The boom of Georgian wines

Amphorae, the most vocated regions, indigenous grape varieties, producers. Analysing a wine-region that’s experiencing an increasing global interest

23-05-2018

Vineyards in Rkatsiteli surrounding the Orthodox monastery of Alaverdi. Monks have been making wine here since 1011

See part one

Eight thousand years after the first cries in the cradle of wine, Georgia is a mature country with strong wine-related features. To solve any doubts, Kartlis Deda, the gigantic statue welcoming on the hills around Tbilisi, holds a sword in one hand, and a cup of wine in the other.

The ampelography of Georgia is varied and complex. The central part of the country is almost entirely covered in vineyards. The region is divided into 10 areas, each with its type of soil, and its vocation. From west to east there’s Abkhazia (the separatist region contended with the Russians, overlooking the Black Sea), Samegrelo, Guria, Adjara, Lechkhumi, Racha, Imereti, Meshketi, Kartli e Kakheti.

The latter, on the eastern border with Russia and Azerbaijan, is a real Eldorado: it holds 90% of the country’s vineyards and a series of tourist attractions – from the magnificent orthodox monastery of Alaverdi to the walls of fortress-town Sighnaghi– that can keep tourists busy for weeks. Over the past 10 years, Kakheti has become the most contended region by vine growers from all around the world, so much so the price of an hectare have rocketed and those who own some land have no intention to sell.

Transporting amphorae in the Kakheti countryside

Transporting amphorae in the Kakheti countryside

Wine goes inside a buried amphora 

Wine goes inside a buried amphora 

A historic source of wines for Russia, Georgia first began to widen its export to other markets in 2008, when Putin stopped the flow after hostilities with the then president Saakashvili regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The embargo, which lasted 5 years, created a huge hole in Tbilisi’s treasury, yet Russia is still the first market (sometimes they’re passing off wine as Georgian when in fact it is not), followed by Ukraine, China and Uzbekistan.

Over the past 5 years, the total national production has doubled: from 60,000 tons of wine in 2012 to 125,000 tons produced in 2017. And Europe is more and more interested in what is happening in the “cradle”.

The richness and original features of Georgian wine can be summed up in one fact: the country has 525 indigenous grape varieties. Incredible. In fact, only some 30 of these cover most of the land, 55,000 hectares that result in 75% white (or “orange”) wines and 25% red wines. 

Generally neglecting European vinification processes, and thus wrongfully defined as "archaic" by western prejudgement, almost all the production of Georgian wine uses amphorae. This habit is so important and ancient, that in 2013 Unesco included this in the World Intangible Heritage List. 

A map of the most vocated areas shown at the Akasheni Wine Resort, in the heart of Kakheti

A map of the most vocated areas shown at the Akasheni Wine Resort, in the heart of Kakheti

In the vineyards, there are many farmers who are proud to use minimal quantities of weed killers and other chemical rubbish. The vinification process almost always includes the following steps: the grapes, picked during rtveli (harvest) are pressed inside carved tree trunks and poured into qvevri, buried amphorae inside the marani (wineries). The basic idea, the same from its ancient origins, is that clay absorbs the must, enriching it and nourishing it like a placenta. The analogy with the mother’s womb is reinforced by the more or less ovoid-shaped amphora.

The fermentation process mostly takes place with the skins left in contact with the must up to six months. This gives the wines their typical amber colour and the volatile substances that we’ve learnt to know well in Italy too, in the past few years. After this stage, the wine is moved to different containers to be refined. The timing and materials depend on the producers’ aims.

The king of Georgian wines goes by the name of Rkatsiteli: 50% of the white wines are made with this grape, alone or blended withMtsvane, the second most popular white grape in the country. The most important red grape is called Saperavi and makes red wines that in some cases have a good body. Other varieties include TsitskaTsolikauri and Chinuri.

It’s hard to indicate a common feature among Georgian wines: it would be as absurd as trying to define the identikit of Italian wine. In general, and putting aside a few defects, “smells” or clearly naïf choices, we can say that these wines are characterised by natural vigour, a rustic personality and overall strong tannins. On the nose and on the palate one can often notice scents of apricot, walnuts, plums, artichokes and even corn. All beautiful edible fruits that can be found in this region, a topic we’re going to cover soon.

The wines from Pheasant's Tears, a 20-hectare estate with an excellent restaurant, between the Kartli and Kakheti regions

The wines from Pheasant's Tears, a 20-hectare estate with an excellent restaurant, between the Kartli and Kakheti regions

Wine from the Alaverdi monastery

Wine from the Alaverdi monastery

These just give a very rough indication because it’s a very complex world and has so little in common with our way of assessing aromas and flavours that we cannot expect to sum everything in just a few words and after such a short experience. One would need to travel from one end of the country to the other, and taste, taste, taste.

Meanwhile, in order to make some progress with one’s work, we can order the Georgian wines available in Italy, all distributed by VelierOur Wine from Soliko TsaishviliPheasant’s Tears (which is also one of the country’s best restaurants), Zurab Topuridze and Iago Bitarishvili. Those who want to go there – renting a car from Tbilisi and travelling around Kakheti, family included, is an excellent idea - should take note of these names: Ktw (the real multinational of Georgian wine), AlaverdiAmiran VepkhvadzeArchil GuniavaAnapseAntadze WineryDasabamiAsatianiNikalas MaraniNatotariArtanaEnek Peterson

Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso

2. To be continued

See also
Why Georgia is the cradle of wine


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