2006 is an important year for wine producers in Georgia. That year, the political climate between Georgia and Russia was tense. In response to Georgian initiatives to bring Georgia closer to the EU, Russia decides on the embargo on Georgian wine imports. Overnight, Georgian producers lose 90% of their traditional export market. This ban was ultimately a salutary crisis for Georgia, which had to find new outlets for its products.
How? Partly thanks to the storytelling: the Georgian tale is unique. The world has savoured it. For half a decade, it has been difficult to find a wine lover who has not dreamed of moving to Georgia.
After all, Georgia is not a wine country like any other. Georgia is the country where vine was first domesticated more than 8000 years ago, as shown by the latest archaeological research that has uncovered the oldest terracotta jars containing pure wine residuals.
Georgia has an extraordinary heritage of indigenous varieties (540 certified varieties) and unique winemaking methods, also unchanged for more than a thousand years, if not more. All these are very interesting arguments for the movement to promote natural wine that is developing throughout the world, and for those who consider modern winemaking to be a dead end!
Wine lovers, who will one day visit Georgia, will discover a country where the tendrils of the vine weave a tapestry between the church, the state and the national culture, without any other similarity in the world.
For Georgians, cultivating vines and making wine "was a path towards God", the birth of Qvevri wine was "like a prayer" and legend had proclaimed Georgia "like the vineyard of the Lord". None of this seems strange to Georgians.
Until recently, more than half of the working population in Georgia was employed in agriculture, particularly in viticulture, its most important area. Vines are everywhere, even in the city, where urban Georgians make their own wine, in courtyards, garages, on balconies. Vine leaves and bunches of grapes are found everywhere in national iconography, in wooden sculptures, in stone friezes and in all architectural details. At the supra, the traditional banquet, the master of Georgian toast or Tamada is a unique figure, unequalled in any other culture, and dates back to the High Antiquity.
The Russian embargo was lifted in 2013 and over the past five years wine production in Georgia has developed like a whirlwind. The Russians immediately rediscovered their passion for Georgian wine - while the Ukrainians never lost it. These two countries currently absorb the most of the country's exports (Russia alone accounted for 70% of wine exports in 2017). However, Georgia has successfully negotiated and signed free trade agreements with the EU and, more recently, with China.
Sales in China doubled in a single year between 2016 and 2017 and continue to grow. It is now, the third largest importer of Georgian wine. In addition, the Chinese One Belt One Road Initiative (the ambitious programme to build a new network of multimodal roads linking Beijing and Europe in less than 10 days by 2023), which aims to make Eurasia (under Chinese domination) an economic and trade counterweight to the transatlantic area (dominated by the United States), should benefit Georgia more and strengthen its trade links between these two major economic blocs.
In terms of tourism and foreign investment, Georgia has experienced a huge resurgence of interest from the Russians themselves, who appreciate Georgian cuisine and wine, its intellectual openness and freedom of expression, in stark contrast to the home-grown regime, which has such an oppressive atmosphere.
Meanwhile, Iranian, Azeri and Middle Eastern tourists are flocking to the new luxury casinos and hotels in Tiblissi and Batumi, while Turkish and Chinese entrepreneurs are setting up their own private businesses in Georgia, as are Iranian agricultural entrepreneurs. Hipsters from Western Europe are emerging on Georgia's electronic music scene, considered the second most creative in Berlin. Georgia is a small country, which wants to be extremely liberal and open, it is its philosophy to survive...
The major problem for Georgian wine producers is that traditional markets such as Russia and Ukraine remain mostly low value-added, and that the new Chinese market could easily slide in the same direction. Currently the selling price of a bottle is less than 2 dollars in these two historical markets. This is not very good for wine production in Georgia, which, with 50 million bottles per year of rare wines, should rather raise its prices.
The potential is fabulous, however. Georgians have understood that they now need to raise their standards to the level of European wines, and each winery is currently encouraged by the Government to raise at least 15% of its production to the level of European wines. In other words, Ukraine, Russia and China is fine, but Georgia needs the markets of Western Europe, the United States and Japan. And for that Georgia must raise the overall level of its quality.
Recent books on Georgian wine published by Alice Feiring (For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World's Oldest Wine Culture), Miquel Hudin and Daria Kholodilina (Georgia: the cradle of wine), Carla Capalbo (A gastronomic and oenological journey in the Caucasus) and Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan (Unblocking the Caucasus), as well as a book by Simon Woolf on amber wines (The Amber Revolution), show a great western focus.
Media attention on Georgia has so far focused on a small number of artisanal wine producers working with qvevris natural wine. Alice Feiring, in particular, conceived her work as a kind of struggle against "modernization" in Georgia. This concept does not necessarily serve the interests of Georgian wine producers or the global wine consumer community.
Indeed, the cultural appropriation of Qvevri wine by supporters of natural wine is a source of frustration for Georgian wine producers. In particular because of the variable success rate of wines produced in this method, where European production standards are not yet applied. A large part of qvevri wine producers today are never sure how their wines will look when they leave the jar in terms of profile and quality. This is, once again, due to the current lack of production standards. Indeed, each qvevri (terracotta jars) is potentially a microbiological jungle, a potential sensory car accident, unless the ship has been scrupulously prepared, if the harvest has been carefully selected and cleaned, if winemaking practices have been refined. It is sometimes said that an element of unpredictability is inherent in style, but there have been too many accidents lately...
Due to these recent problems with "deviant" natural wines, Georgia has now introduced a mandatory tasting requirement for any wine intended for export in quantities exceeding 3000 litres - except for wines containing less than 40 mg / l sulphur. The Caveat Emptor adage must, for the time being, be scrupulously respected in Georgia.
Nevertheless, Georgian wine exports to Western markets are up sharply (+300% for France in 2017). A British supermarket like Marks & Spencer trusts, for example, the Qvevris wine from Tbilvino (£8 a bottle). This is undoubtedly a sign that European consumers are ready to welcome quality wines from Georgia.
The feedback from consumers of this wine on the Marks & Spencer website is very encouraging "Very nice, interesting, orange wine. I would say it's more of a red wine, although critics say it's more of a sherry. I would definitely buy this wine," says a 45-54 year old woman from Stoke-on-Trent; while a woman of the same age group, living in London, says: "I wanted a different wine and I got it! The colour of the wine is dark yellow compared to other whites available on the market which are pale. It has a wonderful apple taste but is ultimately very complex. However, this makes it a little heavy. Critics say it's good to drink it with seafood, but I drank it with garlic chicken and it was divine. I'm going to buy it again"....Good scores, so.
Meanwhile, in Japan (where Georgian wines win all the prizes at the oeunological fairs), the fact that a Georgian sumotorist named Levan Gorgadze (locally known as Tochinoshin) won the Emperor's Cup will probably help Georgian wine sales there more than any promotional article in a Japanese newspaper.
Another aspect of Georgian wine, which has not yet had much impact at the international level, is regional differences. Georgia has eight different wine regions (Kakheti, Kartli, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Imereti, Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti, Guria, Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti and Adjara) and 18 AOPs.
Kakheti production, however, is dominant in Georgia, with about 80% of production. The other regions are currently struggling to gain notoriety. The regionalism of wine in Georgia, of its different styles, the articulated expression of the country's wealth of varieties, remains a project that promises the greatest future, when production standards have been integrated by all Georgian producers...
The final challenge for European consumers is labels. They are improving rapidly in Georgia, but place names and varieties written in Georgian are obviously not easy for non-Georgians to read. Any bilingual Georgian/English label that communicates legal information and a bit of wine history must inevitably use tiny font sizes. Use a powerful magnifying glass for the decoding. The Georgian labelling revolution still has some way to go.
...is all this worth it?
Yes, without a doubt! No place in the world offers wines like those from Georgia, prices remain very competitive for quality and interest in these wines is exponential. Who wouldnt want to try to taste the sixth species of wine in the world, the "white" tannic Amber based on a six-month skin contact in a buried qvevri? And who wouldnt want to taste the wine, the cradle of the Eurasian vine, more than 8,000 years ago?
We will complete this article, give you later, a selection of Georgian wines that are currently in terms of quality at the Top (it is a selection and there are many others). This selection focused on tasting wines from large companies, which make up the bulk of the country's export offer, as well as a range of experimental micro-vinified wines from some of Georgia's many lesser-known indigenous varieties. These wines suggest that it is perhaps a pity that the Saperavi grape variety has such control on the Georgian wine world.