A Discussion with Yanis Karakezidis
Interview by Oleg Cherne
Would you believe me if I told you visitors can meet Dionysus himself in the village of Yuzhnaya Ozereyka near Novorossiysk? Plus, the ideal sort of wine this encounter might entail! My heartfelt opinion that it’s impossible to craft a worthy wine in Russia because of the lack of a well-developed wine culture, was shattered. I am beyond grateful to Yanis Karakezidis, as he is truly a dignified ambassador of our country in the wine world. Today, I can say with complete confidence that Russia can indeed boast of a high-quality wine.
— Mr. Karakezidis, for several decades now I’ve been traveling around the world and interviewing representatives from different wine houses: Bordeaux and Languedoc in France, Tuscany in Italy, Mendoza and Salta in Argentina, Barossa Valley in Australia, and so on. But what is there here, in Russia? I read a lot on the subject, and your activity in particular caught my eye. First of all, I want to ask you if there is anyone in Russia in particular who promotes the general development of wine culture here?
— Wine culture implies a different rhythm of life. And it’s quite possible that the time we have for our interview today will float by in the blink of an eye…
— Well then, we’ll take advantage of it while it lasts. From the feedback on your work I know that you’re producing exceptional wine of world-class quality even here in Russia.
— I’m just doing what I love, what my parents used to do. And I do it with joy. My goal isn’t to impress anyone. The southwestern slope of Yuzhnaya Ozereyka is an ideal place to cultivate elite grape varieties. That’s what my grandfather used to say, and it’s proven its value over the course of history. The fact that this region doesn’t have any global notoriety is only a question of time.
People often say my wines are similar to those in Bordeaux. Indeed, our terroirs have a lot in common: both regions enjoy wonderful climate and soil. In 1872, the vines planted in Yuzhnaya Ozereyka were imported in from Europe, and the results were overwhelming! The problem with our people is that our country gives us everything, but we can’t take it. We build up our towers, and then destroy them. What I mean is that our society forgets even the latest historical events, we have no connection with our past, and our level of social self-awareness is very low.
This region has such a rich history and culture that’s all but forgotten in modern-day Russia. Recent history does exist for me, and it’s what I rely on most, which isn’t difficult, as I have worthy predecessors in the count Golitsyn and his Grand Prix awards, Fedor Geiduk and others. For me all this history is as if it happened only yesterday.
— So you’re a successor to traditions?
— That’s correct. And if we’re talking about a particular region of winemaking, every Greek family held up their traditions. Just like how Russian families produced hard liquors. Every drink was the product of a long natural lineage. This was a mundane, rather prosaic effort for us; at first our parents made us help them with it. And since it has gradually grown into something bigger…
— How many years have you been making wine?
— All my life. This is my 41st season (interview dated 2008).
— No, we were working out in Novorossiysk, in Kabardinka. I decided to settle down here because this region has a superior terroir.
— How many years have you devoted to this particular place now?
— More than 20. But that’s not a long time at all.
— What vines do you use for your wine?
— I only use European clones. Here is our Chardonnay with French clones (pointing at it). I lowered the fermentation temperature to 12 degrees to slow the process down. Plus I took a risk and didn’t rack it off. I’m content with how it turned out. Even our competitors have shown their appreciation for our Chardonnay 2003.
By the way, today I visited my place in Anapa where I develop and manage my winery, of the cascade variety, without turbulence or pumps, just like how it used to be in the past… to avoid any chances of oxidation. It’s every winemaker’s dream. I don’t want to impress either my German or French colleagues, I just love what I do, just like my grandfather did, just on a larger scale.
— What grape varieties do you use?
— Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Gris to a certain extent. And one local variety, Saperavi, to name the reds. As for whites, I use Chardonnay and Müller-Thurgau. In Germany, it’s considered quite a plain variety, almost a hybrid, but I’ve had great success with mine since the 90s. Riesling also.
— If we compare different grape varieties, I’d say Cabernet Sauvignon has the ability to take right what it needs from the soil. Unlike Merlot, which just adds body to the wine.
— That’s why I can’t stress enough the importance of assemblage, or blending.
— But that’s only if we’re talking about the work of an expert…
— Right, let’s assume we are (laughs)… I’m sure that making wine from just one variety is boring. You can’t get a full-bodied wine like this with a solid structure and balance. I like to have a palette of 500 barrels from different slopes at my disposal. I might take a part of my own grape from the Sukko Vallery, or I might sample them from some other place. I can even source from Rayevskaya village, where there’s a small plot about half an hectare in size, it’s all so fascinating…
— So it’s the experience of it, the pure alchemy that attracts you most in this process?
— To a certain extent, yes. I can’t say in these moments of insight that I follow any particular technological methods. Rather, there is a certain period of time over which we, sometimes several generations of people, sharpen the process. And it always rewards us in turn with pleasant gifts.
You see, in my opinion it is the barrel that defines the wine. I think that fermentation is best performed naturally, through staves. The wine must breathe, that is, we must allow microoxidation. We replace quick filtering with ageing wine in barrels of Caucasian oak, which is no less superior in quality to French oak.
Another interesting moment is that I use my own natural carbon dioxide, not factory-made. When we’re crushing grapes, the pomace, using traditional technology, I pump the carbon dioxide directly in, leaving no time for unwanted active oxidation.
— Yanis, please, let’s taste your wine before it starts warming up.
— Let it unfold, don’t be impatient (Yanis pours me a glass). I called my wine Stretto because it reminds me of the quintessence of a musical piece. It’s like a powerful harmonious accord, the grand finale.
— It’s amazing (about the wine, after tasting). It’s leaving a backwards aftertaste. Incredible! Only now did the wine start working.
— You’ll wake up with a berry taste in your mouth. It’s a very dynamic wine, it will keep surprising you… People often ask me: «How do you get this effect in your wine? You play the flute, right? Or something else is going on there…» I used to brush it off, but recently I’ve started to think it over more: something indeed must be happening. On the one hand, it’s constant unpredictability and worries, because it’s kind of like praying, like a mother praying for her child. Some effect indeed does take place… Faith is important, nothing works without it.
— You remind me of Robert Mondavi, the renowned American winemaker who brought America’s wine production to a game-changing level, but did so by expressing his attitude towards wine, without which understanding and unfurling true wine is impossible. I mean, it is one thing to make wine, but learning to express it is an entirely different story.
— Right, a person must age together with wine! The ageing of wine is a life-like process! So it is only fair. If I had more time to position myself better, I would have probably achieved a lot more. But the idea is most important, and the money comes later. Maybe the money actually never comes, it doesn’t really matter… You’ll always have some money if you’re skilled, but what is it all worth without an idea? Without one, can a person just keep drowning himself in existence? Do you see how this happens? Wealth is also a concept invented for the majority of people to give them motivation. For example, you understand that money is not a global philosophy, and I do too. But…
Yanis waved his hand. In fact, what he made was a gesture expressing the futility of any discussion about how people fail to change over the years, and how something should be done about it. Our talk becomes more informal.
— Yanis, are you a philosopher?
— No, I’m just a winemaker. To tame a vine, to turn simple grape juice into a work of winemaking art — that is a task for men. To me, Stretto — its very quintessence — is the culminating result of many years of my work and winemaking philosophy, a manifesto of some sorts; but for everyone else it is just good wine. Even very good wine.
Of course, people determine who works in this industry. That’s not just some poeticism either, it’s the truth. A microrevolutionary won’t hold out for a long time here. Even when we hire seasonal workers and a person like that comes… We can tell right away. So I tell them to do things like stoke the furnace, and I let them smoke, to make them happy too. Because a person who’s unhappy can interfere in this delicate process and ruin it. Fights aren’t allowed, for any reason… If someone drops a bucket and spills some wine — never mind, we just turn it into a joke. That’s crucial.
— How compatible are women and winemaking?
— Since ancient times winemaking has been a male dominated activity. It’s a serious matter, like religion. A winemaker operates using basic elements — the earth, the sun, the space of the vineyard and cubic meters of sky. Women don’t participate in the process, especially during their cycle. This is strictly prohibited. They also aren’t allowed to enter the cellar.
— But there are women working on your farm too, right?
— What would we do without women! (a satiric smile lurks on Yanis’ lips) Women can collect grapes; their hands match the shape of a bunch of grapes perfectly. But they can’t be winemakers. Women are forgetful and wine does not forgive mistakes.
That’s why people who come to work with me are like one big family. Wine unites us like a chairman. What I mean is that we find something in common, and people understand that on the one hand, everyone does their own duty, but on the other, all of us are parts of a whole. The most important thing isn’t money, it’s our relationships, because we spend so much time together we feel sympathy for each other, and there’s no room for feuds, intrigue or anything of the like. Everything is done for the sake of the wine. No one is allowed to fight or make loud noises at the warehouse where wine is stored, so as not to disturb it.
Drinking real wine can change the world for the better. People who drink good living wine feel truly free. First comes God, and then the freedom he grants to us.
Wine is older than us, it’s wiser. We must learn from it, kneel down before a real vineyard… Yes, exactly, kneel down! I’ve known true visionaries who the country passed by unnoticed. There used to be a lot of people like that, but now almost all of them are gone. I also spoke a lot to my grandfather. And people who used to work in Abrau-Durso, who were such individualists. On the one hand, they worked in a factory, but on the other, they lived in this world, the world of wine, their own space. Now that’s the real school of winemaking!
— What does winemaking mean to you?
— It’s business and meditation, art and religion, jazz and drive; in short, it’s my lifestyle.
— Who can be called a real winemaker?
— A real winemaker must be like the vine he tends, with his roots buried deep in tradition. Making wine for me is more than just business and art, it’s a message from my childhood, the smells of oak barrels and grape pomace, the creak of the manual press wheel, the coolness of grandpa’s cellar where the wine sat ageing.
His cheerful cynicism and philosophy of love for life were real, just like his aversion to industrial winemaking. He is a true restless Pontic Greek: a merchant and philosopher, coming from a family of winemakers and musicians, a cynic and surrealist. He was born straight from the Greek myths about satyrs and Argonauts to fight against the windmills of dead industrial wine, press grape «blood» with his own hands, breathe life into wine, and make life itself feel more alive…