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Friday, September 7, 2012

Georgian wines crack English “ethnic market”

Photo: Georgia Today
by Robert Linkous

06.09.2012. If in 1890 you were searching for Georgian wine in England it seems unlikely that Soho Wine Supply could have helped you, but they have been in business in central London since that year to make sure that no one in town goes thirsty.

More recently, though, Soho stocked almost a dozen Georgian wines and was happy to do so, according to one of its directors, Kyri Sotiri. Previously the wines were available from drinks behemoth Pernod Ricard at rates favorable enough to allow Soho the “buying power we need,” said Sotiri, to purvey them to restaurants and place them on their retail shelves at competitive prices.

Now, however, Pernod Ricard is no longer an option, there are other wholesalers who directly serve the restaurant trade, and to replace the Tamada Kindzmarauli (24 Lari retail, all prices approximate and converted from British Pounds), for example, once it was no longer viable, Sotiri’s best alternative, from Schuchmann Wines, would have had a shelf price of about double the money.

Still, Soho does continue to stock three wines from the Kakhetian grower Orovela, an Mtsvane/Rkatsiteli (25 Lari), a Saperavi/Cabernet Sauvignon (25 Lari), and a Saperavi (45 Lari).

Meanwhile, Geo Wines and its General Director, Georgian Henry Mchedlishvili, have joined battle in the retail and wholesale arena, with wines from Marani, including the Kondoli and Satrapezo ranges.

Consumers can order the wines on-line for prices that run from 23 to 58 Lari per bottle.

From the day Mchedlishvili arrived in the UK, after earning degrees in law and accounting in Georgia, “it was in my mind to import Georgian wine,” he wrote in an email, and “to introduce my country’s good side to western Europe…”

The biggest obstacle to his success is “lack of knowledge about Georgia as a winemaking country,” since “60-80% of the UK population does not even know where the country is,” but he remains undeterred by the competition from around the world, believing that “our product is just different and has the ability to grab the client instantly.”

On the other hand, he reckons that 80% of the clientele is from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and it seems that a lot of the Georgian wine that makes the leap from retail shelves to shopping bags in London does so in shops that specialize in products from those regions.

For example, there is The Merchant’s Yard in Knightsbridge, only a short stroll from Harrods (provided you avoid the mobs on the high street). It is a neighborhood in which a number of expatriate Russians have settled, explained salesperson Daniel Petrov, himself half Russian and half Bulgarian.

Surely the Russians have come for the blinis and stuffed cabbage rolls, given the fervor with which Petrov recommends them.

The shop chooses products that are “the best on the market from many similar products,” he asserted, and Georgians would probably believe him, since he added, “Georgian wines are fantastic.” Many of the Marani wines imported by Geo are on hand.

On the orders of a draconian doctor Petrov cannot drink Saperavi or any other red wine, but his favorite wine from Georgia is Mtsvane, which reminds him of New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from Babich, “the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world.”

From there he went on to wax rhapsodic about wines from his beloved Bulgaria, but those commendations, no matter how merited, are also beyond the scope of this report.

Paradoxically, though, the best hope of Georgian wines, when it comes to expanding what Mchedlishvili called “the ethnic market,” may come from off-the-beaten-path stockists like Theatre of Wine, which promises on the home page of its web site “plenty of shelf space devoted to unusual wines from places as diverse as Morocco, Georgia and Hungary.”

Co-owner Daniel Illsley has a particular interest in wines from Eastern Europe, explained Assistant Manager Sam Cook, an Australian and himself the holder of a degree in Oenology earned while living in Melbourne; there is a diverse clientele with an interest in Georgian wines, not just expatriate or visiting Georgians, and in pursuit of Saperavi, Rkatsiteli, and Mtsvane come “calls from all over London.”

For a decade Theatre of Wine has operated a store in Greenwich, and is nearing the end of its second year in another home in the quiet, modest suburb of Tufnell Park. There, in addition to several Marani wines, it also offers Rkatsiteli from Alaverdi Monastery (52 Lari) and Kakha Berishvili’s Saperavi (43 Lari).

Though relatively compact in size, the Tufnell Park branch displays an impressive array of wines on shelves along the walls, leaving the sales floor free for a table long and wide enough to easily accommodate a dozen visiting clients and wine tasters. Rare is the wine retailer who would decline to pack such a space with floor stacks and presumably irresistible bargains.

What makes Theatre of Wine different? Frequently it hosts events and offers what Cook calls “social shopping.” Theirs is “not a crowded shop,” and they use wines from “up to sixty different distributors,” as well as doing some of their own importing. They are always on the lookout for wines “more unique in flavor profiles.”

Perhaps even more encouraging for Georgia is the fact that “everything is hand sold;” Cook knows his wine, he knows Georgian wine, and he is eager to recommend it when the time is right.

Still, he would not recommend Rkatsiteli vinified in qvevris “to someone who likes New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc,” at which point the likes of Daniel Petrov might vanish from the picture, except that Cook and colleagues are probably sagacious enough to steer them toward something in the way of Mtsvane.

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