Deep in the bowels of a former gypsum mine in east Ukraine, winemaker Rafail Nasyrov scrutinises a bottle of sparkling rose.
Hundreds of thousands more line a winding labyrinth of underground tunnels and caves.
“This is a 25-hectare natural bomb shelter,” Nasyrov explains.
The winery is located in Bakhmut, a government-held town, just two dozen kilometres from the front line in Ukraine’s low-level war, where the army and Russian-backed rebels continue to lob deadly artillery barrages at each other.
The town spent around a month under rebel control in 2014, and in 2015 the front line was so close that the town came under rebel shelling.
But despite more than three years of fighting that has claimed some 10,000 lives, Nasyrov’s employer, Artwinery, has never stopped production.
The firm bills itself as the largest Eastern European manufacturer of sparkling wines that uses classical methods similar to those for making champagne.
And while the 72-metre deep tunnels have helped keep workers safe during the conflict, they also offer the perfect conditions for making bubbly.
It is thought that it was the unique microclimate of the gypsum mines, which stopped being used before World War II, that saw Soviet authorities order the opening of the plant in a region that never had any vineyards.
“There is a version that after World War II, it was Joseph Stalin who issued the decree to make champagne here,” Nasyrov, dressed in a white lab coat, says.
Wine production began at the site in 1950 when it was called the Artemivsk wine factory after the former name of the town. The company name was changed to Artwinery last year under Kiev’s drive to remove communist remnants.
The factory may have survived Ukraine’s war unscathed physically but production has still been impacted by the conflict.
Before the fighting erupted in 2014, Artwinery made 19 million bottles of white, pink and red sparkling wines per year. Since then production has fallen to 12 million.
Lost Crimean vineyards
“We have almost no shipments to Russia today. And we completely stopped selling wine in those territories of Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which are not controlled by Ukraine,” acting director of the plant Oleg Kachur says.
Its wines are mainly exported to Germany and China.
Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula also hit hard as Artwinery lost its vineyards there and has stopped purchasing all other grapes from the seized region.
Instead, it has had to start looking to procure grapes from Ukraine’s southern Kherson, Odessa and Mykolayiv regions.
For now, however, the firm can still keep some of its most popular brands going due to remaining supplies from Crimea that it received prior to the region’s annexation.
The rare pink and red brut sparkling wines made from Crimean grapes are still kept in the mines of the plant.
“Before the war, in Crimea there was a very successful, rich harvest that suited us,” Nasyrov says.
“We did not know then that there would be a war, but we bought a lot of supplies.”
By 2019, however, the ingredients from Crimea will run out and the plant will have to drop some of its best-known lines.
While that may make it even harder for the plant to keep up supplies, the winemakers there insist that they are doing all they can to keep glasses full around their crisis-hit homeland.
“Sparkling wine is a festive drink, and our Ukrainian customers can not be deprived of the joy now,” says Nasyrov.