Uzbekistan is hardly world renowned for its contribution to the global viticulture industry, but grapes have been cultivated in Central Asia for more than 2,000 years. Zoroastrians were famous for their wine making skills, and this tradition survived the muslim conquest into the later middle ages, under Russian Imperial influence, during Soviet times, and through to the present day. While visiting a local Vino Vodka will introduce visitors to a wide variety of domestic wines for mass consumption, quality is not the main concern here. Twenty thousand сўм will buy you a basic red dry wine that barely qualifies as poison, but spend a little bit more and the selection starts to become decent.
Without mentioning any by name, most local “wines” (in quotations for a good reason) are simply fortified powdered grape juice. There are just two widely available brands in Uzbekistan that offer drinkable wine, Bagizagan and Sultan. The Hovrenko winery in Samarkand also offers very decent wines with a history dating back to the 19th century, but these were for tasting only. When we tried to find out where to buy the wine we were tasting, we were sent on a wild goose chase and ultimately ended up empty handed.
Legitimate locally grown wines are not typically mass produced. Most local mahallas have at least a few families who grow their own grapes on a shared trellis over the road. Harvested in the fall either for the grapes, or for homemade wine for private consumption, this kind of communal grape cultivation has roots dating back centuries. These homemade wines are offered with pride to visitors, but drinker beware… home brews are potent, and of varying quality. One memorable experience involving a generous host and homemade wine from a coke bottle resulted in a 48 hour hangover after just a few glasses. Some cultural experiences are simply not worth the price.
Larger collective farms for mass producing wine were not the norm until communist times. Today mass produced European varieties like Cabernet and Chardonnay are the most common. Sultan winery produces a very decent Cabernet from the region between Shakhrisabz and Termez close to the border with Afghanistan. Bagizagan offers a nice crisp Chardonnay that pairs well with a hot Uzbek summer day (stay away from the red). The Hovrenko selection is also drinkable, but availability is an issue.
Hefty import tariffs on anything from outside Uzbekistan means even a basic Georgian Saperavi can’t be had for less than 100,000 сўм, that is if you can find it. Today the larger Vino Vodkas might have a single aisle of imported wine, but this is far beyond the reach of most locals. Expats are forced to hoard duty free purchases from abroad, or snap up the good stuff when it isn’t outrageously overpriced. A recent perusal at the wine merchant saw a mediocre Bordeaux rated 3.2 by Vivino for 250,000 сўм ($31.25). The same bottle anywhere else might cost $10. The Frenchness is what you’re paying for, not the quality of the wine. Showing up to a dinner party in Tashkent with anything foreign is guaranteed to elicit oohs and ahhs.
Winemaking is a priority for the foreign export market of Uzbekistan, where unfortunately none of the high quality product actually gets sold for local consumption. While Uzbek wines are winning awards in Japan, Russia, and China, and raising eyebrows at international wine competitions worldwide, locals are still drinking mass produced swill, or making their own according to family recipes passed down from generation to generation. A tour of the Hovrenko Wine Factory is a must when visiting Samarkand, but otherwise it’s probably best to stick to drinking tea.