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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Second thoughts on wine strategies for Georgia, the cradle of wine

by Mike Veseth

26.10.2016. The Republic of Georgia is a wine economy in transition from its former status as a main supplier of wine to Russia and the former Soviet countries to an emerging position with sales in these markets plus Western Europe, North America and Asia.

Conventional Wisdom?

Last week’s column reported on the main sectors of the Georgian wine industry and presented a working hypothesis I developed before our recent trip there. Home production of wine for family use is very important in Georgia and crowds out the commercial product to a great extent, so the focus is on exports. But what strategic focus is best: which wines and which markets?

The traditional markets in Russia and the former Soviet nations represent the past, I hypothesized. The future? The most distinctive element of Georgian wine today are the high quality natural qvevri wines that have been much in the news recently, but is that too small a niche to support the industry? And production of these wines is very limited in any case.

So by process of elimination, I said,  Georgia needs to focus on what’s left — distinctive indigenous grape variety wines made in a clean international style that can compete in global export markets like the U.K., U.S. and Canada.

That is a conventional idea, I noted at the end of last week’s column, and I am generally suspicious of conventional wisdom. Georgia is an unconventional wine country, so I needed to learn more. I’m still trying to make up my mind, but I think my hypothesis was both right and wrong, too. Here is my report.

Orovela Saperavi: Export Only

If you want to see what the future of Georgian export wines in the international style might look like consider Orovela. But don’t look for these wines in Georgia — they are strictly for export and are essentially unknown in their country of origin. You can, however, find them in the United Kingdom at Waitrose stores and Whole Foods and in restaurants, too, where they are possibly the most successful Georgian wine in the market.

Current exports to the U.K., the U.S. and other markets are fairly small at 40,000 bottles, but there are plans to ramp up quickly to 200,000 bottles and then a million bottles in a few years. That’s big by Georgian standards.

The name, Orovela comes from a traditional plowing song, but the project is as contemporary as can be. Brothers Giorgi and Vasili Sulkhanishvili saw an opportunity for Georgian wine exports, began investment in 2000, and rolled out the brand in 2004. There is one red wine, a Orovela Saperavi,  and Oro chacha, which is Georgia’s signature grape spirit (think grappa).

Quality was a key factor right from the start and this has paid off. Jancis Robinson declared the 2004 Orovela the best Georgian wine she ever tasted, for example. A search of the Waitrose website reveals that the Saperavi is a “buyer’s choice” selling for £16.79. Vasili told us that the wine is available in selected East Coast markets in the U.S. and sells for $30-$35 in shops and perhaps $100 in restaurants.

The packaging of both the wine and the chacha is beautiful and effective in communicating the wine’s origin and story. Orovela is a completely professional project, carefully designed and tightly focused, reflecting, I believe, the brothers’ international drinks industry experience.

Orovela isn’t the only example of an international-style wine made with Georgian grapes for export markets. We visited both Chateau Mukhrani and Telavi Wine Cellar and were impressed with the substantial investment and obvious commitment to quality.

The idea that Georgia could be successful in global markets with wines like these is certainly valid.But is it the best strategy for the industry? These markets are insanely competitive and effective product differentiation is critical. Are these wines different enough (there is little room for “me too” products) and can that difference and the quality be communicated effectively as Orovela has done?

Back to the Future?

I wasn’t prepared for what I discovered when we started tasting natural qvevri wines and meeting the winemakers. The wines varied a good deal, of course, but many of them were simply stunning and not at all the rustic products that I imagined. Wines from Gotsa Family Wines, Pheastant’s Tears, Iago’s Wine Cellar and the Alaverdi Monatstery especially stood out. The wines had real tension — they were alive in the glass. No funk, nothing mousy, just great wine. I was really impressed.

I admit that visiting the wineries and meeting the people made a difference, as it always does. I was moved by Iago Bitarishvili’s hard work and humility, for example, and excited by Beka Gotsadzes’ energy and ingenuity. The fact that these people can make natural wines like this using traditional Georgian methods is something to celebrate. The wines and the stories that come with them are the product differentiation I was looking for.

Maybe these are the wines that Georgia should highlight, I thought. Certainly they tell an authentic story of Georgia and its wines. But there are problems. The domestic market for such wine is limited, as I explained last week, and natural wines are a niche (albeit a growing one) in the global market. In any case, production of these natural qvevri wines is small and the best makers routinely sell out now. Market expansion requires new investment and new players.

The natural qvevri wines are a great symbol for Georgia and its wines, but can they open doors for other Georgian wines? Not sure.

Past is Prologue?

My confusion reached a peak when we visited Teliani Valley winery, which is a large diversified producer. Production is about 3 million bottles divided 30% domestic, 70% exports, 30% semi-sweet wines for the traditional markets, 70% dry wines, and 90% conventional wines with 10% made in qvevri.

After a brief tour of the big factory-style facility, we were asked to choose wines to taste. Could we try three red wines, I asked? An international-style wine, a qvevri product and one of the semi-sweet wines popular in Russia and other traditional markets.

The wines were produced and the results were interesting. The oak-aged international Saperavi and the qvevri  wines were fine, but not especially memorable. No electricity here. Well made, but not distinctive.

The semi-sweet wine was different, which caught me by surprise.  100% Saperavi from the Kindzmarauli vineyard, it was fruity and, well, delicious. To paraphrase my favorite philosopher, Charles Barkley, it tasted like itself — it was good because it wasn’t trying to be something else. It was the surprise hit of the tasting. It was the wine that we would want to taste again.

Sweetish red wines enjoy a growing market in the U.S. (although their sweetness isn’t always advertised). High quality wines like this might have a bright future, not the dim past that I had imagined.

One Wine to Rule Them All?

My working hypothesis was based on the conventional idea that Georgia needed to choose a clear, simple strategy to move forward in the global markets — to decide which of its wines to take the lead.

But Georgian wine isn’t one thing, it is many things. And I think any attempt to over-simplify — to choose the one wine style to rule them all — is bound to fail.

International style, natural qvevri wines, and the semi-sweets, too. These are all Georgia wines and Georgia is all of them and more, too. My hypothesis was off base, but the journey of discovery it provoked has taught me a lot.

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Thanks to all the wine producers who met with us during our Georgia expedition and to the Georgian National Tourism Association for all their help and encouragement.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Veseth is editor of The Wine Economist and the author of many books, including Wine Wars (2011), Extreme Wine (2013) and Money, Taste & Wine: It's Complicated (2015) Mike is professor emeritus of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound.


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