At the start of 2022, Tania Olevska, wine expert and entrepreneur, was on a high. She had set up her own travel agency – Friends Wine Travel – and it was growing fast. Between the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and February 2022, she had organised international tours to Georgia, Italy and Greece, and she was planning many more.
Then everything changed.
“On 23 February, we had a blind wine tasting of Shiraz in Kyiv,” she remembers. “All the guests were happy and peaceful. Even when we were woken the next morning by explosions, we didn’t realise that it was the end of our life for many months.” The changes were sudden and dramatic, even for those not directly involved in fighting. Any travel was dangerous, and ordinary international travel impossible; cities were under curfew, and restaurants switched to providing only military and emergency supplies.
A new home, a new opportunity
Tania has been living in Cambridge for over a year, initially arriving as a refugee through the Homes for Ukraine scheme. “I thought I’d only be here for a few months because I thought the war would end,” she says. “But I’m still here…” And she is now running her wine and travel business from Cambridge, although, of course, it has to be done in a very different way. Before the war started, few people knew much about Ukrainian wine; now, there is much more interest in it (as there is in all things Ukrainian), but very little is available. There would be even less if Tania and some of her friends had not brought bottles here in their luggage.
A taste of wine
In recent months, wine lovers in Cambridge have been able to sample Ukrainian wines at two rather special events. In April, Matt Hodgson, the owner of Grape Britannia, a wine boutique and bar in the suburb of Arbury, joined with Tania to hold a tasting in which four Ukrainian wines were paired with British wines of similar character (three English and one Welsh). There are significant similarities between the two traditions: both countries are cooler than the ‘classic’ wine regions of Europe, so they are, for the moment, better suited to white wine making. Both countries have many small craft wineries, and the winemakers often use similar techniques. In June, Svitlana Tsybak, CEO of one of Ukraine’s best-known winemakers, Beykush on the Black Sea, visited Amphora in central Cambridge to introduce their wines and explain how they have been carrying on their business despite occupied territory and active fighting nearby.
Increased interest in all things Ukrainian
All the money raised at Grape Britannia went to support the Ukrainian armed forces on the front line and to their volunteer helpers, and the tasting was part-organised by Cambridge4Ukraine. One of the four founders of Cambridge4Ukraine is Anatolii Pavlovskyi, a Ukrainian engineer and wine buff. He’s been living in Cambridge since 2013 and works voluntarily to promote an association of winemakers called simply Wines of Ukraine. He too, has noticed a surge of interest in Ukrainian produce since the full-scale invasion. “We took Wines of Ukraine to a wine fair in Düsseldorf last year, and had great success,” he says. “People came to hear how the industry is coping in wartime but stayed because of the quality of the wines.”
Ukraine’s wine industry and the war
And Anatolii can tell plenty of stories of friends and acquaintances in the Ukrainian wine industry, how they have suffered, and how resilient they are. Some vineyards were flooded when the Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River was deliberately breached in June; Russian soldiers have occupied wineries, stealing, destroying or drinking thousands of valuable bottles; and anything that looks as if it might be a factory, or a warehouse, has become a target for missiles and drones. “This is all causing severe supply chain problems,” says Anatolii. “We can’t make enough bottles, so we need to import them from elsewhere in Europe, which is itself difficult and expensive. Once, we even ran out of labels.” His own goddaughter and her parents spent three weeks hiding in a basement in Kyiv; he knows many people who have lost their pre-war livelihoods, and a few who have lost their lives.
Faced with such an onslaught, it is perhaps surprising – and an example of the courage and resilience that has come to characterise Ukrainians – that their quality wine is still being made and sold. Paul Browne, chair of Cambridge for Europe, was one of the over 50 people who attended the Beykush tasting.
“We tried six wines, and, unusually for a wine tasting, I really enjoyed every one,” he says. A jewel in Beykush’s crown is an orange wine called Arbina. “This wine really is orange or golden in colour,” adds Paul. “It is made in a similar way to rosé wines, though from white rather than red grapes, and has lots of character. It’s quite unique and absolutely delicious.”
So, let’s drink to Ukraine’s future
When people in Cambridge ask Tania what they can do to support Ukraine’s winemakers, the first thing she suggests is that we buy, drink and promote their wines wherever they can be found. We can, of course, continue to welcome Ukrainian refugees: she says she has “never seen such empathy from strangers” as she has experienced here. And even after the war ends, Ukraine will need enormous sums of money for reconstruction, not least in clearing mines from agricultural land, and there are already many charities helping on the ground. Wine may seem to be a frivolous pursuit at a time of war, but Paul suggests, it can “represent a better future for Ukraine and the world”. He hopes to be able to visit the country and its vineyards one day.