12.08.2013. After a politicized seven-year embargo, Georgian wine is finally trickling back into Russia. Since the first shipment of 30,000 bottles crossed the border in late June, names such as Khvanchkara and Alazani have been gradually appearing on Moscow wine lists. Experts have estimated that anywhere between five and 10 million bottles will be imported by the end of the year. However, a slew of obstacles face Georgian wine's prospects for success, including higher prices, a new inspection process and the growing popularity of wines from other countries. Here's the lowdown.
An ancient tradition
Georgia is the birthplace of one of the world's oldest wine-making traditions, which dates back 8,000 years. In the ancient technique, wine is fermented in wax-lined clay pots called qvevri and buried underground. In the Soviet era, the process became more industrialized, but the past several years have witnessed a rebirth of interest in traditional methods.
Georgia has 525 extant grape varieties. Among its most famous varietals is Kindzmarauli, a semi-sweet red said to be Stalin's favorite. But contemporary critics tend to favor drier types such as Saperavi, a bold red called "black" in Georgian for its deep color. Traditional Georgian white whites are noted for their golden color, which comes from being produced in the same way as reds (i.e., with skins and seeds left on); crisp white Rkatsiteli and aromatic Mtsvane usually rank among critics' favorites.
Prior to 2006, the Russian market accounted for 78 percent of Georgian wine exports. After the ban, Georgia turned to other international markets, including the U.S., France, England and Canada. Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization last year is believed to have motivated the ban's lifting.
However, Georgian wines are entering a changed marketplace. Before the ban, they occupied 10 percent of the Russian market. But since then, they've been supplanted by low-priced varieties from Spain and South America, and experts now estimate that they will claim little more than one percent of Russian sales. Moreover, prices are now higher: while many Georgian wines previously retailed around 100 rubles, the average price is now between 300 and 850 rubles.
The new importation process is also dependent on sanitary inspections performed by the Russian state, which so far has given 65 companies the green light. But some winemakers say the inspections are an insulting complication to doing business. "We sell in Japan, France, Italy, the U.S... and no importers ‘inspect' us - the quality of wine is in the glass," commented Jonathan Wurdeman of Pheasant's Tears, a well-reviewed boutique winery in Sighnaghi. Pheasant's Tears has no current plans to export in Russia.
Where to get it
Georgian wines can now be found in a range of supermarkets and restaurants - for a wide range of prices. Ulitsa Ostozhenka stalwart Genatsvale has six varieties, but expect to shell out 3,500 rubles for a bottle of Saperavi, and an eyebrow-raising 6,500 rubles for Khvanchkara. Chistiye Prudy restaurant Khorosho Sidim has seven varieties, ranging from 1,100 rubles for Rkatsiteli to 1,800 for Kindzmarauli. Tverskaya Ulitsa's John Jolie has five types, including popular red Tsinandali for 1,900 rubles. Meanwhile, some major eateries, including Khachapuri, have yet to introduce Georgian wine.
To avoid painful markups, stick with grocery stores, where it's usually possible to find a bottle for under 400 rubles. Perekryostok, Karusel, Pyatyorochka sell Alazanskaya Dolina for 399 rubles, and Saperavi for 499 rubles. Auchan has several types, ranging from 220 rubles for Alazanskaya Dolina to 589 rubles for Kindzmarauli, though judging by recent visits they sell out fast. Azbuka Vkusa and Sedmoi Kontinent have no plans to introduce Georgian wine.
At the Aromatny Mir chain of liquor stores, prices range from 350 rubles to 1,200 rubles. The number of affordable bottles on the shelves may rise this fall: discount wine seller Bravo-D, probably the cheapest place to buy wine in Moscow, was not planning to sell Georgian wines, but has changed its mind due to demand, and will begin to offer them soon.