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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kazakhs Develop Taste for Wine By Alastair Macdonald

ISSYK, Kazakhstan -- Bordeaux, Burgundy, California, Chianti -- Kazakhstan?

Ex-Soviet Central Asia does not normally rate a mention in the gazetteer of the wine connoisseur's atlas of the world. But here at Issyk, in the high foothills of the snow-clad Tian Shan Mountains, one small winemaker has set out to change that.

"We will be able to produce high-quality wines, similar to those from California, France and elsewhere," predicted Milos Michlovsky, the Soviet-trained Czech specialist overseeing technical improvements at the Issyk plant, Kazakhstan's main winery, some 40 kilometers from the main city, Almaty.

For more than 40 years it has churned out indifferent dry whites as well as sweet strong reds typical of the Soviet-era wine producers in Georgia, 3,000 kilometers away, from where its Rkatsiteli and Saperavi grapes were first brought.

But backed by East Euro Consulting, part of the Swiss-based Consulting Group, which bought the winery in 1996, Michlovsky believes he can turn good climate and soil into first-rate wine.

The group has already worked with wine producers in Hungary, Bulgaria, ex-Soviet Moldova and Georgia and elsewhere, trying to raise quality and develop new markets in the former communist bloc.

"We're up here at 850 meters above sea level, and there is plenty of sunshine," he said. "This area is ideal for varieties like Pinot Noir and Sauvignon. We want to bring in these and others and create a microzone of high-quality wines."

The former owners still run the winery -- Michlovsky praised their local marketing and management skills. East Euro has invested some $500,000 and will plow in $2 million over the next two years, improving the vines and upgrading the plant.

"The overseas winemakers, California, Australia, Chile, South Africa and so on, have shown what can be done with modern techniques. They're an inspiration," said Michlovsky, a big man in all senses who sees it as his mission to push good wine.

He shows off new presses and an Italian machine pouring wine into Austrian bottles.

There are plans for computer-controlled insulation of the storage vats to protect the young wine from summer temperatures that can reach 40 degrees Celsius.

Comparing Issyk's basic 1997 white Rkatsiteli, so powerfully citrus it puckered the mouth, to the same style produced experimentally with new technology, yielding a smoother, more golden wine, reminiscent of a young Riesling, suggests that the changes can bring rapid improvement to the vintage.

Adding to the costs of winemaking in Kazakhstan is the practice of burying the vines whole during the winter, when temperatures rarely rise above freezing for up to four months. It keeps the vine alive but puts up the costs, so Kazakh wine is never cheap to make.

Nonetheless, Issyk has doubled the area under the vine to 400 hectares this year, pushing planned output to 6 million bottles from 3.5 million. As much as 2,000 hectares could be cultivated in 10 years, Michlovsky said.

Despite potential exports, the local market in this nation of 16 million is the focus of interest. Though the average wage is about $150 a month, enormous untapped reserves of oil, gas and metals are making some Kazakhs very rich.

Issyk produces some 80 percent of Kazakh home-grown wine but has a small share in a local market of some 30 million bottles a year. At twice the price of the local vodka, Issyk knows it has a tough job persuading Kazakhstan's predominantly male drinkers to buy wine. Crude bootleg wines are also a pest on the market.