When archaeologists last year found traces of wine making on 8,000-year-old pottery shards in Georgia, the tiny former Soviet republic claimed the crown as the world’s oldest wine producer.
It was an affirmation for many long-standing fans of the country and its winemaking tradition, which is ancient and, at the same time, a grassroots movement. Georgia’s hallmark is white wines that stay in contact with their skins, stalks and pips for months and further ferment in huge clay amphorae (qvevri) buried in the ground. It’s a trend that’s caught on elsewhere in the world, but its deep roots lie in Georgian culture.
“What’s happening now is a revival,” says Alice Feiring, author of For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey Through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture. A natural wine advocate, Feiring has long traveled in the country, and her 2016 book—a love letter to Georgian people and traditions—charts the modern (re) discovery of the wine culture and some of the struggles to remain true to its heritage.
“Almost everyone has a taste for their grandfather’s wine: that is their emotional truth and the wines they all respond to,” she said. “So even though they’re getting conflicting messages about what the rest of the world wants—clean wines—it’s really the skin-contact and complex wines that people crave.”
Noel Brockett, director of sales at the Georgian Wine House in Washington, D.C., who attends industry events dressed in a chokha, the traditional long woolen coat adorned with ornamental silver cartridges worn by Georgian men, says wine culture runs deep in the country.
“There’s something very particular about how Georgians love wine,” he said. “It’s a little eccentric but then you start looking into it and once you do, you’re truly amazed—it’s such an integral part of the culture and everyday life.”
Traditional winemaking in Georgia has always been a home endeavor, infused with history, religion and mythology, and references dating to the fourth century. An oft-told legend relates how soldiers wove a piece of grapevine into the chain mail protecting their chests, so when they died in battle, a vine sprouted not just from their bodies, but their hearts.
“Even where we think a culture like France or Italy is so wine-centric, Georgians just take it to a whole different level—much deeper than what we’re exposed,” said Taylor Parsons, an Los-Angeles sommelier, who has visited Georgian wine country three times.
Simon J. Woolf, author of the newly released “Amber Revolution: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine” a book that devotes a large discussion to Georgian wine, agrees.
“One of the most important things about Georgian wines is that it’s a window into a culture that most of us as Westerners simply don’t have,” he said.
Despite boasting 8,000 vintages, Georgian wines have come onto the world wine map only recently—thanks in part to the amber-wine trend, growing interest in natural wines, and improvements in the vineyard and winery.
“Georgia needed to change at the same time that these other things were trending,” says Master of Wine Lisa Granik, who serves as market adviser to Georgia’s National Wine Agency.
But geopolitical reasons were at play, too. Wedged in between the Caspian and Black seas, winemaking in the small republic suffered under Soviet rule until 2003. Historic plantings were pulled up for the production of cheap factory wines. Civil war and then a Russian embargo on all Georgian wine from 2006 to 2013 further stalled a migration to quality. By the time Georgia’s economy was functioning, “the wine quality was swill—at least what was commercially produced,” says Granik.
“What [the government] wanted were modern temporary wines that they could sell in volume and the state supported converting these large cooperatives into modern wineries,” she explained.
Georgia’s wine heritage was revived when people such as John Wurdeman saw its unique place in the world. The American was already living in the country as a ex-pat painter when he was introduced to the local wine by Gela Patalishvili, an eighth-generation winemaker in Kakheti—Georgia’s ground zero for winemaking (nearly three-quarters of the country’s production). Together they founded the Pheasant’s Tearswinery in 2007, jumpstarting both the revival and preservation of Georgian wine culture.
Central to that is the qvevri—the large egg-shaped clay vessels in which grapes are fermented with their raw materials, giving rich, structured, tannic wines. The same method for making red wines is used for the whites, yielding amber-colored results. No matter the color, the vessels are sealed and buried in the ground.
Bolstered by well-attended tasting events such as the international RAW Wine Fair, and the Zero Compromise and New Wine festivals held in Tbilisi, Georgian winemakers now range from the traditional to a new wave of ex-pats such as Vincent Jullien and Guillaume Gouerou, two Frenchmen who created Lapati, a bare-bones farm in Sagarejo, Kakheti. Here they produce about 12,000 bottles (sourced from an old Soviet factory, as many things in Georgia are adaptively reused) for markets like Japan and Denmark and hip wine bars in the United States. On trend is their “pet-nat” made from the Chinuri grape grown on high-elevation chalky soils, which posed the question of terroir—a concept with which Georgian winemakers are still grappling.
“The terroir of Georgia is new—it’s just happening now,” Jullien said. And, as someone who learned winemaking in Beaune, he should know a thing or two about it.
Woolf says winemakers old and new are still just figuring out the basics, like terroir and which grapes are best suited to their territories. Increasingly, he says, the results are worthy and noticeable.
“Georgia is still going through a process where people are trying to improve the vineyards that were in a terrible state, and there’s still a lot of producers are not fully in control of their quality,” he said. “You can tell when you encounter a producer who really understands the viticulture part of the equation and it’s just extraordinary how different that can be.”