‘The oldest and the youngest winemaking nation in the world’
Georgia, the exotic and little-known country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, holds one of the stronger claims for being the birthplace for wine and winemaking. Evidence of both crushed grapes and winemaking vessels, the famous Qvevri, have been found dating back to around 6000 BC. The legend then goes that Jason and his Argonauts, once arriving on the shores of the Black Sea, saw this magical drink and took it back to Greece with them (with Golden Fleece in tow).
Now, after nearly 3 decades of independence but only really experiencing any real freedom since the early-mid 2000s, this most ancient of winemaking nations is making itself known to export markets.
So, what is Georgian wine?
Well, it’s made of grapes almost unpronounceable to us Westerners, with a jumble of consonants that inspires fear in the most eloquent of orators. You may have heard (via L&S’s wines) of Kisi, Rkatsiteli and Saperavi – but what about Mtsvane, Mtsvivani Kakhuri, Krakhuna, Aleksandrouli, Anadasuri and Aladasturi? No, me neither.
It’s also made from a unique style of extended skin contact (for both whites and reds) creating a wine that a more conservative Western palate might think of as too natural or intense. In general, the whites (or, more technically ‘amber’ wines) are aged on the skins and seeds (note, not stems) for up to 6 months in Qvevri, but with many experimenting with shorter macerations. This extended maceration period is less desirable for the red wines as they don’t need to promote further tannins to be extracted, seeing typically a few weeks to a couple of months. However, once you get the notion of more commonplace, ‘European style’ winemaking out of your head, these are truly glorious and unlike other wines found anywhere else.
With this limited knowledge desperate to be improved, I, as part of a delegation of wine Press and Trade members, was invited by the National Wine Agency of Georgia to get my head around these wines.
First, we arrived in Tbilisi. Arriving groggily at almost 6am local time, we were welcomed to the capital city by the domineering ‘Mother Georgia’, looming over the city. A 20-metre aluminium figure overlooking the city from the hilltop stands proud holding a sword and, conveniently, a wine cup. This was a sign of things to come – the importance of wine to the Georgian people runs deep and is palpable all over the country. They say it runs in their veins, and you quite simply cannot escape it. You worry for the beer reps in Georgia…
Anyway, this city is an endlessly fascinating mishmash of cultures, all living in harmony. From the ancient Orthodox churches (Georgia is the second Christian country in history), the medieval and Ottoman citadel, to the Muslim quarter and later Soviet buildings that circle the old town centre, it feels like neither wholly Europe nor Asia; it is Georgia.
I had a real surprise on the first day – a walk around tasting was planned for us at the hotel to taste from wineries we wouldn’t be able to visit in person and, to my utmost pleasure, Vano Nareklishvili, winemaker of Lea & Sandeman’s first, and at the time of publication only, Georgian winery. With the assistance of a translator (English not his first language and my Georgian quite far from being proficient), he expressed his joy and pride that his wines were being sold in the UK. Tasting his wines in situ also confirmed to me just how good they are and definitely amongst the finest I have tasted. Find out more about Vano’s wines here.
Our host at dinner was the endlessly charming Nino Meris (Nino, the saint said to have entwined vines to form the shape of the cross and bring to Georgia again with Christianity in the 3rd century AD, and a very popular name in Georgia) in her shop/restaurant that she bravely opened in lockdown. I was seated next to her, and grilled the poor woman mercilessly, but she was amazingly accommodating and informative (a winemaker in her own right, she prefers a lighter maceration of skins for her amber wines and thinks Saperavi belongs in oak rather than Qvevri, for example) – her shop is a must visit for any wine lover passing through Tbilisi.
Browse our Georgian wines here