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The work of the Itinerants is continued by businessman and philanthropist Andrei Filatov. How did Russian art of the Soviet period end up traveling around the world on bottles of a Grand Cru wine from Bordeaux?

Author: Vassily Raskov, Bacchademia

Ilya Repin, Instagram Star
When a bottle of wine appears in David Beckham’s Instagram story with the caption “Thank you for the great wine,” 60 million people pay attention, save the label to favourites and begin to salivate. Some will google the name. What they will find on Google though is not the wine but Demonstration on October 17, 1905, a painting by Ilya Repin. At this point, many people will throw in the towel, but a number of football fans, out of pure obstinacy or as a result of productive procrastination, will go further and find out that Repin was a brilliant Russian artist, and that in 1905 Tsar Nicholas II granted the peoples of the Russian Empire the first Constitution. Some will even try to get to the bottom of things, read an article by Vassily Rozanov and discover that:

“Unbeknownst to himself, Repin painted “the feast of the Russian Revolution”, its carnival full of madness, colour and bliss … <…> Yes, our Repin is a great observer of the human being. His paintings are both a magnificent opera and an “undercover investigation” of all that was and is in Russia.”

There will only be a few of those inquisitive minds though. The ordinary reader will most likely come across the monstrous blooper published in the Daily Mail, stating that Beckham enjoyed a 1905 bottle estimated at £2,715. Naturally, the numbers are pure fiction. What will stick in the reader’s mind though is that Beckham had an outrageously exclusive wine somehow associated with Russian art. But how does one get to be mentioned in David Beckham’s Instagram feed? Celebrities can hardly be seduced with crates of Petrus and Cristal anymore.

It is enough to follow your passion and not be afraid to shock someone or appear ridiculous. And that is exactly the attitude of Andrei Filatov, Russian entrepreneur, collector and philanthropist. He is equally passionate about French wine (more specifically, the Right Bank of Bordeaux), and Russian art of the Soviet period. The fruit of these passions is Chateau La Grace Dieu des Prieurs, a small winery in the Saint-Emilion Grand Cru area, which produces about 30,000 bottles of wine with twelve different labels each year. The labels bear reproductions of works from the collection of the Art Russe Foundation, founded by Filatov in 2012.

“My main objective is to raise awareness of Russian art, especially art of the Soviet period. The Soviet Union was an immense empire whose achievements were not limited to sending people into space and mastering the atom. It was also creative. There was great music, there was ballet, but there was also painting and sculpture, which remain relatively unknown outside Russia. With the help of French wine, we will fix that. ”

Primeval Marriage
The idea to surround wine and wine drinking with art emerged at about the same time when both winemaking and the craving for artistic creativity were born. Kylixes, kantharos, skyphos and rhytons, from which the Greeks drank wine, are works of art decorated with mythical scenes. Museum exhibits today, they were direct participants in libation and offering rituals back in the day. Medieval silver goblets studded with precious stones; malachite and azure stone cups; those made from rhino horns or narwhal tusks, or Venetian, English or Bohemian glass: they were all designed to please the hand and the eye, emphasize status and, ultimately, enhance the pleasure of wine drinking. Art Nouveau gave rise to the last surge of handicraft art in the service of wine, after which the era of functional vessels began. Today, we gracefully swirl wine in a thin-walled pattern-free glass to fetch maximum aroma. Art did not lose ground though; it has simply migrated to labels and cellars.

Label as Canvas
Art invaded wine labels almost simultaneously with the emergence of “mis en bouteilles au chateau” – wine bottling at the place of production. Philip Rothschild launched this adventure in 1924. He challenged the centuries-old tradition, in accordance with which merchants bottled wine at places of sale. Rothschild decided to bottle his entire harvest himself and, to generate the buzz, contracted cubist Jean Carlu to create an avant-garde label. The Great Depression and WW2 shelved the project for 20 years, but from 1945 to this day the Rothschilds have continued to contract contemporary artists to create labels for each new vintage. Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Vassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Balthus, Andy Warhol, Ilya Kabakov, Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor: the list is very impressive.

The baron has had many followers. Riojan Bodegas Altanza put masterpieces of Spanish art onto their grand reserve bottles, paying considerable amounts to right holders. Miro and Picasso got back to their pencils and brushes for Kenwood, a Californian winery. Andre Masson and Roy Lichtenstein created labels for Champagne Taittinger. Gunter Grass and Hundertwasser autographed Casanuova di Nittardi Vigna Doghessa. Bottomline: winemakers invited artists to boost aesthetic appeal and draw attention to their wines.

Buying a chateau in the Saint-Emilion Grand Cru area to draw attention to art of a certain period, however, is something that has never been done before. The idea appears more like a tribute to the Itinerants art movement, rather than a business idea parasitizing on art. The catalogue of the exhibition travels around the world in wine boxes, “smuggled” to land on tables of the world’s financial elite and appear in celebrity Instagram feeds. Chateau La Grace Dieu des Prieurs bottles are certainly instagrammable. Lenin atop an armoured vehicle, with a caption Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, evokes stronger and more controversial feelings than a female nude on a Mouton label.

Art Cellar
The transformation of the wine cellar into an exhibition space is a 21st century trend followed by the most prestigious Bordeaux wineries, Champagne houses, the best wineries of Tuscany and Lombardy, California and Rioja. Suffice it to mention Castello di Ama in Chianti Classico or the Vranken-Pommery cellar in Rheims. Barrels, vats and music stands coexist with works of outstanding contemporary artists. Winery buildings organically planted into the landscape or, on the contrary, standing out like alien objects, have entered the annals of contemporary architecture. Such luminaries as Frank Gehry (Marques de Riscal), Norman Foster (Bodegas Portia), Santiago Calatrava (Bodegas Ysios), Zaha Hadid (R. Lopez de Heredia), Smiljan Radic (Vik), Christian de Portzamparc (Chateau Cheval Blanc) have all contributed.

Filatov could not resist the temptation either. Soon after he acquired Chateau La Grace Dieu des Prieurs in 2013, he contracted the renowned architect Jean Nouvel, Pritzker Prize winner and designer of the New Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi and the Arab World Institute in Paris. Having collected technical information about the number and volume of vats and barrels, Nouvel designed something resembling a spaceship silo that goes several levels deep. There was only one problem: the entire area of ​​Saint-Emilion is a protected UNESCO cultural heritage site. Filatov had to seek permission to build from the Paris headquarters of UNESCO, promising that the historical landscape with the existing buildings would remain untouched. “For art, borders are permeable. For centuries, Russia and France have mutually influenced each other in architecture, literature and winemaking. Thanks to Alexander II, the Champagne region started making its famous cuvée prestige. A clear, flat-bottomed Cristal bottle still reminds us that the tsar feared a bomb dissimulated in a wine bottle.”

Let’s go!
By the time the first vintage of the modernized Chateau La Grace Dieu des Prieurs (2014) had matured, the new rocket cellar was ready. It became home to a psychedelic image of Gagarin: a reproduction of the colourful painting by Gankevich, fantastically reflecting on shiny cylinders arranged in a circle. This is the fermentation workshop. The size and number of vats exactly correspond to ​the vineyard area of about 9 hectares. No expansion is planned. A level lower is the barrel cellar with temperature and humidity control, designed to hold three vintages at a time, including two aging in barrels and one completing maturation in bottles. The chateau produces only one wine. Only one type of barrels can be found in the cellar, which is unusual for Bordeaux, where it is customary to use the services of a dozen coopers. The barrel used here is Radoux Blend, which presents the finest wood pore structure and ensures an exceptionally smooth ageing process.

“I simply want to make the best wine in the world. Why aim for less? Our vineyards are right next to those of Chateau Cheval Blanc. All we need to do is unlock the existing potential.” The “unlocking’ is being done by the consulting oenologist Louis Mitjavile, son of Francois Mitjavile, heir to the iconic Chateau Tertre Roteboeuf in Saint-Emilion. The Mitjaviles’ philosophy is unique to Bordeaux, where it is generally believed that structural elements in fine wine are more important than ephemeral and ever-changing aromas. The depth of the Tertre Roteboeuf vintages dating back to the early 1980s proves that a different type of Bordeaux wine, with the balance based on the grape concentration and smooth texture, is also capable of long-term development. According to Mitjavile, if the tannins are ripe and smooth, the wine is perceived as fresher even if it does not present a strong acidity profile. In his opinion, the development potential of such wines is in no way inferior to that of the classics.

The style Filatov relies on can be summarized in three words: opulence, freshness and depth. Once the philosophy is defined, it becomes clear what needs to be done in the vineyard. Unusually for Bordeaux, Louis Mitjavile gradually switched from the Guyot pruning system to Cordon with its permanent horizontal trunks. In Guyot, only the stem remains constant, and previous year’s shoots are preserved for fruiting every year. In Mitjavile’s experience, while this type of pruning results in abundant yields, the clusters ripen unevenly. The Cordon pruning system allows controlling the yield as early as at the stage of formation of the berries. Mitjavile is not an adept of green harvesting and considers the concept to be flawed. Even ripening of all bunches throughout the season allows delaying the grape harvest as far as possible in the autumn, achieving maximum ripeness of tannins without a loss of aromatic freshness. Mitjavile’s second innovation in the vineyard is the high crown, providing a more intense photo synthesis. The goal is similar: achieve the maximum physiological maturity of the grapes, and, consequently, the quality of the texture.

La Grace Dieu des Prieurs vintages from the previous era are still available on the market, and they have actually just started smoothing out. It’s a solid ascetic old school product. Mitjavile’s first vintage is 2014: his new concept of grape maturity is already at work here, but the vineyard itself was not yet transformed. In addition, the year was moderately cool and rainy. The wine is elegant and aromatic but lacking in fullness and velvety texture the chateau is aiming for. The 2014 labels are decorated with reproductions of easily recognizable 19th century classics, rather than little-known art of the Soviet era. The first “test series” included works of Vasnetsov, Repin, Roerich, Vrubel and Serov.

The first conceptual vintage of the modernized chateau was 2015, an outstanding year in Bordeaux, on par with 2010 and 2009. An explosive berry flavour, enchanting spices, juicy, fluid and velvety body. The labels of this vintage are decorated with staples of Soviet art by master painters who survived WW2, the collapse of the Union, the dashing 90s, the troubled zeros, and who are still alive and continue to create today. The Tkachev brothers, whose art is filled with sunlight and crispy air to the point to make even Bordeaux jealous, entered the 2015 collection with their painting “Morning” (1965). Sergei Tkachev is 97, Alexei Tkachev is 94.

The 2016 vintage, another outstanding year in Bordeaux, has been bottled and is currently aging in the space capsule. 2017, the year of the centenary of the Russian revolution, did not produce any yield. Frost bit the La Grace Dieu des Prieurs vineyard immediately after the vine blossomed, leaving the chateau without a single berry. The vine stood fruitless during the entire season. 2018 and 2019 are still in the Radoux Blend barrels.

2015 Collection
“I want people to be unwilling to throw the bottle after finishing their wine. Even empty, it is an attention grabber.” The shape of this bottle is unusual for Bordeaux: it is thickset and broad-shouldered. In this, too, Filatov sought to stand out. He went through the very diverse collection of antique Bordeaux bottles of all ages and found exactly what he was looking for: a bottle ensuring the best possible visibility for his labels.

In addition to Repin’s spectacular snapshot of Russian society on the eve of the Revolution of 1905 and a serene sunny pastoral by the Tkachev brothers, ten other masterpieces of Russian art adorn bottles of the Art Russe 2015 collection.

In chronological order, the first is Masquerade Ball in Paris by Konstantin Korovin, who was under great influence of the French impressionists. It is not just a nod to French art, but also a reminder that many Russian artists of the Soviet period lived and created abroad.

The artwork with the strongest viral social media potential is perhaps Hammer and Sickle by Geliy Korzhev. The artist returned to the subject many times, including in the post-Soviet period, either placing the symbols of the Soviet era into ordinary life scenes or, on the contrary, emphasizing their mighty power.

The year also saw the return to the wine labels of Roerich with his Christian motives. With his “And We Continue Fishing” (1922), the artist rose above the birth and death of empires and addressed more important issues.

In the same series is Partisan Ballad (1969) by Mai Dantsig, based on Rubens’s The Patronage of the Roman Woman (1612), which in turn plays out an ancient plot. The girl, breastfeeding the old man, is depicted in one of the surviving frescoes of Pompeii. In the disgraced painting of Dantsig, which was never exhibited during the Soviet period, “Belarusian land feeds the partisans.”

The Mother of God (1912) by Petrov-Vodkin meekly extends her palms above the horrors of this world. This bottle is an amulet. Even when it is empty, few will dare to send it in the trash. The Road to the Temple (2013) by Pyotr Ossovsky, who died in 2015 at the age of 91, at the time of veraison in Saint-Emilion, will doubtless also stay on people’s shelves for a long time.

The 2015 collection also includes Soviet mainstream. For example, Collective Farm Market (1937) by Fedot Sychkov who, shunning the meat grinder of repressions, preferred to focus on a purple evening with a scene of innocent rural flirting. Or Letter from the Front (1947) by Alexander Laktionov, a painting that caused a storm of delight among the public and received the approval of the party leader.

There is also Still Life with Peonies (1931) by Alexander Gerasimov. Favoured by the authorities, winner of four Stalin Prizes, he was a leading representative of Socialist Realism, who shaped several generations of Soviet artists. His flowers are not peonies, but the boundaries of the permitted. The Peonies are contrasted by the austere style of Viktor Popkov with his Reflection by the Window. Self-portrait (1963). A blue night, the desire for fresh air and a bird in a cage, symbolizing the soul.

And finally, the Art Russe 2015 collection includes Alert (1980) by Mai Dantsig, an outstanding Soviet-Belarusian artist who died at the age of 87, at the time when the 2015 vintage was at the final stage of ageing in barrels. The painting depicts a hastily abandoned “Leninist room”, a lost game on the chessboard, an unflappable bust of the leader, an unfinished letter and an issue of Pravda Daily dishevelled by the draught.

En Pointe
A sculpture of the most famous Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova stands out in the 2016 Art Russe label collection. It is the first sculpture featured among paintings. It is also the first label bringing art, music and ballet together. Ulanova is depicted here in her role in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The sculpture is by Elena Yanson-Manizer (1890-1971). Some of her miniatures were later cast in bronze. An enlarged copy of Ulanova as Odette stands in front of the Dance Museum in Stockholm.

Two artists have been given more space on the La Grace Dieu des Prieurs 2016 labels: Nicolai Fechin with his Nude, Tea in Santa Monica, Friends and a portrait of the engraver William J. Wats, and Geliy Korzhev with his forceful works Laundress, Refugee and Return. Soviet mainstream is again represented with a still life by Alexander Gerasimov. Also included in the collection are Harvest by Viktor Ivanov, Peasants by Gavriil Gorelov and Bus Stop by Alexei Gritsai.

The Andrei Filatov Art Fund is constantly evolving. Its target acquisition rate is about 12 canvases annually through auction houses and private collections. It is not impossible that we are witnessing the beginning of the most spectacular performance of Russian art of the Soviet period. And it is us, the Russians, who stand to benefit before everyone else, as it enables us to rethink and accept that period.

Andrei Filatov
Russian businessman, 93rd place (2019) in the Forbes 100 Richest Russians List, with an estimated wealth of US$1.1 billion. A key asset is the railway transportation operator Globaltrans. In 2012, Filatov organized the World Championship match between Boris Gelfand and Viswanathan Anand, providing a prize fund of US$2.55 million. In 2014, he opened the Chess Museum in a mansion in Gogolevski Boulevard in Moscow. The same year he was elected President of the Russian Chess Federation and Vice President of FIDE. Since 2016, Filatov is captain and head coach of the Russian national chess team. In 2019, under his leadership, the men’s chess team reclaimed the world champion title. Since 2012, Filatov has been collecting Russian art of the 19th – 20th centuries.

Art Russe Foundation
The Art Russe Foundation was founded by Andrei Filatov in 2012 with the aim to raise awareness of Russian art created in the period from 1917 to 1991. Later, the area of interest of the Foundation expanded to the pre-Soviet and post-Soviet periods. Bloomberg estimates the Art Russe collection of more than 400 works at US$0.5 billion. The Foundation owns the largest collection of works by Nikolai Fechin, Viktor Popkov and Mai Dantsig. The permanent place of the exhibition is the Russian Art Gallery in Beaulieu (UK).

Art Russe Wine Collection – Where to Find
Yacht Club de Monaco
Maybach Icons of Luxury Velten Zein Exklusiv Showroom, Nürburgring Racetrack, Germany
La Petite Maison Restaurant by Nicole Rubi, Nice
Yannick Alléno restaurants in Paris, Marrakech, Taipei, Dubai and Beijing
1947 Restaurant, Courchevel
Hotel Palace Les Airelles 5* restaurants, Courchevel
Hotel Le Lana 5* Restaurant, Courchevel
Hotel Le Chalet de Courchevel 5* Restaurant, Courchevel
Hotel Le Palace Le Barriere des Neiges 5* Restaurant, Courchevel
Le Tremplin de Courchevel Restaurant, Courchevel
Hotel Metropole Joel Robuchon Restaurant, Monte Carlo
Le Jardin des Plumes Restaurant, Giverny
Pavillon Ledoyen Restaurant, Paris
Restaurant des Rois at the Hotel La Réserve de Beaulieu, Beaulieu-sur-Mer
Grand Hotel Cala Rossa Restaurant, Porto-Vecchio

Expert Reviews

“I was conquered by the quality and beauty of the 2015 vintage. Russian art on the labels and the ancient shape of the bottle are also wonderful, as they attract the attention of Russian guests who frequent our hotel.”

  • Frederic Woelffle, Chef Sommelier, Restaurant Joel Robuchon, Metropole Hotel

“It has been fascinating to follow the evolution of the Art Russe Collection 2014, 2015 and 2016 vintages. Today, 2015 is perhaps the most interesting of the three, as it delivers the best balance of the berry intensity and power. It will be interesting to see how all three vintages will continue to evolve. The Art Russe project will have a multidimensional appeal to those who appreciate haute cuisine, fine wines and art.”

  • Marc Almert, World’s Best Sommelier 2019 Winner

“All Art Russe wines are wonderful. Despite its young age, I really liked the 2016 vintage. While 2014 is more ready today, the grape is more expressive, and oak is better integrated in 2016; the wine is more intense. It needs more time, but it is a great, convincing wine. Art and wine often go hand in hand. And I like the shape of the bottle. It is probably not easy to store, since all other bottles are of a different shape. But this is sommelier in me talking: “How will I store this bottle? Nevertheless, it is beautiful!”

  • Andres Rosberg, ASI President