The New Wine Markets of Central Asia

As Silk Road tourism grows and the countries of Central Asia become wealthier, wine markets are emerging. Felicity Carter hears one expert describe the situation.

Reading time: 6m

Central Asia Map (Photo: Porcupen/
Central Asia Map (Photo: Porcupen/

They’re remote, and 90% of their people who live there are forbidden from drinking alcohol. Yet one expert claims the wine markets of Central Asia are growing, though from a very small base.

“I believe this region is one of the future regions,” says Artem Lebedev. “It’s not America, of course it’s not China. But in terms of the future, it’s definitely interesting.”

Lebedev, a Russian wine expert who’s been living in Kazakhstan since 2016, where he’s established a sommelier school, presented a talk on the matter at Wine2Wine in Verona in November, outlining how the markets of Central Asia, centred around Kazakhstan, are expanding.

A definition of Central Asia

Artem Lebedev at Wine2Wine conference
Artem Lebedev at Wine2Wine conference

A good understanding of business

The entire region also has a long history of trade, because it was the “crossroads between West and the East, between North and the South. This was the place of the Silk Road.”

The reason, he says, is that much of the land doesn’t support food — or vine — production, so people could only live by trading. “We know how to trade and we know how to sell good wines, and also very expensive wines.” When he moved there, Lebedev found that while the wine-drinking population wasn’t very big, it was “easy to find partners. There was no competition.”

Inside Kazakhstan

Per capita wine consumption in Kazakhstan is, well, tiny. “The average consumption is more or less three litres per capita,” says Lebdev, noting that when he arrived in Kazakhstan, it was 1.5 litres, so “we have seen it double in seven years.”

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), Kazakhstan imported $35m worth of wine between 2020 and 2021.

Consumption is higher in the capital Astana, and Almaty, the largest city, where “the consumption is more or less six, seven, maybe even eight litres per capita — which is more or less close to Russia before the war.”

Indeed, part of the reason Kazakhstan’s wine economy, such as it is, is growing is because of an influx of Russians. “They relocate with money, and they start spending money.”

It’s the same in countries like Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia — everywhere that Russian emigres congregate, wine sales rise.

Wines from Italy, Georgia and France

As for what people are drinking, Lebedev says Italian wines are in first place, followed by Georgian. “If we go to the supermarket in Almaty, in the cultural capital, you can find Italian wine,” with the next most popular country being France. Prices start from €5 to €6 a bottle — but it’s also possible to find wines ranging from €80 to €1,000.

“We have a lot of people whose palates are developed to drink good wine,” says Lebedev, though he says very simple, easily-understood styles work best for the mass market. He believes that there is a gap to be filled in the price range from €5 to €20, where competition is much lower; however, he adds that the middle is really difficult at present, because wine consumption is split between cheap wine and extremely expensive wine.

Mining of oil, minerals ... and bitcoins

Lebedev did not discuss this, but the people who are drinking the expensive wine are probably connected to Kazakhstan’s oil and mineral extraction industries. Until recently, Kazakhstan was also the world’s largest bitcoin miner — from 2017 until January 2022, cryptocurrency entrepreneurs took advantage of Kazakhstan’s energy surplus and derelict Soviet-era buildings, to mine for bitcoins. After blackouts led to mass protests, the government threw the miners off the national grid, and that was the end of that. But the good times gave many people enough money to indulge in the finer things of life, and they developed a taste for wine.

New consumers...

Young people are also travelling more, much like their counterparts elsewhere, and are encountering wine. “A lot of people go to study abroad and then they come back with an understanding of wine culture,” he says.

This means the customer is getting younger. Lebedev says when he first arrived, wine drinking was mostly confined to the 40-plus crowd, but it’s now been taken up by younger drinkers, who are choosing dry wines over the previously dominant semi-sweet wines.

Kazakhstan is also a wine producer, as many vineyards were planted in the Soviet era. In 2021, the country exported $42.4K worth of wine, including to Russia, Mongolia and Lithuania.

There are also vineyards being planted — Lebedev says that Malbec is particularly suited to the territory.

...and occasions

The culture is also the kind to embrace wine, because conspicuous consumption is encouraged. “People really want to show everybody that they have money,” says Lebedev. “For a wedding party,you can invite up to a thousand people,” and it’s no problem if complete strangers turn up.

Anyone planning such a wedding should not try to earn bragging rights with Champagne — Tignanello is better. Lebedev says the President used to serve Petrus at parties.

Easy imports

Bringing wine into the country is, apparently, no problem. “You need to go through customs and then you need to sell the wine,” he says. This simplicity can produce problems of its own, as there is no official mechanism to check whether bottles are real or counterfeit. “But we are working on it, so you have two, or three, years to enter the market without problems.”

There are four distribution companies, but none of them cover the entire country, “because Kazakhstan is huge. From the West to the East it’s like Lisbon to Vienna.”

The population is around 20m, of whom half are Muslim; after accounting for age, there are probably seven million potential wine consumers.

Kazakhstan: Economic Data
  • GDP: $197.11bn
    Source: Statista
    Source: Statista


  • Exports: 
    • Total exports: $53.6bn
      Top exports are crude petroleum ($21.6bn), gold ($3.99bn), refined copper ($3.89bn)
    • Wine exports: $42.4k, primarily to Mongolia ($14.6k), Tajikistan ($12.7k) and Russia ($10.6k)
  • Imports: 
    • Total imports: $47.5bn
      Top imports are cars ($1.75bn), broadcasting equipment ($1.48bn), packaged medicaments ($1.1bn)
    • Wine imports: US $35m (no. 59/224), primarily from Georgia ($9.63m), Lithuania ($7.69m) and Italy ($4.62m)
  • Wine Consumption: 0.15l per capita (2019)

Source: OEC, Statista, NationMaster, Status 2021 (unless otherwise indicated)

Consider Uzbekistan

The next country worth considering is Uzbekistan. “Unofficially, the consumption is very, very low at 0.5 litres,” says Lebedev, “mainly due to the reason that they still drink vodka.”

According to the OEC, Uzbekistan imported $2.1m worth of wines in 2021, so consumption is indeed tiny.

Shah-i-Zinda, a necropolis in Samarkand, Uzbekistan (Photo: monticellllo/
Shah-i-Zinda, a necropolis in Samarkand, Uzbekistan (Photo: monticellllo/

Consumers include the Russian exiles living in Kazakhstan, who tour Uzbekistan on weekends, and take some wine with them. Lebedev says he’s always being sent pictures of tourists “drinking wine in these beautiful places”.

The no-alcohol opportunity

One possible opportunity lies in no-alcohol wines, because many Uzbeks want to drink wine, but are prohibited by their religion. Lebedev says restaurant patrons particularly need a quality substitute for alcohol.

Those who do drink alcohol tend to drink vodka, but Lebedev says vodka drinkers are ageing. “They become older and older. We speak about people who are now 80 years old, and young people don’t want to drink vodka. The young generation wants to drink cocktails and wine.”

As a result, there are more wine places opening up. Lebedev says that Tashkent is the wine drinking capital, where TripAdvisor lists 17 pubs or wine bars.

According to the World Bank, Uzbekistan’s GDP grew by 5.6% in 2023, while poverty dropped by 14% in 2022. It’s one of the world’s leading cotton producers, and it’s quickly transitioning into a market economy. The government is focused on modernisation, with ambitions to turn Uzbekistan into an upper-income country. Its Silk Road heritage means it has huge tourism potential, which it’s beginning to tap.

Uzbekistan: Economic Data
  • GDP: $69.6bn
    Source: Statista


  • Exports:
    • Total exports: $14.7bn
      Top exports are gold ($4.53bn), non-retail pure cotton yarn ($1.61bn), refined copper ($741m)
    • Wine exports: $2.24m, mainly to Kazakhstan ($1.24m), Kyrgyzstan ($363k), Belarus ($232k)
  • Imports: 
    • Total imports: $24.4bn
      Top imports are packaged medications ($1.04bn), motor vehicles; parts and accessories ($1.01bn), cars ($656m)
    • Wine imports: $2.14m, mainly from France ($1.02m), Latvia ($326k), Italy ($149k)
  • Wine Market Size/Volume:
    Since 2014, the Wine Market Size Volume fell by 8.3% year-on-year. 
  • Wine Consumption: 0.38l per capita (2019)

Source: OEC, Statista, NationMaster, Status 2021 (unless otherwise indicated)

Oil-rich Azerbaijan

Lebedev says there’s huge potential in Azerbaijan. “They have a crazy amount of oil,” he says. “The first time I visited Baku, the capital, I saw oil going out from the earth, 15 minutes from the centre of the city. Nobody cares.”

The oil boom peaked five years ago, but in its heyday it drove infrastructure development, with “lots of things for rich people.” Today, the population of 10m officially consumes one litre per capita per year, but Lebedev says the statistics are unreliable, as the Muslim government prefers not to discuss alcohol.

He says plenty of wine from Sicily can be found in Baku. “Azerbaijan is growing in terms of Italian wine,” he says, adding that Georgian wines are also important.

Azerbaijan, situated in the Southern Caucasus, has a historic connection with wine. Today it has extensive vineyard areas, with ambitions to become a wine exporter; the Azerbaijani Tourism Board is actively promoting wine tourism.

The countries of Central Asia may not yet be wine powerhouses, but if Lebedev is to be believed, there is currently a first-mover advantage for wine companies willing to get in and establish themselves — and there may be a real opportunity in non-alc wines. Given that the economies are growing and the tourism infrastructure is developing, these regions  are worth visiting anyway, regardless of the wine sales opportunities.

Azerbaijan: Economic Data
  • GDP: $54.83bn
    Source: Statista


  • Exports:
    • Total exports: $22.8bn
      Top exports are crude petroleum ($13.5bn), petroleum gas ($5.73bn), refined petroleum ($641m) 
    • Wine exports: $4.46m, primarily to Russia ($2.6m), China ($381k), Hong Kong ($375k)
  • Imports:
    • Total imports: $12.3bn
      Top imports are cars ($815m), wheat ($354m), packaged medicaments ($308m),
    • Wine imports: $3.91m, primarily from Italy ($935k), France ($889k), Georgia ($793k)
  • Wine Consumption: 0.79l per capita (2019)
    Since 2014, Azerbaijan's Wine Market Size Volume Per Capita rose 23.1% year-on-year.

Source: OEC, Statista, NationMaster, Status 2021 (unless otherwise indicated)

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Reading time: 3m 15s



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