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Monday, October 7, 2013

Georgia: the wine in the midst of politics

Photo A/ADRIAN BRADSHAW
07.10.2013. Can wine be part of politics? Why not? The wine of Georgia, for instance, once a favourite of the Soviet Union’s nomenklatura (a small elite group), was banned from the Russian market for the past seven years. Officially, the ban was due to the low quality of Georgian wine. Unofficially, Russia’s “niet” was purely political.

Whatever the reason, Georgian wine producers suffered a heavy blow. Licking their wounds, they started exporting their product to other international markets by changing not only the taste of the wine, but also adopting a marketing strategy that highlighted the country’s numerous indigenous varieties.

Now, a change in the political scene has enabled Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, to reopen the doors to the Russian market, though not in the imported quantity of yesteryear.

A historical perspective 

Georgia is home to the earliest wine culture in the world. Archaeologists have excavated the remains of vineyards and evidence of wine production dating back to the Neolithic period (8500-4000 B.C.). Wine has always been an integral part of the country’s history.

Georgian wines were highly appreciated in tsarist Russia and during the Soviet era. Though Georgia had a relatively small production and was in fourth place (behind Russia, the Ukraine and Moldova) as regards Soviet era wine production, it was the preferred favourite (along with wines produced in Moldova) among the officials of this regime.

It is said that Joseph Stalin, who was Georgian and born in a region with significant wine production, was especially partial to the Khvanchkara wine - one of the most popular Georgian semi-sweet wines. In fact, he liked this wine so much he even decided to make it the “official” wine at state receptions and celebrations at the Kremlin. Stalin even served Khvanchkara wine at the Yalta Conference in 1945 (the last wartime meeting between Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Stalin).

After the Second World War, Georgian wine won over many of the so-called Comecon countries - members of an economic organisation under the leadership of the Soviet Union. In East Berlin, Warsaw and in Leningrad, for instance, an expensive and good meal was almost always paired with a Georgian wine.

But the end of the Soviet Union marked the start of Georgia’s wine troubles. Quality control in the production eased and there were many cases of adulteration of wines. It was estimated that about 90% of the Georgian wine sold in Russia was of low quality and not even produced in Georgia.  The change of power and policy direction that occurred in Georgia in November 2003 (widely known as “Rose Revolution”) brought to power an ambitious and superficial young man by the name of Mikheil Saakashvili. He was the third president of Georgia and leader of the United National Movement Party. And he is largely held responsible for causing a permanent rift between Georgia and Russia. And Georgian wine was one of the first victims of this conflict.

In 2006, the Russian government decided to ban the import of wines from Georgia (as it did for the wines of Moldova). Officially, Russia said the ban was to protect consumers from the undrinkable and low quality wine that was flowing into the country from Georgia. Even though cases of adulterated Georgian wine were discovered in other European countries, there is no doubt Russia’s decision to shut the door on Georgian wine was political.

The ban shocked many of the Georgian wine producers who depended on Russians to buy their wine. In 2005, for instance, Georgia exported 80% of its wine to Russia. But without any rivals or competition, the Georgians did not make any real effort to ameliorate their wine.

The embargo forced Georgian winemakers to market their product to Western markets like the United Kingdom and the United States

A joint programme of the EU and Switzerland was launched to promote Georgian wine by educating producers, teaching marketing strategies and encouraging partnerships with other winemakers in Europe. The taste of the wine was also taken into consideration. Truth be told, Europeans have no palate for Georgian wine. The wine loved by Stalin was semi-sweet and of low alcohol content.

What is more, Georgian wine has high acidity and a strong sense of soil in taste because vinification (the process of turning grapes into wine) was completed in clay pots.

Largely thanks to EU assistance, Georgia’s wine entered the European markets and returned to markets in Central Europe with new bottling and more modern vinification techniques, as well as the inclusion of more information on the wine bottle.

Exporting to North America and to Europe, however, is not enough. This is why Georgia’s return to the Russian market is necessary.

This past June, Russia’s chief sanitary inspector Gennady Onishchenko permitted 65 Georgian winemakers to bring their product into the country. By mid-June, the first batch of 30,000 bottles from the Dugladze winery – the first to return to the Russian market.

The situation in Russia’s wine market, however, is not as it was before the ban, which was imposed in 2006. When Georgia’s inexpensive wine was banned, other countries like France, Italy and Spain filled the gap left behind and made impressive gains.

Now, Georgian wine isn’t as cheap as it was before.

“Georgian wines had 10% of the market before the ban. Now they won’t get more than 2%,” Erkin Tuzmukhamedov, a wine industry export, told the Moscow Times. “The niche has been filled by cheaper wines from Spain, Portugal and Latin America.”

However, Russia is expected to import about 10 million bottles of Georgian wine and cognac by the end of this year.

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