Russia's embargo against wine from Georgia prompts growers to improve quality

The Kura River splits Tbilisi, Georgia, in half.
The Kura River splits Tbilisi, Georgia, in half. (Tyler Guthrie - )
By Tyler Guthrie
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 3, 2010

Seated at a long wooden table groaning with plates of food, I find myself approaching the eighth hour of my first supra, a Georgian feast, celebrating a stranger's birthday. He, like the rest of Georgia, is in surprisingly good spirits despite the lingering scars from the recent war with Russia and constant economic vexation. In the other room, his parents keep watch over our next course of stuffed mushrooms and the seemingly endless reserves of wine. Outside, the sun has already set over the eerily beautiful town of Sighnaghi -- a showcase of what was and what could be in Georgia -- perched above the nation's verdant wine country.

More than their rich gastronomy and lavish hospitality, it is the quality of the Georgians' wine that surprises me. Nestled on the Southern Caucasus between the Black Sea and Azerbaijan, this ancient nation is thought to have invented viniculture some 5,000 years before the French even tasted wine. Russians have loved Georgia's grapes for so long that until 2006, they purchased nine out of 10 bottles that the country exported.

That changed when Russia reacted to Georgia's NATO aspirations by banning the import of its wine for the stated reason that it contained high quantities of heavy metals and pesticides. While no other country saw fit to follow suit, the Georgians were left with huge stockpiles of both superb and, more often, cheap and substandard wine developed specifically for the indiscriminate Russian market.

Although this embargo has had a devastating impact on the Georgian economy, it is also a rare opportunity for the country's large winemakers to return to their tradition of excellence.

While crossing the border from Turkey into Batumi, a Black Sea resort and my gateway into Georgia, to taste the wine and meet those who make it, I grow nervous as the questions at immigration become increasingly bizarre. "How long have you been married?" the guard asks, motioning me to lean into the camera as he takes my picture. "Well," I stumble, "a little over one year."

"And what is the origin of your name?"

Bleary-eyed from an overnight bus ride, I answer personal questions for five minutes before I realize that we are simply chatting. Between Georgians' ingrained cultural friendliness and their strong interest in Americans (there is after all, a George W. Bush Road and commemorative billboard in the capital, Tbilisi), it's possible that nowhere else are Americans greeted so warmly.

A country of extremes, Georgia packs a surprisingly diverse geography and rich culture into an area roughly the size of West Virginia. Leaving the border, I struggle to keep my footing on a crammed city bus that slaloms between cars and free-range cows that simply go wherever they please. On the west side of the road, late-season sunbathers flirt with the Black Sea surf, while on the other side, subtropical hills roll into the distance.

The center of Batumi is a marriage of Austrian and Russian influences topped with the romantic flare of an onion dome on every other building. Tasteful new construction is everywhere, a conscious attempt to reclaim the city's character from the no-longer-ubiquitous Soviet apartment blocks that have recently been painted bright, cheerful colors. From the center, side streets unfurl into a delightful mess of colonial buildings, broken streets and climbing vegetation reminiscent of what you might find in provincial Colombia or in the pages of a Spanish romance.

It's in these side streets, not in the glossy restaurants near the hotels, that I taste my first Georgian wine. It's an unmarked liter-and-a-half of white from a pleasant, homey restaurant devoid of foreigners. I had resisted the urge to find a proper tasting room that might set my bar too high -- I wanted to save the best bottles for Sighnaghi, my destination in the eastern province of Kakheti, the Georgian wine country.

Unmarked and priced just over $1, the wine, I'm shocked to discover, is drinkable and satisfying. It's a wonderful complement to the absurdly cheap but delicious pork-and-something dish I've picked out from the Georgian and Russian language menu I can't decipher. The waitress, kind in her attempts at English, informs me that the variety is Rkatsiteli, an ancient and very popular grape, one of the first to be fermented. Near the end of the bottle, feeling tipsy and self-confident, I jot down impressions of the wine on my napkin in the way I imagine connoisseurs do: "More amber than white, sweet but slightly tart with hints of apricot."

Drinking in Georgia is very popular, frequent and best done in social settings, especially since public drunkenness is taboo. With this in mind, I retire to my room with a bottle of Borjomi -- carbonated mineral water -- which I've heard annuls all hangovers.

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