Recent archaeological digs in the Shulaveris Gora area, about 30 miles south of the Georgian capital Tbilisi, unearthed evidence of primitive wine making practices dating back 8,000 years ago, thus establishing the region as the oldest known-to-us viticultural site. 6,000 BC! That’s enough time for wine making to establish itself as an inseparable component of Georgia’s national identity.
A bit of history
Located on the geographic and cultural border of Asia and Europe, where the religious influences of Christianity, Judaism and Islam have overlapped throughout history, turned Georgia into a cultural mishmash filled with political and social instability and diversity. Over the centuries, the nation has been subjugated to Persian, Ottoman and Soviet occupations. Despite this uncertain reality, wine making has always had a steadfast presence in the country’s existence.
After the Red Army invasion in 1921, Georgia was annexed and incorporated into the Soviet Union, becoming the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. As part of the Soviet regime, Georgia was the main source of wine production for the entire country. Sadly, but as was the case with many nations under the Soviet Union’s control, the focus was on mass production with little or no regard for quality nor the preservation of Georgia’s wine making heritage.
Georgia has optimal conditions for vine cultivation. It’s fertile valleys are protected by the slopes of the Transcaucasian Mountains and further combined with moderate weather conditions of warm, sunny summers and mild, frost-free winters make it a viticultural paradise. Natural mountain springs supply abundance of mineral-rich water and the proximity of the Black Sea adds an additional moderating effect.
Georgia’s wine culture is deeply rooted in its rich, ancient tradition and is an intrinsic part of the nation’s everyday life. Indigenous is the word which comes to mind when one hears about Georgian wine. The grapes, the vineyards, farming and wine making practices, even the taste of the wines, all have unique components to them. They all have a breath of antiquity in them.
The whole country produces wine. Even in big cities people commonly make wine in their homes or the basements of apartment complexes. Grapes are grown nearly anywhere that nature allows. There are designated wine regions with particular grape varietals naturally belonging to their specific micro-zones scattered across the land. The most important in quantitative (approximately 70 percent of Georgian grapes are grown here), qualitative and historic terms in Georgia is Kakheti, divided into the two micro-regions of Kvareli and Telavi. Then comes Imereti, Kartli, Svaneti, Adjara, Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti, and Abkhazia. Each region has not only their best-acclimated grapes but also specific styles of wine it specializes in.
A typical Georgian wine label displays the name of the sourced region, district, or village from whence the wine comes, along with the name of the winery and often grape(s) variety. It is common for Georgian wines to be made from a blend of two or more grape varieties, but wines made from a single variety also exist and are not difficult to obtain.
The number of grape varieties grown in Georgia is roughly estimated at around 400 to 500, with only about 40 registered for commercial wine making. These are some of the most prevalent:
Ojaleshi is grown on the mountain slopes above the banks of the Tskhenistskali River, particularly in the Samegrelo region of Western Georgia. It is a dark-skinned grape and also one of the most-reputable Georgia has to offer. It is made into dry, off-dry, and semi-sweet styles.
Saperavi is an acidic, late-ripening, teinturier (richly colored) red variety. It produces intense, dark, red wines suitable for extended aging – up to 50 years. It can provide high alcohol levels and is used widely for mixing with other lesser types. Saperavi is one of the essential grapes used in Georgian red wines.
Mtsvane, or green in English, is one of the essential, white grapes in Georgian wine making. It produces crisp wines with ripe citrus and tropical fruit flavors. It is often mixed with Rkatsiteli to add an aromatic, fruity balance to Rkatsiteli’s austere structure.
Usakhelauri translates into English as “without name” or “nameless,” most likely implying a beyond-words sentiment, an unparalleled quality of its wines, rather than anonymous. The grape, characterized by very low yields and susceptibility to fungal disease, is a rare and expensive purchase. Grown on the mountain slopes of Lechkhumi, it produces wines with strawberry, raspberry notes spiced with floral bouquet.
It is the most-planted white grape in Georgia. Pale-skinned, its name literally translates to “red stem” referring to the reddish color of its stalk during the harvest time. It exhibits strong resistance to cold weather conditions. It retains acidity well even during hot summers. Lastly, its balance between sugar and acid makes it versatile for the production of still, sparkling, sweet and fortified wines as well as brandies. Typical Rkatsiteli offers crisp structure with flavors of green apple, quince, fennel, and stone minerality.
Alexandreuli is one of the oldest, indigenous Georgian grapes usually made into late-harvest, semi-sweet wines exhibiting flavors of dark cherry and pomegranate.
This is a high-acid, disease-resistant grape. Chinuri, or Chinebuli, translates into English as “excellent” is mainly farmed in the Kartli region. It reaches full maturity in late October and is used in sparkling wines by mixing Goruli Mtsvane and Aligote.
There is also a plethora of wine styles covering every possible category, still, sparkling, dessert, “orange” etc, with all different levels of dryness and sweetness, which fully listing here would only take away from the intended, focused brevity of this article.
The Tradition of Qvevri and other idiosyncrasies of Georgian wine
Qvevri wine making is an ancient method of vinification specific to Georgia. Qvevri is an egg-shaped, earthenware vessel used for fermentation, maturation and storage. Pressed grape juice with skins and pits is placed in these containers, which are typically buried in the ground, with only the rim above the surface, for temperature control purposes. The modern qvevri can differ dramatically in size from 100 to 3,500 liters, with the sweet spot being at around 1,000 to 1,200 liters. There is a certain primal mystique and magic behind qvevri -- buried in the ground, filled with grape juice, slowly heaving with fermentation, giving birth to wine.
In 2013, UNESCO added this ancient tradition of Georgian wine making method to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.
Another distinctive tradition in Georgian wines is white Kakhetian wine (also known as orange or amber wine). These wines are extensively macerated for several months with the skins, seeds and stems of grapes in buried qvevris. With the high popularity of orange wines, “Kakhetian method” is an extremely common Georgian wine making tradition.
Some grape growers in Georgia still practice maglari, the practice of planting grape vines that will grow up the trunks of fruit trees, creating a scenario where the grapes hang down along the fruits as they ripen.
Also of unique Georgian derivation is Piala (a few varied spellings can be found) which are small, shallow, bowl-shaped ceramic cups used for drinking wine in Georgia and other countries of Central Asia.
The future of Georgian wines
After Georgia’s reclamation of its independence in 1991, Russia remained the main consumer of its wines, responsible for about 80 percent of Georgia’s wine export. In 2006, the Russian government issued an embargo on Georgian and Moldovan (neighboring country) wines based on accusations of poor sanitation and falsification. The ban was a massive blow to the wine industry and the economy in general. The incident resulted in Georgia turning its attention to other foreign markets. From that point onward, Georgia’s wine export has been growing exponentially. In 2018, Georgia exported 86.2 million bottles of wine to 53 countries. Its export to the US increased by 30 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 and reached the all-time highest dollar value of $3.93 million. The rise in number of wineries has been explosive: in 2006 there were roughly 80 registered wineries, by 2018, that number reached 960.
There is an issue of consistency in quality of Georgian wines, and it mainly stems from the lack of implementation and observance of viticultural regulations. But the qualitative expectations of foreign markets combined with international competition are uncompromising. To stay in the game and succeed the quality needs to improve and even out. Some wineries have realized that and have made the necessary adjustments setting the example. Chateau Mukhrani Winery and Iago’s Winey stand out.
A few noteworthy wines available on the American market: Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli Kakheti region, Orgo Kisi Kakheti region, Tsinandali Teliani Valley, Shalauri Cellars Mtsvane Georgian Republic, Kabistoni, Didgori Khvanchkara Racha, Republic of Georgia.
Cezar Kusik wine Contributor Polo Lifestyles 2021