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Georgia Wine

Georgia Gvino – a brief introduction to wines of Georgia

In Part I, we journey to the Black Sea and the Caucasus, to the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Georgia is an ancient country that’s been a melting pot of cultures. It also lays claim to being the origin of winegrowing. It has an 8,000-year wine history evidenced by archaeology, artefacts and DNA. There are jewellery, sculpture, pottery, and grape seeds dating back to Neolithic times. Indeed, our word “wine” may come from the Georgian word for wine, which is gvino. Georgia is undoubtedly a prime candidate for being the cradle of wine.

Georgia and the Black Sea region

Georgia and the Black Sea region

Regardless of whether wine originated here, Georgia also has a vast wealth of native grape varieties to call on. All are Vitis Vinifera, yet the vast majority are mostly unknown to us. My old list has 541 types, though only 38 are officially for wine. Others grow wild or are for the table. There may be many more vines yet uncatalogued, waiting for discovery. Not bad for a country roughly the size of Scotland!

As usual, international grape varieties grow in Georgia; Cabernet Sauvignon does very well, and there are smaller amounts of Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Aligoté.

However, Georgia’s glory and distinctiveness are in its heritage of native varieties and the traditional winemaking method that uses Qvevri.


Typical Qvevri in Georgia

Typical Qvevri in Georgia

Georgia’s long wine history means that even today, winemaking methods from classical antiquity are in use. The so-called Kakhetian method employs amphorae-like terracotta vessels called Qvevri for wine fermentation, maturation, or even both. The sizes of these vessels vary, and they can be 100-10,000 litres. If there is a norm, it’s probably in the 880-3,500 litre range. A Qvevri is permanently buried, with just the top opening above ground. Indeed, the word Qvevri means “buried”. Sometimes, they are lined with beeswax, and when in use, the tops are sealed airtight with a lid using clay. Burial keeps them fresher and allows a little slow ingress of oxygen. Depending on the style, wine may stay in the Qvevri for weeks, months or many years.

It’s telling that respected, cutting-edge winegrowers such as Movia in Slovenia, Gravner and COS in Italy (to name but three) are using Qvevri. Meanwhile, there’s a passing resemblance between Qvevri and the tinajas of Valdepenas or Utiel-Requena in Spain – though those are not buried. The importance of Qvevri is such that since 2013, UNESCO has recognised it as a World Heritage Site. While not all “natural” or “orange” wines are made using Qvevri or amphorae, these vessels have become the go-to signature of natural winemaking.

A little Georgian wine history

Georgia’s strong identity has been influenced by many sources over thousands of years, including the ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians, and more. In Medieval times, there was a “golden age” of prosperity and wine growing. Then, as part of the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century, Russian settlers brought European winegrowing methods with them, though inevitably, Georgia did not escape vineyard destruction from Phylloxera.

Georgia became part of the Soviet Union in 1922 until it collapsed in 1991. Hence, the usual collectivism, underinvestment, quotas, and Stakhanovist bulk production ensued in agriculture. In the late 1980s, a vine-pull scheme under Gorbachev throughout the USSR almost halved the area under vine in Georgia to reduce alcoholism.

Nevertheless, Russia was the primary wine market, taking 80% of all production. During this period, quantity ruled over quality. Meanwhile, Georgian families kept the Qvevri tradition alive but could not bottle or sell wine. Even now, the production of homemade goods by some 100,000 families remains important in Georgia.

The Soviet collapse

Independence came in 1991, shortly before the final Soviet collapse. Hence, vines and wineries were returned to private ownership. As with many post-communist countries, the new Georgian Republic then suffered from an economic crisis and bloody conflict. Meanwhile, the antagonism between Georgia and Russia resulted in a Russian ban on importing all Georgian wine in 2006 as a prelude to a full-scale war in 2008.

These events caused significant shocks to the Georgian economy and wine industry. The vineyard area contracted to around 70,000 ha, and the number of wineries fell from 270 to 150. Hence, Georgia actively sought new markets in the West and Asia. That meant that Georgian wine quality improved, which is necessary to compete on the world stage. Leading wineries have adopted modern technology and techniques and preserved their artisanal Qvevri traditions. Foreign investment and know-how have flooded in. That’s all helped Georgia avoid the “cheap plonk” image that continues to blight much of Eastern Europe, however unfairly.

Ten years is a long time in wine.

When I first held tastings of Georgian wines (blimey, ten years ago), there was just one UK importer and a handful of wines available. Today, the situation has significantly improved. There are several importers and merchants with a wide choice of Georgian wines available in various styles.

In the UK, Georgian restaurants exist, and even Michelin-starred joints have Georgian wines on their lists. Books on wine, food, and tourism have also appeared, particularly Carla Capalbo’s Tasting Georgia, which comes highly recommended. Naturally, Georgian wines and Georgian food pair perfectly. However, the wines are also suitable matches for many Western, Middle Eastern, and Asian cuisines.

Probably most tellingly, excellent Georgian wines are now available in UK supermarkets! Check out Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. Of course, the growth of natural wines as a category has also helped sales and recognition. I hope that the next (9th) edition of the World Atlas of Wine will increase coverage of Georgia from the current two pages.

Rkatsiteli and Saperavi

Two indigenous grapes are particularly important – Rkatsiteli and Saperavi. These are the most widely planted by far. Their high quality receives considerable attention in export markets. It has helped open the door for a multitude of other autochthonous Georgian grape varieties, such as Mtsvane (white) and Aladasturi (red).


Rkatsiteli is Georgia’s principal white grape, dating back to 3,000 BC. It’s grown widely throughout Eastern Europe, the ex-Soviet states, and China, with plantings also in the USA and Australia. Amazingly, it was the second-most planted white grape in the world until Gorbachev’s vine-pull scheme in the 1980s! Now, it’s still in third place. High quality, it comes in many styles and is also a base for brandy.


Saperavi is Georgia’s flagship red grape. The name means “paint” or “dye” in Georgian because it is unusual to have red juice (so it’s a teinturier grape, alongside Colorino, Alicante Bouchet, and a few others, but I digress). Saperavi comes in a range of styles but is best as a dry red wine designed to improve with age. Indeed, it can age well for decades. Saperavi is widespread in the ex-Soviet neighbours of Georgia. I’ve seen Saperavi grow in New York’s Finger Lakes and there’s some in Victoria, Australia.

Principal Wine Zones

Georgia Wine Regions, courtesy of the Georgian Wine Agency

Georgia Wine Regions, courtesy of the Georgian Wine Agency

Georgian wines have 18 geographic “appellations of origin” here called Specific Viticultural Areas (SVAs) within five principal wine zones. In July 2010, the European Union took the unprecedented step of agreeing to protect these Geographical Indications of Georgia. Georgia became the first “EU Neighbourhood Country” to join this EU initiative as a direct response to the Russian embargo.


Kakheti is the most crucial region. In the east, this powerhouse of Georgian wine lies between Russia and Azerbaijan, in the foothills of the Caucasus. Some 33,000 ha means 60% of the total vineyard area of Georgia and 70% of total wine production. Rkatsiteli and Saperavi grape varieties dominate. 


10,000 ha in west Georgia, with a mix of traditional and modern winemaking.


4,000 ha. Central Georgia, close to the capital, Tbilisi. An essential area for sparkling wine and brandy, the vineyards and wineries here are arguably the most European in style.


Racha-Lechkumi is a small western region, just 1,400 ha in size. Red and white semi-sweet and sweet wines are a speciality.

Black Sea Coast

This catch-all covers several areas, including Guria. Bulk wine production, if only because of the humid subtropical climate and low- is a mainstay lying flat land.

To conclude

Russia’s loss has become our gain. Our challenge is dealing with the unfamiliar; whether the country, the language, the food, or the alphabet and script. And that’s before we get to those unknown grape varieties with new flavours. It’s a challenge I’ve embraced, and I hope you will, too!

Here’s a quote on Georgian wine, taken from Hugh Johnson’s autobiography, Wine: A Life Uncorked:

“Saperavi maybe its Cabernet (or indeed its Pinot Noir), but what potential for pleasure is locked up in vine-stocks whose names we have yet to hear?”

Hence, Part Two includes a selection of Georgian wines available in the UK. These wines should pique your appetite and encourage the discovery of a unique country with an extraordinary heritage.

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