Wine Ink: Georgia on my mind — what’s old is new again
If I said the words “Georgian wine” to most folks, even regular wine drinkers, I’d likely get quizzical looks as they conjured images of chardonnay or zinfandel made in a state better known for peanuts, barbecue and Dawgs than fine wines.
Well, wine is made in the northern mountain climes of the Peach State, but the wines I’m referring to are from the country of Georgia, a former Soviet state located in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. While a select few American wine lovers have ever tasted the wines of the region, it has become a darling of the wine cognoscenti in recent years.
“If someone pitches me another story about Georgian wines I’m going to scream,” the editor of a major wine and travel publication exclaimed at a Wine Writers Symposium I attended two springs ago. Such was my ignorance of the subject that I had no idea of what or where she was referring. But there was much talk among the wine journalists who had traveled to Georgia about the “authenticity” or the “earthiness” of these wines that were made in a place located some 7,000 miles distant, but on a similar latitudinal plane as the wine regions of Napa and the Willamette Valley (about 40 degrees north of the equator), a sweet spot for growing grapes.
Someone had a couple of bottles of Georgian wines, one red and one white, and they were a hot item among the crowd who wanted to taste these magical new wines.
But here’s the rub: these wines were treasured not for their “newness” but rather for the history and age of the traditions used to make them.
Then, in November 2017, there was a flurry of international media reporting about the discovery of ancient wineries just south of Georgia’s capital city Tbilisi. An article had been published in PNAS, short for the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,” (you know … real science by real scientists) affirming that the earliest known winemaking on the planet took place over 8,000 years ago in two tiny villages in Georgia: Shulaveris Gora and Gadachrili Gora.
It found that people were making wine 6,000 years before the birth of Christ. And not only that, but the authors made their determinations based on archeological studies and analysis of “chemical findings corroborated by climatic and environmental reconstruction, together with archaeobotanical evidence, including grape pollen, starch and epidermal remains associated with a jar of similar type and date. The very large-capacity jars, some of the earliest pottery made in the Near East, probably served as combination fermentation, aging and serving vessels.” So now we know.
Amazingly, today, 8,000 years later, the winemakers of Georgia are still using large earthen jars, called kvevri or qvevri (pronounced “K-where vree”) to ferment and age wines. These jars range in size from large to immense and are often buried beneath the earth, as wines age in them before bottling. So ubiquitous, unique and traditional is the practice that UNESCO named the custom to its intangible cultural heritage list.
No wonder wine geeks have a fascination with Georgian wines.
But it doesn’t end there. There is a renaissance of sorts taking place in the wine industry in Georgia, which was stymied for decades under Soviet rule that ended in 1991. During that time there was a move to squash cultural traditions and to introduce modern techniques to the production of wine for commercial purposes. But today there are winemakers who are realizing that the generations old practices that are indigenous to the region, combined with the Georgian terroir, can produce interesting wines that reflect the place and tastes of the land.
Those few who know the wines in the U.S. point to reds produced with a grape called Saperavi that is dark, tannic and intense. The Georgian whites tend to show the orange tinge often associated with the natural wine movement due to their methods of production. There are over 500 grape varietals found in the general region and many are genetic predecessors of the grapes that we are familiar with in the Western world, like cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.
You may have to search to taste these wines at this time as the majority of production is sold in Russia, the Ukraine and, more recently, in the Chinese market. But there are a few hipster wine bars and specialty wine shops where they are available. And each year the import numbers rise.
If you see a bottle, pick it up. It won’t cost much, and you’ll be able to say you had a sip of ancient history.
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