Battlefields, Some Sanctuary And Sparkling Wine

Winemaker Yuriy Ivanovich holds a glass of Artwinery's pink sparkling brut up to the light to show its color in Bakhmut, Ukraine.

BAKHMUT, Ukraine -- You wouldn't know by Yuriy Ivanovich's calm demeanor or the elegance he uses to describe the bubbles rising in his champagne flute that we're directly beneath the battlefields of eastern Ukraine.

Protected by more than 80 meters of rich, black earth, neither the rumbling of armored vehicles nor the din of artillery fire can joggle his hand as he pours a rare, ruby blend of fizzy cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

"You'll notice it has raspberry on the nose, and a taste of black currant with a hint of blackberry," Yuriy says as we sample the Krimart red brut sparkling wine that has been perfected here since the first batch was made four decades ago.

Yuriy, who asks that his last name not be used, continues to host connoisseurs or the simply curious here at Artwinery, a maze of winemaking and climate-controlled caves originally opened in honor of Soviet leader Josef Stalin's birthday in 1950.

Aboveground, signs of the only active war in Europe are omnipresent in this historic salt-mining city of about 100,000 residents just 20 kilometers from the front lines where Russia-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian government troops.

Checkpoints are in place at every entrance to the city. Armed soldiers in fatigues roam streets scarred by tank tracks. Apartment buildings are spray-painted with the words "bomb shelter" in Russian. There is more foot traffic in and out of military apparel shops than the city's fashion boutiques. Helicopters routinely buzz overhead, delivering wounded troops from flashpoint areas like Avdiyivka to the hospital here.

And there is no end in sight to the nearly three-year conflagration that has taken at least 9,750 lives since April 2014 and soured relations between Russia and the West. At least 35 civilians and fighters on both sides have been killed and many dozens more wounded since January 1 in the worst outbreak of violence since 2015.

Below ground, however, within these 250,000 square meters of cool, plaster-lined caves, hundreds of thousands of green bottles of white, pink, and red sparkling wines ferment for up to three years on racks using French-inspired methods.

'Bottles For Bullets'

But it's not stagnant down here. Some 250 white-aproned workers zip around on golf carts and monitor a complex bottling process involving hoses, conveyor belts, and robotic arms. Giant green vats line tunnels painted a rainbow of pastels "to keep the workers from feeling depressed" while they work underground, Viktoria Malyovana, Artwinery's deputy general manager, says.

There were 700 employees before the war, she says, but many fled the region for Russia or elsewhere in Ukraine when the fighting was heaviest in 2014. "Some of the men went off and joined the war," Malyovana says. "They traded bottles for bullets."

The winery produced 19 million bottles of wine a year before the conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The winery produced 19 million bottles of wine a year before the conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Other figures have fallen, too.

The winery has produced just 10 million-12 million bottles of wine yearly since the war began, down from the 19 million it produced in 2013, according to Malyovana.

Winery tours, once a popular local attraction, continue but have also slowed -- partly because buses that used to shuttle tourists from separatist-controlled Donetsk, the region's prewar capital and largest city, no longer run; but mainly because it sits smack in the center of a war zone. Tasting rooms renovated to accommodate the influx of visitors when Ukraine co-hosted the UEFA Euro 2012 soccer championship today are rarely used.

Banned In Russia

Decreased production and fewer visitors have translated into smaller profits and less capital to keep the winery running smoothly.

"Since we are in the [conflict zone], we do not get lending from banks," which has meant not being able to purchase new equipment or modernize old equipment, Malyovana says.

But the winery manages to get by with its aging but sturdy machinery. And there is still a demand for its product in far-off places.

A worker inspects bottles at the Artwinery plant. Before the war, the winery had some 700 employees; now there are only about 250.
A worker inspects bottles at the Artwinery plant. Before the war, the winery had some 700 employees; now there are only about 250.

Yuriy, who has worked here since the early 1990s, shows off a map of Artwinery's buyers. Tiny flagged pins stick out from dozens of cities, including in Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Canada, China, Israel, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Germany, its biggest customer.

Russia was its biggest foreign market before the conflict, but it has since stopped buying the wine because in addition to the hostilities pitting separatists and their purported Russian sponsors against the central government, Kyiv and Moscow have engaged in a trade war.

Crimea's Annexation

The winery has faced other challenges, too.

Russia's invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 dealt a devastating blow not just to Artwinery but to Ukraine's wine industry in general.

Malyovana says some 70 percent of Artwinery's grapes came from Crimea. Its vineyards, bathed in summertime sun and cooled by Black Sea breezes, once produced around 55 percent of all of Ukraine's wine, according to a June 2016 Euromonitor International report.

Today, Artwinery gets almost all of its grapes from Ukraine's steppe zone, the warmer southern regions of Mykolayiv, Kherson, and Odesa. It also gets some saperavi grapes from their native Georgia.

As if all that weren't enough, the winery was dealt another shock when Ukraine imposed a nationwide law on the "decommunization" of the country -- a move meant to shed visible signs of its Soviet legacy -- forcing the winery to change its name.

Until February 2016, the city of Bakhmut was called Artemivsk, named for Russian revolutionary and Stalin ally Fyodor Sergeyev, who was better known by his nom de guerre, Comrade Artem. A monument to Sergeyev that stood on the city's eponymous central square came down more than a year ago.

Facing what Malyovana describes as "political pressure" from Kyiv, the Artemivsk Winery last autumn was forced to change its name to Artwinery.

"First we had problems because of Crimea, and then the war came to us, and now decommunization," Malyovana says, adding that the name change has created a "branding nightmare."

"We have 192 patents in Europe that we have to change. Europeans won't understand the name change," Malyovana said. "It is like death for us."