22.04.2014. Cheerful humility is essential for a career in wine. Just when you think you might understand something of a country/region, you realize that you’re doomed/blessed to be an eternal neophyte.
And so it was at my most recent experience in Georgia, for the 6th International Wine Tourism conference. I was there to present the “Grand Tasting” of Georgian Wine to an audience of predominantly tour operators, travel writers and travel agents. Their interest in and perspective on wine is broader than that of the ‘pure’ wine industry (which was also represented.) Wine and culinary tours put wine into the context of experience, interaction and memory. And fun! You’re on holiday, after all.
My co-presenter was Shalva Khetsuriani, a fine Georgian from a winemaking family. Well-travelled, hugely knowledgeable and upliftingly enthusiastic, in his youth he won the Geoffrey Roberts travel scholarship and the attention of Jancis. Now a senior figure in the Georgian and Russian wine scene, he is also the official Georgian Wine Ambassador. Shalva’s passion for, and staggering knowledge of, his country’s wines was bursting at the seams of our allotted 90 minutes. I learnt so much just preparing the tasting with him.
Selecting just eleven wines was not easy, and we had many a multi-tasking Skype about it. We needed to present a microcosm of the world of Georgian wine, and tell a story of the main regions, wine styles, and grape varieties. Georgia has over 500 indigenous varieties, nine broad regions, and 18 appellations. In addition to the (to UK drinkers, at least) familiar styles of dry white, red and rosé, there are also sweet reds, and the category of Quevri wines – a Georgian USP.
Georgia is a mountainous country of varied topography and extremely diverse microclimates. It is crisscrossed by river valleys, and the Caucasus and their interconnecting spines. Regional differences in culture, cuisine and wine are pronounced, despite the enforced consolidation (“sterilisation”, said the estimable John ‘Pheasant’s Tears’ Wurdeman) of the Soviet era, from which the wine industry is now emerging.
Georgian Wine RegionsKakheti
Kakheti is Georgia’s largest wine region, and contains around 65% of the country’s vineyards. It is in eastern Georgia, and contains a large, fertile plain that has long made it the national bread-basket. Overall, the climate is relatively warm, with some subtropical aspects.
Kakheti is the centre of Georgian wine for reasons that are as cultural and political as they are viticultural. Many of the most widespread varieties in Georgia are thought to have originated in Kakheti. It is a relatively large zone, with subzones defined by the Rivers Alazani and Iori, and the Gombori mountains.
Kakheti is easily reached from Tbilisi and its regional capital, Telavi, has plenty of good accommodation. It’s emerging as the main centre for wine tourism, and its wine industry is supported by the Government.
It is also home to the majority of Georgia’s AOC wines.
Of these, Shalva selected a Tsinandali (from the producer Shumi). Tsinandali also illustrates the role of politics and power in shaping Georgian wine. Tsinandali is an appellation for dry white wine made from Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane Kakhuri grapes. It owes its creation to the poet-prince Chavchavadze, who pioneered and invested in the production of high quality wine in Kakheti in the 1830s. The style of Tsinandali has changed over decades, but today it is a fruity, lively, soft and gently aromatic dry white, with fruit that reminded me a bit of a Gruner Veltliner.
Kakheti is a champion of Qvevri wine-making. These large clay vessels look a little like giant amphora, but they are designed for making wine, not for transporting it. The revival, over recent decades, of Qvevri winemaking in Georgia is an example of old, empirical wisdom come full circle. Qvevri solve a lot of winemaking challenges, as Simon Woolf explains here.
White grapes fermented in Qvevri give a deeply coloured, orange wine whose spirit is more of a quiet cousin of red, than an aggressive version of white. Qvevri are employed across Georgia, frequently in highly technical wineries that are also fully kitted out with the latest stainless steel technology.
One of our orange ambassadors was the Rkatsiteli from Alaverdi Monastery Cellar, a pioneer of the renaissance of Qvevri winemaking. This is a lovely wine, deliciously complex, with aromas of walnuts and apricots, and firm, fine tannins. Rkatsiteli is planted across Georgia, and Eastern Europe, and had acquired a reputation as a bit of a soviet work-horse. But in Qvevri, in Georgia, it becomes something very special and unique, and surprisingly refined.
Kakheti’s other hero is Saperavi, a red wine grape of such quality and ageing potential that it has been adopted as a national wine hero across Georgia. AOC Mukuzani is one of six for Saperavi in Kakheti, and (with Napareuli) probably the best-known internationally. The Mukuzani zone runs along the right bank of the Alazani, on slopes of light clay and gravel. Saperavi loves it here, ripening fully but gently to a deeply coloured, freshly ripe red of berry fruit and fresh herbs. The Mukuzani from Tbilvino – one of Georgia’s largest and most successful exporting wineries – was lively, round and delicious.
But Georgia’s boutique wine sector is also thriving, as the superb, vital, Qvevri-made, Saperavi from the small family estate of Vita Vinea Teleda illustrated.
And a final outing for Kakhetian Saperavi was the semi-sweet red AOC wine “Kindzmarauli”, from Kindzmaruali Marani. Kindzmarauli AOC vineyards are in Kvareli, along the warm left bank slopes of the Alazani, on soils of warm black slate. Saperavi here gets very ripe, and results in naturally semi-sweet reds of aromatic fruit and firm tannin. Shalva claimed this style appeals mostly to the Russian market, but I loved this particular wine and think it has broader appeal. It was generous but genuinely characterful, and balanced.
This intensely evocative region is far to the west of Kakheti, and defined by the mountain ranges of Likhi, Caucasus and Meskheti. Imereti is very mountainous, and micro-climates are varied. Georgians speak about Imereti as a bit of a world apart: it is not that easy to get around, or out of, especially in upper Imereti, and local customs and culture are strong, and spiritual.
The Imeretian white wine Shalva chose was the (non AOC) varietal Krakhuna, from winery Khareba, a creamy but very mineral dry white. (Krakhuna does appear in an AOC wine, Sviri, in which it is blended with fellow Imeretians Tsolikouri and Tsitska.) The red Imeretian variety Otskhanuri Sapere we tried was made in Churi, the regional variant of Qvevri. I loved this joyously fruity, bright, light-footed red, also made by Khareba.
Kartli is in Central Georgia, and stretches from the edge of the capital, Tbilisi, to Imereti. Historically, it was rich in local grape varieties, but during Soviet times there was a big push to focus on high quantities of sparkling wine. The terrain is mountainous, with several gorges. It is a rugged place; Hannibal sourced his fighters from Kartli (although he would have known it as “Iberia”). It has had a reputation for focused, lively wines. One of the leaders of the Georgian wine renaissance, Château Mukhrani, is based in the Kartlian wine village of Meskheti, and is a magnificent saviour of local grape varieties in both conventional and quevri styles. Mukhrani’s red Shavkapito is a bright, high-voiced, cherry-scented wine of surprising elegance and lift.
Mandili’s “Mtsvane” was a nice counterpoint to the Mukhrani. This small production Quevri orange wine is made by ‘natural’ wine producer Iago’s Marani, in Kartli. It’s a good sign for the renascent Georgian wine industry that both large and small wineries are thriving and exporting. Quevri make possible a lower level of intervention in winemaking, and Georgia, as a centre for Quevri, has also become a centre for alternative ‘Natural’ winemaking that completely eschew modern equipment and additions. Such wines are too quirky and varied to be mainstream, but they are part of Georgia’s vibrant wine offering, and Mandili’s Mtsvane was a really delicious example.
We could also have included the Kartlian varieties of Chinuri (white) and Tavkveri (red), but frankly the tasting was riotous enough with 11 wines. And we needed to include Guria…
Guria is in the far south west of Georgia, on the Black Sea. As a (lapsed) classicist, I got quite excited when I twigged, thanks to Shalva, that Guria was Colchis, of Argonauts, Medea, and Golden Fleece fame. The climate is warm and subtropical – Guria is a major producer of tea, as well as nuts and fruit. The wine culture here is old, with European influence (and investment) in the 1800s, and much earlier trading links across the Black Sea with Europe. Our Gurian wine representative was the lovely dry Rosé Chkhaveri made by KTW, but we could also have had the red Ojaleshi. Guria, like all of Georgia, is still finding, identifying and re-establishing its ancient, interrupted, trove of indigenous varieties.
The following Georgian regions also make good wines from indigenous varieties. I’m sorry we couldn’t include them: Racha, Lechkhumi, Samegrelo, Abkhazeti, Ajara.
And we finished off with chacha – Georgian eau de vie.