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Friday, August 24, 2012

"The Prague Post": Georgia on my mind

by John & Helena Baker
Former Soviet country has a varied, robust output of wines
At this year's Víno a Delikatesy exhibition, quite the first impression was made by Georgia, a small nation on the far edge of Europe that has put great effort toward placing its wines on the world's tables.

Georgia has a good case for it to be called the cradle of wine. The original ancestor of the Vitis vinifera grape grew wild in the whole Transcaucasia region 8,000 years ago. Georgian folklore and its Christian tradition, unbroken since the fourth century, are so entwined with references to the grapevine that it is impossible to conceive one without the other. Besides, the Georgian word "gvino" is the root for most Western names for wine: oinos, vinum, vino, vin, vinho, Wein, víno and so forth.

In Georgia, wine is traditionally made in huge clay amphorae, called kvevri, that are cleaned thoroughly before everything - trodden grapes, stalks, skins - goes in and then buried vertically underground, sealed and left for a few months until the time for its celebration. And this will not be long, as Georgian hospitality works by the ancient saying "God brought us our guests." Any celebratory table is replete with vibrantly colored dishes and, of course, wine. The meal is a very happy affair, interspersed by the interjections of the designated tamada, or toastmaster, who stands up every 15 minutes or so to deliver a short homily before proposing a drink to health, love, good wine, etc.

Some 500 different grape varieties are said to exist in Georgia, with 38 approved for commercial production. Growing conditions across the country vary considerably. The largest of the five traditional regions is Kakheti at the eastern end of the foothills of the awesome Caucasus Mountains, with about one-third of all production. Kartli is the heart of the country, responsible for 15 percent of total production - especially sparkling and brandy grapes - on the flat around the capital, Tbilisi, where Georgia's oldest winery, Bagrationi 1882 (founded in 1937), shares a street with the legendary brandy producer Sarajishvili.

Georgia's enduring Christianity has meant restrictions on wine have never been in place. Only the central control of the Soviet Union tried that, with Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign grubbing up much of the 120,000 hectares (about 300,000 acres) of vineyards, which had served to satisfy the huge Russian demand for mostly sweet wine.

Decline set in with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and progress was sporadic at best. In 2006, Russia was again to prove fateful, unilaterally banning the import of all wines from Georgia, citing health concerns due to the counterfeiting of bottles, though everybody suspects the real reasons likely lie deep in the corridors of power. This meant Georgia lost 50 percent of its export at a single stroke. Many wineries simply had to close. Despite murmurings, the ban stays in place.

Very recently, however, the government has formed a National Wine Agency under dynamic young management to overhaul the industry and its image, while creating awareness abroad to spearhead a serious export drive. Results so far have proved very encouraging.

Wines are made in the international style, often using international grapes. Still, local varietals such as the robust and juicy-red Saperavi or the whites Rkatsiteli, Tsinandali and Mtsvane all have tremendous potential to make their unique mark outside the former Soviet bloc. The oxidative kvevri wines, too, will always have a special place and are still made as a premium product. Today's vintners are very confident and outward-looking, and much money has been invested well in new facilities.

With just 4.5 million people and 45,000 hectares, Georgia will always run a wine operation with reputation.

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