If I were to say….Georgia(country not state) invented wine…what would you think? In our “here and now” thoughts you’d probably jump to France…or possibly Italy. If you really thought about it…didn’t the Romans have wine? Oh, and don’t forget about Jesus changing the water into wine at that wedding. With that in mind, it might not come as too much of a surprise to realize that wine has been around for a long time.
Actually the fertile valleys of the South Caucasus is where many archaeologists believe the world’s first cultivated grapevines and neolithic wine production began over 8,000 years ago! As a side note – this very area is on the same latitude as Southern France and Central Italy home to many world-class vineyards.
It began with locals storing wild grapes in pits in the ground. Over the cold winter the juice would ferment into wine.(Happy juice!) Consider this…if indeed this was in neolithic times …would “cavemen” come home from a hard day of hunting and settle down by the fire to enjoy a cup of wine? Well not quite…actually this would be the timeframe when hunters turned to farming and domesticating animals.
So, as this custom evolved, the farmers devised ways of fermenting the juice by storing it in large clay jugs that were buried in the ground. The wine was conveniently stored underground and ready to serve at a cool temperature whenever needed(hence the first wine cellars). Georgian artisans were able to produce unique and useful clay vessels to store and serve their wine and beverages. The Qvevris (or kvevris), were large earthenware vessels with an inside coating of beeswax.
For centuries, Georgians have been drinking (specially for the tourists) their wine from animal horns (called kantsi in Georgian). The horns were cleaned, boiled and polished, creating a unique and durable drinking vessel.
Fast forward to more modern times and apparently the Russians have always favored Georgian wines but after the war in 2006 there was an embargo placed on exporting wine to Russia. This was devastating to the Georgian wine industry. But it seems Russians have missed their wine, and Georgians have missed the rubles from the exports…. so talks are now underway to lift the embargo. Current reports indicate the shipments to Russia will resume this summer. In the meantime, Georgia has been active in promoting and exporting their wine to an expanding list of countries…including the USA. Much of the wine is produced by thousands of small farmers (using primarily traditional techniques of wine-making).
There are a few modern wineries, such as Badagoni, Kindzmaraulkis Mariani, Telavis Marani, Mukhrani, Mildiani, and the slightly older Teliani Valley producing their wine similar to western European methods. They too are marketing their wines aggressively in western Europe and the United States. The main wine grapes favored for Georgian wines are the Saperavi(red) grape and the Rkatsiteli(white) grape. The Rkatsiteli yields a lovely bright amber wine that pairs well with Georgian foods. These are only 2 of the 38 varieties used for commercial purposes…out of more than 400 varietals available.
During my recent trip to Georgia I spent two fun-filled days in the wine region of Kakheti to the east of the capital city of Tbilisi in the prominent Georgian appellations of Telavi, Tsinandali and Kindzmarauli. You can read more about the region on my previous post “Too Much of a Good Thing”. Suffice to say that I did sample a multitude of different Georgian wines during the short visit. Based upon my brief exposure I would have to say that I enjoyed most of the wines presented. I did not find the depth and complexity one would find in the Tuscan hills or the sandy hillsides along the Gironde. But then those regions have been cultivating and expanding wine production by more modern adaptations.
A few of the local farmers are still cultivating their wines in clay pots(qvevris) where you won’t find the tell-tale “oaky” finish so prevalent in western Europe and other countries. Locals say this gives the wine a chance to display it’s own unique taste and bouquet. Watch for wines produced by “Pheasants Tears” to experience wine fermented in the qvevris.
For me the most daunting challenge was just trying to pronounce the wine names. I must admit that I would need more time to truly “learn” the different types of wine and appreciate their distinct tastes.
Here are just a few of the types of wine produced in Georgia –
Saperivi – table red wine
Khvanchkara – semi-sweet red
Mukuzani – rich flavorful velvety red
Tsinandali – dry white wine
Mtsvane – light fruity white
Rkatsiteli – rich amber white
Needless to say these are just a few of the different wines. Now you must blend in the vintner and each vineyard’s unique terroir to derive the multitude of flavors and bouquets possible.
As the Georgian wine industry “matures” and more investors find their way to the storied hillsides of the Caucasus, you’ll see Georgian wines finding their way to the more expanded wine lists here in the States.
By all means be sure and give them a whirl and a twirl. They may surprise and delight your tastebuds!