Putin and Berlusconi under fire for Crimea wine tasting

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right, front) visits a wine vault at the Massandra winery in Crimea on Sept 11, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right, front) visits a wine vault at the Massandra winery in Crimea on Sept 11, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

KIEV (AFP) - Ukraine has launched a criminal probe into wine-tasting by Russian President Vladimir Putin and ex-Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi after they allegedly quaffed a US$100,000 (S$139,000) bottle of centuries-old wine in Crimea, prosecutors said on Saturday.

The Kremlin strongman and the disgraced billionaire reportedly cracked open a bottle of 1775 Spanish Jerez de la Frontera at the famed Massandra winery during a private visit by Mr Berlusconi this month to the region Moscow annexed from Kiev in 2014.

The bottle was part of a legendary collection established by Prince Mikhail Vorontsov, who ran Crimea as governor-general in the first half of the 19th century.

The Massandra winery was taken over by Russia along with the rest of the Crimean peninsula when Mr Putin sent thousands of special forces troops to capture the Ukrainian region last year.

Exiled Ukrainian prosecutors from Crimea said they are now investigating the alleged incident as a "seizure of government property".

"This wine is not just the property of Crimea or Massandra but of the whole Ukrainian people," Mr Nazar Kholodnitsky, an official from the prosecutors' office, told AFP.

Mr Kholodnitsky said that authorities estimated the bottle of wine could be worth "over US$100,000".

Mr Berlusconi met his long-standing friend Mr Putin on a private visit to Crimea earlier this month that sparked ire in Kiev.

In a video from Russian television of the pair's tour of the winery Berlusconi can be seen asking the director if "it is possible to drink" one of the aged bottles.