Georgia Gvino – a brief introduction to wines of Georgia
In this 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 to Neolithic times. Indeed, our word “wine” may come from from the Georgian word for wine, which is gvino. Georgia is undoubtedly a prime candidate for being the cradle of wine.
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.
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. Sizes of these vessels vary, from 100-10,000 litre capacities. 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 lined with beeswax, 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 the buried amphorae of Utiel-Requena in Spain. Such is the importance of Qvevri that UNESCO recognises them as World Heritage. While not all “natural” 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, by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians and more besides. In Medieval times there was a “golden age” of prosperity and winegrowing. 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 then became part of the Soviet Union in 1922, until it collapsed in 1991. Hence in agriculture, the usual collectivism, underinvestment, quotas and Stakhanovist bulk production ensued. In the late 1980s, a vine-pull scheme under Gorbachev throughout the USSR almost halved the area under vine in Georgia, in an attempt 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 were not allowed to bottle or sell wine. Even now, home-made production by some 100,000 families remains important within Georgia.
The Soviet collapse
Independence came in 1991, shortly before the final Soviet collapse. Hence vines and wineries 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 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 then improved, necessary to compete on the world stage. Leading wineries have adopted modern technology and techniques as well as preserving 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, that was 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 there are Georgian restaurants, and even Michelin-starred joints have Georgian wines on their lists. Books on Georgian wine, food and tourism have also appeared, particularly Carla Capalbo’s Tasting Georgia, which comes highly recommended. Naturally, Georgian wines and Georgian food pair to perfection. However, the wines are also suitable matches for many Western, Middle-Eastern and Asian cuisines.
Probably most tellingly, there are now excellent Georgian wines 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 and 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, going 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 3rd 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 in having 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 grown in New York’s Finger Lakes and there’s also some in Victoria, Australia.
Principal Wine Zones
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 is a mainstay here, if only because of the humid subtropical climate and low lying flat land.
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 may be 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 recommendations for Georgian wines follow in Part Two (coming soon). They should pique your appetite and encourage discovery; of the wines, and a unique country with an extraordinary heritage.