Georgia's traditional kvevri wines have hit the headlines over the last few years, but there's more to the country than that, says Bell's Diner's Kate Hawkings. Click ahead to reveal Kate's top Georgian winery selections and get an early heads-up on wine's new weird: Armenia.
You’ve probably noticed that wines from Georgia have been causing something of a stir ever since Doug Wregg at Les Caves de Pyrene brought the country’s wild and wacky ferments to our shores five years ago.
You know the kind of thing: ancient grapes treated in the ancient manner; naturally fermented in traditional clay qvevri, as tall as a man and buried neck-deep into the ground.
These distinctive amber/orange wines caught the attention of adventurous drinkers and natural wine hipsters. But they are only part of Georgia’s long and illustrious wine story.
'Wine is in our blood; it’s the part of our soul that nobody can take away,' says Irakli Cholobargia of the Georgian National Wine Agency at one of Georgia’s famous supras – multi-course feasts where wine and food are served with lavish generosity and toasts are drunk out of cow horns.
Archaeological excavations in 2013 revealed that winemaking in Georgia goes back to beyond 6,000BC, making this region the very birthplace of wine.
Wild grapes, as well as the vitis vinifera family of cultivated vines, from which almost all the world’s wine is now made, almost certainly originated here, spreading to the rest of the world thanks to Georgia’s key position on ancient trading routes and its exploitation by its many occupying powers.
From Romans and Persians to Mongols and Turks the country has been under the thumbs of various empires for more than 2000 years, ending in 1991 with independence from the Soviet Union.
In spite of this, they’ve never missed a vintage throughout their 8,000 years of winemaking. No wonder they’re so proud of their wine heritage, and that the drink is squarely at the heart of their deep-felt and much-celebrated culture.
Saved by the Caucasus
The mountains of the High Caucasus form Georgia’s northern border with Russia, protecting its winemaking regions from the extremes of bitter winters while also providing meltwater to irrigate during the warmer months.
To the south lie the gentler Lesser Caucasus mountains, over which lie the borders with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Most Georgian winemaking takes place on the plateau between the two ranges at an altitude of around 450-600m hovering either side of the 42nd parallel, the same as Tuscany and Rioja.
Cold winters give enough healing frost while the dry summers can see temperatures up to 40 degrees C.
The western regions of Samegrelo, Guria and Adjara have coastal influence from their Black Sea borders while in the east lies Kakheti, Georgia’s largest wine region, which straddles the mighty Alanzani river. Limestone, volcanic, marine and alluvial soils are found in an area best known for Georgia’s intriguing orange wines.
We drive over mountains from Tbilisi to Telavi, the capital of the Kekheti region. Dense woods rustling with wildlife – this is bear and wolf country - give way to the wide and fertile plain where vineyards are interspersed with orchards of apples, apricots, peaches, plums, walnuts and almonds – the same flavours that are often found in the area’s orange wines.
Roads are busy with tractors bouncing along carrying cargoes of just-harvested grapes; ancient soviet trucks loaded with hay and clapped out Ladas tied together with string jostle with sleek Mercedes. Cows wend their way home from their pastures.
Today, this is the very picture of a peaceful agricultural heartland but it’s been the route used by so many of Georgia’s invaders.
Russkis and Rustics
The Soviet Russians, who occupied Georgia for 70 years in the 20th century were harsh masters – and they had an impact on the country’s wine, too, demanding quantity not quality. Russia continues to be Georgia’s largest export market.
Although vineyards and wineries came under state control artisan winemaking continued, for nearly every Georgian family made, and still does, their own wine, from grapes they grow themselves.
Much of this wine is made in glass demijohns or even plastic tubs; some families may have the traditional qvevri, which can last for centuries if used every year.
Independence in 1991 saw vineyards previously controlled by the Soviets returning to their rightful owners and state wineries being put up for sale to be snapped up by forward-thinking businessmen.
Over the last decade or so, a battered nation has risen to its feet, and set about reviving its wine culture and traditions. Huge investment is taking place in both boutique wineries making niche wines, and in far larger operations.
The traditional making of wine by fermenting grape juice and skins in qvevri is on the UNESCO world heritage list as part of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity category. So how does it work?
Amphora... or against?
Grapes, either in whole bunches or juiced and with their skins and seeds added, are left to ferment with natural yeasts, gently punched down from time to time then the qvevri, lined with beeswax to prevent oxidation and leakage, is covered and left to do its business.
The cap of must which forms on the surface, where the shoulders of the qvevri are at their widest, imparts the wine with its characteristic colour and flavour, and is gently punched down during fermentation.
When fermentation is complete, the qvevri is covered with a tightly fitting lid and sealed with clay.
The seeds sink to the narrow pointed base, so limiting their bittering influence on the wine, while the other solids and the lees gradually sink to cover them, naturally clarifying the wine in the process.
Some makers rack their wine into clean qvevri as soon as fermentation finishes to complete the ageing process; others leave the whole alone for six months or more. The most extreme have qualities of turbo-charged skin contact and the spirit of bold and enthusiastic winemakers that gives some of these wines something of a ‘special interest’ appeal. Hardcore natural wine buffs may love them but they can be challenging for the more conservative drinker. There are, however, pristine qvevri wines to be had, both orange and red, that would sit perfectly comfortably on a restaurant wine list without scaring any horses.
Interestingly, qvevri wines account for less than two percent of Georgia’s total production; wines made more conventionally by people who are paying close attention to detail is where the biggest untapped potential lies. The future for Georgian winemaking looks bright, and it’s not all orange.
Wanna know more but time is short, read our one-minute wine expert to Georgian wine.
OK, so you know how Kate Hawkings like actually went to Georgia and totally tasted a load of wine? Well some of them were like really good? And you can totally buy them if you want.
Zurab Ramazashvili, an ex-surgeon bought the then-bankrupt Marani winery in 1997, installed state-of-the-art stainless steel tanks from Italy, brought back qvevris (earthenware amphorae) which hadn’t been used for decades, and now makes a range of accessible, modern wines at good prices.
Kondoli Vineyards Mtsvane/Kisi 2016 has floral charm with clean acidity. Very easy to like.
Gogi and his son Temuri make immaculate qvevri wines under their Vita Vinea and Orgo labels, some from vines planted by Gogi’s grandfather in the 1930s. They have an eagle eye for detail and cleanliness, adding only a touch of sulphur immediately after malo finishes to kill off unwanted funk.
Vita Vinea Kisi Amber Dry 2015 is stunning - perfumed, poised and very pure.
Orgo Saperavi 2015 has bags of personality; bouncy fresh fruit with lift and verve and a delicious qvevri crunch.
Stockist: Clarke Foyster
Badagoni is Georgia’s largest wine company and churns out a range of wines to suit all markets. Their new Gau range of smartly packaged wines made from indigenous grapes is now available in the UK and is well worth checking out. I liked the Badagoni #5, a semi-dry red blend that’s lovely slightly chilled.
John Wurderman is an American who has lived in Georgia for more than 20 years. He makes far-out and fascinating wines with attitude at his Pheasant’s Tears winery in the far reaches of the Kakheti region.
His Rkatsiteli 2011 is one of his less challenging numbers but should still be approached with caution by nervous drinkers.
Stockist: Les Caves de Pyrene
Another star in Les Caves de Pyrene’s stable of Georgian winemakers. Zourab’s Saperavi 2015 has a lovely clean delicacy with sour cherry and peppercorn notes.
Stockist: Les Caves de Pyrene
If you're a wine adventurer who thinks Georgian orange wines have become a bit too mainstream, there’s always Armenia.
So where is it?
Armenia is Georgia’s landlocked neighbour, huddling on its southern borders and also hemmed in by Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan.
Got any history for us?
Oh yes. It suffered a similarly tumultuous and brutal history of invasion and repression to Georgia, including Soviet rule from 1922 until its independence in 1991; it, too, lays claim to an ancient wine culture.
How ancient is ancient?
Like really ancient. A 2007 excavation of caves near the village of Areni, close to the Iranian border, revealed traces of grape seeds in terracotta pots - a sure sign of winemaking - along with the remains of young girls, most probably sacrificed. These were carbon dated to 4,100BC, making it (then) the world’s oldest winery, and one of Armenia’s major tourist attractions. It’s well worth a visit.
I’ll look in next time I’m passing. How about more recently?
The Soviets appointed Armenia as their producer of brandy - Winston Churchill was a famous fan – and, unlike Georgia, the country’s traditional wine culture was pretty much lost during the Soviet period and is only just finding its feet again.
But on the plus side?
This area is free from phylloxera so there are no clones or grafting. Voskeat is the primary white grape, traced back to around 1,000BC and a possible ancestor of Chardonnay, while Areni Noir is the major red grape, whose seeds were found in the Areni caves.
And do they have clay pots?
Believe it. The traditional way of making wine here is in large clay vessels called karasi, similar to Georgia’s qvevri. Their use almost entirely died out during the Soviet period but some forward-thinking wineries (see below) are bringing them back.
Two to watch
The Voskevaz winery was established under the Soviets in 1932 and was thoroughly modernised after its privatisation in 2004. They use karasis to ferment some of their wines, then often ageing them in Armenian oak.
Available from Ginvino.
Zorah is the project of Zorik Gharibian, an Italian-Armenian based in Milan, whose philosophy is to put Armenia on the map as a wine-making nation.
At an altitude of 1,400m and within sight of the gorge where the Areni caves lie, this immaculate winery makes breathtaking wines from old bush vines fermented with natural yeasts in concrete eggs and aged in old karasis.
Available from Liberty Wines.