A lot of the Crimean peninsula is an agricultural paradise. Driving through one region to the next you see orchards dripping in cherries, apples, peaches and plums; endless golden seas of wheat and barley; farms and private dachas drowning in the green of vegetable patches and currant bushes. But Crimea’s possibly greatest natural bounty (gorgeous landscape and beaches aside) are its wines and oils.
Let’s start with the latter. Many slopes of southern Crimean hills are naturally covered with juniper bushes, eucalyptus trees and dozens of varieties of wildflowers and blooming shrubs. The soil and climate lend themselves perfectly to the cultivation of dozens more. As such, the place has been producing and exporting natural oils for decades.
The most highly sought-out of these is rose oil. To produce one kilogram of rose oil – which is used in perfume and cosmetics products of the highest caliber – one THOUSAND kilos of rose petals is required. Think about how much a rose petal weighs. Now think about how many truckloads of these very special petals you’d need for a whole, literal ton of them. Rough estimate? A lot.
Once upon a time the Sudak valley of southern Crimea, near which I am staying, was home to hundreds of acres of rose plantations. All, or almost all have been abandoned decades ago, in the turbulent years surrounding the end of the Soviet era, and you can now see fields of wild rose bushes in their stead. Luckily, the cultivation of oil-producing plants and manufacturing of essential oils (including rose) and their adjacent products – waters, lotions, soaps and creams – is alive and well in other parts of Crimea, and all those products can be purchased throughout the area, at town and beach shops and at most tourist sites.
I recommend buying them all – that’s what I did. On top of making you and everything around you smell amazing, these fragrant oils and various blends purport to cure everything short of cancer. Headaches, common cold, depression and signs of aging are but a few ailments helpless before the magical healing power of nature.*
(*No, seriously, I bought grape seed oil my second day here and have been using it nightly and my skin feels and looks amazing already! #betterthanbotox)
While the oils might be one of Crimea’s better kept secrets, the area’s wines might be its best-known product, a calling card of sorts, on par with the Swallow’s Nest castle and turbulent history.
Wine production in Crimea dates back thousands of years. Certain kinds of wine grapes were brought here by the ancient Greeks. Others came with the Italians – the Genoese and the Venetians, who battled for control of strategic trade and defense outposts here during the Middle Ages. And the youngest transplants – including varieties from from France, Germany – have only been grown in Crimea since the 1800s. Wine culture permeates everything in the region, and is reflected in elements of decor from dishes to factory windows to church gates.
Crimea’s modern-day winemaking prowess owes most credit to Russian Prince Lev Golitsyn. The nobleman settled in Crimea in 1878, after purchasing the Paradiso valley (now the town of Novy Svet) and setting up an industrial-size winery there. Golitsyn had an ambition to make Russia an internationally-competitive wine producer and exporter on par with France and Italy, and made it his mission to teach Russians to drink good wine instead of vodka. I think it’s safe to say that he failed in that second endeavor.
Today Crimea produces hundreds of wines and spirits of all stripes, and many of those are winners of major international awards. Three kinds stand out. The first is the world-famous Massandra reds like “The Black Doctor.” Then there are the Koktybel cognacs and ports. And lastly, the sparkly wines – or champagnes – of Novy Svet, made at Golitsyn’s own House of Champagne Wines about 500 meters from my resorts, and sold throughout town at the HCW’s branded shops and stands.
Every morning the winery receives cisterns of “wine product” from the vineyards – practically fresh grape juice that has undergone the first round of fermentation before being subjected to stabilization, secondary fermentation and aging process that turn it into proper wine. Several barrels of this “juice” are dropped off at each of the House of Champagne Wines’ stores where they are offered chilled, on tap in 200 ml or 500 ml (a pint) cups, or 1-liter bottles. I won’t go into specifics of how many “tastings” I have subjected myself to during my stay at Novy Svet, but know this: champagne and sparkling wines are some of my least favorite buzzy refreshments, yet I could bathe in the local rosé. It’s THAT good – a light, refreshing and slightly acidic delight to which odes should be composed by those far more talented than yours truly.
Throughout Crimea, everywhere you go, vineyards and stores and restaurants let you sample as much of their wine assortment as you’d like. Spend just a few days traveling the peninsula and you will go home blissfully intoxicated and smelling delicious – just remember to oil up!