Vine culture in Astrakhan (circa early 19th century)
Grapes for eating and for wine-making were grown in the vicinity. The eating grapes were packed with red millet in small casks, which are suspended by chains in wooden cases and thus shipped to the Russian court and the capitals for sale; they were sold for a high profit.
An ordinary Astrakhan vineyard was sparsely planted, and irrigated by several windmills. Vines planted closely thrive better (being less parched for water if the foliage is thicker and shadier), and those which are well-manured also thrive better. Varieties of grapes grown in the area:
1. Kishmish grapes, or those without stones, two kinds (both white but one round, tending to green at maturity, and the other oblong and tinted with yellow) in large clusters of small, delicate grapes; they are too thin-skinned to ship, and are used to press wine. Kishmish grapes matured earlier in the area, and they and the Hungarian grapes made the best wine.
2. Early white table grapes, delicately flavored and round, with thin skins. Called Skorofpeloi.
3. Hungarian grapes, both white and black. Both round, thin-skinned, and remarkably sweet. They ripened in August, at which time they burst and begin to drip their juice. The white kind grew everywhere, but the black was very scarce. Because of their propensity to burst, they were used exclusively to make wine; but the wine pressed from them was quite superior in quality.
4. Thick-skinned grapes called Tolstokoroi. A large, round, white grape, which could be preserved a long time and is good for export. It ripened in August, and could be used to make wine.
5. Long white grapes, called Byeloi dolgoi. Used at the table.
6. Common black grapes. The fruit ripened in August, but may stay on the vine till October.
7. The fat grape, or Shirnoi. Round, covered with a light-blue skin, and juicy. It burst when ripe and could not be shipped.
8. Muscatel grapes, both white and red. They were not abundant, were eaten and not pressed for wine.
9. The Kasfinskoi grape, named after the Persian city of Kasbine from which the vine originally comes. There were three types. One variety of long cylindrical white grapes, very large, commonly an inch long. One of equally large red grapes, oval and transparent. One not so large, a black oval grape (of a dark brown color). They were thick-skinned and apt for shipping, but their flavor was not choice. They ripened in September.
10. Grapes from Persia, called goat's-teats. They were green, somewhat in shape like a finger, and ripened in September. The fruit was scarce, and very savory.
11. Constantinople grapes--a huge oval grape, mahogany brown and almost as big as a plum. The taste was not superior, but it was used for the table and the press both.
12. Finally, autumnal grapes. This variety was round and thick-skinned, the color of straw; it
had a tolerably good flavor, and yielded a common white wine. It could be preserved fresh
through the winter if hung up in bunches in a dry place.
This is the manner of cultivation recommended by Pallas:
Since the soil of Astrakhan is poor (a mix of clay and sand) first dig in trenches, well manured with horse dung, and then plant vine slips or shoots in it. (To make superior soil, Pallas recommended first manuring then cultivation with cabbages or watermelons for two years, then planting the vines.) The planting usually happens in spring, the young plants being put in thickly. Weak plants should have four eyes per shoot, strong ones only three; set the plants in obliquely, so one end touches the edge of the trench, and one bud-knot only appears above the surface; cover this bud with mulch to protect it from the sun. After planting, water the whole trench. Fertilize with mulch at least ten times each summer.
To cut vine slips: do it in autumn after the vintage, and cut only from vigorous plants two or three years old. The runners of the vine are pulled down without detaching, planted in manured soil with two or three knots left above ground, and left to develop roots; next summer they are cut free of the parent plant and transplanted.
To reinvigorate an old and exhausted vine, bury the whole in manured soil so that the sprigs convert into roots and new shoots start all along the length of the trunk.
The vines are always covered with soil in wintertime. In the last week of May, they are dug up and dressed, and then the twigs are tied up (using cord from untwisted ropes, a considerable expense). Each vineyard has one or two windmills, and the vine-trenches are inundated about seven times a year. (Pallas disapproves of this, says a vine planted deep in naturally damp oil will grow stronger roots and have more vigor; the irrigated vines boast lush foliage but their roots are shallow and weak, and the plants shorter-lived.) The vineyards are weeded about three times each year. By the end of July the grapes begin to ripen, and then a host of birds descends upon them and they must be constantly guarded; men upon scaffolds watch over the vineyards, and they frighten away the birds with rattles. If the rattles do not work, they throw small clay pellets. The common and winter crow, the woodpecker and the small motacilla trochilus all infest the vineyards, not to mention flights of pernicious starlings and voracious magpies. At this time, also, the farmer usually stops irrigating; he strips the vines of their superfluous foliage, which is a measure designed to promote the ripening of the grapes. About mid-September, the vintagers begin to press the wine.
As the grapes continue to ripen, the vineyards are prey to other hungry animals; dogs for instance are never allowed into vineyards during the vintage, and badgers, foxes and hedge-hogs (which attain a great size in the Crimea) must be guarded against. Wasps may spoil the grapes during dry seasons. Finally, the grey hare (a numerous bold species) causes great damage to vineyards and orchards year-round; they devour large quantities of ripe grapes during the vintage, and in the winter they will bite off the shoots of the young vines, cutting them as cleanly as if with a knife, and strip the fruit-trees in the orchards of their bark.
The pressing is done by putting the grapes into bags, and treading upon them in vats or tubs. The pressed husks are sometimes re-pressed by some vintagers, but others leave the remaining juice in them in order to obtain more brandy. (?)
Finally, the vines are lopped. The old woody twigs are pruned entirely off, only a sufficient number of young shoots beings left. The annual vines are cut back to the third knot. (These vines seem to be like the clematis which blooms on old growth and the clematis which blooms on new--?) Slips which are cut for future planting are tied together and buried for the winter season. Finally, the mature vines are detached from their frames, tied into bundles, laid in trenches and covered with hay and then a thick layer of mould.
To preserve grapes through the winter: suspend, or else cover with millet and wood-ashes,
or keep in honey or brandy, or finally preserve in salt.
Source: P. S. Pallas, The Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire, 2 vols. originally published