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Monday, December 10, 2012

Discovering magical wines in Georgia

By Tim Lemke

10.12.2012. In the last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a number of different wine regions and I always look forward to discovering new wines in new places.  When I recently had the opportunity to explore wines in the country of Georgia, I jumped at the chance.

It’s interesting to see how places compare to our preconceived notions.  And the same is true about tasting new wines.  We often have an expectation of the wine, but the reality doesn’t always match those expectations.

The Place and the People

Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect when going to Georgia.  To me, Georgia was a very distant and remote country.  I knew that they had been occupied by the Bolsheviks and as recently as 2008 had been attacked by Russia.  I expected to see a war torn, beaten-down country filled with people who were tired and bitter.  I was wrong.

What I found in Georgia was a beautiful landscape, fabulous architecture and warm, caring people who are proud of their heritage.  Sure, some things are old and worn down.  Most of the roads were kind of rough.  But Tbilisi, the capital, is a beautiful city with a fascinating blend of old, historic buildings mixed with artistic, contemporary architecture.  And the people there celebrate their life and culture in a way that makes me envious.

Tbilisi has all of the charm and character you would want of a European city, without the crowds of tourists—making now the perfect time to visit.  I expect that Tbilisi will grow as a tourist destination over the next several years as more people discover it.  And there are clearly significant investments being made by global hotel chains in the city, which adds additional evidence to the theory that tourism will increase here.
If there’s one thing I’d say you should add to your bucket list, it’s having a meal with Georgian people.  Not only is the food and wine excellent, the traditions that take place at the dinner table are fascinating, entertaining and moving.  You’ll find that there’s always a “toast master” at the table who offers thoughtful and poetic toasts every few minutes.  The themes of the toasts seem to be pretty consistent, they include god, wine, family, peace and women.

The Wine

Similar to having unclear expectation about Georgia in general, I didn’t know what I would find with the wines.  I don’t come across Georgian wines in my local wine shops and I don’t recall having any opportunities to taste it when I’ve traveled.  Friends who had been there before told me that the wines are amazing.  But my expectations still weren’t that high.  I was wrong again… way wrong.

Georgia has a long history of winemaking.  A history that is so long that they claim to be the birthplace of wine.  There are actually a couple different countries that make this claim, Turkey being another.  The evidence does point to the general vicinity of Turkey and Georgia, but it’s difficult to say definitively exactly where the first wine was produced.

There is archaeological evidence of this history, including an 8,000 year old wine cask that has been found in Georgia.  And with this evidence, they call Georgia “the land of 8,000 vintages.”  They celebrate their history with wine too.  When you go through passport control to enter the country, they check your passport and then hand you a bottle of wine.  Seriously!  What a way to welcome you to the country.

Georgia is also a place with countless grape varieties you’ve probably never heard of.  You won’t find much merlot or chardonnay here.  Instead they favor native Georgian varieties, like Rkatsiteli and Saperavi, and they do extensive research on the different varieties found in the country.  We visited one research center that had rows and rows of different grape varieties growing.  It appeared to be in the hundreds.

It was early in the morning when we arrived in Tbilisi, so I didn’t taste that first bottle of wine right away.  We got to the hotel at around 3AM and went straight to bed.  The next morning we visited a museum to see the archaeological evidence of Georgian winemaking, including that 8,000 year old wine cask.  And after exploring the city we had our first taste of Georgian wine with lunch.

When we sat down, I was hungry and ready for a glass of wine.  I thought the wines would be decent.  After all, when someone invites you to their country to taste their wines it’s unlikely that they’re going to pour a bad wine into your glass.  But I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to taste.  It blew my mind.

The first wine we tasted was a 2011 Tsolikouri, a white wine from Kera Wine.  The aromatics were wonderful, offering beautiful herbs, apple, cucumber and lemon aromatics.  The palate had perfect acidity with lemon and mineral flavors.  And it had a looooong finish, filled with citrus and salty mineral.
Most of the subsequent wines at that lunch were just as good, if not better—although there was one that seemed a little off.  The other wines that impressed me included a 2010 Rkatsiteli, another white wine for which I could hardly read the name on the label, but I think it was from Darsavelidze (at least that was written on the bottle somewhere… regardless of the name, I don’t think you can find this one in the US).  It had a smoky nose with butterscotch aromas.  The palate had nice  tannins and good acidity with lemon and granny smith apple flavors.  The finish was somewhat short, but crisp with citrus and mineral flavors.
Rkatsiteli is one of the more popular white wine varieties in Georgia.  And the grand majority of them that I tasted were very good to exceptional.

And finally we had a Saperavi, which is the most common red wine in Georgia.  This one was from Jakeli Wines and was their 2008 Khashmi Saperavi.  The complexity and elegance of this wine was mind blowing.  The nose was overflowing with currant, plum, mint, tobacco and beautiful spice aromatics.  It had a luscious mouthfeel with plenty of blackberry, plum and raspberry flavors.  The acidity was perfect.  And it finished long with raspberry, mineral and spice.  This is an absolutely outstanding wine.

As much as I’m gushing over these wines, I have to say that the entire experience at lunch that day was amazing.  We were introduced to Georgian wine, food, culture and song in a way that was nothing short of moving.  And given the fact that wine is an experiential thing, the overall experience at lunch could have influenced how much I enjoyed those wines.  I will have to hunt down some of these wines and taste them again, in my own home, to see if they hold up to be just as amazing outside of that environment.
But I can say that throughout my time in Georgia, I was continually impressed by the wines.  Especially those made in qvevris.

The Qvevris

When you start to explore Georgian wine, one of the things you’ll quickly learn about is the qvevri (pronounced QUEH-vree).  Qvevris are earthenware casks used for winemaking, ranging in size from very small to over 3,000 liters.  They’re buried in the ground and the grapes, stems and all, are put down into them.  They are then covered with cloth during maceration, to allow the CO2 to escape, and subsequently covered with a large slate stone to rest for a number of months.

This is a traditional winemaking technique in Georgia, but it’s not without controversy.  Some modern winemakers question the cleanliness of this approach, but hygiene is certainly a top priority for Georgian producers using qvevris.  These vessels are also lined with beeswax as a protective coating.
I don’t know much about the science behind qvevris, but I can attest that wines produced using this technique are noticeably different, in a good way.  The quevri wines I tasted had exceptional structure, balance and elegance compared to their non-qvevri counterparts.  All of the wines listed above were qvevri wines.

But Can I Find The Wines Here?

While I was absolutely amazed by these wines, I had two questions floating around in the back of my head while I tasted.

Will I ever be able to find these wines in the US? If I do find them, will they be affordable?  Certainly wines this good are going to sell at a premium, right?  Wrong!

I have good news for both of those questions. While you won’t come across Georgian wines in every wine shop, there are some available in the US. Some good ones.  And I’ve found some that are amazingly affordable.  In my next post I’ll share some delicious Georgian wines that I know to be available in the US, at very reasonable prices.

Disclosure: I tasted the wines of Georgia as a part of a sponsored blogger tour of the region, organized by  Georgian Wine Association.  My travel and accommodations were provided by the sponsor.

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