29.08.2015. We tend to think of the classic vinifera wine grape varieties as European, meaning French, Italian and Spanish. But vinifera’s origin lies to the east, in the Caucasus region: where Europe and Asia intersect, where ancient trade routes crisscrossed the mountains between the Black Sea and Persia, and near where the Bible says Noah planted a vineyard after the ark settled on Mount Ararat. This is where the oldest archaeological evidence of wine production, vinifera seeds in clay vessels, was found. Both Georgia and Armenia claim to be wine’s homeland, as borders have been fluid between antiquity and now. But let’s tip our hats to Georgia as the origin of wine, if only because more of its wines are available now in the United States.
And Georgia’s wines are exciting. The country offers everything a modern wine geek could ask for: native vinifera grape varieties grown almost nowhere else; modern-style wines that capture those grapes’ fruity flavors; and wines fermented the way Georgians have done it for centuries, offering us a taste of the past. It doesn’t hurt that the old style has become trendy. Even better: The wines are not expensive.
“Georgia is a small country with a tiny production but an image and potential that far exceed its size,” said Lisa Granik, a master of wine, during a presentation of Georgian wines at Vinexpo, an international trade fair held in Bordeaux, France, in June.
Much of Georgia’s image and popularity comes from its ancient practice of fermenting wine in qvevri, clay vessels buried underground. Most modern white wines are made by quickly separating the pressed juice from the grapes’ skins, stems and seeds. In the ancient method, the juice, skins, stems and seeds go into the qvevri to ferment together. The result can be deeply colored, oxidized and tannic, with some of the features of red wines. Winemakers often describe this method (whether using clay vessels or not) as “making white wine as if it were red.”
Skin-fermented whites are trendy today as “orange wines,” although Mamuka Tsereteli, a Georgian native who imports wines from his homeland into the Washington area, prefers to call them “amber wines.” They aren’t very citrusy, after all.
“Georgia has nearly 500 native grape varieties,” Tsereteli explained to me while we tasted some of his imports at Batch 13, a wine store on 14th Street NW owned by George Grigolia, a fellow Georgian. Tsereteli’s company, the Georgian Wine House, imports Georgian wines distributed in the District, Maryland, Virginia and five other states.
Georgia’s main wine region is Kakheti, in the eastern part of the country, where the Caucasus mountains stretch from northwest to southeast. Although wine is grown throughout most of the country, Tsereteli said, farther west toward the Black Sea the landscape is flatter and sandier, less amenable to high-quality grape growing.
The most common grapes in wines imported to the United States are rkatsiteli and mtsvane among whites, and the red saperavi. (Each letter is pronounced, more or less, so the names are not as difficult as they look.) Made in the modern style, the whites are crisp and fruity; made as amber wines, they tend to be rich and full-bodied.
Reds made in qvevri in the ancient style can be sweet, because in cooler temperatures the fermentation might stop before all the grape sugar is converted to alcohol. Because sweet reds are in vogue nowadays, these wines should find a market. Saperavi can also be quite savory, with tobacco leaf and dark-fruit flavors. In texture and taste, it resembles a cabernet franc from the Loire Valley in France.
But a good saperavi, like most Georgian wines, has what wines from anywhere else don’t have: a taste that spans centuries of history, and a whiff of ancient origins.
Five Georgian wines to try
Here are some wines from Georgia to seek out, including a stunningly good saperavi red and some delightfully good values. Taste a little history while enjoying something new.
Jakeli Saperavi Unfiltered Dry Red 2012
★ ★ ★
Kakheti, Georgia, $38
Rich and intense, this smoky, beefy red benefits from decanting several hours in advance of dinner – and it’s pretty darn good the day after opening, too, when it takes on a silky texture. Jakeli shows saperavi’s potential as a top-tier wine. Alcohol by volume: 14.5 percent.
Georgian Wine House in the District and Maryland, Dionysus in Virginia: Available in the District at Batch 13, Potomac Wines & Spirits. Available in Virginia at Total Wine & More (various locations).
Orgo Saperavi 2013
Georgian winemaker Gogi Dakishivili, left,
produces the Orgo label in partnership
with his son Temur. Photo WP
Kakheti, Georgia, $22
Gogi Dakishvili is the rock star of Georgian wine. Orgo is the label he produces in partnership with his son Temur. Fermented in qvevri, this savory red wine offers tart cherry and tobacco leaf flavors. In texture and flavor it resembles an old-style Loire Valley red from a ripe vintage. It’s intriguing and delicious. ABV: 13.5 percent.
Georgian Wine House in the District and Maryland, Dionysus in Virginia: Available in the District at Batch 13, Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits, Potomac Wines & Spirits, Rodman’s; on the list at Compass Rose, Iron Gate. Available in Maryland at Annebeth’s in Annapolis. Available in the District at Batch 13, Potomac Wine & Spirits. Available in Virginia at Total Wine & More (various locations).
Teliani Valley Tsinandali 2013
★ ★ 1 / 2
Kakheti, Georgia, $13
A crisp white made in the modern style — fermented and aged in stainless-steel tanks — this is delightful and refreshing, with flavors of white flowers and herbs. It is excellent by itself or with lighter foods. Teliani also makes delicious tsolikouri (a grape that translates as “my wife’s wine”) and saperavi, both at very reasonable prices. ABV: 12.5 percent.
Georgian Wine House in the District and Maryland, Dionysus in Virginia: Available in the District at Batch 13, Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits, Potomac Wines & Spirits, Rodman’s, Schneider’s of Capitol Hill; on the list at Russia House. Available in Maryland at Annebeth’s in Annapolis. Available in the District at Batch 13, Potomac Wine & Spirits. Available in Virginia at Total Wine & More (various locations).
Orgo Kisi 2013
Kakheti, Georgia, $23
This amber wine is made with kisi, a native Georgian grape variety, from vineyards averaging 50 years of age; it is fermented and aged on its skins. It offers smoky bacon notes with citrus and peach, seasoned with pine and wood spice to give it a slight tannic kick. ABV: 12.5 percent.
Georgian Wine House in the District and Maryland: Available in the District at Batch 13, Potomac Wines & Spirits, Rodman’s; on the list at Compass Rose, Red Hen.
Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli 2013
Kakheti, Georgia, $20
A qvevri-fermented amber-style wine, it manages to capture the crisp fruit flavors of the grape, perhaps with a bruise, as though the fruit were about to tip over the edge of over-ripeness. Yet its acidity and structure give it a fascinating edge that will help it pair with robust dishes. ABV: 12.25 percent.
Williams Corner: Available in the District at Circle Wine & Liquor, MacArthur Beverages, Weygandt Wines; on the list at Red Hen.