Sakartvelo: Best Wine Destination
They all traveled to the Republic of Georgia and were so taken aback by its specific wines (among other distinctive features) that they wrote about them when they got home.
Georgia Oozes History
If you live in Georgia, you are most likely to call your country Sakartvelo. Some research suggests the name “Georgia” originated in the Middle Ages when Christian crusaders passed through the region on their way to the Holy Land. At the time it was part of the Persian Empire and locals were known as Guri who were devoted to St. George a patron saint in the Middle Ages acknowledged by England, Catalonia, Venice, Genoa, and Portugal because he was the personification of the ideals of Christian chivalry. The Crusaders made the connection and named the country Georgia.
Early Georgian winemaking was documented in a medieval hymn, “Thou Art a Vineyard” that was dedicated by King Demetrius (1093-1156AD) to his new Georgian Kingdom. The hymn begins, “You are a vineyard newly blossomed, young beautiful, growing in Eden.”
Georgian wine was held in great esteem by the Assyrian kings who amended their laws that permitted residents to pay their debts in wine instead of gold.
On the other side of history is Joseph Stalin. He was born in Georgia and gained infamy as a revolutionary in the Russian Empire becoming the political leader of the Soviet Union from 1924 – 1953. Some continue to revere him because he defeated Hitler; however, most view him as a tyrant responsible for the brutal slaughter of his own people.
Location, Location, Location
The highest mountain range in Europe is the Caucasus Mountains, creating the border between Georgia and Russia. The highest peak may be in Russia; however, the second highest peak, Shkara, is in Georgia (17,040 ft) beating Mount Blanc by almost 1312 feet.
Located 600 miles east of the Bosporus, Georgia is located in Asia, bounded by the Black Sea to the west, Russia to the north and northeast, Turkey to the southwest, Armenia to the south, and Azerbaijan to the southeast. The country covers 26,900 sq miles with a population of 3.7 million people. A third of the population lives in Tbilisi – the capital and largest city with 3.7 million inhabitants.
Wine Part of History
Winemaking in Georgia is part of its history as the process started over 8,000 years ago and many consider the Republic to be the “cradle of wine.” Throughout the centuries, Georgia has been invaded, pushing ancient winemakers out of their vineyards. Fortunately, there was a tradition of saving saplings for transitional cultivation which enabled viticulture and winemaking to survive.
Legend states that Saint Nino, the first preacher of Christianity in Georgia, created her cross from grapevine stems and entwined the stems with her own hair. It is also believed that the monks of the Alaverdi monastery contributed to the preservation of the qvevri (aka kvevri and tchuri) method.
Georgia’s wine producers flourished in the Middle Ages, as the eastern Mediterranean region was rocked by the Crusades. As a Christian nation, Georgia was left unscathed by the Crusaders and was able to develop its agriculture and commerce in relative peace. Later, it remained outside of the Ottoman Empire, whose Islamic Sharia law prohibited wine consumption.
Wine production flourished in Georgia until phylloxera and mildew arrived from the Americas in the late 19th Century. The pest devastated almost 150,000 acres (60,700ha) of vineyards.
When Georgia came under Soviet control a few decades later, vineyards were replanted in their thousands to meet expanded demand. However, the late 1980s saw a dramatic about-face in the Soviet Union’s attitude to wine. Mikhail Gorbachev’s aggressive anti-alcohol campaign effectively crippled Georgian wine exports.
The country has enjoyed only brief periods of political stability since it declared independence from the USSR in 1991. Tensions between Georgia and Russia continue today, as evidenced by Russia’s 2006 embargo on Georgian wine imports, which was not lifted until June 2013.
Georgia’a Qvevri Method
Qvevri are large earthenware terracotta clay vessels used for the fermentation, storage, and aging of traditional Georgian wine. The container resembles large, egg-shaped amphorae without handles and can be buried below ground or set into the floors of large wine cellars.
Amphorae are made with handles and qvevri do not have handles, differentiating the functions of each. In ancient Greece and Rome, amphorae were used exclusively for the transportation and storage of edible products such as wine and olive oil and not for wine production.
Qvevri have always been part of the winemaking process and are unsuitable for transport because of their size and, of course, they are buried in the ground.
During the final stages of qvevri construction, the insides of each vessel is covered with beeswax (the pots remain porous and allow some air to pass through during the fermentation); the beeswax helps to waterproof and sterilize the vessel allowing winemaking a more hygienic process and the vessels are easier to clean after each use. Once they are installed underground, when cleaned and maintained correctly, qvevri can be used for centuries.
Initially, the qvevri of ancient Georgia were large enough to accommodate the needs of a family. As demand increased the qvevri were enlarged enabling the production of a higher volume of wine per vessel. As size increased the clay structures became unstable under their own immense weight as well as the buildup of pressure during fermentation. To assist in the stabilization during the process, winemakers started burying qvevri underground. This was a surprisingly smart move for by moving the production underground they discovered the ancient form of refrigeration (temperatures are cooler underground). This enables a longer maceration period for the grapes on fermenting must, which would otherwise cause the wine to spoil above ground. The extended maceration period develops an increase in aroma and flavor profiles in qvevri wines. UNESCO named the qvevri method an intangible Cultural Heritage site in 2013.
Grapes are partially pressed before they enter the qvevri for fermentation. In some regions, the skins and stems may be included; however, in the colder regions this process is considered undesirable for the wine could develop “green” characteristics.
Fermentation starts after a few days and continues for 2-4 weeks. As a solid mass of skins, stems, or cap develops, it sinks below the surface of fermenting juice. The cap imparts flavors, aromas, and tannins to the grape must. During fermentation, this cap is punched down twice daily to increase its impact on the wine.
When the cap finally falls, the skins and stems are removed for red wines, while whites are left n contact. The next step is to cover the qvevri with stone lids and malolactic fermentation begins. Wines are left to mature for approximately 6 months, during which time lees and solids fall into a section at the base of the vessel where the contact and impact is minimal.
At the end of the process, wine is transferred to a freshly cleaned qvevri or another storage vessel until bottling; sometimes the wine is bottled immediately.
Kvevris hold 10 to 10,000 liters (800 is typical) and enrich the wine with loamy clay. The wine is unsulphurated and produces an orange hue wine that are are slightly oxidative and tannic.
An Assortment of Grapes
Georgia has nearly 50,000 hectares of grapes, with 75 percent planted in white grapes and 25 percent in red grapes. The largest portion of the nation’s vineyards are planted in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia, the country’s primary winemaking area. The two most prominent grapes are Rkatsiteli (white) and Saperavi (red).
Georgia counts approximately 500 indigenous grape varieties but until very recently, commercial production focused on very few as many were wiped out during Soviet times when the emphasis was based on consolidation and efficiency. Today, around 45 varieties are commercially produced; however, the Georgian government is on a mission to save and reintroduce old grapes and expand options. In summer 2014, the National Wine Agency started to reinvent the wine industry by giving over 7000 plants of “obscure” and indigenous varieties to growers around the country.
Research suggests that the Rkatsiteli white grape to have first emerged in eastern Georgia (1st century), it produces a noticeably acidic but balanced white wine with full flavor and full body. It presents a crisp green apple flavor with hints of quince and white peach. The palate experience is complex because of the traditional Georgian qvevri method of production.
The leading red grape, Saperavi, is indigenous to Georgia (means: a place of color). It is one of the few teinturier (French: dye or stain) grape varieties in the world with a red flesh as well as red skin. It presents a deep, inky, often fully opaque color with aromas and flavors of dark berries, licorice, grilled meat, tobacco, chocolate, and spices.
A Prosperous Forecast. Perhaps
Research suggests that Georgia is suffering from a serious case of “wine fever” with everyone anxious to participate. Georgians are training as professional sommeliers, winemakers, and winery tour guides, and there are increasing numbers of classes for consumers.
Today Georgian wines are available in 53 countries including Poland, and Kazakhstan. China, France, Israel, the Netherlands, the US, and Canada. The industry is now in a period of rediscovery, renewal, and growth – and worldwide wine consumers are poised to welcome these wines to the competitive marketplace of e-commerce, wine shops, and wine aisles of supermarkets and airport shopping malls. Eighty wineries were working in 2006, by 2018 there were almost 1,000 wineries.
What will the Georgian wine producers do next? They may capitalize on international grape varieties and because of the climate, move toward making super-ripe wine styles. Alternatively, they may opt to draw on historical, long-established varieties and wine styles. The most durable is likely to be a mixture of the two.
Georgia Wine Association
In 2010, members of the Georgian wine industry established the Georgian Wine Association (GWA) as a platform for support, development, and idea exchange. The 30-member organization is the voice of the Georgian wine sector domestically and internationally and aims to increase public awareness and appreciation of the wines of Georgia. The organization is also tasked with maintaining and developing local wine traditions and wine-making methods, planting and vinification of endemic varietals, supporting scientific research and viticulture education as well as the development of the wine tourism sector.
Curated Wine Suggestions
1. Teliani Tsolikouri 2021. Locale: Orbeli, Lechkhumi district
Teliani Valley is the first Georgian brand to enter the American market and the largest of the nation’s wineries producing over 500,000 cases per year with 70 percent exported. It combines traditional and modern techniques to produce wines from indigenous Georgian grape varieties.
The vineyard is located on the estate of Prince Alexander Chavchavadze (1786-1846), a Georgian poet, public benefactor, and a member of the military who is considered to be the “father of Georgian romanticism.” It is here that wine was first bottled in Georgia and a vintage wine collection holds the oldest bottle dated 1814 wine.
Think Chablis with a light-lemon hue, produced from the Tsolikouri varietal, with minerality and hints of lemon, and limestone; fresh and fruity (think pear, green apple, grapefruit, pineapple) and honey). Pair with roasted chicken.
2. Gvantsa Aladasturi Red 2021. Locale: Imereti region; Aladasturi grape variety; qvevri fermented with wild yeast; grapes are grown in high altitudes. Organic. Made by Gvantsa Abuladze, and sister Baia.
Pale ruby red to the eye, hint of fresh raspberries, red currants, floral notes to the nose; balanced and soft tannins; suggestions of red fruit, subtle spice on the palate, leading to a long finish. Pair with grilled lamb or pork.
3. Tevza Chinuri 2021. Locale: Kartli region (villages of Bebris and Vazian); 100 percent Chinuri grape variety; 14-y/o vines manually picked, transported to the winery, and directly crushed into qvevri; fermentation starts at room temperature. Spontaneous fermentation stops when the wine is dry and this is followed by natural MLF fermentation.
The name is derived from a particular golden color, highlighted on the label. Chinuri is a thin skin grape variety with clear transparent pulp and juice. Goga Tevazdze is the winemaker (founded in 2018). Unfiltered; uses native yeasts for fermentation; macerates whites for 4-6 weeks on skins in qvevri with a minimum of SO2.
Mild yellow to amber to the eye; minerality, citrus, creamy, textured with great complexity
For additional information on the Wines of Georgia: the Georgian Wine Association (GWA).
© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the aut