Friday, June 22, 2012

There are 500 ways to discover Georgian wine

By Beppi Crosariol

21.06.2012. For the first time in a while, things are looking up for Georgian wine. Exports from the former Soviet state increased last year by 37.7 per cent, to 16.9 million litres. The dollar value wasn’t much by big-country standards, at $54.1-million (U.S.), but it pointed to a recovery of sorts, the highest figure since Russia imposed a crippling trade embargo in 2006. Before the ban, Russians drank a lot more Georgian wine than did tiny Georgia.

Vladimir Putin’s government said the wines (and mineral waters) were contaminated, but many people cried foul, interpreting the move as a snub against the country’s pro-NATO stance.

Truth be told, Russia seized on a dark stain that lent a grain of plausibility to its accusation. Counterfeit wine flourished in post-Soviet Georgia, and some contained no grapes at all. In an admission worthy of The Daily Show, an official from the Georgian National Wine Agency recently told CNN that crooks in the past dared to pawn off radish or carrot juice spiked with alcohol.

Then again, the Soviet era wasn’t exactly the golden age. Kremlin policies pushed growers to uproot old vines in favour of high-yielding varieties and goose the juice with added sugar to lift the alcohol content. The results were thin and harsh, a sorry predicament for a country that was producing wine thousands of years before Europe. Some call it the cradle of wine making.

Blessed with relatively moderate temperatures, it boasts more than 500 grape varieties, virtually all little-known to Western consumers. Saperavi may be the best, a dark-skinned berry that also has the distinction of containing pink-coloured juice (most red grapes contain only white pulp, imparting colour by way of pigments in the skins). It yields an astringent wine due to high tannin content and can often be bracing with acidity. Smooth merlot it’s not, but the best have been known to cellar favourably for up to 50 years.

Ironically, Moscow’s ban inspired discipline among some estates, which have been stepping up quality to court new and more demanding export markets. Two were released recently in Ontario Vintages stores, both from a company called Schuchmann Wines, taken over by German investor Burkhard Schuchmann in 2008. The Saperavi fuses old and new traditions. It’s fermented in large earthenware amphorae known as qvevri, which are buried in the ground to maintain a cool temperature, then transferred to French oak barrels for cellaring. I doubt you’ll mistake it for radish juice.

Schuchmann Wines Vinoterra Saperavi 2008 (Georgia)

SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95

There is a funky bit of barnyard on the nose, which carries through subtly on the palate, but it’s mostly fresh and lively, with juicy-sour red fruit, herbs and a hint of mineral. Think of a southern French red from the Languedoc crossed with earthy Chianti. Try it with braised beef.

Schuchmann Wines Vinoterra Rkatsiteli 2008 (Georgia)

SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.95

An ancient white grape from Georgia, rkatsiteli was by far the most widely grown in the Soviet Union, though its vineyard area was cut drastically by a vine-pull scheme under former president Mikhail Gorbachev. Here it yields a light, clean and fresh wine, with stone-fruit nuances and a tight, chewy texture. Perfect for lightly prepared fish. (...)


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