Grapes galore: Discovering Georgia’s indigenous varieties

Georgia's huge and diverse range of grapes means that anyone with an appetite for new adventures in the world of wine is likely to find much to be excited about in this temperate, welcoming country, says David Kermode

Words by David Kermode

A vineyard planted on gently undulating land in Georgia

‘Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes…’ So said Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, an estimable figure if somewhat lacking in cheer. Happily, for us wine lovers, life offers a third certainty: there will always be a new grape to discover. In fact, it might even be an entire vineyard’s worth of varieties, for that was my recent experience of Georgia.

A small nation, bordering the Black Sea and the Caucuses, roughly the size of Scotland (a refreshing change from ‘the size of Wales’, the usual journalistic approximation), proudly independent and permanently threatened by its covetous neighbours, it is quite likely to be the loveliest place you have never been. Its climate is benign, its produce plentiful and its people truly the most hospitable, which is just as well because Georgia’s gastronomy – based around the concept of a ‘supra’, where plates of delicious food just keep on coming – is to die for. It’s a theory that I might have come close to testing, as a result of being something of a supra-trooper and overeating. Best of all, the country has – at least – 525 indigenous grape varieties. A population of just 3.7 million (according to a World Bank estimate) means there’s theoretically one variety for every 7,000 people.

Grapes growing in Georgia
Grapes growing in the Kakheti region of Georgia

If Communism was a good idea executed badly, then its wines were the collateral damage, yet because Georgia was designated the wine producing nation of the Soviet Union – its vineyards were owned by the state, with wineries operating as factories – it did mean a significant number of its indigenous grapes avoided extinction. The result is an oenological wonderland, with a Government-backed vineyard now planted with hundreds of obscure varieties, being tested for potential reintroduction.

Georgian grape names don’t exactly trip merrily off the tongue (anyone for a glass of Mtsvivali Mskhvilmartsvala?), however it is well worth the investment in some elocution, for it leads to a new lexicon of loveliness. It is also worth saying that, of the aforementioned 525 varieties, a mere 35 are in regular, commercial use, with perhaps only ten, at most, making it to our shores. White Rkatsiteli (I call it R-Katz), and red Saperavi account for around 90 per cent of Georgia’s vine plantings. Both are Soviet-era relics but the latter has enormous potential. Saperavi (translating as ‘red stems’) is a chameleon, a grape of many guises, offering fresh, plump plushness and, as a teinturier variety (one with red flesh as well as skin), tablecloth-staining colour. By turns reminiscent of Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir, Syrah, you name it… Saperavi is a grape that leaves me beguilingly baffled. All I know is that I want more of it.

A cellar containing qvevri
A wine cellar with Qvevri sitting in holes in the floor

It’s difficult to identify which of Georgia’s white grapes offers the greatest appeal but I found myself torn between Kisi, a sort-of-floral-Sauvignon, and Mtsvane, a sort-of-floral-Chardonnay. This is simplistic but offers a great place to start. And, in a nutshell, that’s the wonder of Georgia’s myriad varieties: for most of us, it offers an exciting new place to start afresh.

It’s not just about those distinctive grapes, however, for Georgia also offers a continuation of 8,000 years of winemaking history, courtesy of the Qvevri. Call it an amphora and you will not be invited back because these handmade clay pots are different (a Qvevri has a rounded base, is buried underground and would otherwise fall over), inspiring loyalty and devotion in equal measure. Sometimes erroneously regarded as miraculous self-making-wine-machines, the reality is that they are very challenging to work with, yet around 10-15 per cent of Georgian wines are still produced in Qvevri, including its celebrated amber wines.

The town of Sighnaghi, overlooking the Alazani Valley, has become a significant destination in Georgia's oeno-tourism industry

As a result of the contact with the skins, amber wines – they don’t use the term orange – can, at the extreme end of the spectrum, offer more tannins than a pot of stewed tea, but most examples are in fact rather delicate, even ethereal, with rose petals and fascinating nutty nuances. These are ‘natural’ wines in the meaningful sense; expertly made, reflecting thousands of years of tradition, a million miles from something orangey-brown knocked up by a man with a long beard and dungarees in Dalston. Amber wines are gastronomic, a sommelier’s soulmate for sure, but they are also surprisingly approachable – and certainly not to be feared. The Qvevri lends itself to red wines as well, of course, imparting an exhilarating textural energy, thanks to the shape of the vessel promoting natural circulation during fermentation.

To cap it all, thanks to some serious investment from believers, Georgia has quietly developed an impressive oeno-tourism offer, combining its innate capacity for hosting with its world-class food culture and its distinctive, deliciously different wines. It is, admittedly, not the easiest place to which you can travel but that must not stop you. Failing that, thanks to availability that gets better by the week, Georgia offers a treasure trove for those hungry to try something new at home.


  • Rustaveli, Shilda Winery, Old Vineyards Saperavi Qvevri 2022 Bursting with crunchy red berry, cherry and Asian plum, there’s a tactile energy to this youthful wine and also a plush, lush charm. Enchanting.
  • Yalumba, The Virgilius 2019 (£37.05, Vinvm (2018 vintage; 2019 will arrive in the UK shortly)) Taking Viognier to another level, this flagship wine from the Queen of Viognier, Louisa Rose, comes from the oldest vines on the estate, spending some time in French oak. With fleshy apricot, plump peach and honeycomb, the balancing citrus acidity – not to mention some clever work with the phenolics – affords a freshness and finesse.
  • Vergelegen, Reserve Semillon 2020 (£17.45, Vinvm) Served to start a delicious pairing dinner at the exceptional Frog by Adam Handling, this delicious surprise threatened to steal the show. An enticing nose of citrus blossom, pink grapefruit zest and mountain honey, the delicately textured mid palate safaris into lime marmalade with hints of silky spice. Focused, thrilling and fabulous, this is also one to cellar.
David Kermode 2021
By David Kermode

David Kermode is a journalist and broadcaster with two decades of experience across TV, radio and print media, and a lifelong love of wine and spirits. Don’t miss his weekly podcast, The Drinking Hour.