Kazakhstan 2015 | AGRICULTURE & FOOD | FOCUS: WINE

Winemakers are fighting to reclaim the country's storied wine-making legacy and recover from decades of neglect.

Despite being small, the wine industry in Kazakhstan is growing and gaining recognition and praise from connoisseurs around the world. Oenologists have been plying their trade in the country for over 1,000 years. In fact, wine-making in Kazakhstan dates back to the 7th century AD, and archaeological evidence indicates that this boozy past time was introduced by Chinese and Uzbek traders who hawked their wares in present-day Shymkent.

Soviet interference cost the country around 70% of its vineyards. The total area of land used to make wine nearly halved from 22,000 to about 13,000 ha with only a few wineries still currently operating in the country. Currently, 80% of wine that is consumed is imported, with only 20% of local plonk produced locally.

As an inland and landlocked country, Kazakhstan has a typical continental climate. Most of the region's active and productive vineyards are situated in the southern region, close the China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan borders, with a few smaller growing regions along the Caspian Sea in the west. On average, annual rainfall varies throughout the country ranging from 100-150mm in the wine regions around Atyrau and Aktobe, to 27-39 to 700-1,000mm in the regions around the Talas River. Situated at the same latitude as France's Rhone Valley, these regions are perfect for wine grapes. Even Kazakhstan's freezing winters are a boon: the cold kills off disease while the snow buries and coats the dormant vines, protecting them.

More than 40 varieties of grapes are grown in the country though more than half of these are currently used for mastication rather than imbibing. Popular wine grape varieties include Aligotè, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, Pinot noir, Riesling and Saperavi. In general the grapes are of the Georgian varieties, such as Rkatsiteli and Saperavi, which are found in other parts of the former Soviet Union. More recently, there has been interest in planting international varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc. However local tastes appear to skew towards traditional sweet red wines. The majority of drinkers in Kazakhstan prefer beer or vodka anyway; according to a research published by the WHO, only 3% of alcohol consumed in the country is wine.

To satisfy the current demand, the domestic wine industry today makes a whopping 236,000 hectolitres of wine every year. Arba Wine, owned by Zeinulla Kakimzhanov, is going the extra mile to build the international reputation of the Kazakh wine. With the support of Italian consultants, the vineyard has planted grapes including Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Merlot, and Malbec. Mr. Kakimzhanov told TBY that, “we can produce from 200,000 to 400,000 bottles per year. We are not targeting a high-yield production model. We only want to produce top-quality wine. We use the best bottles, the best corks, the best barrels. With our first production—bottled in 2013—we received considerable international recognition, including gold and silver awards in Europe."