By Lisa Granik, MW, Planet Grape Wine Review Guest Panelist
Ancient and modern. Traditional yet fresh and exciting. Of all of the countries whose heretofore unknown wines and varieties are thrilling wine lovers, none has an older tradition than the Republic of Georgia. A tiny country once considered the “Soviet Florida,” due to its warm climate, beautiful beaches, Georgia is now thought to be the place where wine cultivation and culture were born, 8000 centuries ago.
Georgia is an enchanting place with dramatic views: mountain gorges with snow-capped peaks; 7th century ruins scattered with clay amphorae; city homes with filagreed balconies precariously perched on cliffs; and an exuberantly warm, hospitable people, fiercely proud of their country, history and culture. It’s hard to convey how wine is so entwined into Georgian identity and culture except to note that all across the country, grapevines wind along the city streets, climbing up apartment balconies and storefronts. People have vines in their backyards and patios as just as we plant ivy.
But it’s not just vines but wines! Homemade winemaking was always the norm throughout Georgian history; there was remarkably little trade in wine because everyone or his uncle made his own. During the Soviet period, wine was commercialized on a grand scale, but everyone knew the good stuff came from the qvevri, the conical clay vessel buried in the backyard, where the grapes fermented.
Rising from the ashes of the Soviet Union, the Georgian wine industry is now experiencing a stunning rebirth. Centuries-old, traditional methods of winemaking have been revived, and clean, modern practices have been introduced. During the Soviet period, production was limited to about 40 of the over 500 different grape varieties indigenous to Georgia, but teams of researchers have been talking to villagers, combing through back yards, and trekking up mountain paths, trying to identify the once famous, now obscure wine grapes.
Georgian wines typically fall into three styles. The wines geeky people get nuts about are the so-called amber wines, made in the qvevri. These are wines from white grapes that ferment on the skins for several months, which gives these wine a chalkier, grippier mouthfeel — more like a red wine. These wines tend to have flavors of dried stone fruits: apricots, peaches, nectarines, with a nutty note, sometimes of walnut skin. Red wines, notably from the Saperavi grape variety, can be made in the qvevri, too, but the period of skin contact is limited to the period of alcoholic fermentation, just like most other red wines. These wines are deeply colored – the word “Saperavi” comes from the word “to dye” – with flavors of dark berries, licorice, and grilled meat.
Most Georgian wines today are fermented in stainless steel tanks. Whether white, red or rosé, all of these wines capture the freshness and purity of the unique grape varieties. The white wines tend to be fresh and fruity, and are medium to light bodied. Depending on the variety, they have notes of citrus, green apple, pear, peach, maybe a floral quality, and a subtle “mineral” quality.
The third style is a semi-sweet wine, often red, which has an intense fruity, sweet attack, but a very crisp finish, as the wine is cut by fresh acidity and crisp tannins. Served lightly chilled, alone on a picnic, they are a remarkable match with curries, meatloaf, and spicy Asian fare – even jerk chicken!
Consider the following wines as a primer, and check back in for more recommendations:
Kondoli Mtsvane-Kisi 2011, $15: a blend of two varieties, this light, fresh and vibrant wine with lemon, lime and green apple flavors is a delightful aperitif or match with fresh fish dishes and salad.
Schuchmann Saperavi 2012, $15: well-tended Saperavi grapes deliver a medium-bodied wine that is packed with intense flavors of forest berries, licorice, and black chocolate with hints of spice: mouth-filling and just delicious.
LaGvinari Krakhuna 2013 $25: An amber wine from qvevri, this rare variety from western Georgia has notes of tropical fruits, grilled nectarines, and lightly sinewy tannins. (forthcoming this fall in the USA).
Lisa Granik has been a Master of Wine since 2006. A former law professor, she taught in Georgia when it was still part of the Soviet Union. She returned 20 years later courtesy of a USAID effort to assist the Georgian wine industry. She is an award-winning writer in both print and digital media, and is much in demand for her consulting projects, teaching and speaking engagements.