Why we need to be talking about Georgian wine.
Written by Graeme Brandham, Head of Communications at WiV Technology.
Georgia, land of mountains, oceans, and ancient history. This country has stories with roots deeper than the caucuses, people with immense pride, and one of those rare landscapes that challenges you to admire its beauty and stand in awe of its magnificence.
Straddled by 4 other countries, Russia to the north. Turkey to the southwest, followed by Azerbaijan and Armenia making the set. Georgia, like any other ancient country, has seen its fair share of ups and downs. In the medieval period, it was a flourishing kingdom, powerful and rich. A period that lasted nearly 3 centuries until one day, as tends to happen over time. The tides of power shifted and they were overtaken by the Turkish and Persian empires, followed by the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union. Still, it’s not all bleak. During the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia once again found its liberty and declared itself a sovereign nation on November 19th, 1989. Gaining its full independence in 1991.
With such a weight of history on this land, and such a passionate people. It begs the question, what brings all this together. A crossroads of people, pulled hither and thither by different powers. You could cite their mythology and traditions perhaps as a unifying force, or their incredible cuisine, their Christian faith. But older than all of these things. Georgia is the homeland of wine.
Evidence suggests that wine has been made in this region going back as far as 8000 years ago. To put this into context, that is older by far than even Stonehenge or the great pyramids of Giza. Earthenware jars containing residual wine compounds have been found roughly 50km south of the capital Tbilisi during various archeological excavations that can be dated to this time. The jars themselves bear images of grapes and dancers. A sure sign that they were well aware of the revels of wine back then, much as we are in this modern era.
This is a tradition kept well and alive in Georgia today by means of the famous Supra. A feast of hearty food and smooth supple wine, dancing, and traditional music accompany the festivities, and all overseen by the Tamada. Or toastmaster as we might roughly translate this role too. Can you imagine now, how many feet have walked this land, how much wine has been part of that social fabric for all that time. It is simply incredible.
This method of making wines in earthenware jars still happens today in fact. Georgia has a unique method using similar clay-based jars, with the UNESCO recognized tradition of maturing wine in Qvevri. Pronounced “kway-vree”. A large urn-like pot, its sides lined with beeswax, is then buried in the ground up to its neck and sealed to mature the wines, often up to 6 months. These Qvevri range in size, but tend to be much bigger than most people expect. Like their amphora cousins, they have a similar shape. But that’s where the similarity ends. The Qvevri are only used to ferment and mature wines, not to transport them, and they can be big enough to fit a full-grown man in on the small end. (Something I desperately want to put to the test). And large enough to house ten tonnes of grapes at the larger end of the scale.
Aside from this dearth of history in winemaking, there is a lot of sense in growing wine in Georgia. Modern understanding of wine growing methods has indicated that the climate and terroir of Georgia is prime real estate for growing grapes. The Caucus Mountains to the north act as a wind barrier, stopping any cold Arctic air from the Russian steppes in its tracks. Not to mention the mountains act as a condenser. Forcing warm humid air up the mountainsides in a slow march to form clouds that later nourish the ground below with life-giving rain.
The western coast is bounded by the Black Sea, giving the area a distinctly moderate to sub-tropical maritime climate. Much like Portugal with the ever-present influence of the Atlantic cooling down the grapes just enough to allow them to ripen slowly and develop true complexity. Whilst also moderating the temperatures and negating any violent swings in day-to-day heat. And lastly, it is a mountainous country with a variety of soil types. Advantageous in every way when it comes to cultivating south-facing vineyards to soak up all that sunshine and finding soil types that allow for good drainage, helping the vines thrive.
There are 4 particularly stand-out grape varieties traditional to the country and they are spread out over 10 distinctly historical wine-growing regions. Some of the most important being Kakheti, Kartli, Imereti, Racha and Lechkhumi, and Meskheti.
The grape varieties are:
- Goruli Mtsvane, “go-roo-lee maths-va-nay”. A white grape that grows in almost every region in Georgia. It is a late-ripening grape that is quite finicky and can oxidize easily. However, when a wine is pulled skilfully from these grapes, it is sublime. Particularly when accompanied by the Qvevri process. Notes of stone fruit such as peach and apricot abound. With an interesting floral/nutty background. A characterful wine to say the least.
- - Rkatsiteli, “Ra-kats-ee-teh-lee”. This is another white grape that comprises just over half of the vineyard plantings in Georgia. It has multiple use cases from sweet and fortified wines, to simple elegant dry white wines, and robust Napa Chardonnay-like, full mouth-feel taste bombs.
- - Saperavi, “Sah-per-ra-vee”. Is the dominant red variety in Georgia. It is a deep, rich, intense variety. A real brooding grape, with extra thick skins for plump tannins, and an inky red juice. It is hallmarked by its black fruit flavors accompanied by savory notes of chocolate, tobacco, pepper, smoked meat. And balanced with extra high acidity, this is undoubtedly an age-worthy wine. A good comparison to a wine made from this grape would be German Blaufrankisch.
- - Usakhelouri, “oosa-hello-oory”. A very rare, and indeed rarely grown grape variety. Grown on the mountain slopes of the Caucuses, it can be made dry, or naturally sweet. Reminiscent of a lighter red wine as you might expect from a Pinot noir or a Gamay. Elegant, refined, and gentle.
All of these grapes are grown in both traditional and modern ways. Some use the well-known trellis training systems such as cordon and guyot styles of vine management. Others use a more traditional pergola system where the grapes are grown over a pergola creating a shaded environment that helps moderate the temperature of the grapes growing below so that they can ripen slowly. (Not to mention it creates a lovely environment to walk through, it is very romantic). And some grapes are still grown as wild shrubs in the bush vine style. Many native grapes are grown and discovered this way, with perhaps as many as 500 distinct varieties.
So with all this advantage and history in winemaking. Why is it that we don’t see as much Georgian wine on our shelves as it seemingly deserves?
That is a complex question, but as is often the case. History is the root cause. Georgia has seen a lot of upheaval in its viticultural industry. Back when it was a flourishing medieval kingdom, it was known as one of the greatest wine-producing regions in the world. But as time rolled on, trials and tribulations abounded. In the 19th century, fungal diseases and phylloxera ravaged the country as it did for most of Europe, dramatically reducing the amount of land under vine. Later during the Soviet period, the wine industry was rebooted. A few key regions were identified and placed under grape. But the style of wine being produced was distinctly average. With quantity rather than quality being the defining trait in order to satisfy the vast Russian market’s thirst. Then along came Gorbachev, whose famous anti-alcohol campaign that began in 1985 decimated the state-based grape growing industry in Georgia. Luckily for us, no self-respecting farmer was compelled to dig up their own vines. But the bulk of the commercial rootstock was gone.
By 2004 the number of hectares under vine was down to 37,000 from a high of 137,000 hectares in 1976. And most of these small amounts of vines were extremely young. Ill suited to creating top-quality wines.
However, this is not the end of the story. Georgia, as previously stated, is a country with wine-making in its blood and with every condition required to make it a success. It is a country that is bouncing back fiercely with its viticulture, and they are making wines that are taking the world slowly by storm. Recently the Georgian government has partnered with WIV, the gold standard for blockchain-based wine investment and growth. By adopting this new technology, much more money will be able to be filtered down into the pockets of individual growers and farmers. They will have a much wider audience of potential buyers and investors from around the world. And with WIV’s expertise in technology. Premium Georgian wine regions can begin again to focus on quality, on artisanal winemaking, and on that one thing that unites us all in our love of wine. Excellent, unique, culturally important flavors.
In the next of three articles about Georgian wine. I will be going into detail about something incredibly special. An extremely rare wine, tasted by so few people in the world that you would be more likely to stumble upon someone who has been hit by lightning. And one of the most ancient wines on the market today.
That is of course the Ojaleshi 1912. This is the first time this wine has been commercially available, and will soon be available through WIV and Charity Buzz, where the proceeds will be going to charity.
To find out more about this wine, about its discovery in an ancient monastery. About how Napoleon was a fan of this wine, and about how it has been stored in the caverns below in such an incredibly unique way.
Stay tuned for the next article, and how we are onboarding Georgia’s premium wineries and vintages, into the blockchain.