With the controversial Winter Olympics in Sochi quickly followed by the overthrow of a government in the Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Caucasus region is among the world’s most troubled hotspots. Fortunately, I managed to visit the Republic of Georgia between the current crises and the previous round of conflict, when Russia invaded the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I was with a group of U.S. wine professionals including Masters of Wine, winemakers, writers, importers and wine tour planners sponsored by USAID. Our job was to observe and evaluate the wines, wineries and opportunities for wine tourism and to help Georgian vintners get a better understanding of how to market their wines to U. S. consumers
The area that is now the Republic of Georgia is considered one of the oldest wine regions in the world. The tradition and culture of wine is an integral part of Georgian lifestyle where nearly everyone is a home winemaker. That’s because it’s pretty easy to make the traditional Georgian wine with minimal equipment.
The secret is a large clay pot shaped like an amphora, called qvevri (pronounced QUAIR vee). In the autumn, grapes are harvested, pressed by foot and then the skins, seeds and juice go into the qvervi, buried in the back yard. The qvervi is sealed and the fermentation takes place. In the spring, the wine, which has separated from the skins and seeds, is removed from the qvervi, the container is cleaned, and the wine can be bottled or returned to the qvervi and sealed until later bottling. White wines made in this style have a much different flavor profile and structure than whites produced by more modern methods that limit the amount of grape skin contact.
The resulting color can range from dark yellow to amber. Aromas and flavors suggest dried fruits like apricot, baked apples, citrus zest, and spices that hint at a sweet wine, though these are not sweet. The structure is more like that of a red wine because of the time the juice spends in contact with the seeds and skins, so the mouth-feel is a bit chewy and the finish is tannic. The red wines made in qvervi are not as different from conventional reds, since all red wines are made with skin contact since skin contact is necessary to color the wine.
So what is special about Georgia? It is believed that, as early as 9,000 years ago, humans began to cultivate wine grapes and make wine in this area of the world. Today, Georgia offers unique qvervi wine backed by eons of tradition, but also modern-styled, fresh, delicious wines made from an amazing array of indigenous grape varieties to satisfy the most jaded palate.
As for those eons of tradition, several important archeological discoveries show evidence of organized wine grape growing and production in the Caucasus region, as long as 9,000 years ago, according to Patrick McGovern (Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology).
From that ancient legacy, Georgia still claims as many as 500 indigenous grape varieties, though the most important number five or six. The best-known red is Saperavi (sop ahr AH vee). The most prevalent white grapes are Rkatsiteli (COT sah telli), Mtsvane Kakhuri, commonly called Mtsvane (mitts VAH nee like Swanee) and Kisi (like kissy). While their names may not be initially easy to pronounce, they are definitely easy to drink.
Despite Georgia’s lavish endowment of ancient grape varieties, traveling today through the capital city of Tbilisi or visiting wineries in the surrounding countryside makes it obvious that Georgia is not a wealthy country. Years of Soviet domination are evident in graceless buildings and a certain lack of comfort and attention to service. Nevertheless, Georgia has a strong tradition of hospitality, especially evident in their marathon supras, dinner celebrations around tables groaning with delicious food and wine and endless rounds of toasting into the wee hours.
The food was wonderful. Every table, from the simplest lunch to the fanciest dinner, was set family-style with a cornucopia of vegetable dishes featuring fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, all topped with bunches of fresh herbs. Roasted peppers and eggplants with walnut based sauces shared space with fresh cheese and roasted meats and sausages. One specialty, which happily showed up at every meal, is pizza-like bread dough baked with cheese, sometimes topped with an egg. A roadside treat is a candy made from a string of nuts, usually walnuts or hazelnuts, strung together on twine and then dipped in a thick sauce made of flour, sugar and concentrated fresh grape juice. It was September when I visited, the perfect time for churchkhela, or as one of our hosts called it, Georgia’s version of Snickers, since freshly harvested grapes and nuts were plentiful.
Our winery visits were mostly in Kakheti, which is considered the premier wine region and contains the sub-regions of Telavi and Kvareli.
Alaverdi Monastary, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, is considered the spiritual heart of Georgia. It was founded in the second half of the 6th century by Assyrian Father Josef from Alaverdi, who is buried in the Monastery. The monks control the winemaking, managing the vineyards and grape selection, and while their process is traditional, they also have modern equipment that you expect to see in any winery today. Tasting the wines made by these monks in such a timeless setting was an uncanny experience. The most memorable wine from the monastery was their Rkatsiteli 2010 made in qvervi , which is available on the East and West Coasts for about $25.
Chateau Mukhrani had some of the best modern style wines we tasted, including a very refreshing rosé. The winery has all of the standard modern equipment seen around the world, and their vineyards are estate owned. They were in the midst of a massive reconstruction project, reviving buildings that formerly served as a royal residence. Seventy-five percent of their vineyards are planted to indigenous Georgian varieties. Other grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Nero d’Avola, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. A short distance from the winery, a Roman temple in honor of Dionysus, was discovered and is being restored by the Italian government. The USA importer is Georgian Wine House.
Pheasant’s Tears is the winery of Painter John Wurderman, who finished his MFA at the Surikov Institute of Art in Moscow. He traveled to Georgia because of his interest in finding singers of a traditional Georgian style of music. He settled in Signagi, one of Georgia’s most picturesque towns. At the winery he sells his art as well as the fruits of his vinous labors, in addition to hand-made carpets from the area. His wines are all made in qvervi. I particularly admired a Kakheti Unfiltered Saperavi, which shows smoky black fruits balanced with bright acidity finishing with chewy tannins. The importer is Georgian Wine House.
Schuchmann Winery is a new winery, but built of stone to fit into the style of the region. It is a project by German businessman Burkhard Schuchmann, who fell in love with the country, the people and its wines. Here they make modern wines including sparkling wines and qvervi wines. The winery boasts a visitor tasting room, an small inn and a restaurant. They market their wines under two labels, Schchmann and Vinoterra. The wines are the same, but the market dictates the brand. In the US the wines are sold under the Vinoterra brand. The importer is Georgian Wine House.
Although one cannot help but be curious about Georgian wines, they are not mere curiosities. Distinctive and delicious, they merit the attention of all serious wine lovers.