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There isn’t a lot of wine from the Republic of Georgia on the U.S. market yet. But American wine lovers who look closely may start to see them showing up on the shelves of their favorite retailers and the wine lists at top restaurants. As the oldest wine-producing country according to archaeological records, Georgia has a rich history and culture of winemaking to match.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers talks about how Georgia’s winemaking is rooted in Christianity, how the country’s efforts with the vine have persevered through economic and political trials, and which popular Georgian varieties listeners might soon see in the States.
Tune in to Episode 7 of the bonus season of “Wine 101” to learn more about wine from the Republic of Georgia.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers. I’m happy to report that I’m as comfortable saying Grogu now as I have been since I was a child, saying Yoda.
What’s going on wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 7 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast, the bonus season. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair. How are you doing?
It’s not the state, but the country: Georgia. The wine situation there is amazing, and we need to be introduced to it.
It’s amazing how some of the language we use when talking about wine has changed over the years. There are certain things we don’t say anymore. There’s the “legs” and all this stuff. One thing that I have been trying to stop saying, that we said for years in the wine industry, is the word “obscure.” Often, that word is used for wines that come from places that we don’t understand. It’s OK that we don’t understand these places. They may not have ever been on our radar, but that doesn’t mean they’re obscure. They are places in the world that make wine that are either on the international market or not on the international market. It doesn’t mean they’re obscure. It just means they’re not on the international market yet, or were and are not now. I feel like once we say the word obscure, we think the wine region evolved out of obscurity. In reality, a lot of the wine regions that we don’t know right now have been around forever.
One of those places is the country of Georgia. We talk a lot about Greece and how important Greece was in the distribution of the vine throughout the Mediterranean. Then, we talk about the Roman Empire and how important it was for wine, just leveling it up. Then, we talk about France. As we talk more and more about wine through history, we notice how a lot of these “international varieties,” which are basically French varieties, can move around the world, grow, and make wine easily in most cases. Then, we learn about the appellation system. France really began it. There’s an appellation episode for the history of that. Places like Italy and Spain all latched on to this appellation system and started to create some sort of recognition to help other places be familiar with their wines. Then, the EU comes around and brings it all to this one, somewhat cohesive body. That’s how we experience wine through trade now.
This is all part of a very general statement, but I’m trying to get to this: There are other places in the world that make wine that we may not have heard of, or we’ve heard of the place and may have heard that wine is made there, but we don’t really understand it because we don’t see it around on our wine shelves. There’s Israel, Croatia, Slovenia, and Georgia. Some of these places, countries, cultures, and landscapes have been making wine for so long. As history happens, the social, economic, and political environments change. That can sometimes impede progress. When it comes to wine, it’s very tied to economics and politics. Wine regions are vulnerable to political lines changing. They’re vulnerable to power shifts, power struggles, war. If you go back to the Champagne episode, just think about all those wars being fought on that land while they try to maintain their vineyards. When power struggles lead to regime change, the agricultural world is often vulnerable to these things. And wine is agriculture.
What I think is very exciting is when a place in the world that has had wine for a long time but has not been able to enjoy the international trade of its wine throughout the world finally gets to a place that it can. Then, we get to experience it on our market. We are, in turn, exploring even more. Wine, for me, is all about the exploration. I love trying all different wines from all different parts of the world. Whether it’s being introduced to the wines of Lebanon through the Bekaa Valley or finding an AVA in California, like Temecula, that you hadn’t heard of before, but the wines are awesome.
When it comes to the country of Georgia, the history of wine is as intense and as intertwined into the culture as the Greek empire. It’s almost even more so than Greece, because of the religion that they adopted, which we’ll get into in a second. As of now, as far as archeology is concerned, the oldest wine-producing area that archeological findings have unearthed, is in the country of Georgia. Specifically, it’s in the southeastern part of the country in a region called Kakheti, which today is the most important wine region in the country, or at least the one that produces the most wine. The name of the site is Shulaveri Gora. In Shulaveri Gora and another area called lower Kartli, they found grape seeds, pruning knives, stone presses, all kinds of pottery, vessels that people would drink the wine from that had grape leaves and grapes sculpted into them, and jewelry with grapes and grape leaves on them. There were also what the “Oxford Wine Companion” says are rich ornaments of fruited vines found in the walls of ancient temples.
The vine has been in this place for a very long time. If you go back into the first season, we talk about the vine and where people think the vine comes from. There’s an area called the Levant, where everything is believed to have been started with the vine during the Bronze and Neolithic period. This site in Georgia is from the Neolithic period. The location of this country is sort of close to what we call the Levant. You can see how this works, but it gets even crazier than that.
Let’s talk about Georgia. We’re not going to get into all the wine regions. There are 10 wine regions with 18 appellations. That’s a lot to get to because there’s so much history and stuff you have to understand about Georgia to get into it. We’re to talk a little bit about the most popular area, because that’s what you’re going to see mostly on the American market. Remember, this is only the beginning. We’re going to start seeing more and more Georgian wine on our market. If we get used to the region itself, then we can start celebrating everything that comes to our shelves.
The country of Georgia is at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. It is bordered on the west by the Black Sea. It’s bordered to the north and east by Russia. It’s bordered to the south by Turkey and Armenia, and bordered to the southeast by Azerbaijan. It’s a small country, but it’s also mighty. It has survived the struggles of being an intersection country and struggling with empires coming in and out of its land, trying to take over, and sometimes actually successfully doing so. There was the Assyrian Empire, Roman Empire, Persians, Byzantines, Arabians, and the Russians. All these empires have come through this land and tried to take it, occupy it, or integrate it into different things. All the while, these people are living their lives and actually making and drinking wine. I say that because it is such an integral part of their culture.
When we talk about the Renaissance, we often talk about Florence in Italy, where we had this illuminating moment in our history. It’s known for bringing the world out of the Middle Ages. During the 12th and 13th centuries, during the Middle Ages, Georgia actually had a Renaissance. That is considered the Golden Age of Georgian history. Two rulers — King David the Fourth and Queen Tamar, the first woman to rule in medieval Georgia — consolidated the feudal systems and created a united Georgia. At this time, poetry, art, music, and all the things that happened in the Renaissance that we know of in Italy, happened in Georgia. The Georgian people have their own “Odyssey.” They have their own famous tale, called “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin.” It’s actually a national epic. Wine was so important during this era. If you look at the Georgian script and how they write in their national language, there’s a thought that the script was designed after the vine. If you look at it, it looks pretty amazingly vinous, if you will.
There is also this very involved feast that the Georgians do, called a supra. Supra means tablecloth. It looks, to us, complicated. Once you get into the rhythm of it, it’s pretty amazing and easy to understand. You have a toast master called a tomada, and they stand up and give toasts. Then, there’s a system of responding to the toasts raising a glass, but everything is tied to food and wine. It is very, very important.
Georgia has been a place for wine for a very long time. It was in the fourth century that the country pretty much nationally adopted Christianity. There’s a story that Saint Nino came into the capital of Georgia with a cross made from vines. That basically sealed the deal for a country and a people that were tied so closely to the vine. That vine, plus the idea of wine’s role in Christianity, helped unify the people of Georgia. They are a very heavily Christian culture because of this story. OK, it’s probably not totally because of the story, but it’s part of the mythos of how this happened.
Georgia is also known as the place in the world that began making “orange wine,” or amber wine. This is skin-contact wine. Georgia was known for these things called qvevri. These are big clay vessels people would bury in the ground. They would leave all the must in there for months. I read somewhere that somebody left it there for around 50 years. This is how they made wine. They made wine in other ways as well, especially as history evolved, but they’re known as the first orange wine culture.
Get this. This goes back to the Neolithic period. Georgia doesn’t only have Vitis vinifera, but also an ancient form of vinifera called Vitis sylvestris. This is incredible. Because of that, there is a very significant wild vine/domesticated vine culture in Georgia. Because of that, Georgia has upwards of 20 to 30 or more indigenous varieties that they use to make wine. These are wine varieties that you and I have never heard of. It is absolutely amazing.
I wish I could go into depth with all of it because it’s just fascinating stuff. But the thing is, we don’t see a lot of Georgian wine on the American market. There are a lot of factors to this. Georgia, because of where it is, has seen so much struggle. We talked about the Golden Age of Georgia. Before and after that time, this country went through many struggles. The persistence of viticulture is just an amazing thing in this country. One of the more modern roadblocks was when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union. A lot of the vine varieties that are indigenous to this region thrive in smaller production. But, because the Soviet Union was looking for quantity over quality, they ignored those varieties for the more high-production vines. Now, we’re finally at a place in Georgia’s history where we’re starting to celebrate those vines. Georgia drinks a lot of their own wine, but we’re finally starting to see wines from Georgia coming on our market, and they’re awesome.
Now, bear with me because I’m kind of going all over the place here, but I have a couple more things to say. Number one is, what’s cool about Georgia’s geography is that it’s mostly part of the Caucasus region, the mountain range. The northern length of the country in the foothills of that range is basically what Georgia is. But, there is a mountain range that goes down the middle of Georgia and separates the country in two. Throughout history, there were two kinds of people living on each side of this range, which defined Georgia for a long time. As far as wine is concerned, these mountain ranges create an amazing watershed. These mountain ranges also create really poor soil. It’s almost like a Goldilocks region for vines. They have thrived here for so long because the natural position of this country is a vine’s best friend.
Besides orange wine, what we’re seeing on our market from Georgia are wines from one region specifically: The southeastern region of Kiketi. This is the region that produces 70 percent of all wine from Georgia. There are a few varieties that are being used here. The two varieties that you will see more often than anywhere else are a white wine grape called Rkatsiteli and a red wine grape called Saperavi. To some extent, you’ll also see a white wine grape called Mtsvane. There are also other white wine grape varieties, including Kakhuri, Khikhvi, and Kisi, but we’re not going to see those right now. They’re blended in. It’s here in this region that we see a lot of qvevri clay vessel wine being made. Because we’re in modern Georgia now, that’s not always the way it’s being made.
Saperavi is an awesome red wine. It’s tannic. It can last a long time. It has this deep fruit core to it. It’s very earthy. Sometimes it has a little bit of iron. They’re beautiful wines. They’re great with all kinds of meats.Then, Rkatsiteli is this high-acid, floral, easy-drinking wine. It’s one of the most widely planted white wine grapes in the country for its versatility and easy-drinking nature. They’re beautiful wines. They can be made in the orange style, in sparkling, or in still white. We’re mostly going to see them made in still white.
I’m going to stop here. That’s where we’re at right now with the American market in Georgia. I wanted to do this episode to give you a sense of what this place is, how important wine is here, and the struggles that it went through. It’s very exciting that now, we can see a future of Georgian wine on our tables and on our wine shelves.
I know you guys are listening from all over the place, but if you’re ever in New York City, there is a wine bar called Ruffian on East 7th Street in the East Village of Manhattan. It is one of the only places I’ve been to that has a good selection of Georgian wine. They have wines from the Kakheti region and other regions. They’re like the Indiana Jones of wine. They find wines from places that you may not have heard of, and they expose them to you in such a nice, friendly, comforting way. If you’re in New York City, check out Ruffian. They’ve got Georgian wine. There’s also a place in D.C. called Supra. It’s a Georgian restaurant, and they have awesome Georgian wine there as well. Those are two places in major cities, if you’re there, to check out.
But just so you know, get ready. Georgian wine will be more prominent on our market. They are blending with some international varieties, but they’re very proud of their indigenous varieties, and hopefully we will see more and more of them.
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And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.