Georgian Wines: To where it all began.
Georgia, a country so bound and wrought by the Communist giants, has now blossomed into a beacon of inspiration in the wine making world. Their forte of natural wines, and wines made in clay amphorae, have helped this small country arrive onto the worldwide wine scene in a manner that emulates grace, dynamism and intrigue. However, I’m not sure the term ‘arrive’ applies to this wondrous country. This is where wine began. So technically they’ve always been here, just buried by the blanket of communism. Their story is fascinating.
Archaeologists discovered ancient clay vessels at a dig in 2015 in Southwestern Georgia. These pots dated as far back as 6000 BCE. Therefore, the tradition of wine making has existed in this country for over 8000 years. Deservedly, it is now seen as ‘the birthplace of wine’. Such practices came a staggering 3000 years before the invention of writing. Vines are sown so deeply into the souls of many Georgians, that there is an-oft told story of how soldiers in the past, carried a tiny cutting of a grapevine to protest their chests. So, when they died in battle, the vine sprouted not just from their bodies, but from their hearts.
Unfortunately, the Soviet Union held a tight grip on the country until 2003. Indigenous grapes were pulled up and traditional wine making practices were abandoned to make way for production of mass-made diluted and sweetened wines, sold in ‘jerry cans’. These cheap factory wines dominated the industry and there was little room for individualism, self-expression or deviation. A watershed moment for the industry was the embargo Putin put on wines in Russia in 2016, further decimating the development of the wine industry. But even in times of crisis the spirit of Georgian people could not be denied. There is a character that pioneers the industry here, that is now experiencing a romantic and economic revival. He is fundamental in highlighting the specialities of this ancient wine region for the modern consumer. His name is John Wurderman.
This Arizona native has helped forge a new direction for the wine industry. Originally a painter/ musician, Wurderman moved to Georgia to explore the traditions of polyphony, their local music. But the draw of nature and specifically indigenous vines drew him to the fields. Along with a number of other industry leaders here, they managed to revive over 400 plus lost grapes. The ‘Quervi’ (winemaking in clay vessels) is now the hallmark of the industry globally. Here white grapes are lightly crushed, left on the skins and fermented in clay, bees-wax lined vessels, that are buried beneath the ground and sealed when fermentation begins. Studies have shown it is a much gentler way of controlling fermentation temperatures. The very nature of being underground regulates the temperatures for the duration of the fermentation. Although this production method is in the minority, the presence of it has helped elevate Georgia on to the world-wide stage. They have inspired a global movement of like minded producers to work with clay vessels. As a result of the contact between the juice and the skins in the vessel, a phenolic extraction increases stabilisation of the wines, without the addition of S02. This also results in increased purity of the original juice. Further adding to the ‘natural wine’ profile, that is so globally sought after right now.
Resulting whites from the Quervi are amber in colour, have a tannic structure from the skin contact and are slightly herbaceous. The top quality Quervi whites are in the ranks of some of the best ‘meditation’ wines in the world. They evolve and develop in the glass over a number of hours. These intensely flavoured wines lend itself to the traditional cuisine of Georgia. They like to pickle many of their foods and there is plenty of freshness, oxidative strength and weight to combat these rustic flavours. The reds produced in these Quervi’s are of similar character, darker in colour, and perhaps a little less unique than their amber counterparts. Ironically, these styles of wines only account for 1% of production. Most Georgian wine are fermented dry and produced with the modern palate in mind. However, their strength lies in their tradition. And ‘When in Georgia…’ and all that!