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Georgia On My Mind (Part 1)

The Cradle of Wine on the Brink

Of all the lesser-known wine regions of the world, the Republic of Georgia could be the most important one no one is talking about. Being surrounded by unfriendly neighbors & having been buried for most of the 20th century under Soviet control, most Americans are probably not versed in Georgian culture. But if they are wine lovers, they should be! That’s because Georgia is where wine was born and where it is still being made in much the same way it has been since the beginning.

This week we’ll highlight Georgian wines in our newsletter (you can sign up here) and post a couple articles dedicated to various aspects of Georgian wine as a great way to familiarize others with this uncelebrated wine country. After all, to taste a wine from Georgia is to commune with the genesis of oenological history!

Incontrovertible evidence has proven that the Kakhetian Valley in Georgia is the oldest known wine producing region. Dating back to the Neolithic period, 8,000-year-old clay vessels known as Qvevri (Kwe-vree) have been found with grape wine residue. Additionally, pips and stems of Vitis vinifera – the species of grape from which most wine grapes originate from – were found along with them. Vitis vinifera can still be found growing wild among the forests of the Caucus Mountains. Over the millennia these wild vines evolved due to cultivation and spread throughout the rest of Europe along with their human propagators. Today, every grape that is Vitis vinifera can be traced back to a Caucasian origin.

What makes a Georgian wine genesis even more interesting is that, unlike the rest of the “ancient” world, the tradition of winemaking has remained relatively unbroken. Wine is the center of Georgian life, with almost every countryman making their own wine. While walking around Tbilisi – the Georgian Capital – on a recent trip, I saw crumbling concrete Soviet-era apartment blocks overgrown  in vines. People literally open their windows and pick bunches of indigenous varieties like the richly textured Rkatsiteli or stone fruit-laden Mtsvane and make wine in their apartments. It’s logical, then, that referring to someone as “a person without a vineyard” is a deep insult for a Georgian.

Having been part of the USSR, Georgia has developed into one of the oddest wine countries I've ever visited. Whether it be "New World" or "Old World" wine countries, most have vibrant domestic markets and at least some infrastructure to support the existence of small boutique "garagiste" producers to large industrial companies. This same stratification exists in Georgia, except without any significant domestic demand and very little infrastructure to support it. During the Soviet Era, Georgian wine was relatively protected and much loved by the Soviet overlords. After all, Stalin was Georgian and what better way to show your loyalty than to toast with Rkatsiteli? Though the Soviet Union has crumbled, Russia still consumes almost 95% of bottled Georgian wine. This poses a significant problem given the impending threat of a Russian embargo on Georgia.

Georgia is a country on the brink in so many ways. While wars of religion and political instability rage to their south and west, the fervor of a modern Russian Empire continues to be a threat from the north. Yet Georgia has known such terrors before and, in many ways, this experience has been knit into the very fabric of their identity. At one point during our trip one of my colleagues was misunderstood by a winemaker regarding the need for change in the vineyards and wineries in Georgia. “You must understand,” she said “when our men went into battle, they would carry with them a young vine. That way, if they should die, the vine would grow from their body and they would live on.” Given how great the wines we tried were, hopefully it won’t have to come to that for these wines and the traditions they carry to continue for another 8,000 vintages.