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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Stealing Georgian thunder – French wine now at Carrefour

by Robert Linkous

20.09.2012. Surrounded by the grandeur of the local mountains, the new Tbilisi Mall need be proportionately grand. Hence its heart, a vast rotunda, from the ceiling of which – where there might be an oculus – an Unidentified Hanging Object is suspended. A giant shuttlecock, or a stupendous abstract sculpture of khinkali?

Visitors who have gazed up into it too long have told the capable information desk man Gennady Shavtidze that they get a headache, or even become “a little scared.” But to settle their nerves they might shuffle along to the recently opened Carrefour hypermarket and the Elysian Fields of its beverage department.

No claustrophobic panic attacks … aisles wide enough for marshrutkas … miles and miles of beer and booze … Georgian wine in regular bottles, big bottles, great big bottles, and wacky gift bottles sure to impress those who would read “Rkatsiteli” or “Saperavi” on a label and go, “Whatsit?”

You want more? Wine from the Americas, wine from Spain and Italy … and French wine! Lots of it, attractively priced … though one should hardly be shocked, given that the French company Carrefour has probably done this kind of thing before.

Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine (13 Lari; all prices current as of 18 September 2012, and in some cases rounded to the nearest Lari), Chablis (20 Lari), Riesling from Alsace (13 Lari), Bourgogne Chardonnay (13 Lari), Cotes du Rhone (12 Lari), Bordeaux Rouge (13 Lari), Bourgogne Pinot Noir (17 Lari) … that’s just a sample.

There are more distinguished wines from more highly regarded appellations, there is Rosй and Champagne and Sauternes and even Coteaux du Layon. And those who have shopped in France may find many of the prices fairly appealing, even if they were in Euros rather than Lari.

Carrefour operates according to the “concept of a hypermarket,” and on “a very low margin of profit,” explained Beverage Section Manager Giorgi Simonishvili; “it’s how to make our customers happy.” But the Francophiles of Tbilisi may be made ecstatic.

Nor does Carrefour neglect to provide expertise. For that there is Magda Surguladze, holder of a degree in winemaking technology from Georgian Agrarian State University. She also does degustation duties at the Ministry of Agriculture, and for three months took master classes in the wines of the world at a distinguished school for sommeliers in Moscow.

Still, with all due respect for Surguladze, Russia may not be the best place to learn about wines not made in Georgia, considering the profound affection felt for Georgian beverages by the Russian people, perhaps even including some in high levels of government.

And if you too are jingoistic about the wines of Georgia, and would not dream of polluting your palate with Gallic swill, you may ask, “Carrefour, Tbilisi Mall, why bother?” … especially if you have had your vertiginous experience with the mysterious UHO already.

But to make sure that the French imports do not steal the thunder from domestic goodies, Carrefour offers lovely Georgian wine which it is almost giving away.

Working hand in hand with the Telavi based producer GWS, Carrefour is vigorously promoting, packing on the shelves, and floor stacking to striking heights their Elibo and Old Tbilisi brands, all bottled or boxed over the past summer.

The Elibo Dry White (3.95 Lari) is a 60%/40% Rkatsiteli-Mtsvane blend with a rich mid-palate of pear and hazelnut, which grows even nuttier on the finish. Its flavors are pure and beautifully balanced, and it has the muscle and complexity it needs to go well with food. The Old Tbilisi Dry White (4.25 Lari), another Rkatsiteli-Mtsvane blend in a similar mold, is just as fine.

The Elibo Saperavi (3.95 Lari), however, is remarkable at its price point, with its luscious bouquet of buttery oak and ripe fruit, plum and blackberry, all reflected on the palate, with increasing intensity through the finish. Behind this product there is winemaking skill and money. The oak barrels in which it was matured may not be from Seguin Moreau, but they are not from Dagestan, either.

The Old Tbilisi wines are crafted by Lado Uzunashvili, also of Chateau Mukhrani, and his Saperavi (6.10 Lari) is a two-fisted sledgehammer of a wine, unabashedly alcoholic at 14%, though due of course to the ripeness of the fruit and not to topping it up with chacha. Reminiscent of California Zinfandel, with flavors of cassis and red currant, this is a big serious wine actually worthy of cellaring, something rarely seen at the price.

Recently ex-New Yorker Jeannette Blackman, who has lived in Georgia since January, was spotted surveying Carrefour’s selection of French wine for the first time. She was “surprised by the variety,” she remarked. “There are quite a few French wines I have not tried.” She has become keen on Georgian reds, but she also likes her Cotes du Rhone.

Since she lives within walking distance of Tbilisi Mall, though, Carrefour will only change her enjoyment of wine, not her life, nor is a visit to the mall all that likely to change anyone’s, since there cannot be much truth to the rumor that prolonged contemplation of the UHO results in an out of body experience.

You need an off premises experience with the Old Tbilisi Saperavi for that.

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