A number of countries claim to be the birthplace to winemaking—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, etc. However, perhaps one of the richest, oldest, and most relevant histories of modern winemaking comes from the Republic of Georgia.
Georgian wine has experienced a great many changes to its political and geographical landscape over the years: facing the phylloxera epidemic in the mid-19th century which laid waste to the European wine market; coming under Soviet control along with Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol regime; and its departure in 1991 from the Soviet Union which ultimately led to greater tensions with Russia, including an embargo on Georgian wine imports that was only lifted in 2013.
But as home to over 8,000 years of winemaking experience, and over 430 indigenous grape varieties, wine production is still very much a part of Georgia’s story.
These days two grapes are dominant in Georgian wine production. Saperavi, a red grape that thrives in cooler climates, has flavors of dark berries with savory smoky notes and full tannins balanced with plenty of acid. For whites, Rkatsiteli rivals all others—a fantastically high-acid wine, with dried bay leaves and lemon peel on the nose, and floral citrusy palate.
And those grapes are sometimes destined for the “qvevri”—a unique vessel that should be recognized as one of the most significant parts of Georgian winemaking, as well as an increasingly relevant part of the conversation in modern winemaking.
Qvevri is a somewhat porous earthenware vessel that is coated in beeswax for both waterproofing and sterilizing purposes, and often buried in the ground or set into a cellar floor. Grapes are partially pressed and then go into the qvevri, often with skins, and additional parts of the grape cluster, to ferment for various periods of time. Additional steps vary from grape to grape and winemaker to winemaker.
Qvevri wines are often heavily impacted by their contact with their whole clusters and skins. Many white grapes result in “amber” or “orange” wines with tons of texture. Both wines tend to have very present tannins due to the high amount of skin contact, as well as highly perfumed noses and some oxidative, almost sherry-like qualities due to the porous vessel.
Qvevri wines only account for one percent of Georgian wine at this time; however, it has been said that qvevri is “Georgia’s calling-card wine.” The technique is being mirrored by many newer winemakers looking to move wine production towards a more natural and less chemically reliant path.
Eight thousand years later and The Republic of Georgia shows little sign of slowing down its wine production, be it with Qvevri or otherwise. As of 2018 there are 961 registered wineries in Georgia, with more on the way. I for one look forward to drinking and learning from my elders.