If the bus loads of silver-haired European tourists are any indication, we feel very fortunate to be here in Samarkand well before our 65th birthday. Never a fan of the massive group tour, there’s something inherently unauthentic about being driven around in an air-conditioned luxury motor coach. Sailing by in blissful comfort high above the locals in their gritty soviet era taxicabs, the smells, sounds, and experiences of Samarkand are bound to escape you.
Our time here in Samarkand has been remarkable. Authenticity for us is as always a priority, at least as far as our limited frame of reference allows it to be. So we arrived here with an open mind, tried to forget what the naysayers told us to expect, and jumped in head-first. This is our first of several posts about our trip to Samarkand, which began in true PashbyMaul style – yes it is authentic – with wine!
After our arrival on Uzbekistan’s flagship “Afrosiyob” train service from Tashkent, we ran the gauntlet of eager guides and taxi drivers and pleaded with the police at the checkpoint to let us into the main train station building to use the toilet. Note to self – use the bathroom on the train before disembarking. Emerging visibly relieved, we found the crowd dispersed, and had a much more relaxed encounter with a friendly (and knowledgeable) Russian taxi driver who was pleased take us where we needed to go.
Even though it was 1015 in the morning, our first adventure was the Hovrenko Wine Factory. It was recommended we call ahead, but despite our best efforts, none of the phone numbers from our multiple sources seemed to work. Our friendly taxi driver saved the day when upon arrival at the seemingly closed museum, he managed to track down the proprietor. After about five minutes waiting, we exchanged pleasantries with our driver, and were ushered inside the late 19th century house to begin our Samarkand wine experience.
The wine factory is located within the converted home of a 19th century Jewish industrialist. As far as we could tell, the founder of the business – we’ll call him Mr. Hovrenko, came to Samarkand during the time of Russian imperialism in Uzbekistan. Here he began making wines and cognacs in the European style, using European vines, in the European tradition, which continues to this day.
After a short self guided tour of the little museum in the central room of the house, we were taken to what we assume must have at one time been a ballroom. A massive table with room for probably fifty chairs was set for just the two of us. We took our seats and were led through a tasting experience consisting of 10 wines and cognacs.
We began with a dry white similar to a very light soave, and then progressed through more memorable dry reds. These included a very nice “French style” cabernet-sauvignon and an excellent saperavi from Georgian root-stock. The most popular wines in Samarkand are of the sweet white and sweet red variety, of which we especially enjoyed the white “Shirin” with a distinctive essence of honey. We finished off with two potent Uzbek cognacs, both good, but one extra special, aged for seven years in oak barrels.
Taking home several cases might prove to be difficult since we arrived by train. The wine factory doesn’t do direct sales (illegal apparently), but they told where locally we could find their products. Needless to say, we’ll be stopping by that shop on our way out-of-town, ensuring our trip to Samarkand ends as it began, with good local wine.