Cheers (Guamarjos) To Georgian Wine
By Andrew Huber
(A winemaker at Orgo vineyards tends to a qvevri. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Nelms)
For most Americans, if their bartender or sommelier suggests a Georgian wine they’re going to be wondering where grapes fit in between peanuts and peaches. However, for an increasing number of wine-savvy drinkers, Georgian wine means skin contact, qvevri, and excellent value. Georgia (the country) has been creating wine for over 8,000 years but only recently have their offerings been gaining attention overseas.
(Qvevri being constructed. Photo courtesy of BTI)
Unfamiliar with the terms? You’re not alone. Daria Kholodilina, co-author of “Georgia: A Guide to the Cradle of Wine,” Wine International Association Ambassador to Georgia, and owner of tour company Trails and Wines (https://www.trailsandwines.com/) offers this brief primer on Georgian winemaking: “There are two main techniques and styles in Georgian winemaking. The first and the oldest technique is qvevri [pronounced Kway-vree] wine – made in underground clay vessels typical for the regions, the red wines are usually quite full-bodied, not too round, very straightforward. The whites are actually mostly amber – I mean, made with skin contact. Skins are giving the wine that darker hue between golden and amber, and a rich aromatic profile – honey, jams, dried herbs, tea, all those things you expect from rather aged wine. It’s definitely not your regular Sauv Blanc.”
(Grapes in a Georgian vineyard. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Nelms)
Georgian wines are almost entirely made with indigenous grapes, of which there are over 500 varieties. The majority of production comes from about 20 different varieties, with Saperavi being the most popular for reds and Rkatsiteli being the most popular for whites. Despite Georgia’s rich winemaking history, cultural, political, and economic circumstances have limited their reach and popularity until now. Under the Soviet era, most wineries were forcibly closed in the 1980s as part of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign. In the three decades since the fall of the USSR dozens of wineries have sprung up, but traditional Georgian winemaking techniques are not inherently suited for mass production and export. Qvevri are labor-intensive to maintain, so most vineyards only have a handful available, limiting output to a few thousand liters. Additionally, Georgia was historically provincial, compared to the rest of the USSR, and the winemakers who did not mass produce for Soviet distribution stuck to supplying their immediate area. To this day, most wineries in Georgia produce wine for the domestic market but have no plans for an export market. However, the wine that does make its way overseas is generally extremely high quality and reasonably priced.
(A New Year’s Eve feast at the DC restaurant Supra. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Nelms)
Nobody knows this better than Jonathan Nelms, owner of Supra (https://supradc.com/) and Tabla, (https://tabladc.com/) a pair of Georgian restaurants located in the heart of Washington, D.C. “I can’t sell a $200 bottle of wine at my restaurants because $200 bottles of Georgian wine don’t exist” Nelms laughs. “Costs in Georgia are incredibly low, and there is not much of a tradition of aging skin contact wine.” This means that producers traditionally haven’t had a reason to bear the expense of maintaining cellars, and importers can get bright young wines at low prices. Nelms was first introduced to Georgian wine as an exchange student in the USSR. After college he lived and worked in Moscow as an anticorruption lawyer, where Georgian food and wine is as common as Mexican or Italian food is in the US. Upon his return to the states he lamented the inability to snack on khinkali (meat or cheese dumplings) or sip Saperavi, so despite not having any restaurant experience he took it upon himself to open Supra, named after the quintessential Georgian feast based around a structured series of toasts led by a “Tamada,” or toastmaster.
(A map of Georgian wine growing regions. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Nelms)
These days the District has a small, yet vocal and passionate, Georgian diaspora. Still, given that they number only 1,000 or so, Nelms knew that he would have to bring the message of Georgian food and wine to a larger audience. While welcomed warmly by the local Georgian community – a local priest even blessed the restaurant’s opening –Supra has a large and dedicated following with locals and tourists alike. In a town where lists can regularly contain multiple four-figure bottles, these accessible and affordable Georgian wines have been a smashing success. A point that both Jonathan and Daria touched on in their interviews was the curiosity of American wine drinkers – they see a new wine at an attractive price point, and they are drawn to trying it. In fact, the Georgian wines Nelms serves in his restaurants became so popular he has found himself occasionally buying out his importer’s entire supply. Another thing that Jonathan and Daria agreed on is that Georgian wine is exploding in popularity among Americans, especially traditional qvevri wine, as their history and uniqueness of are a large part of their appeal with American consumers. “They’ve been doing it for 8,000 years.” Said Jonathan in his interview. “The wine of antiquity when you’re reading Greek myths, reading the bible, the wine they’re drinking is what Georgians still drink now. Nobody else has that story – people want to taste 8,000-year-old wine and get that experience of time travel.”
(A selection of Georgian wines. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Nelms/Supra)
And there is no better proof of these trends than in the sales numbers. Georgian Wine House, (http://www.georgianwinehouse.com/) the largest US importer of Georgian wines, only distributed in a handful of states when Nelms first opened Supra. Today they are in 21 states and their product can be found in mainstream grocery stores such as Whole Foods. Daria provided a long list of recommendations of wineries, both producers that stick to traditional methods, and ones that aren’t afraid to innovate. Her top picks are:
“Papari Valley. You’ll recognize this cute horse on the label quite easily, and once you taste the wines, you’ll remember it as well. Saperavi wines of this brand have quite a high ABV, and it’s solely due to the terroir. They are not fortified. Make it your wintertime wine. Drink it when the snowfall starts in the evening. Light candles or make fire in your fireplace and savor the peak of Georgian summer in your glass.
Doremi. The idea behind the name is that wines should be understandable as the first three musical notes. However, those ambers are much more complex! Khikhvi and Mtsvane can be a real symphony in your mouth.
Archil Guniava’s Winery. Your ultimate Imeretian style wine. Classics of Western Georgia. Tender, aromatic, wild, but not too much. All from qvevri. Krakhuna is probably my favorite.”
Similarly, Jonathan Nelms has curated a list of his favorites, including many bestsellers from his restaurants:
Chona’s Marani, a label founded by Mikheil Chonishvili, a singer who does traditional Georgian music and makes wine. He lives in Kakheti, Georgia’s premier wine region, and produces using a handful of qvevri under a lean-to. Chonishvili makes incredibly refined amber wines along with some reds as well.
Pheasant’s Tears is one of the biggest and best known Georgian wines, but was actually started by an American. John Wurdeman moved to Georgia from Richmond, VA in the mid 1990s, where he fell in love with their wine and a local, Ketevan, who became his partner in life and in winemaking.
(Gogi Dakishvili, head winkemaker at Orgo, speaks with wine enthusiasts. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Nelms)
Several wines were recommended independently by both Nelms and Kholodilina, including “Baia’s Wine,” about which Daria said: “Out of small Georgian wineries, this is a real household name already. The winemakers Baia and Gvantsa Abuladze made a real breakthrough. Young, female, self-taught in many ways, they create a great Georgian natural wine that is a proper first-timer for those who have never had a Georgian natural wine before. Start with the Tsitska – Tsolikouri – Krakhuna blend, which combines the three most popular Imeretian varieties.” Similarly, they both spoke highly of “Orgo,” whose head winemaker Gogi Dakishvili Daria described as “one of the most brilliant wine people in the whole country.” She continued, saying; “All qvevri wines of his are round enough to please a conservative wing of drinkers and wild enough to get the natural wine lovers interested. Get a bottle of Rkatsiteli and Saperavi to familiarize yourself with the most popular Georgian grapes.”
No matter which labels you choose, the quality, variety, price, and incredible history combine to make Georgian wines an excellent addition to any wine program. The increasing popularity of Georgian wine in the US allows sommeliers and beverage directors the opportunity to be at the forefront of an emerging trend – in the coming years, “Skin Contact Summer” could be the next “Rose’ All Day!”
P.S. For those in the Midwest please lookout for a special Georgian Supra November 8th, 2022 at AVEC hosted by one of our favorite wine panelist Bret Heiar.