This article will be in English as I do not have the time to do a French version as well. Maybe later. In any event, how could I resist including this classic from Ray Charles, given my title?
I have just returned from my first visit to Georgia, the country, which with some reason claims to be « the cradle of wine ». Whether it is or not does not really matter. Wine has certainly been produced in this region around the Caucasus mountains for around 7000 years, and most of the neighbouring countries lay a claim to having been the first to have produced a wine. But they did not exist then as countries, so where is the relevance? Perhaps in terms of symbols, and we know the importance of these. What is more certain, and equally interesting, it that our word (at least that used in most European countries) for wine comes from the Georgian language: their word is ghvino. Just take a look at the map below to see how this word has spread, and one could add the Ancient Greek word oinos to all of these, as its root is the same. And we know the Basques and the Hungarians are a bit different, linguistically speaking.
England also owes a specific debt to Georgia as they have adopted the same patron saint, St.George, and basically the same flag. But back to wine. Georgia spent some 80 years as a Soviet republic, but had previously been annexed by Russia in 1810. The Soviet episode, as in other countries, played havoc with wine production, and generally destroyed many things and mentalities. Productivism ruled and quality went down the drain. The winery that I visited for my work was initially conceived under the Soviet rule as « Production Centre Number 2 » and made only white wines, mostly sweet and with no vineyard holdings. Today, after a period of ownership shared between Pernod Ricard and local shareholders, GWS (Georgian Wines & Spirits) now belongs to Marussia, who also own Château Mukhrani. The region in which they are implanted is called Kakheti, and it is the major producing region of the country. Georgia has 18 different wine appellations and a huge number of grape varieties.
Getting to Kakheti and its regional capital Telavi involves a twisty 90 minute drive through mountains, avoiding potholes and cows, heading eastwards from Tblissi, the capital of Georgia. GWS now holds almost 400 hectares of vineyard land, about 350 of which are currently planted. The frontier with Azerbaijan lies a bit further east.
GWS, who produce a couple of brands (Old Tbilissi and Tamada, with others in the pipeline) have come a long way since the soviet era. Not only are all their vineyards now fully cultivated with zero use of weedkillers, but one large plot on the foothills of the Caucasus mountains is under organic conversion. Investment takes time to produce results, but it seems to me that they have started with the right basics: getting their vineyard into order. Comparative blind tastings that were conducted when I was there proved the point that their wines are now amongst the very best in the country at all price points, both reds and whites. This message will take some time to trickle down to markets, and will of course need to be confirmed over time, but the unfinished wines from the 2015 harvest are very promising, particularly these from the Saperavi (red) variety. Speaking of varieties, Georgia almost certainly boasts the greatest ampelographical diversity of any country, with some 540 varieties listed. Only about 40 are in regular current use, but even so… As to markets, wine is a national drink, so the domestic market is important, although a lot of what is sold is in bulk. Russia is the key market and when the Russian bear gets a cold, Georgia sneezes. Then there is Ukraine, Kazakstan and Poland, with a start being made in China. This explains why we rarely see any georgian wines further west. Here in France people always talk about qvevri wines (those made un underground amphoras) when they mention Georgia. But this ancestral technique is quite marginal in volume terms, though very specific. I saw them in place and tasted some of the wines. When they are clean (bacterial problems and v.a. are frequent) they can be very interesting, with unusually tannic whiteq due to the prolonged skin contact. Not for the faint-hearted and definitely for use at table.
For the past few years the management of GWS has been handled by Philippe Lespy, a Frenchman from the Landes region, who is passionate about his work and feels the potential that there is in Georgia for wine when things are handled properly. Assisted by an increasingly competent team, he could well be one of those who will take Georgian wines to a higher plane in the future. I certainly hope so as his love of the beautiful things in this country also extends to music and architecture, as he was proud to show us. I hae often admired the courage and the skills of the Georgian rugby teams and players. Now I have also felt some of the beauty of some of their more ancient traditions.
The Alaverdi monastery with the Caucasus mountains in the background. The church dates from the 5th to the 8th centuries. The Soviets whitewashed out all of the paintings that covered the inside. Little has been recovered but the architecture is very impressive.
(text and photos)
PS. Am in Vienna for the Vie Vinum annual wine fair. More about this soon…