A man with high cheekbones and deep-set eyes waves toward our car from among the grapevines. It’s mid-October and the grapes have all been picked, but drying leaves rustle like flags in the breeze.
I’m at Iago Bitarishvili’s winery in Chardakhi, Georgia. This former Soviet country is, legend has it, the birthplace of wine. People have been fermenting grapes here for several millennia longer than anyone in Western Europe. Many families still make their own wine at home, bottling it in plastic jugs for communal consumption at weddings, funerals and feasts.
For centuries, though, Georgian wine has stayed something of a regional secret. But Bitarishvili is at the forefront of a revolutionary effort to change this. The owner of Georgia’s first certified organic vineyard, Bitarishvili is a steadfast champion of the most traditional methods of production—he uses only natural yeasts and ferments his wines in huge clay vessels buried underground. Some vessels are more than 300 years old. “Georgians have been making wine this way for 8,000 years,” he says. “I am continuing that tradition.”
I first tasted Iago’s Wine at Oda House, a restaurant in Manhattan. It was 2013, the year Oda House opened and helped vault Georgian wine (and food) to a new level of recognition in the U.S. Now, I regularly find Georgian wines on by-the-glass lists at restaurants in New York’s Greenwich Village or Washington, D.C. In 2015, the New York Times included a Georgian wine on its list of 20 worthwhile wines for under $20.
Who does Georgia have to thank for this? Russia.
Throughout the Soviet period and into the 1990s, Russian filled their glasses with Georgian vino. That changed in 2006, when tensions flared between the country and Vladimir Putin and Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili. Putin was incensed by the Georgian leader’s overtures to the West. Russia banned imports of wine and spirits from the country in a thinly veiled move to chastise its government. Moldova, another former Soviet country, faced the same problem: Russia also banned Moldovan alcohol imports in connection with a tussle over the future of Transnistria, a disputed territory.
The bans hit these predominantly agricultural nations hard. Wine was Georgia’s second-largest export. Eighty to 90 percent of wines exported from Georgia and Moldova went to Russia. Makers needed to find new buyers for their products, and fast. Europe and the U.S., with their huge wine markets, looked tempting. But first, they had to convince potential buyers — many of whom could not locate Georgia or Moldova on a map — that their wines were worth drinking.
“There is this perception that the wine must be bad and dirty because the country is poor,” says Christy Canterbury, a holder of the prestigious Master of Wine title. “But you can also make bad wine in Sonoma. People need to be open to the fact that these countries do produce world-class wines.”
Besides the perception problem, there is the issue of identification and pronunciation. Western customers don’t know how to say the unfamiliar consonant and vowel clusters that mark native Georgian and Moldovan varietals. Rkatsiteli, anyone? How about Feteasca Neagra? (The first is Georgia’s most widely planted white grape, the second, one of Moldova’s most important native red grapes.)
Let’s not forget taste. “Russians and people from [many of the former Soviet states] like sweet wines, so this is what we were producing,” says Dimitru Munteanu, director of Moldova’s National Office for Vine and Wine, which was created in 2013 and is charged in part with promoting the country’s wines abroad. “Habits are changing now,” he says, as winemakers reorient their wines to the drier tastes of consumers in the U.S. and Europe.
Georgian winemakers traditionally fermented their grapes in qvevris, clay vessels sealed with beeswax and buried underground to keep the temperature constant. They left the skins and stems on the grapes to macerate, regardless of their color, resulting in amber-colored, tannic whites. (European vintners ferment red grapes along with their skins and stems to lend them color and tannins, but leave them out when making white wine.) Wines produced in the traditional Georgian style taste wilder than that fermented in oak barrels or steel tanks. It’s an acquired taste, and it’s not for everyone.
“These are wines that the advanced and the adventurous can embrace, but they need strong voices to advocate for them,” Canterbury says.
That push came from the European Union and U.S. government (mostly USAID). Both have played a major role in helping winemakers in both nations reorient themselves toward new markets in the shadow of Russia’s cold shoulder. (In a release, USAID put it bluntly: “Often in the West when people think of the former Soviet Union, they think of Russia, and when they think of Russia, they think of Siberia. Moldova is not Siberia. It boasts more hours of sunlight yearly than Bordeaux.”)
They have funded consultants who discuss fermentation techniques, bottling styles and ways to market to a Western audience. They’ve helped develop national branding strategies; for instance, marking high-quality wines for export with a label highlighting its country of origin and seeking to educate consumers about the history and traditions that make wines from these countries unique.
This effort has helped turn the unfamiliarity of Georgia’s 500 indigenous grape varieties into a strength. Few plant their vineyards with European grapes that might be more recognizable to Western consumers. This decision may be rooted primarily in tradition and national pride, but it is also savvy from a business perspective. “Native grape varieties have the greatest potential for popularity abroad because they don’t have so much competition,” says Canterbury.
Russia lifted its first ban on Moldovan wines in 2007, but a second fell in 2013. The ban on Georgian wines lasted six years, through 2013. Georgia and Moldova signed political and economic accords with the E.U. in June 2014, including a free-trade agreement that now allows goods — including food and wine that meet certain standards — to be imported into the E.U. duty-free. This has made wines from both countries cheaper, and thus potentially more attractive, for European consumers.
What Georgian and Moldovan winemakers certainly have going for them is a good story. They’re underdogs and they know it. They’ve overcome an awful lot to get where they are, and that may be just the thing to entice customers in this “new old world” they’ve found themselves increasingly a part of.