Georgia is one of the oldest wine regions in the world. I’m not talking about the Georgia that lies south of the mid-Atlantic, down I-95. I’m talking about the Georgia that sits on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, with Russia to the north and Turkey to the south.
Archaeologists have found evidence there of a well-developed wine-making culture that dates as far back as the Neolithic period. If that’s the case, then why is it that Georgian wines don’t share a place in our minds along with other Old World wines? The answer is part geographical, part cultural and part political.
Many families make their own wine as part of the traditional Georgian feast, consisting of endless plates of food and generous pours of wine. During the many hours of eating and drinking, numerous sincere and heartfelt toasts are given. Wine has played a significant role in Georgian culture throughout its history and still does today.
A Little History
Georgia’s winemaking heritage goes back 8,000 years. The country claims to be the birthplace of wine, and the facts seem to prove it. Archaeologists not only unearthed fragments of clay vessels with wine deposits on them but also found remnants of vitis vinifera sativa, the grapes used to make wine. It is even thought that the word “wine” was derived from the ancient Georgian word “gvino.”
Geographically, Georgia is the crossroad between the East and the West in its location between Europe and Asia. Because of this, the country has been invaded many times by its neighbors to the east and west. Through it all, the importance of wine always remained strong.
Georgia was one of the world’s first countries to adopt Christianity. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary told St. Nino, in a dream, to go to Georgia carrying a cross made of grape vines. With this cross, she escaped the Romans and entered Georgia and began teaching Christianity. With the spread of Christianity and the association of wine with the blood of Christ, vineyards and winemaking in Georgia gained an even greater importance.
During the Soviet era, Georgian wines were very popular throughout the Union. In 1929, the Soviets began to take over Georgian wine companies, creating a monopoly on alcohol. Decades of attempts to manipulate and reform the industry by reducing the number of grape varieties used and the planting of hybrid varieties only resulted in a focus of quantity over quality.
In the 1980s a “dry” law was passed in the Soviet Union that nearly ruined the Georgian wine industry. The effects of this lasted into the early 1990s. The fall of the Soviet Union, the founding of the country’s first modern wine companies and some excellent harvests ushered in a new era of Georgian winemaking.
Georgian Wine Today
There are about 400 grape varieties in Georgia, with about 40 of those being used in commercial production. Two of the most important varieties are the white Rkatsiteli and the red Saperavi.
Rkatsiteli makes up nearly half of Georgia’s vineyards. It is hardy and easy to grow; as it ripens, it maintains high levels of acidity and sugar. It is used to make dry, semi-sweet and fortified wines.
Saperavi is the most widely planted red variety in Georgia. It is unusual in that it has red skins, red flesh and red juice. It makes deep red, inky and full-bodied wines with loads of texture. The grape shows characteristics of black berry fruit, chocolate and licorice with notes of earth, smoked meat, tobacco, savory spice and pepper. It is used to make rosé, dry, semi-sweet, sweet and fortified wines.
Among the many types of winemaking and storage pottery that are a crucial part of the country’s wine history, there is one that is uniquely Georgian, the qvevri. A qvevri is a very large terra-cotta pot that’s shaped like an egg. The inside is lined with beeswax to make it waterproof and buried up to the mouth in the ground.
The traditional Georgian qvevri winemaking process goes back many centuries and has changed very little since its start. The process starts with pressing the grapes in a press. The must and the grape skins, stalks and pips are poured into the qvevri, filling it to about 85%. During fermentation, the mixture is stirred four or five times a day. When fermentation has complete, the qvevri is topped off with an identical mixture, sealed and left to age for five-to-six months.
Well-made qvevri wines do not have a pronounced oxidized character that you might expect from a wine that has been sitting on its skins for six months. White wines have aromas of cooked fruits, honey, jasmine, herbs and floral notes.
Not all Georgian wines are made with this process. Many of the wines we are seeing in the market are made with modern production methods using traditional grape varieties.
A Few to Try
• 2014 Schuchmann, Rkatsiteli. Made in the modern style in stainless steel tanks. Aromas and flavors of apple, pear and peach. Medium bodied with a long, crisp finish. Enjoyable with anything from light salads to poultry or pork dishes. Priced around $12.
• 2013 Shalauri Cellars, Rkatsiteli. Produced in the traditional Qvevri method with six months of skin contact. Fruity aromas of ripe apple and orange peel blend with walnut and dried fruit flavors, complemented by firm tannins and a rich savory finish. Pairs well with grilled fish and creamy pasta dishes. Priced in the mid $20s.
• 2013 Teliani Valley, Mukuzani Saperavi. Fermented in stainless steel and aged in oak for nine months. Complex aromas and flavors of blackberry, blueberry, cranberry, anise and floral notes leading to hints of cherry and chocolate on the finish. Enjoy with grilled steaks and lamb chops as well as hard cheeses. Priced in the low teens.
With the weather getting warmer, there has never been a better time to try Georgian wines. New levels of investment in the Georgian wine industry can only mean that we will see more new and delicious wines from this country.
I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Cheers.
Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, in Annapolis, holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America and Intermediate and Advanced Certificates from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].