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26 March 2023

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A PERFECT PARTNERSHIP: RUSSIA'S BURNIER WINES

A.C. LAWRENCE, Business mir #19 - 2011-06 MAIL PRINT 
Fine wines produced in Russia? Even the most adventurous wine aficionados raise an eyebrow when offered a glass of Russian wine. But sceptical expressions invariably change to amazed delight after tasting any of the Burnier family’s Krasnodar region wines - be it their rich Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Krasnostop or their crisp white wine. Swiss winemaker Renaud Burnier and his Russian wife, Marina, have created a range of exceptional wines in their vineyard near the Black Sea.
Photo: Marina and Renaud Burnier (© A.C. Lawrence)
The unique project began as an experimental labour of love but has resulted in a range of fantastic wines that are worthy of comparison to any European grand cru. Business Mir interviewed this charismatic couple to learn more about their superb Russian wines and how they developed a daring plan to establish a successful business.
What inspired you to create a vineyard in Russia and why did you choose the Krasnodar region?
Wine has been produced in the Caucasus region for thousands of years and – as the Krasnodar region's vines lay fallow or were destroyed during the Soviet era – the soil is not just well rested but has never been exposed to chemical fertilizers. We spent 3 years looking for the right property and finally found 50 hectares of rolling hills in Natukhaevskaya between Anapa and Novorossijsk, at the same latitude as the Bordeaux and Piedmont regions.
Burnier was the first vineyard to produce a wine made entirely of Krasnostop grapes. What led you to create this unique product?
Our first taste of fresh Krasnostop grapes was all it took to convince us that we could use them to make an extraordinary wine. The grapes contain lots of natural sugar to produce alcohol as well as the acidity needed for preserving a wine. Krasnostop grapes are traditionally used to lend colour to wine but we were the first to produce a 100% Krasnostop wine. What's more, the idea of reviving this long-forgotten variety appealed to us and our goal is to let the world know that Russia is now producing high quality wines.
How long did it take for the project to go from the planning stages to an established business?
It took about 10 years in total, including the 3 years we spent finding the land. We founded the company in 2001 and planted the first 17 hectares in 2003, which we began to harvest in 2005. We planted an additional 33 hectares between 2005–2008 and began building our cellar in late 2008. We finally began exporting Burnier Russian wines to Switzerland in 2010.
Where do the new vines you've had to plant come from?
We imported vines from France and Italy. Our whites include Chardonnay, Pinot Banc, Pinot Gris, Muscat Jaune and Viognier grapes. The reds comprise Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Syrah varieties as well as a very interesting local Krasnostop that had practically disappeared before we revived the tradition.
What production methods do you use in making Burnier wines?
Respecting the environment is our basic philosophy and we are keen on preserving the land's biodiversity. Our Russian operation is based on biodynamic viticulture principles, using a mixture of modern technology and age-old methods. The grapes are all traditionally harvested and sorted by hand, reflecting our belief that great wines begin with exceptional vines.
Do you have investors or partners involved in your Russian business?
Yes, but it was very important for us to retain complete control of our business. We didn't want to have to compromise on quality by involving investors who might want to influence our production methods for profits. We used our own money to start the business and obtained a small credit from SECO (Switzerland's State Secretariat for Economic Affairs) as well as a loan from the Russian Commercial Bank in Zurich, which was later taken over by Gazprombank (Switzerland).
How does the Russian vineyard compare to your ancestral Swiss wine operation?
In Switzerland, we work 5 hectares and employ a staff of 3–5 to produce 40,000 bottles of wine. The Russian operation is on 50 hectares and we have 30 employees, with a targeted production yield of 300,000 bottles. What's really interesting is that the landscape in Natukhaevskaya is very similar to our land in Switzerland's Vully region, but buying it is much less expensive!
Do you have any Swiss employees in Russia?
Yes, there is a Swiss supervisor on site in Natukhaevskaya throughout the year. We employ experienced Swiss workers for all the important tasks requiring very specific skills, such as pruning the vines and racking the wine. We also hired a Swiss oenologist to help us handle the production process and quality control. Several of our Swiss friends have become so enthusiastic about our Russian vineyard that they come to lend us a hand a few times a year, just to take part in the adventure!
Can you describe the changes you have seen in Russia since you started the business in 2001?
The local economy wasn't really affected by the financial crisis aside from a short period in 2008, as the Krasnodar region's economic boom stems from preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Things are more orderly than when we arrived; the laws that have been established are more generally respected now.
Do you have any advice for foreign nationals who are interested in developing businesses in Russia?
The possibilities for developing businesses in Russia are endless, particularly in terms of agriculture. Our region boasts incredibly rich soil – just plant a stick in the ground and it will take root. The Germans actually exported Krasdonar soil by the trainload during World War II to enrich their own lands. We are trying to encourage some fruit and vegetable growers to come to the area as we know that there's great potential for growth in that sector.
Where are Burnier Russian wines sold?
Our wines are available at fine restaurants in Russia, Switzerland and Germany as well as at specialised shops in Switzerland, including Sputnik (Geneva), Mosca Vins (Montreux), Le Chalet Gourmand (Verbier), Weinhandlung Ritschard (Interlaken) and Russian Shop (Bern) or contact us at www.burniers.com.
A.C. LAWRENCE, Business mir #19 - 2011-06  MAIL PRINT 
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Ежедневные новости и аналитика из Швейцарии и Европы, политика, экономика, интервью

Daily news and analytics from Switzerland and Europe, policy, economy, interview