For those less familiar with the history of Georgian wine making, a quick recap may be helpful. Georgia is often referred to as the “Cradle of Wine,” since it was in this region that wine making is believed to have been first developed. Archaeological evidence shows that as early as 5000 BC, way back in Neolithic times, people in this region were fermenting wine in clay containers (now known in Georgia as Quevri or Kvevri). Not only this – they were preserving it with pine resin, selectively breeding grapes for better wine production, and distinguishing between different grape varieties within their wines.
Georgian wine has another claim to fame: it has well over 500 different indigenous grape varieties, the vast majority of which were dug up and replaced during the collectivisation and homogenisation that came with Communism. During the Communist period Georgia’s great and broad winemaking traditions were sacrificed in pursuit of ever greater and more reliable yields, and the wines produced were often of low quality and high sweetness, the higher sugar content catering to the Russian palate. Even to this day, people often associate Georgian wines with some of the most famous semi-sweet examples emerging from the country, even though these were a late addition, and one that did not really arise from within Georgia herself.
It has taken time to shake of the reputation for Georgian wines being poor quality Soviet relics, but progress has been made, and the reputation for Georgia as a source of fine dry wines now seems well entrenched.
Both the Real Wine Fair and the RAW wine fair focus on traditional, artisan, and organic wines. What we saw at both these fairs suggests that Georgian wine exports are now entering a new and exciting phase – and one which much more closely resembles the real traditions of Georgian wine making.
In 2005, amidst worsening diplomatic relations with Georgia, Russia banned imports of Georgian wine. It was this that led to Georgian wines appearing with greater regularity in the UK as Georgian winemakers searched for new markets. But the majority of the Georgian wines available in the UK have naturally tended to come from the larger, more internationally-minded wine producers, with the “better known” Georgian grapes such as Saperavi, Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane dominating their offerings. These wines also tended to be something of a compromise between Georgian and western winemaking traditions, often very accomplished, but perhaps open to the charge of being a bit too cosmopolitan – lacking a sense of Georgia’s unique identity. One might argue that this was exactly what was needed, and still is, as a segway into a new and for most people largely unknown wine producing country. For many people, the leap into the new, more traditional styles of Georgian wine on display at the Real Wine Fair and RAW may be just a bit too much. Let’s be clear, some of these newest arrivals from Georgia are going to be considered pretty weird – wines fermented in clay pots, fermented with both skins and grape stems, and some neither red nor white, but a fairly lurid orange colour…
But with these new wines it feels like wine lovers in the UK can now experience a full and truer range of Georgian wines, and what the country is now presenting is a multi-faceted and exciting range, from the now somewhat cultish Soviet semi sweets, through the more international styles, to the more idiosyncratic traditional offerings.
All the wines at both these two fairs were produced in Quevri – Georgia’s other great contribution to wine making, and one that the Georgians are currently trying to list with UNESCO as a unique part of their cultural heritage. The wine makers were keen to point out that the Quevri is not the same as an amphora. For one thing, it is often substantially larger. “Quevri” translates as “that which is built below,” and is a permanent architectural addition to a house. While amphorae are used to transport wine, as well as store it, the Quevri does not move, and the entire wine making process can take place with in it, from primary fermentation to malolactic fermentation, through to maturation of the wine.
Given that Quevri are present in 25 different growing regions of Georgia, we also learnt how these Quevri are used differently in the different regions of Georgia. For example, in the more Westerly region of Imereti, where temperatures tend to be cooler, the grapes are placed in the Quevri with minor skin contact, and no grape stems, leading to brighter, fruitier wines. Because of the cooler temperatures in Imereti, the stems would produce a wine that was simply too tart and “green.” In Kartli, further east, there is fuller skin contact, with the wine being left on the skins for up to 6 months, and some of the grape stems may also be placed in the Quevri, to increase the tannins in the wine (white as well as red). In Kakheti, Georgia’s most Easterly and hottest region, responsible for the vast majority of Georgia’s wine production, whole grape bunches, including stems, are put in the Quevri for up to 6 months.
Not only were we seeing evidence of more emphasis on Georgia’s more traditional styles of wine, there was also an exciting range of grapes on display. Up to this point we have been saying that around 30 of Georgia’s grape varieties are in commercial production, but having visited these two fairs we suspect that this number will need to be revised substantially upwards. In fact, at a recent wine fair in Georgia (which included non commercial as well as commercially produced wines) 150 grape varieties were on display. The days of homogenised wine production in Georgia seem to be far behind us.
Some of these new grape arrivals fill in gaps in the Georgian wine offering. For example, the red grapes Takveri and Shavkapito produce lighter bodied (though still very tannic) red wines, that provide a nice counterpoint to the heavier wines typically produced by Georgia’s predominant red grape, Saperavi. Shavkapito, incidentally, was the grape of choice for the Kakhetian kings. The two wines we sampled were both from the 2011 vintage, so still very young, and we were told that they would mellow considerably in the next 12 months. One of the apparent side effects of the Quevri production method is to produce a more mature tasting wine more quickly – possibly as a result of micro oxidation in the Quevri. Both wines would continue to mature in the bottle for the next 4-5 years.
The Georgian white grape rkatsiteli is widely regarded as the grape that benefits most from the Quevri production method, and there were numerous examples on display. The 2010 Rkasitelis from both Pheasant’s Tears and the Antadze Winery were extremely good, a deep amber colour, with powerful aromas and huge amounts of flavour (fruit peel, apricots etc) – to the extent that they might be termed “an acquired taste.” The 2008 Rkatsiteli from Pheasant’s Tears showed how the wine would mellow with time, with the fruit becoming less obvious. The 2010 and 2011 Rkatsitelis from the Twin’s Wine Cellar in Napareuli were also very good (the 2010 vintage was winner of the first place in a recent national wine competition in Georgia)
This was also our first taste of a wine produced entirely from the Chinuri grape. Our only previous contact with this light skinned and floral grape was in sparkling wine blends. Due to its temperamental nature, and the fact that it enjoys growing in windy, rocky environments, it was almost abandoned during Soviet times. Iago Bitarishvili has produced two different versions, one with skin contact and one without – we preferred the one without skin contact: soft in the mouth, then more peppery at the end, with honey, peach and walnut flavours. Other Georgian grapes that should soon be available to the UK wine buyer include the white grapes tsitska, kisi, and khikvi.
A particular revelation were the wines from the Alaverdi Monastery, which has been producing wines (including for several royal families, including the Russian Tsars) since 1011. Just stop and think about that for a moment. Over 1000 years of wine production and refinement. Presented by one of the monks (in full monk’s robes, no less), no wonder their whole range of wines was impressive, in particular their Kisi 2011 and Khikhvi 2011. Given the traditions behind the winery and the quality of their wines we will be looking to add these to our wine list shortly.
When we had finished tasting the Georgian wines, we were surprised to see another stand dedicated to Quevri wines. On close inspection is turned out that these wines were not Georgian, but from Italy and Switzerland. Having tasted a cross section of them, in the majority of cases it was difficult to see what the addition of the Quevri was really meant to achieve – often it just produced a slightly confused tasting wine, where the impact of the quevri often seemed to be working against the rest of the wine. For the most part it seemed to be something of a marketing gimmick, which was a little bit worrying. For a country that is so early on in marketing its wine tradition to the world, Georgia will have to be careful that its most treasured techniques don’t become swallowed up in a load of marketing waffle from other countries.
However, it seems Georgian wine making is entering a new phase of development and expansion, and going from strength to strength. From one perspective we were delighted to hear that several of the wines we were sampling had already sold out. The arrival in the UK of growing numbers of exciting, artisan Georgian wines comes just at the right time, when the UK public is more interested than ever in new and unusual grape varieties, and organic, “natural” wines. We look forward to bringing as many of these new arrivals to you as possible over the next few months.