Friday, May 17, 2013

Affairs of the heart at the New Wine Festival (with video)

by Robert Linkous

17.05.2013. Early on the morning of Saturday May 11 at the scenic, mountainous Ethnographic Museum over two dozen Georgian wineries and a worthy contingent of producers of homemade wine set up camp, and before long the 4th New Wine Festival was in full swing. Thanks to the Wine Club, the National Wine Agency, and Tbilisi City Hall, admission – and wine! - was free. Does public service get any better than that?

A grateful, goodly throng of Georgians and foreigners turned out, to bunch around tasting booths and stand shoulder to shoulder before the lengthy barbecue where smoky, savory mtsvadi was being prepared. Served up on a wooden skewer five juicy hunks of meat, each larger than a golf ball, though smaller than a baseball, cost a mere ten Lari.

Since the major wine companies often show their wines in public venues, the far less common opportunity to sample the homemade wines also added to the Festival’s special appeal. Irakli Sardanashvili, for example, proudly poured a blend of Aleksandrouli (60%) and Mujuretuli (40%), a pleasant, semi-sweet, slightly earthy red sourced from his grandfather’s vineyard in Khvanchkara, while Shota Shavkacishvili was no less keen on his semi-sweet Saperavi from Khashmi, which he vinified in his very old oak barrels. But he plans a switch to qvevris next year, characterizing the difference as between store-bought bread and “bread you make in your own house.”

In front of another tasting station Tamur Lejava, a loyal friend of the winemaker, Ivane Zirakishvili, sang the praises of the Rkatsiteli from Kakheti that was being poured. Deep amber in color, but refreshing and crisp, it was described by its enthusiast as somewhere “between European and traditionally homemade in style.” And who could argue, considering his claim to expertise? Fifty-five years before, at the tender age of eight, he had been treated to his first degustation by his grandfather; and “never in my life have I touched a Soviet wine,” he assured me; “I only drink natural wine.”

Another producer of homemade wine who seemed to know his stuffwas Anton Bregvadze from Imereti. His Tsolikouri (70%)/Tsitska (30%) blend was impressively herbal and citric and full-flavored. Using only organic farming methods, he harvests his fruit as late as possible, and oversees an especially slow fermentation as well. But he believes that the quality of the wine is also due to his qvevris, which he tends to with loving care and keeps squeaky clean.

Also with a story to tell was Rioni Valley Vineyards’ Dr. Tim Gurtch, now an internist and family physician in San Diego, though there was a time when he was known as Timuri, with a surname that he finally decided was too jaw-breaking for individuals attempting to page him in American hospitals.

Though originally from Imereti, he incurably caught the wine bug while visiting California wineries in Temecula and Napa Valley. He was impressed by how many vineyards were owned by doctors, especially when they recognized that as a Georgian he hails from “the cradle of wine.” He was also advised to try his hand at growing varietals ordinarily associated with France in his own country, where land could be obtained quite economically. And this counsel proved even wiser when a sample of soil from Vartsikhe(not far from Kutaisi), where he has purchased twenty hectares, when submitted to a laboratory in California was pronounced to be “perfect.”

But there was plenty of work to be done in the vineyards, which, during the years when Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to crack down on tippling, had returned to pasture, and Gurtch is militantly opposed to the use of pesticides and herbicides. Though he aspires in future to export to the United States and elsewhere from his winery in Imereti, attentively managed by Gia Gabidzashvili, his wines are now only available locally. Among the range of European-style wines are a Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon, both currently from the 2012 vintage and selling for 20 Lari per bottle. The former is soft, almost creamy, subtly smoky, and with a dollop of coconut on the finish. The latter also has significant varietal character, and is cedary both on the nose and through the prolonged finish, with focus and balance.

But to impress his cohorts in the Georgian wine industry Gurtch knew he had his work cut out for him from the time, five years ago, when he could not get a good word from anyone in Kakheti with whom he shared a highly regarded American Zinfandel. Still, he wholeheartedly believes that the wine industry worldwide has only benefited from becoming so “global,” especially considering advances made in recent years in countries such as Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.

He is concerned, though, that in this country “tradition” pulls more weight than what is most up-to-date in the international wine culture. He advocates that new clones should be tried, as well as different vineyard sites, and he is distressed that in his travels about the country he has rarely discovered a vineyard “perfectly taken care of at the highest level.”

“The approach to the vineyard should be close to your heart,” Gurtch emphasized, a sentiment with which all those who participated in this year’s New Wine Festival, winemakers and wine tasters alike, must surely agree.


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