We tend to think of the classic vinifera wine grape varieties as European, meaning French, Italian and Spanish. But vinifera’s origin lies to the east, in the Caucasus region: where Europe and Asia intersect, where ancient trade routes crisscrossed the mountains between the Black Sea and Persia, and near where the Bible says Noah planted a vineyard after the ark settled on Mount Ararat. This is where the oldest archaeological evidence of wine production, vinifera seeds in clay vessels, was found. Both Georgia and Armenia claim to be wine’s homeland, as borders have been fluid between antiquity and now. But let’s tip our hats to Georgia as the origin of wine, if only because more of its wines are available now in the United States.
And Georgia’s wines are exciting. The country offers everything a modern wine geek could ask for: native vinifera grape varieties grown almost nowhere else; modern-style wines that capture those grapes’ fruity flavors; and wines fermented the way Georgians have done it for centuries, offering us a taste of the past. It doesn’t hurt that the old style has become trendy. Even better: The wines are not expensive.
“Georgia is a small country with a tiny production but an image and potential that far exceed its size,” said Lisa Granik, a master of wine, during a presentation of Georgian wines at Vinexpo, an international trade fair held in Bordeaux, France, in June.
Much of Georgia’s image and popularity comes from its ancient practice of fermenting wine in qvevri, clay vessels buried underground. Most modern white wines are made by quickly separating the pressed juice from the grapes’ skins, stems and seeds. In the ancient method, the juice, skins, stems and seeds go into the qvevri to ferment together. The result can be deeply colored, oxidized and tannic, with some of the features of red wines. Winemakers often describe this method (whether using clay vessels or not) as “making white wine as if it were red.”
Skin-fermented whites are trendy today as “orange wines,” although Mamuka Tsereteli, a Georgian native who imports wines from his homeland into the Washington area, prefers to call them “amber wines.” They aren’t very citrusy, after all.
“Georgia has nearly 500 native grape varieties,” Tsereteli explained to me while we tasted some of his imports at Batch 13, a wine store on 14th Street NW owned by George Grigolia, a fellow Georgian. Tsereteli’s company, the Georgian Wine House, imports Georgian wines distributed in the District, Maryland, Virginia and five other states.
Georgia’s main wine region is Kakheti, in the eastern part of the country, where the Caucasus mountains stretch from northwest to southeast. Although wine is grown throughout most of the country, Tsereteli said, farther west toward the Black Sea the landscape is flatter and sandier, less amenable to high-quality grape growing.
The most common grapes in wines imported to the United States are rkatsiteli and mtsvane among whites, and the red saperavi. (Each letter is pronounced, more or less, so the names are not as difficult as they look.) Made in the modern style, the whites are crisp and fruity; made as amber wines, they tend to be rich and full-bodied.
Reds made in qvevri in the ancient style can be sweet, because in cooler temperatures the fermentation might stop before all the grape sugar is converted to alcohol. Because sweet reds are in vogue nowadays, these wines should find a market. Saperavi can also be quite savory, with tobacco leaf and dark-fruit flavors. In texture and taste, it resembles a cabernet franc from the Loire Valley in France.
But a good saperavi, like most Georgian wines, has what wines from anywhere else don’t have: a taste that spans centuries of history, and a whiff of ancient origins.