By Emily Saladino — On a hilltop in Tbilisi, the buzzy capital of Georgia, stands a 65-foot statue, Kartlis Deda (“Mother of Georgia”). She holds a sword to fend off attackers in one hand and, in the other, a bowl of wine to welcome friends in a typically Georgian fashion.
“Being located at the edge of global empires, Georgia has often been suppressed,” says Daria Kholodilina, a wine tourism specialist and founder of Tbilisi-based company Trails and Wines. Throughout centuries of Persian, Roman, Ottoman, Mongol, Soviet and other invasions, “the local people were struggling and giving their lives to preserve their unique language and their right to make wine.”
And so, in Georgia, wine is both an economic asset and source of identity and national pride. You’ll find it everywhere: in designer glassware or homespun pitchers at formal affairs and casual gatherings; amid the grapevine carvings decorating the 4th-century tomb of Georgia’s Saint Nino; and used to make churchkhela, a beloved walnut candy, or chacha, the bracing liquor raised in toasts at convivial feasts called supras.
There are nearly 2,000 registered commercial operations bottling 175 million hectoliters of wine annually, according to the national trade agency Wines of Georgia. And yet, that’s hardly the complete story of modern Georgian wine. Many private residents also grow grapes on backyard trellises to make wine for their households, dotting the contemporary landscape with living totems to its evolving heritage.
Flanked by Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Black Sea shoreline forms Georgia’s western border, while the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus Mountains line its northern perimeter with Russia.
Elevation and proximity to various bodies of water create a range of climatic conditions. The western seafront region has humidity, coastal breezes and very little frost, whereas winters are long and cold in the northwestern highlands. The Likhi Range, an interior offshoot of the Caucasus Mountains, bisects Georgia from north to south. It helps to create a quasi-tropical climate in the eastern part of the country, Kakheti, where most commercial wine production takes place.
Many Georgians proudly call their country the birthplace or “cradle of wine,” and say it created a blueprint for winemakers worldwide.
“Being positioned in the Caucasus between East and West and on the Silk Road, Georgia has of course been influenced by its neighbors,” says Nana Kurdagiya, founder of the Vinesoul Club, who splits her time between Tbilisi and New York City. “However, at the same time, Georgia gave winemaking to the world through human migration… from West Asia to Europe.”
While modern interpretations of antiquity are always in flux, a recent archaeological discovery supports this origin story. In 2017, researchers found evidence of 8,000-year-old wine production at Gadachrili Gora, a destination 20 miles south of Tbilisi.
“The people living at Gadachrili Gora and a nearby village were the world’s earliest known vintners—producing wine on a large scale as early as 6,000 B.C., a time when prehistoric humans were still reliant on stone and bone tools,” wrote Andrew Curry in National Geographic.
Throughout ensuing millennia, wine has been a means of cultural expression and form of resistance in Georgia. In the Meskheti region, for instance, in the early 18th century, “during the Ottoman rule it was forbidden to grow vines and make wines there, and the locals would replant their vines in the forest so that they would be discovered later,” says Kholodilina.
From 1922-1991, when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, winemaking was industrialized, family plots fell under governmental control and, according to some sources, 500 indigenous Georgian grape varieties were uprooted in one region.
Still, Kholodilina says, people found ways to honor their distinctly Georgian identities with wine.
“Even in the Soviet time, with everything being considered state property, people would make a bit of wine for themselves to have something different from the mediocre state produce.” Maranis, or individual wine cellars in private homes, “were considered a sacred place and sometimes used to secretly baptize children,” she says.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, many Georgians were eager to cultivate indigenous grapes and vines and pursue heritage winemaking practices again.
One manner of reclaiming Georgian wine was to reembrace qvevri, the country’s ancient amphora. These clay vessels are made in an array of sizes, and winemakers put everything into them, including the grapes, skins and stems. They seal the qvevri with wax or clay and bury it, eliminating the need for temperature control as the wine ferments. The wine clarifies on its own as the byproducts naturally rise to the top.
“Even modern filters can’t filter the wine as well as a qvevri,” says Zaza Kbilashvili, a fourth-generation qvevri maker in Vardisubani, Georgia.
Presently, qvevri winemaking comprises 10% of Georgian wine. Other bottlings are made in what locals call the European tradition, based on techniques that arrived in the country from western Europe in the comparatively recent 1800s.
Georgia’s copper-hued, skin-contact wines, often called “orange wine” in the U.S., can be “either made through traditional Georgian qvevri technology or European technology,” says Kurdagiya, noting that “not all Georgian amber wines are made in qvevri.”
Georgia is home to 25 registered PDOs (Protected Designation of Origin) and has approximately 136,000 acres of vineyards nationwide.
The primary winemaking region is Kakheti, situated in the east at the foothills of the Caucasus. Some 80% of Georgia’s wine production takes place here, Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson estimate in The World Atlas of Wine, and the range of bottlings span easy-drinking white wines, full-bodied reds and everything in between, made in European and traditional qvevri methods. There are three main subregions of Kakheti and 18 appellations.
Other prominent PDOs include Shida Kartli and Kvemo Kartli, in central Georgia, which produce what Kholodilina calls “subtler ambers and reds, as well as really interesting sparkling wines.” In western Georgia lies Imereti, a region where winemakers use less skin-contact and more European winemaking techniques. Racha and Lechkhumi, also in the west of the country, produce semisweet red and white wines.
Grapes to Know
There are more than 500 indigenous grape varieties in Georgia, 40 of which are currently used for commercial viticulture. International varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz comprise just 6% of plantings, says Wines of Georgia.
White wine grapes include Rkatsiteli, which produces crisp bottles ideal for pairing with the country’s exceptional cheese and breads; floral, aromatic Kisi; and Mtsvane Kakhuri, a light-skinned grape that creates medium-bodied wines with complex, minerally flavors. Mtsvane and Rkatsiteli blends are common, too.
The most famous red wine grape is Saperavi, a dark-skinned grape and one of the world’s few with a red interior. It produces ink-colored wines with berry, meaty and spicy notes that can be accented by qvevri aging.
Other red wine grapes include ancient, thin-skinned Dzelshavi, often used in red blends; Mujuretuli, another blending grape in dry and off-dry reds; Kartli’s Shavkapito, used to make full-bodied reds and some sparkling wines; and Otskhanuri Sapere, a tannic variety mostly grown in Imereti.
In recent years, “the number of small wineries skyrocketed, and the quality of wine made by them got much better,” says Kholodilina. Plus, contemporary Georgian growers and winemakers “are getting more open to experiments, they travel more, attend fairs, talk to their peers, see what’s up globally and come back home inspired.”
Their bottles are increasingly available, too. Last year, more than 107 million bottles of Georgian wine were exported to 64 countries, up from 92 million exported bottles to 63 countries in 2020.
There are some geopolitical complications, though. Throughout the 21st century, Russian policies have destabilized Georgian wine, from the 2006-2013 embargo on Georgian wines, to the 2008 Russo-Georgia war to the current war in Ukraine.
Russia is the largest export market for Georgian wine, too. In 2021, Russia imported more than 62 million bottles—nearly five times Georgia’s second largest international market, Ukraine. “Some big companies fully rely on [Russia], and I’m not sure how well-off they will be, as the Russian invasion in Ukraine changes the buying capabilities of the Russians,” says Kholodilina.
However, the U.S. market for Georgian wine is promising. From 2015-2021, exports to the U.S. grew nearly 29% year-over-year, buoyed in part by changing consumer tastes.
Elise Rosenberg, co-owner of Colonie, Pips and Gran Electrica restaurants in Brooklyn, New York, has seen this enthusiasm grow firsthand. Skin-contact or orange wine now “outsells rosé in the summer,” she says, and customers are increasingly eager to try varieties they haven’t heard of to learn something new about the world of wine.
“I think one of the biggest draws to Georgian skin-contact wines specifically is that there’s a tradition there,” says Rosenberg. “This practice has been done for thousands of years. It’s tried and true.”
Published on June 14, 2022