Thursday, August 23, 2012

Georgia's 8,000-Year-Old Wine

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Kvevri discovered near Gori
22.08. 2012. There are few wine regions so obscure as those of the country of Georgia. Many people can’t even point Georgia out on a map, let alone name a wine grape varietal from it. Yet in Georgia lies the origin of all our modern-day winemaking, without which there would be no Bordeaux, Tuscany, or Napa Valley. So for those of you who love drinking a fine Burgundy or a nice Barolo, I suggest you pay your respects to the oldest wine region in the world and say gaumarjos (cheers) with a glass of red Saperavi or white Rkatsiteli in hand!

According to Greek myths, wine was flowing in the Kolkheti region (home to the legendary Golden Fleece) since well before the 8th century BC. At this time, people of the South Caucasus had discovered the magical transformation that would take place when wild grape juice was left in shallow pits through the winter. The perfect climate, mineral-rich soil, and abundant water available in the Caucasian Mountain area made wine production easy. (The Kolkheti region still makes a famous fortified white port-style wine from Tsitska and Tsolikauri grapes today)

There is evidence of winemaking and trade with Persia and Greece dating to 6,000 BC. By about 1,000 years later the tradition of using kvevris (qvevris) had been established. These are clay vessels like amphorae lined with beeswax and sealed with earth, buried halfway in the ground, and used as fermenters and aging containers for the wine. The kvevri is often still the vessel of choice for vinification.

Winemaking became intricately intertwined with Georgian society over the many centuries. Rtveli is an ancient harvest festival that continues to this day, taking place in late September. Feasts and vintage-themed music are part of the festivities celebrating vine and wine. In some regions people still drink wine from kantsi, or cleaned, boiled, polished animal horns from herd animals.
A Georgian silver-mounted drinking horn 

Another expression of the depth of the grape vine’s roots in Georgian culture can be seen in the symbol of the Greek Orthodox church: a cross made of dried grape vines, tied together with the hair of Saint Nino. Legend has it that Saint Nino, who preached Christianity in Kartli, wandered bearing this vine cross. Christianization of Georgia increased the influence of wine from the 4th century AD.

Given Georgia’s role in the history of wine, one may expect that people would be more familiar with this ancient source of viticulture and viniculture. Unfortunately Georgia has witnessed a few hurdles to the internationalization of its wines. Mikhail Gorbachev’s “dry law” in the mid-1980’s put a huge damper on sales of Georgian wines. Authenticity issues within the Georgian wine market due to mislabeling and use of imported grapes, along with rising political tensions, led to the 2006 Russian embargo on Georgian wines, hurting sales further. Additionally, the international palate has not necessarily been calibrated to the flavor profiles of Georgian wines. But with the recent spike of interest in “orange wine,” a style that originated in Georgia, and a new appreciation for earthy, terroir-driven reds, perhaps attention will be focused on Georgia once again.
Saint Nino of Cappadocia 

with her vine cross

Today winemaking in Georgia is recovering, with wine tourism in the country rising every year. The opening of international trade has led to an increase in quality and exposure. Hopefully soon more examples will be available on the US market. There are a few out there now… look for the following wines to try:

Saperavi – Literally, “paint” or “dye.” This black grape is a teinturier, meaning it’s juice is actually colored. Saperavi makes a very extracted red wine by the same name in the Kakheti region known for its earthiness and notes of blackberry syrup and pleasant astringency. An aged version is called Mukuzani and is highly prized (look for Teliani Valley Winery’s Mukuzani). Try Pheasant’s Tears Saperavi at The Barrel Room for an excellent example.

Rkatsiteli – Translates as “red stem.” One of the oldest viniferagrapes, Rkatsiteli originated in Georgia and spread throughout Russia and Eastern Europe to become one of the most widely planted white grapes in the world. It produces acidic, crisp white wines with spicy and floral notes, which can develop quite a bit of complexity. It also makes some fantastic orange wines. Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli is a delicious wine readily available in the US.

Mtsvane – Also known as Mtsvane Kakhuri. Translates to “new, young, and green.” Mtsvane makes a soft, more rounded, fruitier wine and is often blended with Rkatsiteli for balance. Try Teliani Valley’s Tsinandali to sample one of these blends. Bagrationi’s sparkling wines also use a good amount of Mtsvane.

So get out there and try some true old-world wine from Georgia. After all, the country did give us our word for wine (ghvino) in the first place!


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