Winemaker in rebel Abkhazia hopes to conquer world markets
Sukhami -- Nikolai Achba dreams of the day when wines from his native Abkhazia will become a world-class product prized in Europe and beyond.
But as head of the largest winery in this war-ravaged separatist region of Georgia, Achba has a problem: the only country that will buy his wine is vodka-loving Russia.
Other markets are closed to him because Abkhazia is only recognised as an independent nation by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and the tiny Pacific island-state of Nauru.
The rest of the world considers the region a rebel part of Georgia illegally occupied by Russian troops and effectively subjects it to an economic blockade, though there is a trickle of trade with Turkey.
"Naturally, it is a problem that nobody besides Russia, Venezuela and Nicaragua recognises our documents and certificates," said Achba, head of Wines and Beverages of Abkhazia, the region’s leading commercial wine producer.
"This is a big problem for us," he admitted, speaking in an interview at his office in the separatist capital Sukhumi.
Achba’s problems are typical for Abkhazia, an impoverished territory so isolated from the outside world that it has no ATMs and that no businesses accept credit cards.
Russia, Abkhazia’s giant neighbour to the north and the main ally of its separatist authorities, dominates the economy of this scenic strip of land along the Black Sea that was famed as a resort in Soviet times.
Abkhazia uses the Russian ruble as its currency and more than half of the budget of its separatist government comes from Russia.
Around 80 percent of foreign investment is Russian, according to Abkhaz economy minister Kristina Ozgan.
And Abkhaz officials say more than a million tourists — almost all of them Russian — visited the region this year, the highest number since the Soviet collapse and dwarfing Abkazia’s own population of 216,000.
In the 1990s the Abkhaz wine industry came to a standstill due to widespread destruction from the separatist war with Georgia, and most of the region’s vineyards died.
But after receiving a Russian investment in 1999, Wines and Beverages of Abkhazia expanded rapidly and now produces between seven and eight million bottles of wine annually, Achba said.
Established on the basis of a Soviet-era "wine factory," the company focuses on the kind of wine most popular in Russia: sweet, young and generally revolting to Western connoisseurs.
"People buy it for nostalgia. It’s especially popular with Russian consumers who remember visiting resorts in Abkhazia," said Valery Avidzba, the company’s main winemaker.
Enormous metal tanks that together can hold up to two million litters of wine fill the damp, dark basement of the huge factory complex in Sukhumi, a legacy of the Communist wine industry.
But out in the sunlight, dozens of French oak barrels reflect these winemakers’ hopes for the future.
They have planted new vineyards of European grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and renovated part of the factory complex where the barrels will be kept for ageing.
"We are experimenting and working on the future of our brand," said winemaker Said Achba, a nephew of the director who shares his surname, as he stood among the rows of barrels.
"We have big plans to develop further as winemakers," said Achba, who spent a year studying his trade in the Bordeaux region of France.
The Achbas — who are descended from a line of Abkhaz princes and have been in the winemaking business for generations — are determined to press on despite Abhazia’s lack of access to world markets.
Although the separatist region is shunned in the West, Nikolai Achba is sure he will be there soon presenting his wines.
"I think we will soon offer the market some very respectable wines of a European style and philosophy, and of corresponding quality," the winery boss said in his office. "This will be a matter of two or three years. Then you’ll be seeing us at tastings in the West.”