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Georgia’s indigenous grapes: reviving hidden treasures

During the Soviet era, Rkatsiteli and Saperavi varieties ended up covering most of Georgia’s vineyards for volume production, while its wealth of indigenous grapes only survived undocumented in tiny scattered plots. Now it’s time to bring them back to life.

‘When I started producing wine, the wineries were all in a very bad condition,’ said Askaneli Brothers president Gocha Chkhaidze, recalling the poor state of the Georgian wine industry shortly after the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

‘There was inadequate sanitation, a lack of know-how and old-fashioned bottling lines. People were unable to make wine sustainably, vineyards were not sufficiently cared for, agronomists were unskilled and used to harvest the maximum quantity of grapes possible.’

Like elsewhere within the former Soviet Union, such focus on quantity went to the expense of quality, and of wine grape biodiversity too.

In Georgia, this meant that the high-yielding Rkatsiteli and Saperavi varieties ended up covering most of the country’s land planted to vine, while its immense capital of indigenous grapes – over 500 according to the National Wine Agency – only survived undocumented in tiny plots scattered across rural Georgia.

Today, while the country as a whole is gradually emancipating from its former ruler, its vineyards are yet to shake off this legacy of Soviet policies. Rkatsiteli and Saperavi remain Georgia’s most planted grapes: each year, they represent about 57.5% and 33.6% of the yearly national grape harvest respectively: a mind-boggling total of over 90%.

While the two grapes still dominate plantings, the Georgian wine industry has initiated a process that is slowly yet steadily leading to the recovery of its immense viticultural heritage.

A proactive approach

Château Mukhrani in Kartli. Credit: Château Mukhrani

‘It is absolutely clear by now that the rediscovery of rare indigenous varieties is a popular trend among Georgian winemakers,’ said Davit Chichua, leader of the viticulture and oenology team at the LEPL Scientific Research Centre of Agriculture in Jighaura, a few miles north of the capital Tbilisi.

The centre was founded in 2014 when former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili donated his own private grapevine nursery to the state. It is now home to some 600 varieties all available for businesses to purchase for commercial use. The majority are indigenous, ranging from Geogria’s flagships Rkatsiteli and Saperavi, to some of the centre’s latest discoveries such as Adanasuri (a red grape with a perfumed nose and elegant palate). The centre scouts around for forgotten grape types on a regular basis, but it also relies heavily on proactive Georgian farmers.

‘Unfortunately, we have limited human and material resources so, in order to succeed, we need the cooperation and enthusiasm of all Georgian people who find lost varieties or interesting clones,’ said Chichua, ‘There are still lots of unknown grape varieties in small plots across the country. When people find something interesting in their vineyard, they can take it to us.’

To find, collect, and experiment on neglected grape varieties, the centre works in partnership with wineries too, including Château Mukhrani, a historical France-inspired castle and cellar located in Kartli, Georgia’s second largest region by vineyard size.

‘Two years ago we started looking for other grapes local to our region with the aim to revive our microzone’s varieties,’ explained Château Mukhrani CEO and technical director Patrick Honnef.

‘Alongside the leading team of the nursery in Jighaura we identified six grapes that we would like to look at closer: two reds – Bursa and Danakharuli – and four whites – Tetri Budeshuri, Jvari, Tsivvazi and Chitiskvertskha.’

The experiment involved planting a total of about one hectare at the Château, one row for each variety. ‘Now we need to wait a few years to identify if they are really able to make outstanding wines,’ said Honnef.

While experiments on the six regional grapes are underway, earlier investments in the recovery of neglected varieties led Mukhrani to develop some of its best wines: for instance, their Réserve Royale Goruli Mtsvane and Réserve Royale Shavkapito both won Silver Medals at the latest Decanter World Wine Awards. The former is a creamy, soft white, with a complex nose of white flowers, aromatic herbs and toast; the latter is a bright, medium-bodied spicy red whose elegance and light colour Honnef compared to that of a Pinot Noir.

‘In Georgia, there is an ongoing interest in local varieties. It started 20 years ago, slowly, very slowly,’ said Honnef, ‘We were lucky that in 2003-2004 the people who were working on the rebirth of Château Mukhrani took the risk of planting local varieties like Shavkapito, Goruli Mtsvane, and Chinuri. They just went to private homes to find the plant material.’

Grapes with great potential

The LEPL Scientific Research Centre of Agriculture in Jighaura. Credit: Jacopo Mazzeo

Shavkapito and other neglected varieties still contribute to but a small fraction of all wine made in Georgia, but they are increasingly popular among the country’s most influential wineries.

Kakheti-based Teliani Valley, one of Georgia’s five largest producers, released a varietal Shavkapito as part of its Wine People project, a yearly themed programme aimed at amplifying the voices of smaller yet talented independent winemakers.

‘We wanted to do something to support small winemakers,’ explained Teliani winemaker Kato Shalvashvili. ‘In Georgia, there are a lot of amazing winemakers that do not have the means to bottle and market their wines so four years ago we decided to set up this project, with a theme that changes every year. We did one to showcase the Bolnisi region, one focused on women winemakers, then one on rare Georgian varieties.’

The collection consists of 11 limited-edition wines made in partnership with six winemakers and involving a range of unheard-of grapes such as Tetra, Kundza, Tavkveri and a rare, paler mutation of Rkatsiteli.

Shalvashvili believes that indigenous grapes such as Kisi, Khikhvi, Mtsvane Kakhuri (all white) and Alexandrouli (red) show the greatest growth potential. When combined, these represent a mere 4% of Georgia’s annual grape harvest, but are some of the country’s most planted varieties nevertheless.

‘If I had to suggest the Georgian grapes that wine lovers should go after when looking beyond Saperavi and Rkatsiteli, then I would say Kisi, Khikhvi, Mtsvane Kakhuri and Alexandrouli,’ argued Shalvashvili.

She stressed that, although little known, the grapes concur to make some of Teliani’s best award-winning wines, including Glekhuri Kisi Qvevri 2019, Glekhuri Kisi Qvevri 2020, and Glekhuri Khikhvi Qvevri 2019.

With its high natural acidity, Mtsvane Kakhuri lends itself to long periods of bottle ageing, particularly if vinified on the skins in traditional Georgian qvevris, while Khikhvi is a rather versatile grape used to make both table and fortified wines.

Alexandrouli tends to produce delicious, floral reds, with gentle tannins, while Kisi is capable of making both elegantly aromatic whites and layered amber qvevri wines.

‘The only one that we see getting more and more attention internationally is perhaps Kisi. That’s probably because it is quite easy to pronounce even for non-Georgians,’ said Shalvashvili. ‘Our grapes are really difficult to pronounce, so it’s a bit hard for people to remember them.’

Despite the challenges, the plantings of indigenous varieties are increasing exponentially. Vineyards of Mtsvane Kakhuri have grown by nearly 30% over the past ten years, of Alexandrouli by 45%, and of Khikhvi and Kisi by a staggering 400% and 450% respectively.

With the conservation work of the LEPL Scientific Research Centre of Agriculture, and the commitment of Georgian winemakers, the land planted to local grape types is likely to grow further over the next few years. Indeed, beyond the mere response to wine lovers’ demand for more viticultural diversity, the recovery of its viticultural heritage bears a much deeper significance. For Georgia, it is a means to break with the past, define its post-Soviet identity, and build a future as a culturally independent country.

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