16.06.2015. For many years, Matthew Hunt worked in the restaurant business in Atlanta. Now he's in Portland, and he's excited about the advent of Georgian wines. But not the Georgian wines you're maybe thinking of.
The Peach State may be home to a small, folksy wine industry and a vibrant Atlanta restaurant scene, but the Georgia that's captured the collective imagination of the wine-erati is more than 6,000 miles east of the American South. The independent republic of Georgia is in the Caucasus region, bordering Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, and the eastern shore of the Black Sea.
"Georgia has more than 8,000 years of continuous winemaking history -- nothing on the planet comes close," observes Hunt, who is the wine buyer at Kachka, the nationally praised Russian joint on Southeast Grand Avenue. "That alone is fascinating to me."
Georgian wine represents the intersection between two restaurant trends happening in Portland right now. Kachka, which at barely more than a year of age has already scored a cookbook deal and has been named one of GQ magazine's 25 most outstanding restaurants of 2015, is the poster child for a new Eastern European food obsession happening here.
At the same time, organic, biodynamic and so-called "natural" wines continue to generate buzz in the international wine press and on prominent restaurant wine lists all over the nation, with Portland tastemakers like Ava Gene's and Smallwares pushing the conversation. The two trends meet at the wines of Georgia.
"We have seen a 30 percent increase in sales in Georgian wines over the past year," reports Chris Terrell, one of the few importers of Georgian wines into the United States. And Portland, says Terrell, is one of his strongest markets.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Georgia was the birthplace of winemaking. But this country's wine industry has only recently shown up on the radars of western tastemakers like Hunt for geopolitical as well as cultural reasons.
After nearly two centuries of Russian and then Soviet sovereignty, Georgia achieved independence in 1991. An unresolved border dispute with Russia erupted into war in 2008; tensions still simmer in the Russian-occupied northern parts of the country.
During the Soviet and post-Soviet era, Georgia's wineries were converted to the factory mass production of sugar-sweetened plonk. Traditional Georgian wines were deemed "dirty" and their sale outlawed.
But traditional grape varieties and winemaking practices lived on in the homes of the Georgian people. "Everybody there finds a way to grow their own grapes and make their own wine," reports Sean Fredericks, co-owner of Kargi Gogo, the popular downtown Georgian food cart. "Winemaking is a part of the culture that has always been there. Everybody picks grapes and makes wine. People have been doing it for generations."
Indeed, vinetending is so intrinsic to the Georgian culture that the delicate looping shapes of the Georgian alphabet are said to be modeled after the curled shoots of a grapevine; and the Georgian "ghvino" is credited as the source of the word for wine in many languages.
In 2006, President Vladimir Putin banned imports of Georgian wine into Russia. Although the official reason was taint, pundits believe Putin was punishing Georgia for its increasingly friendly relations with the west. The move crippled the commercial industry, but an artisan movement arose from the ruins. Georgia's hundreds of unique, ancient and indigenous grape varieties came out of hiding, as did the time-honored method of fermenting grapes in giant terra-cotta containers, called qvevri, that are buried underground to moderate temperatures naturally.
In 2005, Georgia dropped its visa requirement for American and EU travelers. Tbilisi and Black Sea resorts have enjoyed the influx of western tourists, and Georgia's wine regions are suddenly on the must-visit lists of oeno tourists.
"Visiting vineyards and wineries in Georgia is like what it must be like for a botanist to visit the Amazon for the first time," observes Jeff Vejr, wine director at Holdfast, the underground dinner club in Fausse Piste's southeast Portland urban winery. "You can read all of the books you want, you can see examples of plants in greenhouses, you can Google search and view every one of those plants, but until you are actually there and until you actually see it, and breathe it, there is no substitute."
Earlier this month, the Georgian Wine Association sponsored a tasting in Portland -- the first visit ever to the west coast of the United States for most of these producers.
While some of the wines in the lineup tasted familiar--particularly spicy reds, redolent of dark berries and made from the Saperavi grape--others were surprisingly astringent.
"The classic Georgian wine is very rustic. The Georgians think of very grippy, chalky tannins as a sign of quality," explained Lisa Granik, a master of wine and an advisor to the Georgian wine industry who accompanied the tour. Some of the labels even advertise "skin contact," which means that the white-grape skins were allowed to macerate in the juice, coloring the wine and imparting bitterness and mouth-puckering tannins.
"The evolution of the winemaking in Georgia has been different than that of western wine," explains Sterling Whitted, the young urban winemaker behind the Holden label, who recently returned from a stint of touring and working in wineries in Georgia. "It's like hearing eastern music for the first time if you are only used to western music: It doesn't make any sense to you at first. The wine is the same way."
But here in a city known for its handmade products, organic foods and natural wines, there's latitude for the quirkiness of wines made the same way they were thousands of years ago. Specifically, whites with unfamiliar names that are golden-to-amber in color, smelling of beeswax and tasting bitter, sometimes with notes of apple-cider vinegar. Somehow, these wines make sense alongside Eastern European food. Alone, they are fascinating curiosities, windows into the past.
You can try Georgian wines for yourself at restaurants and bars like Holdfast, Kachka, Noraneko, Olympia Provisions, Shift Drinks and Trifecta Tavern + Bakery. Or, ask for them at shops such as Division Wines, Liner & Elsen, Ross Island Grocery, Spoke & Vine and World Foods.