Time to do a web search for the pronunciation of Mtsvane, Rkatsiteli and Chkhaveri.
In 2017, Georgian wine imports to the United States grew 54% from the year before, translating to 458,000 bottles versus 294,000 in 2016. While that still puts them way behind powerhouse countries like Spain, Italy and France, the demand for and availability for Georgian wine is stronger than ever.
Not long ago, things didn’t look quite so promising.
About the size of West Virginia, Georgia is home to more than 500 grape varieties. A nursery just outside Tbilisi, the capital, has living examples of each one. Before Soviet rule decimated its thriving viticulture, many of these grapes were used by family winemakers.
Recent findings from a joint research venture by the University of Toronto and the Georgian National Museum suggests the country’s winemaking dates to 6,000 B.C., which makes it the site of more than 8,000 vintages.
“When the Communists took over, they planted vast fields of the hardiest, highest-volume varietals, Rkatsiteli and Saperavi, ripping out the more delicate, lower-yield varietals,” says Christine Deussen, who represents and promotes Georgian wines in the U.S. “Yet families were allowed to keep small, one-hectare plots, which is how the incredible range of [varieties] survived the occupation.”
Today, around 470 once-endangered varietals still exist, and the country boasts 100,000 registered family winemakers, though the actual number may be much higher. The government has promoted the country’s wine industry to expand into Western markets, as well as China and Japan. The effort supplements post-Soviet mainstays like Russia and Ukraine.
Georgia even has a Napa Valley-like wine trail in Kakheti that offers wineries, restaurants, hotels and bed & breakfasts, says Jonathan Nelms, owner of Washington, D.C.’s newest Georgian restaurant, Supra. His wine list has a depth and breadth of the country’s wines not seen anywhere else in the United States, says Nelms. He says there are two reasons why these wines are hotter than ever.
More than ever before, consumers seek authenticity in what they eat and drink. “[There’s] more access than ever to places, to people, to experiences around the world, so there is a high bar when it comes to making an impression,” he says.
John Wurdeman, owner of Pheasant’s Tears Winery in Sighnaghi, agrees. “There aren’t that many, if any, wine stories as rich and evocative as Georgia’s,” he says. “We are living in a time where many consumers shun homogeneity and embrace wines of distinction and character.”
Nelms says that Georgian wines are so appealing because they’re different and delicious. “Every year, winemakers get more and more adventurous, rediscovering old grapes in forests, on old family land holdings, or in government-sponsored seed/vine banks,” he says.
But with so many unfamiliar and tongue-tripping varietal grapes and regions, how can curious wine lovers wrap their palates around them? During the Communist era, the Soviets eradicated most of the vineyards in the western regions of Imereti, Samegrelo and Guria to plant other crops, so the focus shifted towards the eastern areas of Kakheti and Kartli.
Today, the latter regions still dominate, though “in the west, they are discovering almost-lost grapes and reinvigorating the winemaking traditions,” Nelms says. “There are exciting things happening, but they have a long way to go in terms of market share.”
Grapes native to Imereti like Tsitska, Krakhuna, Otskhanuri Sapere and Tsolikouri are generally vinified with less skin contact, so they’re less tannic and more refreshing. Fans of crisp whites may be drawn to the stone fruit and minerality of Rkatsiteli, while light red drinkers can substitute Pinot Noir for earthy, fruity low-tannin Otskhanuri Sapere.
Rosés are also emerging, often produced in a free-run, or unpressed, style from Saperavi, one of the few Teinturier grapes whose flesh as well as its skin are red. Saperavi is the most widely consumed red grape in Georgia, capable of wines with dark fruit notes and ample structure.
Georgia’s Role in Natural Wine
Georgia made natural and organic wines long before they became buzzwords. Natural wine proponent Alice Feiring was stirred to write her book For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey Through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture after she tasted a wine from Pheasant’s Tears in 2011.
“Now, amongst the eighty-some natural growers in Georgia, much healthier vineyard work has been implemented, raising the wines to a whole new level,” says Wurdeman.
Natural wine producers have also embraced qvevri, the egg-shaped clay vessels buried underground that UNESCO designated a signature part of Georgia’s winemaking heritage. Their porous nature allows for natural temperature shifts and aeration, and their lack of corners promotes wine’s contact kinetic movement allowing constant natural less stirring and more uniform oxygen contact. Qvevri are indispensable for amber wines.
“It’s like a white wine made as if it were a red wine, with the body, tannin, and structure of a red, all working on the flavors more commonly associated with white grapes,” says Nelms. The country has avoided the term “orange wines,” as some might believe they’re made from citrus.
Just like the rest of us, Nelms is still discovering Georgian grapes. On a recent trip, he sampled the white grape Buera, fermented on its own and blended with light-bodied black grape Tavkveri. “It’s not entirely clear how they will travel and age, but that is part of the fun,” he says.
And as for those intimidating names, Nelms says that even Georgians laugh at the difficulty of their language.
“A few glasses of wine can help that problem go away, as your pronunciation improves and your inhibitions diminish,” he says.