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Monday, June 29, 2015

"The Drinks Business" on Georgian wine: Homeward bound

by Neal Baker

29.06.2015. Georgia is using its unique story to bring wine lovers back to their spiritual home, where wine has been produced for millennia and the grape forms a central part of the country’s proud cultural identity, writes Neal Baker.

As far as clichés go, “Home is where the heart is” is possibly one of the most over-wrought in the English language. However, the ironic thing with clichés is that they usually have some semblance of truth. So, when we talk about where the “home” of winemaking might be, so that wine-lovers can geographically place the source of their passion – just as the religious do with “holy lands” (only with less verve and devotion than wine fans) – one country stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of its historical connection to wine.

For eight millennia, a timespan difficult to comprehend, Georgia has been fermenting grape juice, making it without doubt the “home” of wine. Winemaking is so proudly embedded in the nation’s culture that it makes Bordeaux look clinical in its vinous appreciation.

Wine is intertwined in Georgian architecture, as buildings stand adorned with sculpted grapes and leaves, and winemaking features prominently in famous folk tales that continue to be told to this day. One such story, which hints at the tumultuous history of the nation, speaks of warriors rescuing grape vines from the battlefield so that they can be replanted after the dust has settled.

Every village, every hamlet, and nearly ever family presses its own grapes and fills its own symbolic qvevri pots to create wine – or to make the local grappa-like spirit Chacha (which featured in February’s edition of our sister title The Spirits Business) – and they have been doing so for generations.

And for generations, wine that isn’t used for familial feasts or local celebrations – i.e. the majority of wine that is instead created for sale commercially – has been exported to its nearest colonial neighbour, Russia, either in its Tsarist, communist, or post- communist guise.

However, the focus is now shifting. Georgia is looking westward and to the increasingly thirsty orient to get in the mix with the dynamic global wine market. “We no longer have a focus on the traditional markets; our strategy is now to build the brand of Georgian wine in the West and in Asia,” says Irakli Cholobargia, the Georgian National Wine Agency’s head of marketing. “It really started last year, but it’s a long process.”

He is referring to the trade accord signed last year between Georgia and the EU, freeing up the country to tap into the largest single market of its kind in the world. So significant was the treaty that it was met with jubilation on the streets of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

As of 1 September last year, when the trade agreement came into effect, the €370,000 that the NWA estimates was spent by Georgian wineries on trade tariffs in 2013 will no longer
need to be charged. Instead, this money can be funnelled back into wineries and spent on upping production and improving marketing to better tell the story of Georgian wine.

And central to the culture of wine in Georgia is the aforementioned qvevri; huge ceramic vessels that are embedded into the life-giving soil from which the grapes were first harvested. These ornate pots allow the pressed fruit to ferment in a way that is entirely unique to Georgia. The steady temperature lent by the soil in which the pots are buried guarantees an optimal environment for the ageing and storage of wine, and their egg-like shape favours the fermentation going on inside,
with the grape skins, stalks and pips all naturally sinking to the bottom, where they can enrich the wine before being separated.

The annual cleaning of the pots is also integral to the quality of the wine – a task reserved for the few experienced qvevri cleaners under employ by wineries. The cleaning process involves washing the vessel with herbal cleansers and water, with the use of sulphur vapours also being a traditional technique for disinfecting the pots. Beeswax is often used as an internal lining to the qvevri, adding to the natural and rustic theme that helps to define Georgian wine.

So emblematic is this process that in 2012 the ancient tradition of qvevri winemaking was awarded the status of National Monument of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. Praise for a country’s winemaking heritage doesn’t get much higher than that.

“The history of winemaking in Georgia is one which is ongoing,” comments Cholobargia. “Our indigenous grape varieties, our natural fermentation process and our beloved qvevri are what separates us from the rest.”

But it’s no good having an inspirational story to tell without the infrastructure in place to deal with increased demand from new consumers swept up in the romanticism of it all, and the country’s wine authority is well aware of that.

Seeing the need for some degree of formalisation in the winemaking industry, efforts are well underway to get wineries officially registered with the government wine body so that everything from litres produced to acreage planted can be monitored in aid of predicting future challenges and opportunities.

So it’s an exciting time for Georgian wine, with a story to tell and a concerted effort to tell it. The country is banking on its charm offensive winning over adventurous trade buyers and consumers in the UK, US, Asia and beyond, who in-turn will spread the message of Georgia’s unique and inspirational wine culture. After all, for wine lovers, turning to Georgian wine can be likened to a pilgrimage home, and the country is ready to embrace them.

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