Georgia consists of some 70,000 square kilometres encased between the Black Sea to the west, the Greater Caucasus Mountains to the north, the Lesser Caucasus Mountains to the south, and Azerbaijan to the east. To the south, the country borders on Turkey and Armenia, and to the north on mighty Russia. About 40% of the population of 3.7m lives in the capital of Tbilisi.
Although fairly compact, Georgia offers a great diversity of soils and climates. The Greater Caucasus Mountains shelter the country from cold northerlies and, in their lee, can give rise to warm and dry foehn winds. The west is mild and wet, with as much as 2,500mm annual rainfall in Batumi on the Black Sea. The east with its valleys and plateaus is dry and more continental, with a greater diurnal and annual temperature range. Tbilisi, for instance, receives just 500mm annual rainfall. Harvest dates vary according to the local grape varieties and conditions: broadly speaking, the harvest begins in September in Kakheti in the east and wends its way westwards.
Our word ‘wine’ may ultimately derive from the Georgian gvino. The Caucasus, and Georgia in particular, is often regarded as the cradle of wine, which, according to the archeological evidence, was being made in the region some 8,000 years ago. Wine occupies an important place in Georgian culture: it is said that the tendrils of the vine inspired the curly forms of the Georgian script. Still today, Georgians throw elaborate feasts moderated by a tamada or toastmaster, who by his art, and calling upon that of the guests, turns wine drinking into an act of life and death.
In the 19th century, phylloxera ravaged the country’s vineyards. For most of the 20th century, Soviet winemaking emphasized quantity over quality, prioritising high yields and high yielding varieties such as Rkatsiteli. In 1991, the Republic of Georgia declared independence from the USSR. Still, Russia remained the major export market, accounting for some 80% of Georgian wine sales. From 2006 to 2013, Russia imposed an embargo on Georgian wine imports. With most of domestic demand met by home winemaking, exporters had to turn to more demanding markets and compete on the international stage.
The bulk of Georgian wine exports, though entirely competent, are what the Georgians themselves call ‘factory wines’, while the country’s real reputation rests with its much more rare kvevri wines. UNESCO lists the ancient practice of kvevri winemaking as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. A kvevri is a large, turnip-shaped earthenware vessel used for fermenting, ageing, and storing wine. Its interior is lined with beeswax, and its exterior is coated with lime for sanitation. In most places, it is buried or part-buried for insulation. Traditionally, it is topped with a wooden lid and sealed with clay. The harvested grapes are lightly crushed and entered into the qvevri, often along with skins, seeds, and even stems. Fermentation is natural and there is no temperature control: the wines are rich, vivacious, and characterful, but there is considerable unpredictability and variation from vessel to vessel. ‘White’ wines are amber or orange from sustained skin contact, though to call them ‘orange wines’ can lend to confusion. Kvevris entered into the international consciousness in the 1990s when some Italian winemakers ‘discovered’ them for the West and started using them.
There are well over 400 different grape varieties in Georgia, of which 38 are commercially cultivated to make wine. The most popular include Rkatsiteli (‘red stalk’), Mtsvane, and Chinuri for the whites; and Saperavi (‘dye’), Tavkveri, and Chkhaveri for the reds. The most prevalent variety by far is Rkatsiteli, which is often blended with the more aromatic Mtsvane. Though a workhorse grape, Rkatsiteli is versatile and capable of high quality, especially in qvevri. The most prevalent black variety is Saperavi, a teinturier grape that is high in colour, acidity, and tannins. The overwhelming bulk of Georgian wine is made from indigenous varieties, often in a blend; of the international varieties, the most notable is Cabernet Sauvignon.
Georgia counts 45,000ha under vine spread over 10 viticultural regions. There are a total of 18 appellations, of which 7 are for dry white wines (Gurjaani, Kakheti, Manavi, Sviri, Tibaani, Tsinandali, Vazisubani), 4 for dry red whites (Kvareli, Mukuzani, Napareuli, Teliani), 1 for both dry white and dry red wines (Kotekhi), 3 for semisweet red wines (Akhasheni, Khvanchkara, Kindzmarauli), 1 for white semi-sweet wines (Tvishi), 1 for sparkling wine (Ateni), and 1 for fortified wine (Kardenakhi). Most of these appellations are based on Rkatsiteli or Saperavi. Manavi is based on Mtsvane, but can include some Rkatsiteli. Khvanchkara is based on Alexandrouli and Mujuretuli; Sviri is based on Tsolikouri, Tsitska, and Krakhuna; Tvishi on Tsolikouri; Ateni on Chinuri, Goruli Mtsvane, and Aligoté; and Teliani on Cabernet Sauvignon.
A full 14 of the 18 appellations are in the eastern Kakheti region, which accounts for almost 70% of the country’s vineyard area and 80% of its wine production. Kakheti is located in the valleys of the Alazani and Iori Rivers. Its capital Telavi is a two-hour drive out of Tbilisi, crossing by the scenic Gombori Pass. The region is noted for, among others, its ‘cinnamonic’ soils, sandy clays with a high iron content and reddish colour. The picturesque hill town of Sighnaghi (or Signagi) is home to Pheasant’s Tears, a seminal producer of kvevri wines.
Of the remaining four appellations, Ateni is in Shida Kartli (Inner Kartli), Khvanchkara and Tvishi are in Racha-Lechkhumi, and Sviri is in Imereti. Mountainous Imereti in the west is the second most important wine region after Kakheti. It is especially noted for white wines made from Tsolikouri, Tsitska, and Krakhuna, among others. In Imereti, qvevri are called churi, and the regional tradition is for much less skin contact, leading to lighter, less astringent wines. Khvanchkara, a semi-sweet red wine made from Alexandrouli and Mujuretuli in Racha, is famous/infamous for being the favourite of Stalin, who was born in this land of plenty.
Adapted from the new edition of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting