Georgia Wine On My Mind
The Georgians are very proud of their wine-making history. They are also proud of the fact that a recent archaeological expedition in a region of the country known as Gadachrili Gora found fragments of clay barrels decorated on the outside with images of grapes. These not only contained traces of wine, but also DNA from residue pollen, strongly suggesting that the surrounding grounds were covered with vineyards. The remains among which these barrels were found dated from 6,000 B.C., which makes these the oldest evidence of winemaking ever discovered — quite a claim in the history of one of my favorite beverages!
Georgian winemaking has access to more than 500 grapes. Its legacy has survived the time of Soviet occupation (Georgia sits at the crossroads of Western Asia and Eastern Europe) and its attempts to industrialize the wine industry across its territories. The Soviets granted every household the right to grow crops on 1 acre of land, and the locals took this opportunity to add other varieties to the Soviet favorites of Saperavi (red) and Rkatsiteli (white) to protect their grape heritage.
Today, many Georgians still make wine and brandy at home for personal consumption or for sale to supplement their income. Over the last few years, they have also developed a small, but growing, wine tourism industry. While we were visiting, we took the opportunity to visit the largest wine-growing region, and after a two-hour drive from the capital, we found ourselves in the lush and green hills of Kakheti. We visited three vineyards, and at each one we were able to view the traditional methods of making wine and compare them to the European-style nectars the wineries also produce, often for the export market.
In the style of winemaking with which we might be most familiar, the grapes are harvested, the juice and skin are separated (the skins remaining in contact if you are making red wine), and the wine is fermented with additional yeast, if needed. The wine is then aged in wooden barrels or stainless steel containers before being bottled.
Winemaking styles in Europe and Georgia are as different as the wine.
Traditional Georgian winemaking, however, is quite different. Once the grapes are harvested, they are pressed. Then, along with the skins, the stems and pips of the grapes are placed in a large clay barrel, known as a qvevri, which is buried in the ground. Th barrel is then sealed, and the wine is left to ferment with natural yeasts for five to six months. After this time, it is decanted from the qvevri and bottled. The remaining grape residue is distilled to make a “chacha” brandy. Afterward, the barrel is cleaned out, often by someone climbing inside, washed with citric acid, then resealed with beeswax, and it’s ready for use again.
The winemaking process in the European and Georgian styles may be very different, but the wines produced are even more so. The reds can be dark and fruity, and often quite tannic, and sometimes a little sweeter. The whites — often called “amber whites” because of the darker color they take on from their contact with the skins — are richer, more structured and fullbodied. they offer a unique taste and one that is beginning to be sought after on wine lists throughout the world.
Georgian wines pair delightfully with food, which is something else, as we found, that the Georgians have had centuries to perfect. The qvevri styles of amber wines are the perfect accompaniment to some of the sour and slightly salty cheeses, such as sulguni. They also work well with two of Georgia’s favorite dishes, the khinkali, a Georgian dumpling filled with ground meat or cheese, or khachapuri, a pizza like flat bread filled with cheese, butter and eggs. The reds are terrific with kupati, a spicy sausage, or with game meats, such as wild boar. As for the chacha, drink enough of it and you won’t even remember what you ate.
I hope that this brief description will persuade you to seek out some of Georgia’s wines the next time you are perusing a wine list or searching the shelves of your favorite wine retailer for something just a little different. You’ll drink a bit of history, and have a wine-tasting experience like none before.