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Friday, October 5, 2012

The rise of Georgian wines

05.10.2012. Is Georgian wine the next big thing? Our wine writer Darren Smith finds out. At Georgia House, the ambassador is working the room. In one corner a small choir of beetlebrowed men dressed in traditional black chokha is singing in rousing harmony. There are lots of dark, attractive women twinkling with cut-glass elegance, a few suited government types – and the odd wine writer. One of them has monopolised the wine table and is scribbling away at his tasting notes, raving about the Alaverdi. “Excellent,” he beams. “A little young, but really excellent.” The wine waitress drinks in his praise like he’s the man from Del Monte…

I choose a red from a regal row of bottles, fumbling with the pronunciation.

“Khvach… Khvanch…”

“Khvanchkara,” the bouffanted woman next to me says in heavily-accented English. “Stallion’s favourite wine.”

“Stallion?”

“Yis, stallion.”

“Stallion,” I repeat, figuring with some alarm that she must be flirting. “Well… cheers.”

“No, no: Stalin!” she cries.

“Oh, Stalin!”

And so it was. The architect of the Great Purge was very partial to this semi-sweet red, redolent of cloves and port-rich fruit. He even served it to Roosevelt and Churchill at the Yalta conference. But please don’t let that put you off. The wine was good even if the man wasn’t. To me it tasted of Christmas.

I had come to Georgia House (as 45 Millbank had become for the period of the Olympics), for a tasting after hearing rumours that Georgian wine was ‘the good stuff’. That it could be the next big thing for UK wine drinkers. A fairly cavernous ignorance of Georgian history and culture made it easy for me to be sceptical. A former soviet state with a big line in scrap metal export producing wine to rival the best my beloved France had to offer? Surely not.

But the khvanchkara had me thinking twice. And there was more to come. Leaping on the commendation of the man from Del Monte, I moved on to an Alaverdi Kvareli special reserve dry red. Deep ruby colour. A hint of sweetness. Heady tobacco-like spice. Totally lush. Greedily I pointed to another bottle.

“Mu… mu-ku…”

“Mukuzani, sir?”

“Yes, one of those…”

Mukuzani – made from saperavi, Georgia’s most-planted grape. Rich, ripe fruit. Complex, velvety and uncommonly good.

I tried seven or eight wines at the tasting (sorry, lost count) and they were all outstanding. And I’m not the only one who thinks so – besides the praise of the man from Del Monte, there was confirmation of Georgian wine’s excellence at the Decanter World Wine Awards in May when they bagged no fewer than 28 medals. For me this was a big discovery. Georgian wine: where had it been all my life?

The answer is, pretty much, in Russia. Up until 2006 Russia accounted for about 80% of Georgia’s wine exports. But relations between the two countries have rarely been sweet. A Russian trade embargo in 2006 hamstrung Georgia’s economy overnight and sent its wine industry into free-fall.

With the trade ports to the east of the country closed, Georgia began to look west. President Mikheil Saakashvili was quick to turn a crisis into an opportunity, hailing Georgian wine “the wine of freedom”, as the country turned to the UK and the US to take orders of its prized export. For wine lovers like you and me, that switch of focus was a very good thing. And here’s why...

Not only does this country produce some of the purest, most elegant wine in the world, it does so using indigenous grape varieties never before tasted by western wine drinkers. More than 500 of the world’s grape varieties – that’s about 20% of all the varieties that exist – are unique to Georgia. But here’s the clincher: Georgia has a continuous winemaking tradition that stretches back approximately 8,000 years.

Hard to fathom, but true. Carbon dating of domestic grape pips confirm the South Caucasus is where winemaking began, the wine being made in big clay pots called kvevri. Georgia has even been given an EU thumbs-up to use the phrase ‘Cradle of Wine’ on its wine bottles, as a sort of appellation d’origine contrôlée.

It’s clear that Georgia is potentially the biggest wine story of recent years – one to rival the emergence of Chile and Argentina as the New World superstars of the nineties. So why do we know so little? Why does Waitrose only stock a single bottle? Last year total wine production in Georgia was 19 million bottles. The UK consumes 1.5 billion bottles per year. There is clearly an opportunity for a blissful alliance here.

John Power is the director of Europe’s Finest Wine, a company whose raison d’être has become to introduce Georgian wine to UK wine buyers. Power works closely with the Georgian government, offering guidance about how its wine should be promoted. The main problem, he says, is that Georgia is guilty of a little naivety about what it takes to penetrate such a sophisticated market.

It has been reported that the Georgian government offered bootylicious personal branding phenomenon Jennifer Lopez $500,000 to endorse Georgian wine shortly after the 2006 embargo. J-Lo (as she's so well known) declined. Since then, little has happened. It is as if Georgia expects its wine to succeed ‘just like that’.

As Power is quick to point out, that’s not how it works. He has invested many thousands of pounds to boost Georgian wine’s profile in this country. But much bigger sums are needed if it is really to make a mark. For PR, for ad campaigns, for the services of A-list celebrities. That’s how it works. Without such bold steps from Georgia to establish demand and awareness, it hardly matters that the wine is as good as it is: it will still fail.

This, Power says, would be a tragedy – for Georgia and for the UK wine lover. After my experience at Georgia House, I believe him. This is potentially a new experience for us – new grape varieties and new flavours from the very Cradle of Wine. But as yet, it is only an opportunity. Georgia, it’s your move. We Brits (or I at least), salivate in anticipation of what may be.

Source (abridged)

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