With more than 500 grape varieties and eight millennia of viticulture history, Georgia is one of the most up and coming wine producing countries in the world. Welcome to the wonderful world of Georgian wine.
In this guide to Georgian wine, you will find out more about the country’s wine drinking culture, its rich heritage and unique winemaking method, as well as the country’s terroir and wine history over the last century.
Culture and tradition
The rituals of wine drinking
In 2017, a team of archaeologists found the oldest traces of winemaking in the Kartli region, south of Tbilisi. This happened about eight thousand years ago. No wonder drinking the precious liquid sits at the very core of the Georgian culture.
‘Georgians do not do wine tasting, they do wine drinking’
I was told by one of my guides in Tbilisi; ‘but it is considered ignoble to drink alone’.
Drinking is so important in Georgia, every feast comes with its own toastmaster, chosen for their wit: the Tamada.
The Tamada’s duty is to ensure that the glasses of wine flow, and that each of them is drunk with a purpose. Traditionally, no one is allowed to drink between the toasts, presumably to sober up before having to down yet another glass with yet another toast. However, modern times have called for modern measures. ‘Democratic supras’, feasts where guests can drink between the toasts, have made their way to the table.
Homemade wine and hospitality
Wine is so important, Georgians produce two or three times more of it at home than in commercial vineyards and factories.
Almost every family makes their own wine and proudly shares it with neighbours and guests. Just like the kisi that landed on our restaurant table while having lunch in Telavi ( the capital of the wine making region Kakheti.)
My guide told me that no one wakes up in the morning thinking about wine, they wake up in the morning thinking about who they will share it with. Proud of his production, the kisi’s maker, gifted us the full carafe. ‘BYOB’ is a common practice, and that hospitality is one of Georgians’ best qualities.
The harvest season
Possibly due to Georgia’s long winemaking history or perhaps as another excuse for celebration, the harvest season – rtveli, is one of the most festive periods of the year.
Since guests are thought to be sent by God, anyone, not just family and friends can join and lend a hand to harvest the crop. In return, the winemakers thank their helpers for their hard work with tables full of traditional Georgian dishes, wine and folk singing, all masterfully hosted by the witty Tamada.
What makes Georgian wines unique?
An ancient winemaking method
Georgian wine isn’t only unique due to its drinking rituals and its significant number of indigenous grape varieties, but also thanks to its production method.
Unlike most old-world wine, Georgians do not use oak barrels to ferment, store or age their wine. In fact, the oldest evidence of winemaking indicates the use of qvevri. These egg-shaped terracotta vessels are still used today in Georgian wines.
The qvevri, now part of the UNESCO World Heritage, are buried underground and sealed with molten beeswax and clay before they produce intensely coloured and distinctively aromatic wines. Even though it is used in less than five percent of the country’s wine production, this ancient method is receiving more attention both locally and internationally. European winemakers are starting to embrace it too.
A hotspot for natural wines
In Georgia, producing wine naturally isn’t just another buzzword led by a market trend.
Thanks to their chemical compounds and porous qualities, qvevri traditionally aid natural fermentation. Therefore Georgian wines do not require any added chemicals. Because exclusively natural wines (with no addition of yeasts, yeast inhibitors or nutrients) tend to vary in quality, and because sometimes the producers buy the grapes and thus cannot trace the practices used in vine growing, many Georgian wines are low intervention rather than exclusively organic.
However, over 60 winemakers are members of the Natural Wine Association, a union of wine producers who only follow organic or biodynamic methods.
The home of orange wine
Orange wine, another buzzword that has been getting a lot of attention lately, is something Georgia has been pioneering for centuries.
While qvevri reds are comparable to conventional or modern method reds, Georgian amber wines (as they like to call them) are a little-known treasure. Fermented in qvevri with the grape skins (and sometimes stems too), they have a similar structure to red wines.
Georgian orange wines tend to be sharp, medium to full bodied. They are relatively tannic, oxidative and often characterised by notes of dried or exotic fruits, nuts, caramel and leather.
The colour varies: the longer the skin contact, the darker the wine. Stem contact can give the wine a bold and slightly smoky aroma, reminiscent of Scottish Islay whisky. The fermentation process with skin contact can take from a couple of days to more than half a year, thus producing a wide range of styles, some lighter, some richer.
The history, economy and geography of Georgian wines
The Georgian wine terroir
Legend has it that when God gave each country its land, Georgians were, as usual, late. However, when their excuse was that they had, in fact, been drinking to him, God was so impressed that he gave them the only land he had left: the one he had saved for himself.
This heavenly country has the world’s largest amount of grape vine per hectare in the world. While over 70% of all Georgian wine is produced in Kakheti, there are seven other regions worth noting for viticulture: Racha, Kartli, Imereti, Samegrelo, Guria, Samtskhe-Javakheti and Adjara. Eastern Georgian wines tend to be more robust, while western ones are lighter, paler in colour and with a lower alcohol concentration.
The impact of the Soviet Union
Georgia was once home to over 1400 indigenous grape varieties, which were largely destroyed by the Soviet Union.
Collectivisation, industrialisation and mass produced wines replaced ancient methods that celebrated the abundant Georgian terroir and rich cultural heritage. Less than 20 grape varieties were considered strong enough by the Soviets to meet the targets of the five-year economic plans. In 1985, when Gorbachev launched his programme to reduce alcohol consumption within the USSR, over three quarters of all vineyard area was destroyed.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia remained Georgia’s main export market. However, in 2006, the Russian Wine Embargo banned all Georgian and Moldovan wine imports, thus drastically reducing the need for factory produced semi-sweet wines that Russians had been so fond of.
With Georgia suddenly losing about 80% of its wine sales, producers were challenged to look for new markets. This led to a shift of focus from quantity back to quality, as well as the rediscovery of ancient methods such as low intervention, qvevri wines, and a quest to find and save rare grape varieties.
In 2013 the Russian wine ban ended, and the Northern neighbour went back to being one of Georgia’s main export markets, together with China and Ukraine.
Whether it is Europeans’ general tendency to look for new, interesting markets, Georgians’ efforts to promote their wine or René Redzepi’s addition of Georgian wines to their menu at Noma, Georgia’s wine exports to Europe have been blooming. In the first quarter of 2018, the Caucasus country saw a 62% increase in wine exports to Europe, compared to the same period in 2017.
Take us back to Georgia
Together with their cuisine, Georgian wine will become increasingly more popular in restaurants, bars and shops around Europe. Are you ready for it?
Ioana is a food and wine writer, photographer and devotee. She runs the blog Berries and Spice, where she shares her passion for refined cuisine and wows her followers. Check out her sumptuous Instagram where she showcases dishes so beautiful they inspire awe, jealousy and hunger.