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K.I.S.S. Georgia-the Oldest Wine Producing Nation

Posted: Saturday, 27 September 2014 17:06

K.I.S.S. Georgia-the Oldest Wine Producing Nation

Sep 27: It is not clear what Paul McCartney had in mind when he added ‘That Georgia's always on my mind’ in his lyrics for ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ while the Beatles were in India, learning Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but it could well have been due to the Georgian wines which were so popular in Russia that most of its wines were being exported there-Keeping It Simple, Subhash (K.IS.S.) Arora describes (Wine) Georgia in a simple article after his recent visit to the erstwhile constituent of the U.S.S.R.

Click For Large ViewWhen people ask me about my latest visit to Georgia most assume it’s the State in the US and wonder why I’d go there since they haven’t heard about wine being made there. They are surprised when I tell them I went to ‘Wine Georgia’, the oldest country in the world producing wine with indigenous grapes for the past 8000 years-as evidenced by several old amphorae found; the country where almost every household produces its own wine and feels proud it’s special.

Where is Georgia-in Asia or Europe, many people ask? I will answer when I get a more specific answer. But the best answer I have got is that it is the most Asian country of Europe and the most European country of Asia. Most Georgians will tell you it is actually a corridor- a beautiful corridor at that!- connecting Asia with Europe by land. This makes it a very important country. No doubt, it has been invaded from time immemorial by the neighbouring countries including the Russians, Arabs, Persians and the Turks. Currently, it enjoys the independent status since 1991 when the USSR disintegrated.

Despite being totally under the control of Russia with the wineries state-controlled for about 70 years till the Russians let the reins loose in 1971 and the wine industry gradually privatized during the next 4 years, Georgian wines were mostly exported to Russia where they gulped them as they loved the cheap and semi sweet wines. After independence, Georgians also looked to the West and imported plants (mostly Italian) and instituted several technical innovations. Russians continued to import practically all the spare production of existing wineries which didn’t feel the need to look for other markets-a mistake nevertheless. In 2005, Russia put a total embargo and Georgians were suddenly in trouble. Despite several difficulties in even sustenance, they managed to develop newer markets and most survived.  

Last year, Russia allowed the imports and despite the initial skepticism, many of the bigger wineries have again started looking at the lucrative Russian market with one difference- they always keep in mind that Russia can play a political card once again and they must find alternative markets as they are not comfortable with the vagaries of the market.

The backbone of Georgian wine making has been the Qvevri (pronounced like Kvay-worry-but Q and v are soft and like half-words in Hindi) system in which clay pots of different sizes that can take 5 tons of grapes and more. Buried in the ground, these act like the modern day fermentation tanks with no heating and cooling required because the temperature when buried in the soil keeps fairly constant- at least there is no need for any special systems.

Several wineries have come up during the last 20 years after independence with modern stainless steel tanks and French barrels decorating the wineries. But the use of qvevri has been suddenly on the increase since last year when this system was given a UN Heritage Status to preserve the old tradition-so much so that the qvevri makers are in big demand, producing for Italian winemakers who are now starting to use this process just as some in the US and Australia have also started experimenting.

The reason why the qvevri use has attracted world attention-apart from the novelty for the new users - is the uniqueness of the white wines since both the skins and pips are a part of the fermentation process. Orange Wine that has cropped up during the recent years is due to the maceration of skins and pips in the stainless steel tanks-giving it fuller body and tannic flavours - is perhaps a take-off on the Georgian white wine processing. Incidentally, the Georgians are so passionate about their white Qvevri wines that they dislike the world calling them Orange wines. They find the dark, golden, brilliant wine as amber in colour. Perhaps it is good that Orange wines are made in tanks. They could be propagating ‘Amber Wines’ from Georgia- those whites made by the traditional method.

Click For Large ViewRed wines are also made in qvevri in the traditional technique. They may or may not be aged in wood- the qvevri wines are slightly fuller bodied, with a touch of earthiness. Incidentally, there is no regulation or uniformity in displaying when the wine is made in qvevri- some write Traditional Method, others have a logo with an amphora and the description around it suggesting it was made in a qvevri. A few lazy producers or the modernists simply write Q. The National Wine Agency which was formed during the Soviet period to control the industry in all its aspects, and now looks after the rules and marketing promotion of Georgian wines, ought to look into this aspect seriously to help the customer identify with less confusion. The sale of these wines is on the rise. One company, Tbilvino, in fact has received orders from Marks and Spencer in UK for these wines this year and the sales are already higher than expected.

It appears the time has come for the Qvevri wines on the world stage; all new producers make sure they add these to their portfolios. It’s also good for wine tourism which is on the increase. Unfortunately, there have been visa restrictions imposed on countries like China and India that would hurt the nascent tourism industry from across the globe- the tourists from the erstwhile USSR States are anyway prominent.

It may surprise many that Georgia has 80% terrain full of mountains- the Grand Caucus range is visible from almost everywhere in the Eastern part of Kakheti. The small country with a population of 4 million (perhaps less than the whole of bigger South Delhi) has Russia on the north with Armenia in the South. Azerbaijan (Capital- Baku) in the Southeast provides the road link to Tehran. Turkey stands tall to its Southwest. Lari (GEL) is the official currency ( $1US=1.77 Lari). Incidentally, this is one place where they don’t seem to charge commission and the difference in buying/ selling rates is less than .5% only.  

Tbilisi is the Capital and is a very beautiful city-food is delicious and reasonable. Incidentally, Georgian is claimed to be one of the world’s singular languages and has no relevance to any other country. Many people think erroneously that it has similarities with Russian language. Surprisingly,  names sound Indian-perhaps the surnames of Sindhis (for example- Chateau Mukhrani!) The words may be difficult to pronounce by many but not for many Indians who are used to half-letters in Hindi language. For instance Utsav (festival), mrityu (death), svasthya (health). Also, the phonetics is generally based on how the letters and words are in the written form. Famous poet Chavchavadze is pronounced simply as Chav-chav-aad-zay (Ch is pronounced as in chapatti, chai or chaat )

In case of difficulty, the first letter could be semi-ignored and has a soft sound. Tbilisi is pronounced simply as Bilisi, adding the soft T as in taTv or uTsav. Keeping it Simple, pronounce the words as you would in Hindi or English-keeping in mind that each letter is spoken and is not silent-notice the ‘d’ in Chavchavadze)

Wine producing regions of Georgia

Although Georgia is divided into 10 grape growing regions spread throughout the small nation with about 70,000 sq kms of surface area , Eastern region where the capital Tbilisi is also situated is more well-known for grapes with Kekheti producing about 60-65% of the total wine produced.  Shida Kartli to the West of Tbilisi also has a few wineries like Chateau MukhraniGuria and Kvemo Imereti in the West are good enough to remember for the novices.

Grapes of Georgia

Click For Large ViewWith a history of 8000 years one would think that Georgia would have infinite number of grape varieties. Yes and No. My visit to various wineries confirmed my thoughts that currently there are only about 20 varieties in actual use- around 12 in the Eastern and 8 in the Western region. There are over 1500 known varieties in different records.  Russians had supposedly uprooted most of the varieties when they broke the treaty with the King of Georgia on his death and annexed Georgia in 1921 after enjoying 4 years of interim independence and made it one of the 15 constituents of USSR. They simply wanted Georgian wines for Russians and decided what to produce, how much to produce and how much to export to each of the member states of USSR.

Thanks to the fierce love for grapes and wines as a way of life, the vines were saved from the prying eyes of Russians and many survived. Today, between 400-525 recognized varieties have been identified and are in the gradual process of renaissance. But the 20 are most in use.

Saperavi is the most loved and grown red grape variety-in Kakheti and practically everywhere else in Georgia. Wine is made in quevris, tanks with or without oak. These are versatile grapes that can produce dry to semi-sweet-to sweet wines, including Rose. They take well to oak and have good aging potential. Fruity character with milder tannins make them very palatable for Indians. During a sit-down wine dinner organized by the Delhi Wine Club in 2012 at Hotel Hyatt for about 260 people with choicest of wines, a Saperavi from Tbilvino Winery in Tbilisi (the biggest exporter) were served as one of the 10 wines. The feedback was very positive without anyone knowing the grape, region or the country.

Tavkevri and Otkshanuri Sapere (nothing Italian about this grape variety) were also tasted in blends and as varietal for the latter but they don’t come close to Saperavi in terms of popularity or a possibility-at least for the Indian wine lovers.

Rkatsiteli (often you’d hear a Georgian pronouncing as katsi-teli, a simple pronunciation ) is the most common and loved white grape variety that is easy to drink when made in a tank and slightly heavy and fuller in a qvevri version. Mtsvane (pronounce as Mits- vaanay-simple!) is another popular variety that is available in 3-4 different forms like Goruli Mtsvane, each claimed to have different characteristics.  Blend of the two is a very common practice. In fact, in the village of Tsinandali (also an appellation) there has to be a blend of the 2 grapes with Rkatsiteli having 80-90% portion of the blend.

Khikhvi, Kisi and Chinuri are other upcoming varieties that have a good future-not only because these are easily pronounced grape names, but the flavours are interesting and are very compatible with international tastes, including the Indians whose palates are evolving.

Appellations of Georgia

Click For Large ViewAs might be expected there are appellations and wine laws of Georgia that go before the 1753 laws made for Porto, claim the Georgians. There are 18 appellations known as Protected Designations of Origin (PDO). Tsinandali (white blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane) and Mukuzani (100% Saperavi from this region) are the most popular for the international buyers. Kakheti, Kvareli, Naphareuli, Teliani and Gurjaani (remember I said earlier about the Indian sounding names!) are also slightly less important but easy to remember. Kindzmarauli is the most cherished region for semi-sweet red wines adored by the Russians and the erstwhile constituents.

Georgia is still exporting the maximum amounts to Russia and countries like Ukraine, Azerbaijan but there has been keen interest generated in the West-especially UK and the USA, thanks to the State owned National Wine Agency (Ministry of Agriculture). An FTA signed with the EU became effective on September 1. There is a lot of buzz generated in several countries because of the history, tradition and the modernization taking place as well as the uniqueness of grapes of Georgia. Surely, we will hear a lot about Georgia. You will certainly read more about it in the future editions of delWine!

There is one importer currently of Georgian wines- Tabuni Gvino Cell:- +91 98 100 06307
Visit  www.tabuniwines.com

For more info re Georgia,  visit http://www.georgianwine.org/

We may have to ask Sir Paul McCartney what he had in mind when he wrote the lyrics when in Rishikesh, but I would agree about ‘That Georgia's always on my mind’.

Subhash Arora

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Tags: Georgia, Wine Georgia, Qvevri, Tbilvino, Tbilisi, Saperavi, Tavkevri, Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane

       

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