If a journey is a search in disguise, then a trip to Georgian wine country is a pilgrimage. But what was I searching for? Since the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, the wine world has split into two camps: on one side, wine as a luxury good, and on the other side, towards the organic, and at the most, natural wine. Georgian wine surfaced again at the right time. The story of the country’s re-emergence as an independent country, with wine at the core of its identity, and especially amber wine, coincided at the same time as the natural wine movement started to take off here.
Was I actually looking for the soul of wine?
Soul is not a word that I would normally use about wine. It’s something I’d say about James Brown or Aretha Franklin. But, wine?
Georgia is the birthplace of wine, with the oldest evidence of winemaking discovered at an 8000-year old village near Tbilisi. As you are reminded everywhere you go in Georgia, there is a deep connection to wine; it is a country with 8000 vintages. It’s signature wine is the orange wines made in amphora, which in Georgia is described as amber wine made in terracotta qvevri (pictured).
On the first night in Georgia, driving through the streets of Kutaisi after midnight, our Georgian guide told the first of her stories inside the green fluorescent of the minibus. She suddenly becomes animated and explains the new police station buildings.
Since 2003, since the time of the Rose Revolution, police station buildings in Georgia have been made of glass. As part of the crackdown on police corruption, the entire police force was disbanded and they started again with new recruits with a spotless reputation. Not only can the public see through the glass to the offices, people working within the offices can see each other through the glass. There is no place to hide for a bribe.
In the same way, amber wine made in qvevri has no place to hide. The extended skin contact means the tannins can be harsh and poky if they are anything but perfectly ripe. What goes into the qvevri is the true state of the vintage – there is no manipulation, no adding of anything, and it is usually not filtered. If the grapes and stems are ripe or unripe, so be it – in it goes for 6 months. The result is uncompromising. As Andrew Jefford says, it can be a “kind of punk”.
Also, like punk, there is a lot of DIY. Visiting some places, it reminded me of the early days of home brewing in the late 1970s. Everyone seems to make wine. Georgia is a country that has almost been under continuous occupation. Their wine-making tradition has been carefully passed down within the family and across the villages. The people gather indoors for dinner and toast – Gaumarzos! – meaning literally, ‘to your victory’. Freedom of speech has been with family and friends around the table with their own wine.
Like truth, what comes out of the qvevri is not always comfortable. On the contrary, it would be too easy to visit the ex-Soviet bulk wineries inherited by Georgia and condemn them to wines that represent “non-truth” – large scale and ambitious. But that would be simplistic. What was “Production Unit No. 2” is now a large piece of winery infrastructure for Georgian wine. Apart from the small producers, I found these large producers gave their own fascinating snapshot of the region and how they negotiate their Soviet legacy and make it work for them in the future.
The embargo by Russia from 2006 to 2013 forced Georgia to cut ties with their traditional market, Russia, which took quantity over quality. No longer could they be complacent about quality when attempting to access new markets across Europe and Asia. The large wineries also provide many jobs for local people who have so much inherent wine knowledge, and traditions of picking grapes, and making and drinking wine.
Yet, it’s the small qvevri producer that is the star of Georgian wine. After sitting through a meet and greet with Georgian wine producers and tasting up to 100 wines, this is an old and new country. It is the winemakers who are experimenting with the qvevri who are really moving their country’s winemaking forward.
Most of Georgia’s reputations rests on the qvevri, and in fact, after a while I wanted there to be more focus on the quality of the vineyard. There came a point during a day of tasting nearly 100 wines – that with so many unfinished and fizzy wines – I had to put down my pen and just listen to the winemaker (or son or daughter of the winemaker) talk. How do they see Georgian wine going in the next 8000 vintages?
Outside of Georgia, Ancient Georgian winemaking has been an inspiration for making skin contact wine. For Italian producers, such as Gravner and Radikon. For Australian wine makers, where 25 qvevri were sent over in the past year, according to Lado Uzunashvili, where they have their own clone of Saperavi brought over in the 1950s via UC Davis and collected from Georgia in pre-phylloxera times.
If a trip to Georgia is a wine pilgrimage, then every step along the way on the Georgian wine route has a meaning for the pilgrim – even when challenges emerged. There is no place to hide when it comes to amber wine, and it is an almost spiritual challenge that the Georgian people are more than equipped to handle. It genuinely is one of the most intriguing countries I have been lucky enough to visit and it will stay with me for a long time. Thank you, Wines of Georgia.
After the Russian embargo, and to gain access to markets in the European Union, Georgia delineated their Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) into regions and local styles. This was a big step towards developing the inherent quality found in Georgia. Find out more about the wine producing regions of Georgia and Georgian grapes in my next post…