This recently released documentary is about the revival of ancient winemaking traditions in Georgia, traditions that never disappeared despite suppression by Georgia’s Soviet rulers in the last century. There is now something of a renaissance, riding the wave of enthusiasm for so-called natural wine, and the ancient is now hip.
The two key people associated with the making of the documentary are its director Emily Railsback, and sommelier Jeremy Quinn, who narrates and features on-screen. Neither Emily nor Jeremy stamp their egos on the project too hard, allowing their subjects plenty of space to take centre-stage. The action meanders across Georgia, introducing us to those involved with small-scale qvevri wine production one way or another, mainly the winemakers themselves and their families, but also potters who make the qvevri, and more-academic experts such as archaeologists and ethnographers.
But even if winemaking is overtly the subject of the documentary, the winemaking details are not delved into too deeply, and that is fair enough in a way I suppose – to concentrate on the technical would be to miss the most essential message of wine’s cultural significance in Georgia. To quote Emily Railsback from the press blurb: “Things don’t always make sense in Georgia, but the hospitality and love that people show each other through eating and drinking is transformative. Jeremy and I had worked in the restaurant industry for years, and never experienced anything remotely similar. My first meal in Tbilisi was at a traditional restaurant where Jeremy was the sommelier. When guests were moved by their food, or by the company of their friends, they would break into song; the deep, heart‐felt polyphonic song of their ancestors. It brought me to tears. I had never been around a culture that felt their highs and lows so vividly, and in community over toasting and song.”
So far, so good, but I was still left wanting more detail. Was that a qvevri base we saw being made? I thought qvevri bases were thrown, but that one did not seem to be made like that? Where is that archaeological site we visited, where the Soviets sliced the tops off buried qvevri? How did all the wines taste? What, if any, are the links between the people we met? Etc, etc. But maybe those concerns are specific to me – someone who is a bit geeky and already knows a bit about the subject matter, and who is eager to know more. If you are less bothered about that sort of thing, and are prepared just allow the impressions wash over you, I am sure you will get on better with the documentary. Either way, it undeniably gives a good general feel for the country and its culture – wine culture in particular.
If you wish to see the documentary, and are based in the USA, for screenings click on theatershere. The documentary will also be available there on demand (iTunes etc) from 20th March 2018, and on DVD from 22nd May. For more details, and other countries, announcements will be made on the film’s website and Facebook page in the next few weeks.
I was given free access to see it online as a member of the press. More significantly, I must disclose that I am totally biased as, even before seeing the documentary, I was irredeemably enthusiastic about Georgia and these wines 🙂
Update 16/03/18: Here’s a trailer for the film, published as I was writing this post
A couple of months ago I organised a tasting of Georgian qvevri wines, and published the tasting notes here. I then reordered multiple bottles of some of my favourites from that tasting, so I could drink more substantial pours over the course of an evening, and write more-detailed tasting notes. The two Saperavi wines I reordered were very different, and made an interesting comparison.
Pheasant’s Tears, Saperavi, Kakheti, 2016, 14.0%, £20.35 from Les Caves de Pyrene
This has an almost opaque purple ruby colour, and an intense nose of dark fruit. The smell also reminds me of ink – the stuff I used in fountain pens at school. Already the fruit seems to have a hint of maturity. High acidity and medium-high astringency on the palate, and all aromatic elements noticed on the nose are still present. Excellent length. Good to drink now. I have no experience of how this wine might age, but if I had to decide I wouldn’t keep it for more than a few years further. However it might be fun to try. *****
I see this as a wine made in the tannic style typical of the Kakheti region, which is the main wine-producing region of Georgia, and in the East of the country. However you look at it, it is a big wine, with colour and tannins resulting from prolonged skin contact. It certainly makes its presence felt, and I think its vigour is what I like so much about the wine.
Zurab Topuridze, Saperavi, 2015, 13.0%, £23.55 from Les Caves de Pyrene
Pale ruby garnet in colour. On the nose, intense and fresh, with sharp red berry fruit. Cranberry and raspberry I think. Also some complex high-toned notes. My mouth waters just from the smell. High acidity, and low but detectable astringency in the mouth. Intense aromatically. Aromas on palate as on nose. Maybe a touch of Band-Aid brettiness as it warms slightly but, as with the high-toned notes, it is not obtrusive and adds to the complexity. There is sweetness from the fruit, giving a subtle underlying caramel nature. Excellent and delicious length. Drink now I think, but I would like to know how it ages. This wine is too sharp to be called balanced, but I don’t worry about that too much as I think balance is over-rated – drink with food. ******
Unlike the vast majority of red grape varieties, with Saperavi, not only is the skin coloured, but also its flesh. Following the French, we normally say these are teinturier varieties, and teinturier is practically a direct translation of the Georgian word saperavi – in English, the word is dye. So this Saperavi wine may have seen no skin contact at all, as it only had a pale red colour, and very little astringency. Both those factors are in marked contrast to the Pheasant’s Tears Saperavi. Note also that this wine comes from Guria in Western Georgia, where a lot of skin contact is less typical than it is in Kakheti. It is a lot more of a crowd-pleaser than the austere Kakhetian one with its hair-shirt manliness. On the whole, I too prefer it, for its delicate nature and its complexity. Yes, I know I also said I liked the vigour of the Pheasant’s Tears wine – it is possible to appreciate both styles.
So… two excellent wines, and an interesting comparison. Nevertheless, for me a there was a clear favourite. But you might feel differently, and I would encourage you to try both.
I starting getting engaged with this topic when reading the November 2017 press stories about new archaeological evidence for winemaking in Georgia 8,000 years ago. We were told that this pre-dates the winemaking remains previously accepted to be the oldest, which were discovered in northern Iran. That confused me because, for several years now, Georgians have been claiming an 8,000 year old unbroken winemaking tradition. And then, to make my confusion worse, I saw articles elsewhere saying that the remains of the oldest winery were in Armenia. It does not help that popular reporting occasionally fails to differentiate different between “BC” and “years ago”, as to most people a couple of millennia here and there does not seem to matter. In the face of all these claims and a smattering of misinformation, what seemed to be lacking was a recent overview of the evidence with no promotional agenda – which is what I aim to provide here.
Firstly, as some say there is archaeological evidence for wine in China in 7,000 BC, let’s take a quick look at that claim. And dismiss it. What was found in China was evidence of a fermented drink. Some people have suggested the drink may have been made partially from grapes, but that is speculation, and seems very unlikely. Even if true, we would normally expect our wine to be made of grapes exclusively.
While individual countries now lay claim to the oldest winemaking tradition, we must remember that modern-day boundaries did not of course apply back in Neolithic times. There was a largish region that included (to mix names from different eras) Northern Mesopotamia, Eastern Turkey, the Zagros mountains in Northern Iran, and the South Caucasus, in which there were many new developments: permanent human settlements, plant domestication for food, and crafts such as weaving, dying, stone working, woodwork and pottery. It was within this context that, not unsurprisingly perhaps, winemaking seems to have emerged.
Archaeological evidence can currently only point to the existence of early winemaking activity in a few isolated instances, each one in a particular place and time. While important, that evidence sadly can say little about the general picture. However, there is also supporting evidence that links this region with the origin of viticulture and winemaking. Genetic diversity in a plant is taken to be an indicator that it has existed for a long time – simply because it has had more time to mutate – and the Eurasian wild grape shows its greatest genetic diversity in the Near Eastern uplands, suggesting that grape vines in their wild form originated there. Also, Western European grape varieties are closer genetically to the wild vine of Anatolia than they are to more local wild vines, meaning that they probably originated close to Anatolia as domesticated forms, and later spread west. This is also consistent with the current indigenous Georgian grape varieties being closely related genetically to those of Western Europe, though by itself that fact does not indicate any particular direction of travel.
The oldest wine-related archaeological sites are in present-day Georgia, just 50km south of Tbilisi. They were two nearby villages, each around 1 ha in area – sites 2 and 3 on the above map – comprising circular mud huts of 1-5 m in diameter. Here sherds of fired-clay jars were found with residues that, when analysed, showed to be very likely to be of a grape product, and which were dated as 6,000-5,800 BC. The jars were up to 1 m high and 1 m in diameter, with a capacity of over 300 li. The jars had small unstable bases, so for stability could have been partly buried when used, but the decoration around the top of the jars suggested that they were not totally buried. Present day Georgian qvevris tend to be larger, and are totally buried, so these ancient jars are perhaps better seen as a forerunner of the Georgian qvevri rather than the first examples. In fact, no direct evidence of winemaking on those site has yet come to light, but pollen samples indicate that there were grapes growing nearby, and considering the wine culture known to exist in that region at later dates, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that wine was actually made in those villages. These are the same sites where for several years Georgians have, with little justification, been claiming an 8,000 year old history of winemaking. But it was a lot more recently that the convincing evidence mentioned above was obtained, and published in November 2017 the PNAS article Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus. Unless credited elsewhere, this PNAS article is the source of pretty much all the information in this blog post, and the map is reproduced from that article, so if you want to chase up more detailed references that is where to go.
Prior to November 2017, the earliest known winemaking site was in the of Northern Iran, site 17 on the map, just south of Lake Urmia. As on the Georgian sites, jars were found in a domestic mud hut with traces of the tartrates that indicated they had contained wine. These remains were dated to around 5,400-5000 BC. There were six partially-buried jars found in one hut, each with a capacity of around 9 li.
This quantity was typical for a hut in the village and indicates winemaking on a sizable domestic scale, but we must go to the Areni-1 cave (site 15 on the map) of present-day Armenia for the earliest evidence of a proper winery. Unfortunately, because Armenia’s legitimate claim for the earliest known winery is sometimes made in isolation, this can easily give the impression that winemaking itself started here. While in actual fact the winery was dated to 4,000 BC – around two millennia later than the winemaking finds in Georgia. Nevertheless, the Areni-1 cave finds are significant and impressive. In addition to the tartrates, there were found grape-vine fragments, pips, and the red pigment malvidin. Also plaster pressing floors, arranged so the released grape juice would run into buried jars. To put these Armenian finds into a bit of perspective, they are roughly contemporary with early signs of winemaking in Northern Greece at Dikili Tash, yet still considerably earlier than anything in what is now Italy.
So if anyone asks when and where winemaking began, the only honest answer is that we don’t know. However, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that it was in or around the South Caucasus. And there is strong archaeological evidence for winemaking 8,000 years ago at a specific location in what is now Georgia, which is the oldest hard evidence we have at the moment.
More interesting than chronological one-upmanship is perhaps the details of how wine was made in the Neolithic period, and how winemaking evolved into what we see today – but that is another story.
A couple of weeks ago we had a Georgian evening at our local tasting group, first tasting the wine, and later drinking it with Georgian food using recipes in the excellent book Tasting Georgia. All wines were purchased directly from Les Caves de Pyrene. Below I quote their standard retail prices, excluding the 10% discount I got for spending more than £200.
They were all natural qvevri wines which, as discussed in my previous post, make up a small percentage of Georgia’s total commercial wine production. They were also made using skin-contact to varying degrees. As this type of wine goes, I think the selection was fairly representative of what is produced in Georgia, with the emphasis on the Rkatsiteli and Saperavi varieties and the Kakheti region.
I thought the wines all showed very well. I have had some of them before, when I did not enjoy them nearly as much. Is this the fickleness of natural wine, or were the previous examples faulty or served at the wrong temperature, or was it just me? Or maybe it was a combination of all those factors? For example, I think I managed this time to hit on a good serving regime, which you might want to reproduce… they were all taken out of my 12°C wine fridge, double-decanted, and then left in my garage at 15°C for one or two hours before serving. On this occasion, they all got at least 5 stars, while Okro’s Rkatsiteli, Iago’s Chinuri and Zurab’s Saperavi particularly impressed with 6 stars. Yes, I know they are very high scores, but I do not pretend to be objective – it was a good evening and I enjoyed the wines. That is the important message to take away. It could be regarded as pay-back time for the occasions when I was not so impressed by the same wines.
Here are my rather sketchy tasting notes for what they are worth, in the order of tasting. Click on the image above for a hi-res view of the labels.
Pheasant’s Tears, Rkatsiteli, Kakheti, 2016, 12.5%, £18.30 From vineyards in Bodbiskhevi, around 3 km South-West of Sighnaghi, in the hills above the plains of the Alazani Valley.
Medium amber. Intense, fresh, phenolic. Honey. Medium low acid. Dry. Orange. Medium low astringency.
Pheasant’s Tears, Rkatsiteli, Kakheti, 2011, 12.3%, £18.20 Also from Bodbiskhevi.
Medium amber. Intense, mature. Medium low acid. Tad cheesy perhaps, but it didn’t put me off. Medium astringency.
Okro’s Wines, Rkatsiteli, 2015, 12.5%, £22.45 Vineyards in Nukriani. Around 3 km from Sighnaghi, but further up in the hills, to the West of the town.
Bright golden amber. Intense, fresh, fragrant. Medium acid. Dry. Gentle, subtle, rounded. Medium low astringency.
Ramaz Nikoladze, Tsitska-Tsolikouri, 2015, 13.0%, £23.55 Blend of two varieties, Tsitska and Tsolikouri. From Nakhshirghele, in Imereti
Medium orange. Slightly sulphurous. Medium high acid. Medium high astringency. Lemony.
Iago’s Wine, Chinuri, 2015, 12.5%, £19.20 Chinuri is the grape variety. 5,000 bottles, from 50 year old vines in the village of Chardakhi, around 20 km North-West of Tbilisi, in the southern part of Mtskheta-Mtianeti.
Medium yellow gold. Medium intense, fragrant. Medium acid. Medium high astringency.
Pheasant’s Tears, Saperavi, Kakheti, 2016, 14.0%, £20.35 This is from Tibaani, around 5 km South-West of Sighnaghi, just above the plains of the Alazani Valley. Tibaani is actually the name of a smallish appellation in Georgia but, as the name is not writ large on the label, I think the claimed appellation is the much larger Kakheti.
Opaque purple. Medium dark fruit. Medium high acid. Medium high astringency. Fresh. Sharp and refreshing.
Zurab Topuridze, Saperavi, 2015, 13.0%, £23.55 From the Guria region, which has a Black Sea coastline.
Medium pale purple. Intense, sweet berry fruit. Medium acid. Gentle, sweet. Subtle, spicy.
Okro’s Wines, Saperavi Budeshuri, 2015, 11.0%, £23.55 Most Saperavi grapes have red flesh, but Budeshuri is a white-fleshed clone. The vineyard is in Manavi, around 40 km West of Sighnaghi, high in the hills, and possibly facing away from the Alazani Valley.
Medium purple. Intense, fresh, sharp black fruit. High acid. Intense on palate too. Medium low tannin. Sharp and tangy.
The Georgian wines the media likes to portray, and the ones sommeliers in hip restaurants and wine bars like to pour, are artisanal, natural, and made in qvevri. But if you look at all commercial winemaking in Georgia, this comprises only a few percent of total production. And this is reflected to a large extent in the Georgian wine available in the UK. Go to a specialist online Georgian merchant, select a bottle at random – the chances are that its contents have never seen the inside of a qvevri. Estimates for the percentage of qvevri wine vary, but are in the range 1-3% for commercial winemaking. A surprisingly low number perhaps, but that is not the biggest surprise.
In this pie chart you can clearly see what I reckon to be the biggest surprise. It is the vast quantity of homemade wine – something I became aware of only a few weeks ago. Estimates are all finger-in-the-air, but someone suggested 70% of wine consumed in Georgia is homemade. Another says home production is two to three times larger than the commercial sector. Regardless of the precise numbers, homemade wine is a huge proportion of the total. If it were twice the production of the commercial sector, that would put it at two-thirds of the overall total, and in my chart I have shown it as 70%.
But why should we care about this? One reason is that it was the home winemakers who carried the tradition of qvevri winemaking though the Soviet period, when all legal wine was made in large factories that paid no regard to the old methods. In this time many Georgians kept their home qvevri, and some must have quietly continued to use them as God intended. And this tradition of home winemaking led to the emergence of small-scale commercial qvevri wine production, and later to its increasing adoption by larger producers.
When we consider the scale of home production of wine in Georgia, that must challenge our ideas about the proportion of wine made in qvevri. Doubtless some home wine is made in large plastic containers these days, but I bet a significant amount is still in qvevri. So as a proportion of all Georgian wine, qvevri production must be a lot higher than the few percent that the commercial data suggest. [Update: A Georgian has estimated that on average 30% of home winemaking is done in qvevri – less than 30% in the cities, but more in Kakheti. If true, that means around 25% of total Georgian wine production is in qvevri.]
As a (rather large in terms of screen area) postscript, I would like to share a few videos about home wine production in a Georgian village. The videos are not the fastest-moving, but I think they are insightful, and I rather like the gentle pace and humour. How typical the methods are, I would not like to say in general, but the adding of kilos of sugar to the qvervi was unexpected for me, and you might like to check the YouTube comments on the matter. For completeness I also include videos by the same filmmaker on the making of chacha (the Georgian equivalent of marc or grappa) and bread. I wish I could credit the filmmaker properly, but I don’t know anything other than the information given on YouTube – they were uploaded in 2011 by the YouTube user omwuchi, who says he or she lived in the village with a host family.
Although qvevri winemaking does indeed have an 8,000 year continuous history in Georgia, it is important to realise that it has not remained unchanged throughout that period, and that practice varies from region to region, even within regions. It is not a single concept that should be frozen in time and fetishised. It is so much more exciting: qvevri winemaking has many forms, and they should be encouraged to continue to live and evolve.
The aspect of qvevri winemaking practice that has most impact on the finished product is the degree of skin contact. In Georgia’s largest winemaking region of Kakheti, grapes of all colours are traditionally fermented on their skins, and the skins remain for a period of post-fermentation maceration. This results in red or orange wines, that can often be fiercely astringent. In contrast, the more Westerly regions of Georgia typically use much more limited skin contact. Here, for white wine production grape skins would be removed immediately after crushing, following the normal practice in the rest of the world. And for all wines, if there is skin maceration at all it would be for a shorter period of time. But not all winemakers follow their regional stereotypes: some may prefer one style or the other, while others might like to make both.
Other variations in practice include how the qvevri are made less porous, kept clean, the material used for lids, and how the lids are sealed post-fermentation. These factors might not affect the style of the wine, but could influence the quality if, for example, an animal fat is used instead of beeswax to reduce the porosity, or if the cleaning is inadequate. I doubt very much if animal fat is used in qvevri for commercial wine production today, but it was employed, and maybe still is to a very limited extent. Another regional difference is that in Kakheti the qvevri for winemaking are located indoors, as you might expect, while in Western Georgia the tradition is to have them just outside buildings.
Now let’s take a look at how to how things have changed over the last 8,000 years. The first thing to note is that the qvevri vessels themselves have changed a lot. Prior to the 3rd century BC, a relatively recent date in the context of eight millennia, qvevri were less than 1.5m high, had a flat bottoms, and were either free-standing or only partly buried.
Another important development is in how the wine is presented to the consumer. The qvevri wines we foreign consumers see will be bottled, while more traditionally it would be kept in qvevri until drinking. Bottling has obvious economic advantages in making the wine available to more distant and lucrative markets, and also frees up qvevri at an earlier stage for making subsequent vintages. It allows the consumer to experiment with cellar-aging the wine in bottle, but wine will almost certainly have a different development trajectories in qvevri and bottle.
Then there are a couple of more recent developments that are regarded as a Bad Thing by some: practices that would not usually be thought of as natural winemaking, and the use of wooden barrels to age wine after the qvevri fermentation.
Relatively minor changes in recent years have been the use by some of pumps to get wine out of the qvevri, high pressure jet washers for cleaning, stainless steel or glass lids with bubbler airlocks, and tubes suspended in the qvevri for temperature control. My personal suggestion for radical improvement would be the addition of drainage holes at the bottom of the qvevri. Yes, I realise it would be tricky, not least because the qvevri are buried, but in the 21st century surely it is not beyond the wit of man? There are also ways of reproducing some of the claimed advantages of qvevri by using stainless steel vessels, but they of course would represent a huge departure from tradition – and totally destroy the magic.
If you believe qvevri winemaking evolved over thousands of years to become perfect, nothing could ever be a substitute for the real thing. But could it actually have arrived on the scene as an accident of history, and stuck around merely because it was good enough for the job? Is it really so crass to suggest that? Maybe. But it is in my opinion equally crass to imply that the vast majority of the world of wine has got it wrong. Regardless, live and let live I say. Vive la difference and all that. It would be horrible if qvevri winemaking were to die out.
Qvevri – a large clay vessel of distinctive shape, used for winemaking.
The Georgian word ქვევრი apparently means that which is buried, and gets transliterated into the Latin alphabet as qvevri or kvevri. Those two spellings exist because, while the official transliteration of the first letter is k, many Georgians use q because it has the correct sound and takes the same position in their keyboard as ქ. Most winemakers have now agreed to adopt the spelling qvevri, and it was also used by UNESCO (in the English version of the document, but not the French) when they gave it Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status. Intangible? I don’t think you would agree if one dropped on your foot. No, actually it is the method of winemaking that was recognised by UNESCO, not the vessel itself. They also have other names in different parts of Georgia, but from here on I shall simply call them qvevri, and drop the italics.
The size of qvevri can vary widely, from a few litres to the largest in current use, which is seven or eight thousand litres, but for winemaking a typical range seems to be several hundred to around three thousand. As 1,000 litres of water weighs a metric tonne, people also talk about qvevri capacity in terms of tons, which has nothing to do with the weight of the qvevri itself. We asked a qvevri maker, Zaza Kbilashvili in the Kakheti village of Vardisubani, how much an empty one weighed. He didn’t know, but it took 8 men to move one of his larger qvevri, and that was the important measure as far as he was concerned.
A potter’s wheel can be used to help shape the pointed qvevri base – a wheel slowly turned by hand, rather than the high-speed wheel used in modern craft pottery. Then the rest is made as a coil pot, built up with sausages of clay. No tools or measuring instruments are used, everything being done by hand and eye, with the necessary skills being passed down from father to son. Zaza builds his qvevri in the basement of his house, which would hold around a dozen large ones, and I think he said the maximum size he could make was 2 tons. It takes him around three months to build up a batch of large qvevri, the progress each day depending on the weather – progress being faster on hot dry days, when the clay dries quicker to give a firm base for the next layer. The qvevri are then allowed to dry completely before they are lugged out to the arch-shaped brick kiln in the garden. Here wood is stacked around the qvevri to give correctly distributed heating for the firing, which takes seven days and has to be monitored continually. The final step is to give the insides of the qvevri a treatment of beeswax while they are still warm. This is to make the clay walls less porous to liquids while still allowing air to pass. The wax should soak into the larger pores, and not form a coating that prevents the wine from making contact with the clay.
After manufacture, the qvevri are shipped to the winemaker, who traditionally would be in the same region of Georgia, but now could be anywhere in the world. They are buried alongside each other, with only their openings exposed, to create a marani, or wine cellar. The image shows the small marani in the Pheasant’s Tears restaurant building, which contains just a few qvevri of different sizes. These are used by the restaurant staff, but do not form part of Pheasants Tears’ main production.
In terms of the number of steps involved, natural qvevri winemaking is very simple: at its most basic, you crush the grapes, put them in the qvevri, wait, and take the wine out. However it is also vital to make sure all the leftover gunk is properly removed afterwards, and that the qvevri are scrupulously cleaned. There are traditional tools for this purpose, but these days cleaning with a high-pressure water jet is common. With larger qvevri, someone climbs down into the vessel to perform the cleaning operations, very large qvevri needing a small ladder for this purpose.
The final step in the life cycle of the qvevri is usually not destruction. In Georgia, the tradition is to respect old qvevri that have been disinterred by leaving them out on display. The ones shown here are at Alaverdi monastery.
The history of winemaking and the qvevri goes back in Georgia to at least the 6th millennium BC, as from that time qvevri fragments have been found with traces of wine tartrates and surrounded by grape pips. Since then, Georgia has seen 8,000 years of continuous winemaking in qvevri.
The so-called European style of winemaking, using barrels, was introduced into Georgia in the 19th century. For a period European and qvevri methods were both used in Georgia, but I have not seen any analysis of how wine production was structured in terms of method and producer size. However, the Soviet period from 1921 is still within living memory and much more widely discussed. Production was centralised in large state-run wineries, and vineyards were taken into collective ownership. The large wineries, or wine factories as Georgians called them, worked with a very limited number of grape varieties, principally Rkatsiteli and Saperavi, and were geared up to maximise volume at the expense of quality, most of this volume being targeted at the Russian market. Meanwhile, very small-scale qvevri winemaking quietly continued in people’s homes, using grapes taken from their gardens.
In post-independence Georgia, the large state-owned companies were privatised, other wine-producing companies emerged, and quality improved with an eye on new export markets. Some of these companies even adopted qvevri production for their higher-end wines.
But there is another post-Soviet winemaking story to tell – a lot less important in sheer economic terms, but big in terms of prestige and future potential. Georgian individuals were each given a small plot of ex-collective vineyard, providing small-scale qvevri winemaking with a better supply of grapes, and forming the basis for the vibrant, though still small in percentage terms, natural qvevri wine movement of the 21st century. For some, winemaking ceased to be merely an activity that kept family and friends supplied, and more viable small businesses were created. Even then it seems it was usually necessary to have another source of income, perhaps by working as a professional in Tbilisi, or by running a restaurant or guesthouse alongside the winery. Larger vineyard areas were created by combining the allocations given to family and friends, or perhaps by renting neighbouring plots. And derelict cellars were restored, and new ones built.
However, perhaps the key difference between this new breed of small winemaker and their predecessors is not so much production volume; it is that the wines were being bottled. Thus, rather than being restricted to the limited market of their own village, they could be sold for more money in the shops and wine bars of Tbilisi – notably ღvino Underground – and get international exposure. When you are producing a few thousand bottles per annum, you neither want nor get the attention of supermarket buyers. But with the current cult interest in natural qvevri wines, to catch the eye of a sommelier from a restaurant of international renown is a distinct possibility.
(Follow these links for information on qvevri and the history of Georgian wine. And for stories of small qvevri winemakers, I would recommend Tasting Georgia by Carla Capalbo. In addition to material personally gleaned, those are the main sources for this post.)
When trying to understand a Georgian wine label, I would first try to locate any bits of text that refer to a region or grape variety. Google could help here if it is not obvious from the context, as would having ready access to lists of regions and varieties, online or hardcopy. Once something is identified, it is relatively easy to drill down to get more detailed information about it. (Of course, I am assuming here that your label has words with Latin characters on it. Based on my experience, that will be the case with the vast majority of wines you come across. If not, your job will be a lot harder, and you will need to start with information about the Georgian alphabet.)
If the colour of the wine is described as amber or golden, it is a skin maceration wine made from green grapes – Georgian labels tend to avoid use of the more usual term orange wine. White wine on the other hand often indicates that there has been little or no skin contact, though it is also sometimes used for orange wines.
As Georgia still produces medium dry and medium sweet wines, largely for the Russian market, there is also often a sweetness indication of the label. Assuming you are living in a country that is part of Georgia’s ex-Soviet export market, the reassuring word dry is what you will usually find. Note also that if there is an appellation name on the bottle, that will also indicate the sweetness level.
Appellations are not used as widely as in EU countries, but some of them seem to be regarded as more worthy of mention on the label than others. It can be confusing because the usage does not seem to be tightly controlled, so a wine might mention somewhere on the label that it comes from a region or village of an appellation, but from the context and small size of the typeface I am almost certain that they are not claiming to belong to the appellation of the same name. Wikipedia has a list of them all, with grape varieties, colour and sweetness levels.
If qvevri is not mentioned somewhere on the bottle, not even the back label, you are normally (again, I have come across a couple of exceptions) safe in assuming that your wine is made in vat, tank or barrel. And conversely, if it actually is a qvevri wine you will usually be informed. Just note that the use of qvevri does not necessarily imply significant skin contact even though that is often the case, and kvevri with a k is simply another transliteration of the same Georgian word.
Any other text writ large, will probably be the producer’s name or brand. In addition to that, it seems that there is now always a producer name in small letters on the back label, which is usually different from the one on the front of the bottle. Presumably this is the producer’s official company name, or the company that bottled the wine, to allow for traceability.
Why should you even bother trying to pronounce all the weird words you see on Georgian wine labels? Well, apart from the obvious – that it is the only way you are going to be able to communicate verbally about the wine – I think it represents a big step in familiarising yourself with it. The sound of a word is a lot easier to remember than a vague impression of what the word looks like, which is probably what you have without vocalising it.
My first piece of advice is not to be intimidated. Just take new words one syllable at a time, and one letter at a time. How hard can it be?
It can actually be as hard as you want it to be, but there is no point in aiming for perfection. Indeed, if you are going to be using a Georgian word in a non-Georgian sentence I am not sure perfection is possible anyway, certainly not without sounding very odd. So I would, for example, not fret about distinguishing between the different Georgian versions of the consonants p, t and k – something you have doubtless been losing sleep over prior to this reassurance.
The other Georgian sounds are a lot more straightforward, and in many cases the transliterated version of Georgian is pronounced similar to English. Don’t worry too much about which syllables are stressed, as stress is light anyway.
If you wish to improve your pronunciation, I think the Georgian alphabet on this page is a great resource. Column 2 of the table gives you the letters you will see in the Georgian transliterations, and you can click the play-buttons to hear how the letter sounds in words. It is probably worth clicking the vowel buttons right away as there are only a few of them. As for the consonants, note that r is rolled, and kh is a bit like the Spanish j or the Scottish pronunciation of ch in loch. And especially note that gh is more like a French r sound than anything else; don’t ask me why the letter combination gh is used in the standard transliteration. It gets even more confusing when some people decide to omit the h from gh in the transliteration – if you suspect that is the case you simply have to check what Georgian character is being used.
When you come across a consonant combination that does not exist in your native language, just try to run the consonants together as quickly as possible, without labouring or stressing them. The Georgian combination kv is really no more difficult than the English cl, and there is no need at all to stick in an extra vowel between the k and the v, as the English media insist on doing in the surname of the tennis player Petra Kvitova for example.
If you need any more help with pronunciation, you could try Forvo. Its Georgian vocabulary is quite limited at the moment, but there are some wine-related words.
If you read an introduction to the Georgian language, you will often be told that its pronunciation is very straightforward: each letter has only one pronunciation, and every letter is pronounced in all words. And all the Georgians I have spoken with agree. However, quite a few wine writers seem to take the view that some letters that are pronounced in different ways, and are occasionally silent. After having struggled to learn Georgian over the last couple of years, and listened to a fair amount of recorded speech, I have to agree with those few wine writers. While I still usually hear two “v“s in qvevri, “v” is indeed often pronounced as “u”. Also, the initial “r” in the grape variety Rkatsiteli is most definitely normally silent, as are a fair number of other letters in consonant clusters. Having said that, if you pronounce every letter I don’t think you will get any criticism or correction, and you will stand a better chance of being understood than if you make the wrong letters silent.
Update 25/06/19: Various clarifications and additions.
Update 01/01/20: Modified advice on Georgian pronunciation.
Georgia: a guide to the cradle of wine, by Miquel Hudin and Daria Kholodilina, available direct from Vinologue for $26 plus shipping.
Very recently published, I think it is fair to say that this is the only book about Georgian wine to cover the ground with the depth and scope expected by most wine lovers. Quite simply put, if you want a book on Georgian wine this is for you. As the introduction claims, the format hits the middle ground between a heavy coffee-table book and a compact travel guide. There are 300 glossy A5 pages, richly illustrated with pertinent photographs. While the glossy paper does make the book rather heavy to carry around, the robust hardback binding will minimise any damage when you toss it into the back of the car for your Georgian road trip.
As implied above, the book has all the sections you would expect in an introductory guide to a wine region or country, and also has practical information for visitors. There is a General Info part with, among other things, sections on the language, history and cuisine of the country, and notably a substantial section on Georgian grape varieties. The official Georgian appellations are covered the 20-page part 2, with the remaining two-thirds or so of the book being devoted to the regions of Georgia. Each region gets a general introduction, including restaurants, shops, museums and other places that would be of interest to wine lovers. This is followed by profiles of its wineries, each profile typically taking a page or so of text. At the end of the book are winery contact details and GPS coordinates.
Given that whenever Georgian wines are mentioned the focus is so often on kvevri and natural wines, it is perhaps worth stressing that producers of all styles of wine are covered. It is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of Georgian wine is what we might call conventional, and that this too can also have considerable interest for wine lovers.
So what did I not like? Well, map quality in wine books is a constant gripe for me. Here the problem is that the maps are so schematic, and literally devoid of scale, that they give no impression at all of the country and regions. You see items of interest associated with towns, villages and areas of Tbilisi, but that’s about it. For borders of the regions that are discussed, and the physical geography that is so important to wine, you really need to have access to additional maps. You could get them online, but shouldn’t the purpose of the book be to provide such things?
Also, in the winery profiles I think most readers would appreciate a stronger indication of the types of wine made, and their quality. A lot of opinion I have come across so far seems to basically consist of praising all natural kvevri wines and demonising everything else. I am sure a more nuanced approach is called for, and in this book a terrific opportunity has been lost.
My final gripe would be about the clunkiness of some of the language. Occasionally I found myself struggling to figure out what was being said, wondering if some critical words were missing for example. Even if the vast majority of the text was fine and there there was little loss of overall meaning, at times I really did find the difficult sentences got a bit tiresome. Maybe it was just me and my earnest quest for information, and a more casual reader would gloss over such things?
But enough negativity. Despite any awkwardness of language, I enjoyed reading my copy in a couple of days, and shall doubtless continue to use it for reference. I repeat that this is pretty much the only book that brings together such a complete range of information about Georgian wine, and the authors are to be congratulated for having the enterprise to make it available in such an accessible way.
As Georgian wine gets more popular, there is an increasing number of easily digestible online summary articles, and if you want to seek those out I shall leave you in the capable hands of Google. But more surprising for me is the large amount detailed and authoritative information out there. In English too. Here I point out some of the best of these pages, images and documents.
Vinoge.com has arguably the best overview wine map of Georgia, showing the locations of many wine producers, and the main viticultural regions. It is displayed in a rather annoying way in the top right of all pages of the website, but by right-clicking you can open the entire map at high resolution, as seen here.
The same site also has a good set of more detailed maps for individual regions, which can all be accessed from this page. You may need to scroll down a bit to find the first one, then keep clicking on the map you are interested in until you eventually you get the map as a high-resolution image.
From hvino.com, you may also find this map of interest. The information given is a mixed bag, with various items of interest for Georgian wine tourists. Personally I don’t think it works well as an overview, but is perhaps more useful if you are after something in particular.
Appellations of Origin
There is an official document available as PDF that describes the Georgian Appellations of Origin in English. Each delimited region is shown on its own detailed map, but you will need a more general map to understand where those regions are within Georgia. I found searching for village names on Google maps was a good way to get that context. (Update 16/07/20: A number of new appellations have been announced since this document was published, and significant changes to at least one existing appellation. See this more recent post for up-to-date information.)
The soils and climate of each zone are described in mind-numbing detail, but the requirements on grape varieties are only very vaguely expressed. The varieties are listed and described, but then you are usually left to assume that it is those grapes that are allowed in some proportion or other, and others are prohibited. (Update 16/07/20: The regulations regarding grape varieties are now much clearer.)
Georgian producers do not seem to be using these AOC names as enthusiastically as they might, but you do occasionally see them on labels so it can be good to know what they mean. Indeed it is good merely to know which AOC names exist, so you do not confuse them for grape varieties.
When you have the Georgian AOCs under your belt, you might want to download the 456 page PDF tome Georgian Ampelography for further reading material. There are over 500 Georgian grapes mentioned in the list at the end of this book, but it focusses on the detailed ampelography of only 59, including 4 from France, the remainder all being native to Georgia. In the 1960 edition the main entries were restricted to 57 varieties – a nod to Heinz perhaps? – including 5 French ones.
Sadly for wine drinkers, the ampelographic descriptions include little comment on the style and quality of the wine produced by the various varieties. But if you need to grow or identify vines in a Georgian vineyard – or are a card-holding wine geek – this is definitely a book for you. Somehow, even if I am unlikely to read more than a small fraction of it, I feel my life is enhanced by this scholarly work.