Before the dawn of civilization, a wine culture emerged in what is now Georgia. East of Europe, west of Asia, directly on the Silk Road, that culture spread to Europe and the New World. Georgian red wines are now poised to attract world-wide attention.
Evidence of viticulture, uncovered by archaeologists, proves the peoples of the South Caucasian mountains – present-day Georgia – discovered grape juice turned into wine. That was between 9000 and 7000 BC. In the basement of Tbilisi's National Museum, professor Antonio Sagona, pointing to a table covered with un-earthed jugs and clay goblets, said, “They demonstrate wine was part of socializing 1500 years BC.” Almost 4,000 years ago.
In a wine shop in Mtskheta, where the last kings of Georgia reigned, I interview Nika Khustsia, a modest aficionado, who makes his own wine (as most Georgians do). We are below the centuries-old Svetitskhoveli Temple; carved in stone, its entrance is decorated with vines and grapes. I ask Nika, “Why, with a long history, are Georgian wines are not better known?”
Nika, explained, “During Soviet times, Georgian wine production was forced into quantity, not quality.” He was confident that is changing.
George Maisuradze and Vako Elisabedashvili, interviewed in Vinotheca, a Tbilisi wine shop – with enthusiasm – convinced me the time has arrived.
Holding a bottle of Saperavi (the most common wine), I read a tasting note: Long-lasting nose with dark pomegranate, ripe plums and leather. The mouth is soft, full, rich, again with ripe plum notes, velvety, with strong character. You will feel Georgian character.” On a bottle of dark-ruby, semi-sweet Kindzmarauli, I read: “With this wine, even if alone you will not feel alone.”
After three weeks of asking about and tasting, I believe Georgian wines will become – more than they are – competitive on the world scene. Partly, because – as expressed in the tasting notes – their wines are – like the culture – lovingly personal.
George Maisuradze and Vako Elisabedashvili in Tbilisi wine shop are enthusiastic about Georgain wine potential.
A great variety of grapes
My quest to assess started a few days after arriving. In a let-us-practice-English session with students at the University of Georgia, I asked, “Tell me the best red-wine grapes.”
As Georgia claims to have more varieties than anywhere – hundreds – the list could be long. Knowing my limits, the students (two Salomes, Sopo, Kate, Mako, Nino, and Khatia) – after a quick comparison among themselves – recommend Saperavi, Khvanchkara, and Kindzmarauli.
Nika tells me Khvanchkara is clearly one of the most popular semi-sweet wines and (the Soviet leader) Joseph Stalin's personal favorite. Nika adds a historical note: at the 1945 Yalta meeting of the WWII allies, Stalin is reported to have said to Churchill, “With the war ending, perhaps we now should become wine merchants,” and he presents Churchill with a bottle of his prized Khvanchkara. In Gori, visiting the Joseph Stalin Museum, I discover, with a photo of Stalin on the label, it is possible to buy a souvenir-bottle of this semi-sweet. Not for me.
Stalin -- as WWII is ending -- suggests he and Churchill become wine merchants.
I ask Nika, “Why (my personal favorite) are there so few Cabernet Sauvignons?” Again, in his modest way, he explains how the Cabernet grape is experimented within Georgia, but, he thinks, “The conditions, soil and weather – the mysterious 'terroir' – seem not right.”
Georgia has problems
As it became my arduous responsibility, on a daily basis, to deliver table wine to an Australian-Georgian archaeological team, there was ample opportunity to taste varietal differences.
It became clear Georgians favor semi-sweets. Herein lies a problem for competing internationally where dry reds rule. However, produced since the 1880s, the Saperavi grape, when blended, produces as fine a dry wine as I know.
Problems of Georgian wines are, however, beyond the semi-sweets, two or threefold. The varietal’s names (as the reader observes) are not-at-all familiar; not like Merlot, Cabernet, Shiraz, Burgundy, and so forth. Also – as in French labels – the place of origin may confuse the taster or buyer; for example, a prize-winning 2006, red dry, Mukuzani (reading the label) is produced from a Saperavi grape, but the district where produced is prominent on the label.
The third 'problem' is a delight. The taste on the nose and palate is distinctly Georgian. A combination of grape and tradition in wine-making produces an unmistakkable flavor where wines were – some still are – fermented and stored in cone-shaped earthenware. Along with more modern, stainless-steel techniques, these earthenware pots vary from industrial to in-the-garden varieties. The result is an earthiness, a deeply-satisfying adventure in taste.
Three students, two Salomes and Mako, stand over wine storage pots at a farm to illustrate size.
The Georgians are coming
During my search I discovered the Georgians are willing to go head-to-head with the French. As reported in the June issue of Georgia Today, Vincent Lappartient, a France-based photographer – the originator of a French-Georgain wine-tasting event, held in the middle of Georgia's largest wine growing region (Kakheti) – was reminded of an early romantic era, an era of literary and intellectual achievement when such events were always accompanied by wine. At the mid-June the event, Regis Neau, head of a French wine company, is reported to have said, “Georgian wine deserves to find its niche in the world's wine market.”
Earlier in June, a wine tasting reception for Americans was held in New York. The intentions were twofold: encourage wine tourism to Georgia and open a larger share of the American market to Georgian wines. Sixteen Georgian wine producers were represented.
A next step might be for Georgian wines to compete in the highly-regarded Annual Wine Spectator competition. I note little Washington State (a late-comer to wine producing), not much larger in population, nor different in topography or area than Georgia, and about on the same latitude as both France and Georgia, won the award for 'World's Most Exciting Wine' in 2009.
Since 2003, more than only France, California and Italy have been among the top-ten in this annual competition. Australia, Chile, Germany, Portugal, Spain and little Washington State's producers now vie for 'Wine of the Year.'
With its history and current energy, I expect to see Georgia sometime soon.