Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Swedish voice for Georgian wine

by Robert Linkous

06.07.2012. We introduce our readers to the Director and CEO of Chateau Mukhrani, who took over the legacy of Prince Ivane Mukhranbatoni and runs a successful wine business in the village of Mukhrani.

Tediously inconvenienced by a generalship in service of Imperial Russia, Prince Ivane Mukhranbatoni took his sweet time getting into the wine business, though – in the view of Petter Svaetichin, Director and CEO of Chateau Mukhrani – it was “what he always wanted to do.”But upon retiring in 1881 the Prince swung into action, celebrating his first harvest in 1882.

Svaetichin comes to Georgia and wine from Sweden and the hospitality industry. No dawdler himself, he worked early in his career at two Hiltons in London and in Paris at the Hotel Ritz, getting the view from the top of the hospitality heap.

For more academic training and credentials, though, he went on to ESSEC Business School in Paris, upstate New York’s Ivy League Cornell University, renowned for its hotel administration program, and an MBA.

For the hospitality industry Svaetichin clearly has a gift, in the way of poise, articulateness, and savoir-faire. It is easy to imagine him with crisis management and a few calm words turning a jet-lagged client from irate indignation into a friend of the hotel for life.

The wine estate upon which the Prince also built a chateau in the fine French manner is in the village of Mukhrani, now a short – or meteoric, if the motorist is Georgian – drive from Tbilisi.

But Svaetichin and company, no speed merchants themselves, are in it for the long haul, not out for “a quick return or selling the company quickly,” he explained, but to augment the culture of Georgia. Already the sloping roof of the winery is being converted into an amphitheater for events which “represent values truly Georgian,” such as the company already and often has sponsored elsewhere.

The chateau itself, currently being restored, will host wine tours, business meetings, diplomatic events, and celebrations, in keeping with the celebratory aspects of Georgian culture.

What is more, superlative Georgian cuisine will figure in, as well as something like, but unlike, a “museum,” which Svaetichin considers “too static” a word. What he envisions will be much more “interactive,” with staff who can “create an experience” of what things were like in the Prince’s day when the wines were already earning an international reputation, and before the era of mismanagement, misrule, and Soviet domination.

Meanwhile, the renovation of a 19th century stable is completed, splendid horses pant to be ridden, and a husky, gleaming white Caucasian shepherd by the name of “Bombora” is on guard.

On the afternoon of our visit he set to barking at once, though his position, recumbent, sprawled, in the shade, out of the wind, initially forestalled more robust action. But once intruders entered the gate he came lumbering over, barking with perceptibly more vehemence.

There was reassurance of Bombora’s docility and sweetness, but some remained suitably cowed, not wanting to embarrass the beast in the performance of his crucial function, and to absolutely insure later departure with flesh intact.

Slightly more self-motivated than Bombora, though, is Chateau Mukhrani, self-reliantly growing all its own grapes and maintaining “complete control” over the entire winemaking procedure, to eliminate “risk of third party mistakes” and to guarantee consistency and quality, in what Svaetichin called the “chateau process.”

His marketing strategy includes heavy reliance on public relations (“more rewarding” than advertising since Mukhrani has “such a great story to tell”), to establish “local credibility first” in Georgia, and then to confront the greater challenge of commanding fair and good prices for their wines in international markets where the expectation of Eastern European wines is that they be what the British call “cheap and cheerful.”

Indeed, the wines are anything but cheerless, and Svaetichin has a special place in his heart for Mukhrani’s 2010 Tavkveri Rosй (19 Lari; all prices approximate), with its pretty copper tint, almost bone dryness, and subtle hints of strawberry; it is charming, quaffable, and sophisticated.

The 2009 Goruli Mtsvane (15 Lari), also a favorite, is herbal and peachy and ideally crisp, with fruit and acidity passing in equilibrium across the span of the palate. The 2009 Rkatsiteli (16 Lari) is similarly agreeable, with a bit more zing on the finish.

Mukhrani’s 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (17 Lari) and 2010 Chardonnay (18 Lari) are finding a better market in Georgia than abroad, where they are more commonplace, Svaetichin commented. Still, the former has its share of the zesty, racy virtues that Sancerre and stainless steel barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc is known for, just as the latter provides a considerable mouthful of pear and hazelnut flavors in something of a “New World” style.

The reds too are classy and stylish. In the 2007 Saperavi Cabernet (20 Lari), 60% Saperavi establishes an essential spicy Georgian character, while 40% Cabernet Sauvignon chimes in with a cedary Bordelaise voice. Additionally, the 2008 Saperavi (22 Lari) is concentrated, plush, and polished.

Then there is the 2007 Reserve du Prince Saperavi (60 Lari), an ambitious wine with a potent bouquet of black fruit and oak, and big, built-to-last structure, “up to 15 years,” the label forecasts, but it should not take nearly that long for the traces of tannin it currently shows to work themselves out.

And for joyfulness it is hard to beat the non-vintage Muscat (39 Lari), fortified with chacha to arrest the fermentation, resulting in dessert wine that is almost syrupy and brimming with honey and orange peel and enough sheer delectability to make you wish you could afford to drink it for breakfast.

Though the work the Prince began long ago may still be in progress, the future looks promising for Chateau Mukhrani and, Svaetichin believes, the entire Georgian wine industry, if they can “pull together” to speak for their wine around the world with one voice. This may sound like a Georgian chorus, but one to which a Swede adds quite harmoniously.


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