By tracing the DNA relationships between known grape varieties, and correlating those results with the radiocarbon dating of archeological discoveries, scientists are fairly certain they know where, and approximately when, humanity domesticated the wild grapevine and began enjoying the joys of its fermentation. Somewhere in the area of modern-day Armenia and the Republic of Georgia nearly 8000 years ago, mankind began cultivating and making wine in a way that we would easily recognize today.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that the “discovery” of fermented fruits most likely occurred well before then, in Neolithic caves around the 40th parallel north. But as best we can tell, organized cultivation of grapevines and the procedural making of wine has been going on in the Republic of Georgia since roughly 6000 BCE.
What makes Georgia so remarkable, and increasingly venerated in the wine world, is the fact that as far as anyone can tell, after pioneering winemaking 8000 years ago, they basically haven’t stopped since. What’s more, many of the techniques employed in their Neolithic and Bronze-Age winemaking continue to be used today, in what is credibly the longest unbroken winemaking tradition in human history.
Winemaking of the Earth
That history remains indelibly linked to the qvevri, the pointy-bottomed, terracotta vessels in which Georgian wine typically ferments and ages. The tradition of using these vessels in winemaking was declared a piece of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013.
Typically buried in the ground up to their necks, these amphora-like vats range from wine-barrel-sized to positively massive and continue to be painstakingly handmade by a shrinking number of artisans in the Georgian countryside.
Whole clusters of grapes are usually crushed by foot in wooden troughs, where the juices run off directly into the qvevri. Once the juice has been extracted, the stems and skins are usually (but not always) added to the juice in the qvevri and left there for days, weeks, and sometimes months. After the desired amount of skin maceration, the stems and skins are fished out of the vessel, or alternatively, the juice is removed and put into another qvevri and sealed for the final period of desired aging.
This process quite often describes winemaking for both red and white varieties. When used for white grapes, it yields the amber-colored wines for which Georgia has become famous, and that many of us refer to as orange wines.
Nonetheless, it must be pointed out that Georgia makes plenty of wines that aren’t fermented in qvevri, as well as a number of white wines that don’t see extended skin contact. In short, not all Georgian wines are orange wines.
A Mountain of Grapes
Tucked between the Black Sea to the west, Russia to the north, Turkey and Armenia to the south, and Azerbaijan to the East, Georgia is smack dab in the heart of the Caucasus Mountain range, which dominates more than 80% of the country’s topography. Glacial and alluvially carved valley floors host the country’s agriculture, with grapes sometimes spreading up the hillsides that won’t permit row crops.
More than 525 different indigenous grape varieties have been identified in Georgia, and this number likely represents only a portion of the incredibly rich viticultural history of this cradle of wine growing. With 10 defined wine regions, each with its own sub-appellations known as Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs), much of the country plays host to vineyards.
Among the most common white grape varieties are Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Chinuri, Kisi, and Tsoulikari. In addition to the ubiquitous red grape Saperavi, other red varieties include Budeshuri, Tavkveri, several variations of Sapere, and Amlakhu.
With more than 136,000 acres of vines planted across the country, roughly 1000 commercial producers of wine exist in the country, of which several hundred export. Quite remarkably, a vast majority of families in rural areas make wine at home, supporting the annual per-capita wine consumption of 25 liters (compared to America’s measly 12), putting Georgia in the top 10 of all wine-consuming countries in the world, on a per-capita basis.
Indeed, the most common and revered aspect of Georgian hospitality involves unsealing the backyard qvevri to offer a guest some wine, often as part of a traditional feast known as a supra. The defining characteristic of a supra in my experience, beyond the many toasts that all but ensure eventual inebriation, is the seeming requirement that every square inch of the table be covered with food.
I had my first taste of Georgian wine more than 15 years ago, and not without significant effort on my part in hunting down a bottle. I was inspired to do so by my passion for the wines of Josko Gravner, whose Friulian orange wines were inspired by Georgian winemaking.
Even by 2012, when I spent a big chunk of one morning at ProWein tasting through the wines in the Georgian Wine booth, few Americans had ever heard of Georgian wine, let alone tasted it. Almost none of the wines I tasted that day were exported to the US. That was probably a good thing, as many of them weren’t very good.
In the last 10 years, however, Georgian wine has entered the spotlight, thanks to the rising interest in natural wines, orange wines more specifically, and not a small amount of effort by the Georgian government in promoting the region. International and local investment has followed, as have significant improvements in quality and export representation.
Speaking of government promotion, I’ve attended two Georgian Wine events led by Masters of Wine in the past decade, most recently a fantastic event here in Oakland led adroitly by Christy Canterbury, MW, the wines from which I share notes on below.
In the last 5 years or so, Georgian wines have begun to show up on restaurant wine lists, especially those of the most hip, natural wine bars. As a result, something of a fallacy has arisen, namely that all Georgian wine is natural wine (i.e. made without pesticides, herbicides, or the use of sulfur).
While the country’s traditional winemaking can most certainly be described as low-intervention (cultured yeasts aren’t often used outside of the largest commercial productions), agricultural practices and uses of sulfur vary widely.
Like many developing countries in which winegrowers depend heavily upon a successful harvest to put food on their tables and a roof over their heads, the use of agro-chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides has become commonplace.
Luckily, the rising interest in Georgian wine has brought with it investment both internally and externally, and demand has begun to create a market that can support smaller artisan producers, both new and old. Consequently, the ability to get your hands on a quality bottle of Georgian wine here in the United States has never been higher.
That said, you’ll note that for the dozen or so wines below, I was only able to find a few outlets online from which to buy. Keep your eye out for Georgian wine, and join me in my ongoing quest to explore and appreciate one of the world’s great wine cultures.
2021 Mtsvane Estate “Pet-Nat” White Blend, Imereti, Georgia
Pale gold in the glass with medium fine bubbles, this wine smells of citrus peel, bruised fruit, and a hint of honey. In the mouth, honey, raisins, bruised apples, and grapefruit have a bright citrusy note and a soft mousse. A blend of 60% Tsolikauri and 40% Tsitska. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $29.
2019 Agrida Mtsvane, Kakheti, Georgia
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of pears and baked apples. In the mouth, pear and apple flavors have a faint citrus pith and nougat note with very good acidity and length. There’s a touch of spiciness on the finish. 11% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $15.
2019 Anapea Kisi, Georgia
A light to medium amber in color, this wine smells of dried apricots, orange peel, and dried herbs. In the mouth, lightly muscular tannins wrap around a core of citrus peel, apple, apple skin, and dried herbs. Excellent acidity and length. 12.8% alcohol. Aged with skin contact in qvevri. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. click to buy.
2020 Khareba “Monastery Qvevri Wine” Tsitska, Kakheti, Georgia
Light to medium amber in the glass, this wine smells of citrus pith and citrus peel, dried herbs, and wet pavement. In the mouth, lightly muscular tannins wrap around a core of dried herbs and wet pavement. Nicely mineral in quality, but not a ton of flavor. The tannins increase their grip in the finish. 13% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $27.
2019 Teliani Valley Tsolikouri, Lechkhumi, Georgia
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of citrus peel, grapefruit juice, and a hint of butterscotch. In the mouth, juicy and bright citrus peel, grapefruit juice and a touch of pastry cream all have great acidity. Faintly saline, very tasty. Score: around 9. Cost: $17. click to buy.
2021 Guardians Rkatsiteli, Georgia
Very light gold in the glass, this wine smells of pears and white flowers. In the mouth, lovely saline notes of pears, poached pears, and white flowers resolve to a pretty sweet cream note. Good acidity with just the tiniest hint of tannic grip. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $16. click to buy.
2021 Tbilvino Mtsvane, Georgia
Very light gold in the glass, this wine smells of green apples, star fruit, and lemon cucumber. In the mouth, bright green apple and lemon cucumber flavors are bright and juicy with excellent, even racy acidity. Long juicy finish. Mouthwatering. Score: around 9. Cost: $14.
2021 Lomtadze Family Wine “Tsulukidze” Tetra, Racha-Lechkhumi, Georgia
Light to medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of melon, honey, and peaches. In the mouth, extremely juicy flavors of melon, apple, and faint citrus pith notes have a wonderfully, silky weight to them. Faint tannins brush against the edges of the mouth. Quite delicious. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $??
2020 Vazisubani Estate “3 Qvevri Amber” White Blend, Georgia
Medium to dark amber in the glass, this wine smells of dried herbs, flowers, and a hint of wet leaves. In the mouth, a lightly tannic muscular grip surrounds dried stone fruit, dried herbs, and dried flowers. Nice length. Ferments on the skins for 9 months, and then ages for another 2-3 months with skins removed, before final aging in steel for another 12-18 months. A blend of Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, and Kisi. Score: around 9. Cost: $24.
2017 Dugladze Rkatsiteli, Tibaani, Kakheti, Georgia
Dark gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet autumn leaves and dried herbs. In the mouth, a lightly tannic grip cradles citrus peel, dried herbs, dried apricots, and wet pavement. Excellent acidity and minerality. Score: around 9. Cost: $??
2019 Mtevino “Khashmi” Saperavi, Kahkheti, Georgia
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, earth, and huckleberries. In the mouth, supple, muscular tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and huckleberry tinged with a hint of earth and smoke. Quite pretty, with good acidity and the tannins are restrained and fine-grained. Made in stainless steel. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $22. click to buy.
2020 Naberauli “Saperavi–Dzelshavi” Red Blend, Racha, Georgia
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dried flowers and boysenberries. In the mouth, juicy cherry and boysenberry flavors are bright and dusted with powdery tannins. Wonderfully delicious. Excellent acidity. A blend of 60% Saperavi and 40% Dzelshavi. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $28.
2019 Duruji Valley Saperavi, Mukuzani, Georgia
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of oak. In the mouth, flavors of oak suffuse dark cherry notes, hints of coffee, and caramel. Dried flowers and oak linger in the finish. Just too much wood, though the acidity is nice and the tannins restrained. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??
2020 Vazisubani Estate “Qvevri” Saperavi, Georgia
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of boysenberry and cherry. In the mouth, boysenberry and cherry flavors are bright with delicious acidity, Powdery, dusty tannins wrap around the core of fruit which has great freshness. Hints of herbs and dried flowers linger in the finish. Partially destemmed and then macerated on skins for 40 days in qvevri before being moved to stainless steel for 8-14 months. Score: around 9. Cost: $22.