Wine Tasting in Alma-Ata

Fitzroy Maclean (1911-1996) is best known as being the inspiration for the James Bond character after writing about his adventures in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Balkans before and during World War II. He returned to the region twenty years later when he was commissioned by the Sunday Times to write a travelogue of the Soviet Union, eventually published as ‘Back to Bokhara’. He paints a rather rosy picture of the situation, whether it is to not ruffle any feathers or because of the sharp contrast to late 1930’s when he last was there. By the late 1950’s USSR is undergoing de-Stalinization, a relative opening (the ‘thaw’), and economic growth on a huge scale. This is reflected in the Alma-Ata he details, with construction of new buildings, facilities like Medeo and a champagne factory!

Alma Ata is magnificently situated. Immediately behind it – an immensely dramatic backdrop – rise the snow-capped mountains of the Tien Shan, or the Mountains of Heaven, the great mountain barrier which divides Russian Central Asia from Chinese Turkestan. The town itself, originally laid out by the Russians eighty or a hundred years ago, is made up of broad avenues of elms and poplars running at right angles to each other. Even before the War, at the time of my last visit, there were already as good many new buildings and now there are even more: blocks of flats, department stores, an opera, a university and an imposing new Government building. but the green avenues of tall trees are still there, and there are still enough of the old brightly painted stucco bungalows left, blue and white, pun and white, yellow and white, for the town not to have lost its pleasantly bucolic character…What Alma Ata never has possessed, and despite the restrained orientalism of some of its new buildings, I think never will, is anything at all Eastern in its make up. It always has been and alwayswill be a Russian town.

Skating Rink ‘Medeo’

In front of the great new Government building, arm outstretched, little bearded chin well forward, stands an immense statue of Lenin, put up, I found, only a year ago. After 30 years of Stalinism, Lenin is coming into his own again. The statues of Stalin have for the most part not been taken down, but more and more statues of Lenin have been put up everywhere and the balance thus gradually restored.

Remembering on my last visit I had spent two or three days climbing in the foothills of the Tien Shan, I now asked whether I could use the car that was placed at my disposal to drive up into the mountains, ‘No,’ came the reply, ‘everything except the town itself is a forbidden zone.’ But the next morning, unaccountably, the car was there, waiting to take me up into the mountain as I had asked….Almost as soon as we had left the town we started to climb steeply by first class new motor road which went winding up beside a rushing mountain stream alongside a typical Alpine Valley. Here and there we passed plantations of conifers. Above us rose the snowy peaks of the Tien Shan. We might have been in Switzerland. ‘There,’ said my companions proudly, ‘is the skating-rink we have made for the Olympic Games, but ‘ – resentfully – ‘they won’t give it a trial.’

‘You will,’ they said, ‘wish to see our Park of Rest and Culture and our Champagne Factory.’ Everybody in Alma Ata had been so nice to me that I agreed. First we went to the Park of Rest and Culture. Round the entrance stood plaster statues of splendidly developed young women, playing tennis or basket-ball…Along the asphalted alleyways under the trees flocked troops of small Kazak and Russian children, stopping from time to time to buy an ice-cream or a glass of fizzy lemonade, or to take a turn on the swings and roundabouts. Here and there were running-tracks or sports grounds on which young people of both sexes were engaging with the utmost energy in athletic pursuits of one kind or another, some panting along over a five hundred metre course, while others demonstrated their skill at the long jump or parallel bars. Near by was a lake where boating and swimming was in progress.

Gorky Park of Rest and Culture

I have always believed in approaching the wines of whatever country I happen to be in with an open mind, in giving them a fair trial. It is, I think, a grave mistake to assume that drinkable wine is only grown in France and in one or two chosen areas in one or two other European countries…For all this I must admit the idea of a champagne factory in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan slightly unnerved me. However I was clearly expected to go there and so I did.

From outside it looked very much like any other factory: a series of nondescript whitewashed buildings on the outskirts of the town…Like so much else in the Soviet Union it was a mixture of the very modern and the extremely primitive. Tremendously up to date machinery was helped out by a number of those shapeless, motherly middle-aged Russian women with aprons and handkerchiefs round their heads, who in an emergency always seem to step into the breach and make things work by pushing and pulling, persistence and plain common sense.

Not all shapeless though. the forewoman was tall, young, dark and handsome. She also clearly knew her job. With assurance and a wealth of technical data she explained how the wine was made; how it was taken from the barrels and bottled; and how, left to itself, it went with the passage of time naturally and spontaneously fizzy. (I was relieved to hear this, having half suspected chemicals and gas.) After a fixed number of years, she went on, the bottles were opened, a spoonful or so of syrup made of sugar an brandy was inserted and they were corked up again, their contents thus ceasing to be ‘brut’ and becoming ‘sec’ or ‘demi-sec‘, according to the amount of syrup that went in.

Would I like to try some? What I would like to try, I said, was the brut, the natural wine before they put in the syrup. She seemed surprised at this, but took down a bottle from the rack and opened it. A glass was produced and I drank some. It tasted delicious, a great wine, but a light, dry champagne, not unlike ‘champagne nature‘ one finds in France. And why, after all, not? Gently sloping hillsides, fertile soil, plenty of sun, the right vines, grapes carefully picked, pressed, barreled and bottled – there is no reason why the result should not be a perfectly sound wine. Was the brut ever put on the market? No, replied the beautiful forewoman, only the sec and demi-sec.

(From Back to Bokhara by Fitzroy MacLean)

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