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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Korea Times: Envoy's wine promotion takes patience

by Kim Se-jeong

16.07.2013. Sixteen months into his job, Georgian Ambassador to Korea Nikloz Apkhazava’s efforts to raise awareness of his country’s wine and to find importers here has not been an easy one.

“Very few people know about Georgian wine. It’s only known among experts,” Apkhazava said in an interview. But, there’s a very good reason that Georgian wine deserves recognition, he adds. “Georgia is the cradle of wine.”

When studying wine, Georgia can’t be ignored. It is recorded that the history of wine goes back to approximately 8,000 B.C. “It is 2,000 years prior to major civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia,” said Cesare Woo, president of the Korea Sommelier Association, who recently wrote a book on the history of wine.

The word “wine” also has a Georgian origin. “Ghvino,” a Georgian word for wine, is believed to be the root for words such as “vino,” “vinum” or “wein.”

Georgians still make wine the same way their ancestors did.

Instead of fermenting it in a vessel made of oak and leaving it in a temperature-controlled space, the Georgians keep the wine underground in a vessel made of clay.

“This clay makes a huge difference in taste from wine kept in oak barrels,” Woo said. He also said the grapes are a different kind, grown locally.

The ambassador said the particular way of making wine draws wine producers from around the world. “People from France, Italy, and Australia come to see how Georgian wine is made.”

Koreans consume wines mostly from France and Chile.  This has made him struggle with Georgian wine in Korea although the wine market here is expanding.

“We can’t compete with them because we are a rather small country.”

Countries with big wine producers have infrastructure in place for mass production. A free trade agreement also helps to make products cheaper. But Georgia has none.

“With all the taxes, a bottle of wine becomes twice or three times more expensive than the original price,” he said.

Wine plays an important role in Georgia’s agricultural sector.

A long tradition of making wine means family-owned businesses that date back centuries. But it has never been as big as the wine industry in Chile.

Encouraged by growing world trade, wine producers in Georgia backed by the government are looking for more opportunities overseas to find consumers.

Neighboring countries such as Belarus and Ukraine and Austria are big importers of Georgian wine.

To raise awareness of Georgian wine, the embassy has organized two tasting events inviting mainly local wine importers. That stimulated I & J Partners, a private firm, to start importing last year. So far roughly 20,000 bottles have been imported to Korea, distributed to restaurants and bars. Bulgarian restaurants in Seoul have it for sale.

What keeps him positive about the prospects for Georgian wine is the growing interest in the beverage here.

“Korea is new to drinking wine, and it will take time. The good news is that people seem to like to try new drinks and interest grows rapidly,” he said, adding the number will certainly grow as more people know about Georgia.

Korea and Georgia opened diplomatic relations in 1992.

It was on the 20th anniversary that the Georgian government opened up an embassy in Seoul. Now it wants Korea to open up an embassy in Tbilisi, the capital. Korea’s interest are currently covered by its embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan.

“I’d like the Korean government to open up an embassy soon, because we have huge potential.”

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