Andrew Jefford tastes his way through the latest that Georgia has to offer.
Despite all the attention that Georgia has attracted over the last decade, my guess is that there will still be some readers of this column who have yet to taste their first Georgian wine. What can you expect?
Traditional qvevri wine (wine made in buried clay jars) is Georgia’s headline-grabber, despite the fact that it accounts for less than five per cent of Georgian production. It exists in both red and ‘white’ (deep gold or amber) form.
Red qvevri wines don’t greatly differ from conventionally vinified red wines – since skin-soaking is a part of all red-wine vinification, and since they spend less long with the skins after vinification, often going into oak at around the two-month point.
The gold or amber versions made from white grapes, by contrast, truly constitute a separate genre of wine: they get up to six months’ skin contact (and sometimes stem-contact, too): longer than even the most comprehensively ‘extracted’ red wines.
The result is deeply coloured, more or less tannic, relatively fruitless, low-acid, usually unoaked wine with a fascinating spectrum of other notes and allusions, and with great mealtime aptitude.
The Georgian Wine Association organized an International Qvevri Wine Competition in 2017 and is repeating the exercise this coming May. Georgia’s larger producers, too, have been surprised by the international interest in qvevri wines and are now taking the style very seriously — so the range and consistency of qvevri wines is fast improving. Small-scale and natural wine producers can make outstanding qvevri wines, but they have also marketed hideous failures, too.
The other main hook for Georgian wine is its 525 indigenous grape varieties. It’s a wonderful genetic patrimony – but it’s largely theoretical at present, since one red variety (Saperavi) and three white varieties (Rkatsiteli, Mstvane and Kisi) dominate most of the commercially available wines.
Other white varieties you might see include Goruli Mtsvane (despite the name, a completely different variety grown in Kartli from the ‘ordinary’ Mstvane or Mstvane Kakhuri, grown in Kakheti), Krakhuna, Tsitska and Tsolikouri; Georgia has international varieties aplenty, too, notably Chardonnay and Cabernet. Many classically made white wines are blends of varieties of general ‘Georgian’ style (light, fresh, graceful and vinous, with vegetal as well as fruit notes).
When I was in Georgia earlier this month I did, though, have a chance to visit Georgia’s viticultural research station at Mtskheta and taste a small range of micro-vinified wines from lesser-known varieties with the director, Dr David Chichua. The most interesting of these were three reds, Adanasuri (structured and almost austere, like a Piemontese red), Simonaseuli (juicy and fleshy, but with ample depth and structure too) and Mujuretuli (a grippy yet perfumed variety which lends itself to the semi-sweet red so popular in Russia), suggesting that it is perhaps a shame that Saperavi has such a stranglehold on Georgia’s red-wine scene.
Another aspect of Georgian wine which has yet to make much of an international impact as yet is regional differences. Georgia has eight different wine regions (Kakheti, Kartli, Samtskhe-Javakheti, Imereti, Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti, Guria, Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti and Adjara) as well as 18 individual PDOs.
Kakheti, though, is hugely dominant, with around 80% of production, and the palpably different weight and style of wines from the other regions struggles to get a hearing, apart from one or two celebrated properties (like Ch Mukhrani in Kartli, for example). Regionalism in Georgian wine, like the articulate expression of the country’s varietal wealth, remains a project for the future.
The final challenge for consumers are labels. These are improving quickly in Georgia, but Georgian place names and variety names are not easy for non-Georgians to read, and any bilingual label using both Georgian script and English to communicate both the legally required information and a little of the wine’s story inevitably has to resort to tiny point sizes – and, in my case at last, the wielding of a Sherlock-Holmes-sized magnifying glass. The Georgian labeling revolution still has a little way to run.
Is it all worth it? Yes, certainly: the world offers us no other wines like these, and prices remain very competitive for quality and interest of this level. Who would not want to try an example of wine’s sixth genre – the tannic amber ‘white’ based on six months’ skin contact in a buried qvevri? And who would not want to drink wine from what may well be the Eurasian vine’s birthplace, and from a location with an attested 8,000-year history of wine creation?
Wines made in qvevris are noted as such; all the other reviewed wines are classically vinified.