Georgia’s 8,000-year-old wine history makes it one of the oldest winemaking countries in the world. These days, it’s also all anyone in certain corners of wine can talk about.
“With the interest in natural wine on the rise in the U.S., Georgian…wine is quickly finding its way onto the shelves of local retailers and then into the hands of their customer base,” says Elaina Leibee, lead sommelier at Esters Wine Shop & Bar, wine director at Erewhon Market and wine buyer for Canyon Gourmet, all in the Los Angeles area.
Georgian wines feature hundreds of indigenous grapes, many of which are made using clay amphora called qvevri, skin-contact fermentation and naturally occurring yeast. These are among the low-intervention principles embraced by contemporary natural winemakers worldwide. In many ways, Georgia may be the spiritual home of natural wine.
“I buy for five retail locations and simply cannot keep this style of wine in stock,” says Leibee, who is dedicated to small producers practicing minimal intervention viticulture. “Georgian qvevri wines tick all these boxes.”
Wine in Georgia
Roughly the size of West Virginia, Georgia is bordered by the Black Sea to the west, Russia to the north, Turkey and Armenia to the south and Azerbaijan to the east.
There are more than 500 identified indigenous Georgian grapes, 45 of which are regularly used for commercial wine production. The most widely grown red grapes are Saperavi, Takveri, Shavkapito, Chkhaveri, Ojaleshi, Aleksandrouli and Aladasturi, while the most common white varieties are Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Chinuri, Kisi, Tsitska and Tsolikouri.
What Leibee finds most remarkable about Georgian wine is its survival through the millennia. “Georgians have been conquered numerous times through the ages, and yet their dedication to the vine and qvevri wine…is woven into the fabric of their daily lives and has not been lost,” she says. “Even when Georgians were under the rule of Soviet occupation and the demand for industrial winemaking became a priority for Russian consumption, the family winery prevailed. Just as a family would grow a garden, each family grows grapes and makes their own wine for the year.”
Although Georgian wines are not nearly as common in the U.S. as those of France or Italy, they’re on the rise. Georgia exports wine to 53 countries. In the first six months of 2019, U.S. imports reportedly increased 88% over the same period in 2018.
The Georgian winemaking industry utilizes the same techniques used since around 6000 BC. Winemakers fill qvevri, which vary in size from 20 to 10,000 liters, with grape skins, seeds, juice and the natural yeast on the grapes. All combine to ferment and create wine.
This technique, handed down through generations, is so ingrained in Georgian culture that in 2013 it was added to UNESCO’s list of customs that make up the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Wine is usually fermented in large qvevri, then transferred to smaller vessels to age. It’s similar to wine fermented in large stainless-steel tanks and then aged in oak barrels.
While many of the qvevri used today have been in service for many decades, there’s still a thriving “industry” where artisans hand-mold them using local clay and then dry them in giant wood-fired kilns.
As demands for natural wine and orange wine have grown around the world, the same type of qvevri that cost about 100 euros ($110) some 15 years ago now fetches more than 1,000 euros ($1,103). Wineries can wait up to two years for qvevri.
There are slight differences in the qvevri made in the east and west of the country. Those made in the east have wide tops, while those from the west feature narrower openings. The clay composition also varies from east to west. Eastern vessels are redder, while qvevri from western clay have more of a yellow cast.
This won’t be obvious to most visitors to Georgian wineries, as the majority of the vessels are buried beneath the wineries, with just the tops rising above the winery floor. This maintains a consistent temperature during fermentation, which alleviates the need for temperature control often necessary with stainless steel tanks.
Georgian winemakers clean and re-line their qvevri between uses. From there, naturally occurring yeasts from the grape skins cause fermentation, and the tannins present in grape seeds and skins impede spoilage. The qvevri’s egg-like shape causes yeast and sediment to fall to the bottom, while wine circulates within the more spacious middle area.
During fermentation, qvevri are loosely covered with glass discs that allow for the release of carbon dioxide. During further aging, however, the tops are sealed with additional beeswax to hinder oxidation.
The processes of whole-bunch pressing, including stems, and extended skin contact contribute to a fuller texture on the palate. Aging in clay without filtration before bottling can also add a soft grittiness to the mouthfeel.
White wines fermented and then aged on grape skins will have darker color than expected, which range from deep straw and medium gold to amber or even orange. Wines may be cloudy, which could be considered a sign of a potential flaw if produced in a more “modern” manner, but it can be expected in a natural wine.
Many of Georgia’s white grapes produce aromatic wines to begin with, but the bouquet and flavor profile can be much more complex due to the winemaking process. The nose will vary, but one can expect notes of peach, apricot, flint, leather, smoke, toasted nuts and roasted meat.
These notes will be found on the palate as well, on top of bright fruit flavors like grapefruit, lemon and green apple. Some of the same aromatic notes may also be found in red wines, bolstered by tart fruit flavors like cranberry and pomegranate, or deeper tones of black currant and cassis.