Jefford on Monday: Georgia – finding its path

Jefford on Monday: Georgia – finding its path

Andrew Jefford returns to Tbilisi and Khakheti.

georgian wine, kakheti
Vineyards in the Kakheti region.

It’s been an eventful five years.  My first visit to Georgia, in April 2013, came at a tense but exciting time for the nation’s wine producers.  Russia’s 2006 ban on the import of Georgian (and Moldovan) wine had presented Georgian producers with a salutary crisis: they lost 90 per cent of their export market overnight, and had to scramble to find alternative customers.  How?  In part by storytelling: Georgia’s tale is unique.  The world relished it.  Over the last half-decade, it’s been hard to find a wine-lover who didn’t dream of heading to Tbilisi.

This wasn’t, after all, ‘just another’ wine-producing country.  Present-day Georgia may occupy the land where the vine itself was first domesticated; it’s recently surrendered to archaeological attention the world’s earliest pure-wine residues, dating back some 8,000 years.  It has an extraordinary patrimony of indigenous varieties, and unique wine-making techniques, too, unchanged for a millennium or more; these have proved seductively interesting for the natural wine movement worldwide, and for those who perceive modern winemaking as an impasse.

Wine lovers reaching Georgia discovered a country where the tendrils of the vine weave church, state and national culture together in a tapestry without parallel elsewhere.

My first meeting in 2013 was with Metropolitan David of Alaverdi, one of the country’s leading ecclesiastics, who told me that, for Georgians, growing vines and making wine “was always a road back to God”, that the birth of wine inside a maternal qvevri was “like a prayer,” and that history had decreed that Georgia “became the Lord’s vineyard”.  None of this sounds strange to Georgian ears.

Earlier this month I met Levan Davitashvili, Georgia’s Minister of Agriculture and Environment – whose former roles, significantly, had included working as the head of Georgia’s National Wine Agency, as well as promoting the German-owned Schuchmann Winery.  Until recently, over half the Georgian work force was involved in agriculture, of which viticulture is often the most prominent segment.  Even urban Georgians make their own wine, in garages and on balconies; vines leaves and grape bunches beckon everywhere in the national iconography, in wooden carvings, in stone friezes and details; the Georgian toastmaster or tamada is a unique figure unmatched in any other culture, likewise of great antiquity.  It was Georgia that Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin chose as its debut ‘Guest Wine Region’ last year.

The Russian ban was lifted in 2013 and the last five years have seen a whirlwind of national development.  Russians quickly rediscovered their passion for Georgian wine – while the Ukrainians never lost it, so between them these two countries take most of the country’s exports (Russia alone accounted for 51% of wine exports in 2016).  Georgia, though, has managed to negotiate and sign free-trade agreements with both the EU and, more recently, China.

Sales to China doubled in a single year between 2015 and 2016 and continue to grow; Minister Davitashvili told me that it’s now the third largest export destination for Georgian wine.  Moreover China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to make Eurasia (under Chinese domination) an economic and trading counterweight to the trans-Atlantic zone (dominated by the USA), looks certain to benefit Georgia further and to increase commercial ties between the two nations.

Any foil to Russian influence is generally welcomed in Georgia (whose initiatives towards the EU were widely seen as the true reason behind Russia’s 2006 wine embargo); the loss of control over Tskhinvali and Abkhasia still smarts in Tibilisi, and Levan Davitashvili pointed out that despite the renaissance of trade with Russia “there are lines that we can’t accept – [like] occupation, and this is something that our Russian colleagues should also understand”.

In terms of tourism and inward investment, too, Georgia has seen an explosion of interest and activity not least from Russians themselves, who relish Georgia’s food and wine — and its openness and intellectual freedom of expression, a contrast to the oppressive, dissent-silencing atmosphere at home.  Iranians, Azeris and Middle Eastern tourists, meanwhile, are flocking to Tiblisi’s new casinos and luxury hotels, while Turkish and Chinese entrepreneurs are setting up their own private businesses in Georgia, as are Iranian farming entrepreneurs.  Western European hipsters arrive for Georgia’s electronic music scene, regarded as being second only to Berlin in terms of creativity.  “We are a small country and we need to be liberal and open,” said Levan Davitashvili.  “That is our philosophy.”

The problem for Georgia’s wine producers is that traditional markets like Russia and the Ukraine remain preponderantly low-value, and the China trade could easily slide in the same direction.  “Most of Georgia’s existing external wine trade is below US$2 a bottle,” says Zurab Margvelashvili of Tbilvino.  “That is not good for Georgia.”

“People have a sympathy for Georgia,” says Dr Philippe Lespy, the former Mouton-Rothschild chef de culture who for the last five years has worked for GWS, the Georgian Wine and Spirits company which, together with Ch Mukhrani, is owned by the Swiss-domiciled Swedish billionaire Frederik Paulsen.  “But the good feeling is just a feeling.  It’s not enough, when our best competitor is producing wine at just US$1 a bottle.  We have fabulous potential, but we will never compete if we carry on doing that.  We need a standard level and a cru level, and every company needs to start to aim for 15 per cent at a cru level.”  Ukraine, Russia and China are all very well, in other words, but Georgia also needs the high-quality markets of western Europe, the USA and Japan.

Recent books on Georgian wine published by Alice Feiring (For the Love of Wine: my odyssey through the world’s most ancient wine culture), Miquel Hudin and Daria Kholodilina (Georgia: A guide to the Cradle of Wine), Carla Capalbo (Tasting Georgia: a food and wine journey in the Caucasus) and Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan (Uncorking the Caucasus), as well as a forthcoming book by Simon Woolf on amber wines (Amber Revolution), would seem to indicate extensive western interest; there is excellent work here, notably from Capablo.  Much of the media attention on Georgia so far has focussed on a small number of artisan wine producers working with natural-wine practices.  Alice Feiring, indeed, has couched her work as a kind of combat or campaign against ‘modernization’ in Georgia.  Adversarial conceits of this sort don’t necessarily serve either the national interest or the broader community of global wine consumers.

The cultural appropriation of qvevri wine styles by advocates of natural wine, moreover, is the source of some frustration among Georgian wine producers, especially given the variable success rate of wines produced in this way by any but the very highest standards.  Every qvevri is, potentially, a microbiological jungle, a sensorial car crash, a celebration of hideousness – unless the vessel itself has been scrupulously prepared, unless the harvest has been carefully sorted and cleaned, unless the vinification practices have been honed and refined.  It’s sometimes said that an element of unpredictability is inherent to the style.  I asked Georgia’s most accomplished qvevri wine-maker, Dr Giorgi Dakishvili, if he can be sure how one of his wines will turn out in terms of its broad profile and scope.  “I know,” he replied.  Accidents should not happen.

Because of its recent problems with deviant natural wines, Georgia has now introduced a requirement for obligatory tasting of any wine destined for export produced in quantities of over 3,000 litres – except, frustratingly, for wines with less than 40 mg/l of sulphur, where caveat emptor must always hold (and for which volumes will always be small).

Sales to developed markets are, though, increasing, and the fact that a UK supermarket like Marks & Spencer has the confidence to sell Tbilvino’s Qvevris (fine value at £8 a bottle) is surely a sign that consumers are ready for what Georgia (and only Georgia) has to offer.

I checked some of the consumer reaction to this wine on Marks & Spencer’s website.  “Very nice interesting wine, orange in colour.  I would say it is more like a red wine, even though the reviews say it is more like a sherry.  I would definitely buy this wine again,” says ‘liksey26’, a 45-54-year-old woman from Stoke-on-Trent; while ‘buauka’ from Birmingham, a woman in the same age group, said “I wanted a different wine and I got it!  The colour of the wine is deep yellow compared to other whites available on the market which are pale.  It has a wonderful taste of apple in my opinion but is also very complex.  It makes it slightly heavy, though. Reviews say that it is good to drink with sea food but I had it with garlicky chicken and was great.  I’m definitely buying it again.”  Good notes.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the fact that a Georgian sumo wrestler called Levan Gorgadze (known locally as Tochinoshin) won the Emperor’s Cup this January will probably help sales of Georgian wine there more than any amount of journalistic urging.

During this second visit to Georgia, I concentrated on tasting a range of wines from larger companies, those comprising the bulk of the country’s export offer, as well as a range of micro-vinified experimental wines from some of Georgia’s many indigenous varieties made at the country’s viticultural research station at Mtskheta.  Tasting notes on some of these wines follow next week.

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