In late August 2022, I had the chance to visit Georgia, one of the birthplaces of winemaking, as part of the annual meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists, taking place for the first time since 2019. My presentation on wine and trade disputes including tariffs and export bans can be found here. The conference and associated visits organized by various wine agencies in Georgia* gave a great chance to taste a wide range of wines being made across the country and to learn more about the broad array of wines are now being made there, with a range of methods Classic (European style), traditional (in amphorae called Qvevri) and many combining these methods. Local grapes are dominant in their use, but many international grapes are also being grown, occasionally and interestingly as blending material. While Georgia’s east, a region called Kakheti, accounts for the bulk of wine production and is most known, wine is made across all regions, and there are over 500 indigenous varietals.
In the US, Georgian wine often pops up on skin contact “orange” lists and those highlighting natural wine. The traditional wine making method puts the grapes into clay amphora known as Qvevri for several months of fermentation and maturation. Naturally occurring yeast is used rather than seeding the production with external yeast and the amphora, buried in the ground, is kept at a steady temperature for many months. Given the long skin contact, and more moderate seed and stem contact, the wines typically have a lot of tannins and structure, even the whites. They also tend to end up with more oxidized flavors and colors, some overly so – making them Amber as well as nicely structured. While this method is the oldest in Georgia and most distinctive it is far from the only winemaking technique.
Here are some of my takeaways:
Revival of wider set of indigenous grapes. Georgians are reviving/expanding the use of non-dominant indigenous grapes. During Soviet periods, two grapes Rkatsiteli (white) and Saperavi (red) were dominant as these were the grapes that the USSR buyers would purchase and centralised factory production supported. As with other sectors, centralised planning determined wine production to the extent that Georgia was designated a place for high volume production of wine – dry and semi-sweet, while other countries made brandy (Armenia), sparkling wine (Crimea).
While these two varietals are still dominant – Rkatsiteli still accounts for almost half of the grapes grown in the country – but many less known (at least outside of Georgia) grapes are seeing production increases and exports. Among my favorites were Kisi (with ripe tropical and stone fruit flavors, often well offset by the tannins involved in Qvevri wine making, Khikhvi (which could occasionally be too minerally) and for reds Tavkveri, which also reportedly makes an interesting rose. Others include various types of Mtsvane some of which seemed a little light, others which had more complexity. I only had the chance to taste a few of the 500 varietals, but its likely that more experimentation will take place, especially given the need to look for the best varietals per region, to adjust for both taste changes and climate change.
Russia still dominates export market. Despite the devastating blow in 2008 when Russia cut imports of Georgian wine to zero at the same time coinciding with the military intervention. Russia still accounts for over half of exports, and especially for the higher volume, lower cost exports. Ukraine too was a major buyer due to past knowledge of the wines. Both of course do have payment and demand issues now due to the war and associated payment systems issues (you knew there had to be a sanctions angle). China too was a growing market, though transportation issues and delays as well as reduced demand due to zero covid lockdown and other economic challenges complicate exports. So too does continued competition from new world high volume producers who may be looking to sell excess bulk wine.
Move up quality/value chain to access some export markets. In the US, Georgian wine has sought out a higher quality and organic niche. Despite being a relatively small part of production, certified organic wines account for a sizeable amount of exports to the US and to a lesser extent Europe. This reflects in large part the efforts to situate as a higher value product and improved quality, but also reflects the fact that the initial distinctiveness came from natural qvevri based wines that also befit the interest in skin contact wines, and unique grapes, at least for some wine drinkers like me. In some regions, the dry weather makes organic production easier even if official certification is, like in other regions, difficult to prove.
Range of methods: While Qvevri wines are most known here in the US, and in many developed markets, the biggest volume of wines is now made using Classic – European – methods given labor intensivity of Qvevri wines. Not only are the clay amphorae expensive to purchase – in part due to the limited number of makers of the qvevri and persistence in using older methods including wood fired kilns rather than Gas- but the wine is stored for longer to incorporate the tannins that come from the skin contact preparation. The best of these make very balanced full wines with a mix of fruit, minerality and structure, but in some the qvevri flavors take over. Many quality producers are combining some time in qvevri for fermentation and immediate aging with time aging in other vehicles including stainless steel but mostly oak, either barrels or larger casks.
Even as Georgian production is increasingly moving up the value chain, many households and villages still produce their own wine, pooling grapes for fermentation. Some of these “home” wines are distributed in plastic bottles and vary in quality.
As with other regions climate change is a challenge, with harvests coming earlier and concern about too high alcohol levels, too low acidity and insufficient flavors. Producers are experimenting with buying grapes from higher elevations, picking earlier and other methods. In some cases the lower yields associated with organic farming may help in this regard. Also some are seeing an opportunity to test out varietals not in common use though of course it will take some time to see if these efforts bear fruit and what other factors come into play.
Labor and imput shortages. Despite relatively cheap labor compared to European peers, even Eastern European, the outflow of migrants and preference for other sectors is making it difficult to retain workers, even as other costs are going up such as transportation, bottles etc. globally many producers are reporting greater costs and time lags to access bottles, with lockdowns in China, war in Ukraine and payment issues elsewhere exacerbating previous challenges. Some collective efforts aim to boost and train workers including small scale expansion of historical and modern skills such as the efforts of the Ikalto academy on Qvevri making. It may be difficult to differentiate between the structural issues and some of the shorter term ones exacerbated by the lingering waves of the pandemic.
Increasing focus on wine tourism – some foreign oriented producers, especially those at the mid/upper end are focused on attracting visitors to the wineries, adding guest houses, restaurants and ways for people to learn about Georgian wine making as in other wine regions. While many of these aim to attract Western visitors, the pandemic meant some switched gears to welcoming Georgians or those close by. Overall, the wine tourism industry is growing, with some wine being sold at the vineyards or other location, but there is not the hard sell one sees with winery visits in the US or even some regions in Europe.
Some good reads I picked up for context during and before my trip.
Uncorking the Caucasus: This book was written after the authors wine guides and tourists struggled to find a good travel guide for wines of Turkey, Armenia and Georgia. A useful list of some of the varietals, wineries and select wine regions. As the market is expanding rapidly, the book may benefit from some updates.
Ancient Wine by Patrick McGovern. A great volume on archeological and historical traces of wine including the early work to identify the oldest traces of wine – mostly in the Caucasus and areas adjoining Mesopotamia. Useful book not only on wine history but also glimpse into archeological work including some of the chemical processes and tests that were used to verify wines history.
The Caucasus: An Introduction by Thomas de Waal and The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus by Charles King: These two books helped place in context history in the Caucasus nations of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, all countries that I knew far too little about despite knowledge of some of their neighbors and those further along the silk roads.
Note: The support of the Wine Agency of Georgia, the Georgian Wine association, the American-Georgian Business Council and many other Georgian entities helped to facilitate and sponsor many of the tastings.