Why Georgia’s wines need a dose of reality

The wild, natural and traditional wines of Georgia have been the darling of the hipster wine scene. But, says Lisa Granik MW, too many are nothing more than hobbyist ventures – and such amateurism damages the country’s long-term prospects

Words by Lisa Granik MW

Georgia has seven different climate zones, 49 different soil types and hundreds of grape varieties. Photo by Tom Parker

Georgia is a country of extremes. Mountain gorges and cliffs abut broad river plains. Swift rivers slice beneath serene alpine pastures. Fierce loyalties, attachments, jealousies and suspicions abound. Professional archaeologists and amateur winemakers all dig in their different ways to uncover lost traditions, lost vines, lost civilizations. Some slavishly follow ancient practices they don’t fully understand, while others quietly and thoughtfully experiment. This contrast is brilliantly conveyed in the massive socialist-realist sculpture Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia) in Georgia’s capital city. She stands on the Tbilisi mountainside, a bowl of wine in one hand (if you come in peace, welcome!), a sword in the other (if you don’t, beware!) thus embodying at once the Georgians’ warmth, pride and fierce defence of their independence and culture.

Wines of Georgia
Granik's book argues that the hobbyist ventures of many Georgian winemakers are damaging the country's long-term prospects

Georgians have a tremendous sense of pride, not least in their wines and wine culture. They firmly believe their land to be the birthplace of wine and see wine as a metaphor for their own blood. References and allusions to wine abound in Georgian culture, song, legends, literature, religion and art. The country has 8,000 years of wine culture and winemaking history, but, at the same time, its current wine industry is remarkably young – and in a hurry.

The country has seven different climate zones, 49 different soil types and hundreds of grape varieties, all within a country just smaller than the Republic of Ireland and a little larger than the state of West Virginia. Situated at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, with fertile lands and dramatic vistas, over the centuries Georgia has been repeatedly ravaged by invaders from every direction. But the Georgians have resisted and persisted, retaining their native languages, culture, religion and identity. Invaders left their mark, but the Georgians stayed put and rebuilt.

And so again, today, they rebuild, seemingly at warp speed. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent civil war, changes in technology, education, transportation and communication have facilitated the re-establishment of democracy and a market economy. So, too, in the wine sector. Out of the wreckage of hulking Soviet ‘wine factories’, a sophisticated variety of modern wineries has emerged. In tandem, hundreds of individual Georgians don’t just see their past, but want to live their future in winemaking: barns are being renovated, weekend homes expanded, and old wine cellars re-energized or spruced up to support small-scale family winemaking. A handful in 1997 grew to 400 by 2016, and then exploded to over 1,300 by 2019. Of these, 300 export their wines, with more hoping to jump on this bandwagon. Georgia now produces an array of wines for different consumer tastes.

Qvevri winemaking is an ancient technique in Georgia

Georgia is a country that reveres tradition, history and culture. A resurgence in Georgian traditional winemaking in the past two decades has converged with a renewed interest in things ‘artisanal’ (as opposed to corporate) and ‘natural’ products (as opposed to the synthetic and ‘manipulated’). This has captured the attention of many a wine lover within and outside Georgia and has contributed to the explosion in the number of people deciding to make wine ‘as our ancestors did’.

As in other matters, Georgia today has a wine industry at extremes. There are a number of larger producers (22 as of 2019) who run extremely professional businesses producing over one million bottles (84,000 cases) annually. At the other extreme are the hundreds of tiny wineries that produce only 3,000 to 5,000 bottles a year. Most of these are weekend winemakers, hobbyists, amateurs trying to market the simple home wines they remember their grandfathers making for their family and friends.

This presents a great challenge. There is the notion among many that making wine is simple: just pick the grapes, crush them, put them in the qvevri (the clay vessel in which wine is fermented), punch the grapes down a bit, close it for a few months – and abracadabra! Great traditional wine. In fact, however, it is hard. It is not just that winemaking, especially Georgian traditional winemaking, involves hard physical labour. It is hard because it is complicated, involving both science and craft. Many Georgians attempting to make wine in the simplest way have no foundation in wine science. They thus have set themselves up to make wine in the most difficult of circumstances, as often they are not in a position to recognize or understand when something is awry until it is too late. Their final product may be wine, but it is home-made wine, a style of wine that was never intended to be marketed, to withstand the variable conditions of shipping, of competing in an international marketplace.

Many Georgians attempting to make wine in the simplest way have no foundation in wine science

I have enjoyed many of these home-made wines. Some of them may be natural wines, others not. They may be a bit wild, and are perhaps not the most finessed; they may not be perfectly clear, but can be a tasty, pleasurable drink. Being home-made, however, does not excuse flawed wines, especially when those flaws obscure the expression of variety and terroir. Too many producers still use mouldy and damaged fruit, deny (or are unaware) that their qvevri are dirty, or use ‘traditional’ as an excuse for any number of microbiological and bacterial disorders. The problem is not traditional wines per se. It is inexperienced or hobby winemaking posing as professional. Ideology is not a proxy for quality.

In many ways, then, these home-made wines cannot be compared to wines made by professional winemakers. I distinguish between the two. A critical distinction lies in the instability of many home-made wines. They may be eminently enjoyable in Georgia but are unlikely to look or taste the same after being subjected to temperature changes and sub-optimal transit and storage conditions once the wine producer has seen them off. I would wish, for the reputation of Georgia’s promising winemaking industry, that the producers respect their vineyards and their wines enough to ensure that the wines they sell are the finest they can produce and that they reach the consumer in top condition. Then the consumer can replicate the delicious Georgian experience at home.

It is not enough (though perhaps it could be) that Georgia is the first documented place for wine production. Nor is it enough that they have hundreds of indigenous grape varieties: if these varieties didn’t make distinctive, delicious wines of place, they wouldn’t matter. But these claims, of which Georgians are deservedly proud, are secondary to their distinct winemaking culture and traditions that produce wines of a thoroughly different and unique category. These wines deserve to be tasted, understood and enjoyed. They need to be considered on their own terms but held to similar quality standards as other fine wines of the world.

Gergeti Trinity Church on the slopes of Mount Kazbegi in the Caucus Mountains

I firmly believe the best of Georgian wine is yet to come: I trust that, over time, with more experience and a deeper understanding of all that makes these wines unique, we will be blessed with an even greater array of fine wines that express the heart, soul and vibrant personality of this very special country.

Yet Georgia, especially its wine industry, feels like a country in perpetual motion. With so much constant change comes uncertainty as to what the future holds. In keeping with its history as a country of extremes, the current scene presents both difficult challenges and grounds for great optimism.

Georgia’s history and geographical position often make it difficult to engage in long-term planning. Georgians themselves joke that ‘thinking ahead is not cultivated’. Given that wine production, as a business, is a long-term proposition, this adds to the challenge. The desire and need for immediate return on investment tends not to encourage long-term brand development. Perhaps ironically, Georgia does not have a strong domestic market for purchased wine. Successful growth therefore depends on exports.

The best of Georgian wine is yet to come

There are hopeful signs of change in other arenas. Several producers are seriously studying their terroirs to develop unique terroir-specific offerings. A few larger and mid-sized producers are developing more diversified offerings beyond the homogenous, innocuous (if consistent) European-style white wines that are indistinguishable from commercial Pinot Grigio and have unpronounceable names. They are working with ambient yeasts, extended skin contact and other techniques to develop modern, accessible, distinctive Georgian wines with flair. A few larger producers of qvevri wine have developed technology and cleaning pro- tocols to make qvevri winemaking slightly less labour intensive with fewer hygiene issues. Scientific inquiry regarding qvevri production and qvevri winemaking continues. Some producers are willing to invest in marketing rather than depend primarily on government largesse.

From the other end of the spectrum, the quality of wines from small producers has improved significantly. More producers are concerned with fruit quality. They pay attention to extraction and tannin quality. An increased number of small producers are taking hygiene issues seriously, working harder to ensure their wines are healthy and stable. They do not sell wines they know to be faulty. And they don’t think they can learn all they need to know about winemaking just by participating in a Facebook forum.

Inside a winery in the ancient wine growing region of Kakheti, home to such producers as Mukuzani

Equally significant, a growing number of young Georgians in the wine and hospitality sectors are pursuing advanced education in wine. They are aware of and do not accept flawed wines even from their beloved family producers. Well-regarded wine bars and shops do not list faulty wines. More young Georgians have travelled outside Georgia to learn about wine styles from classic regions as well as viticultural and winemaking techniques – not to make Georgian wines that could come from anywhere, but with the aim of returning home to make informed decisions about how to grow and produce better wines than Georgia has ever known.

With many countries looking to plant Georgian grape varieties as a hedge against climate change, grapes such as Rkatsiteli, Saperavi, Kisi and others are likely to become more familiar and accessible. But interest in something new always leads back to the source. Even beyond the traditional method of winemaking, Georgia’s diverse terroirs and many of its unique and noble grape varieties make this tiny country a place to be reckoned with. Given its history and national character, Georgia will evolve, but it will also remain dynamic and distinctive – just like its best wines.

For a review of The Wines of Georgia, click here.

Wines of Georgia is published by The Classic Wine Library, priced ¢39.95 for the soft cover book, and $29.95 for the e-book.

Lisa Granik MW entered the wine trade after a career as a Yale-educated lawyer and law professor. Her career in wine has included work in retail, import and distribution channels, working with both small and large wholesalers and importers around the US. She now advises wine companies and regions seeking to improve their sales there. Based in New York City, she retains ties with Georgia and returns there regularly for ongoing projects.