23rd October 2019
When I was envisaging my trip to Uzbekistan, an afternoon spent in a time capsule masquerading as a wine cellar was not what I had in mind. Down in the bowels of the Khovrenko compound where giant casks sit in a building cooled by walls 10 ft thick, I escape from the powerful Uzbeki sun and enter 1917. Well, as close to 1917 as you can get in 2019.
In 1868 a Russian merchant Dmitri Filatov founded a vineyard just outside Samarkand, where 300 days of sunshine a year and well-established irrigation (which the local people had been perfecting for centuries) matched well with the local and European vines that Filatov combined to produce local Samarkand wine. Alongside producing his own wines, he was well known for travelling the region and the world collecting other wines and storing them in his personal cellar. Kept at an ideal temperature by the well-designed buildings with inbuilt 19th century air conditioning. Come 1917 and the Bolsheviks were coming to Samarkand so Filatov fled, never to be heard of again. He had to leave behind his precious collection of 3000 bottles of wine, safely locked up in their own microclimate.
In 1968 to celebrate 100 years of wine making in Samarkand there were several festivities planned and a mysterious man tipped the vineyard off about the presence of a secret cellar. They found the cellar, but the man never divulged how he knew about it, adding mystery on mystery! What they found was the cellar perfectly preserved by the coating of mould and fungi that turned the walls black. This mould had provided the humidity required to preserve 1500 of the 3000 bottles in a drinkable state. As you can imagine this proved to be quite a boon to the staff at the celebrations. The mainly sweet dessert wines having been aged for close to 100 years, a rare taste.
As for my visit, we headed in, I was very careful not to touch the walls, and perched ourselves in the cramped seating area. We were presented with three label-less wines all produced by the vineyard and the oldest dating back to 1961. They were plays on traditional European dessert wines and deliciously dark and sweet. But the most fascinating part of the experience was being sat in a place so untouched (apart from the installation of electricity and the removal of streamers of mould from the walkway itself) for so long. It is rare that you can feel that close to history.