by Mike Sula
Last Wednesday I found myself in possession of a collection of sparkling wines by the name of "Sovetskoye Shampanskoye," or Soviet Champagne.
Of course, this wasn't actual Champagne (as in the sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France) but the appellation or "product category" used to to describe sparkling wines produced in great quantities in the former Soviet Union. The story goes that in the mid-30s Stalin, that lovable man of the people, decreed that there should be bubbly to sustain Mother Russia's workers, and a former Tsarist winemaker named Anton Frolov-Bagreyev was tapped to ramp up production. Frolov-Bagreyev, eschewing traditional bottle fermentation, used huge reservoirs that produced batches of 5,000 to 10,000 liters at once, and cut aging from three years to one month. While Party bigwigs may have had the resources to guzzle black-market Dom, Soviet Champagne was what the people drank.
After the collapse of the USSR a number of corporations in different countries (Belarus, Russia, Ukraine) purchased the rights to the name Sovetskoye Shampanskoye and continue to bottle it today, with divergent results quality-wise, but mostly on the pretty sweet end.
Food Chain former-East-bloc correspondent Patryk Piwinski tells me that U.S. consumption of this stuff by former Soviet subjects is driven by nostalgia. "It's what people used to drink in the 80s," he told me. My bottles, purchased at the worker-friendly price of $4.99 apiece come from Lithuania. Though even the semi-dry varieties among this assortment are overwhelmingly sweet and one-dimensional--like Welch's grape juice with bubbles--they're cheap enough to make sabering look tempting. I got rid of one bottle by corrupting the classic champagne cocktail, as per Dale DeGroff. That'd be an Angostura-soaked sugar cube plopped into a glass of the bubbly, topped with a splash of cognac, and garnished with a lemon peel.
You can find Soviet Champagne, and a wide selection of other eastern European wines, at Rich's Delicatessen, 875 N. Western (also your source for Borjomi mineral water ).