The wines of Georgia are having a moment, and it is about time. Wine is very old in Georgia, the cradle of wine, but Georgian wines are relatively new on the markets here in the United States, as Georgian producers pivot from dependence on Russia and former Soviet states and work hard to develop markets in the UK, EU, US, and China.
The push into new markets comes at a difficult time because pandemic restrictions have limited travel by charismatic Georgian producers, who represent their wines so well in person, and have shuttered or crippled many restaurants where hand-selling of the wines would be very effective.
We are fortunate, therefore, to have this new book by Lisa Granik MW to spread the word and build momentum for Georgian wine in the post-covid world. Granik tells us that she’s written a reference book, which readers can dip into as needed and read in any order that pleases them. This is partly true. The second half of the book, which presents information about each specific wine region, certainly fills the reference book bill. I am very impressed by the attention to detail and deep scholarship I see here. A wonderful resource for any who wants to take a deep dive into Georgia’s wine industry.
The first half of the book, on the other hand, is a compact primer on Georgia and its wines that I’d recommend to anyone who wants to get a basic understanding of this topic. The chapter on wine culture, with its explanation of the supra wine feast tradition, was fascinating. We attended a couple of supra feasts when we visited Georgia a few years ago for a United Nations conference and Granik’s analysis helped me understand a few fine points I missed at the time.
I was especially interested in the history chapter. Georgians are proud of their long history — dating back thousands of years — but I admit that I am even more interested in the history of the Soviet days and the transition to the market economy. I was not disappointed both with the main narrative and with the detailed footnotes (which are conveniently placed where they belong — at the foot of the page, not the back of the book).
One thing that I asked when we were there, and apparently it is not an uncommon question, is why grape vines are mostly planted on valley floors in Georgia and not on the hillsides as you might expect? The answer goes back to the Soviet days. Quantity and cost were paramount and hillside vineyards did not lend themselves to machine harvest and cultivation.
The chapter on native wine grape varieties is best seen as a reference because there are so many of them that it is hard to remember the names after a while, but I enjoyed reading through the descriptions, focusing especially on the main varieties.. Granik lists the grape varieties alphabetically: white grapes from Akhaltsikhuri Tetri and Avasirkhva to Tsolikouri and red grapes from Adansuri to Usakhelouri.
Granik’s accounts of the places we visited and the people we met in Georgia rang true and went beyond what we learned while we were there. Granik is obviously a fan of Georgia and its wine, but not an uncritical booster. She doesn’t hold back in discussing problems and challenges where she finds them. Her final chapter, where she pulls together challenges and opportunities, is required reading. Highly recommended.
Exports of wines from Georgia (the country — the cradle of wine — not the U.S. state — the cradle of Coca Cola) have surged in recently years, a fact that is both well-deserved and timely. Georgia deserves the increased recognition of its wine sector both because it really is the cradle of wine, with literally thousands of years of history, and because the wine industry and government have invested heavily in recently years to raise standards and promote products in key markets.
Ticking All the Boxes
Georgia wine’s success in 2020 is especially timely because travel and tourism — another important Georgian industry — has been hard hit by the global coronavirus pandemic. Ideally the wine and the tourism industries work together to generate needed income, especially in rural areas. Georgia is sort of running on one cylinder this year, so wine’s boost is especially appreciated.
Sue and I visited Georgia in 2016 and we were impressed by the friendly people. beautiful scenery, striking crafts and culture, delicious food, and excellent wine. We recently re-immersed ourselves in virtual experiences of Georgia through the third annual Ghvino Forum and a “Georgian Wines 101” trade tasting of six Georgian wines expertly led by Taylor Parsons with special guest winemaker Iago Bitarishvili of the iconic Iago’s Wines.
My particular focus for the Ghvino Forum was a presentation by Tornike Kodrzaia, Head of Research at TBC Capital on the economics of Georgian wine. Wine is important culturally in Georgia (a fact that a recent film Our Blood is Wine makes very clear), but it is also a key element of the economy.
A Complicated Situation
Kodrzaia presented data that showed the Georgian wine sector to be a complex mosaic. A survey of large- to medium-size wineries, for example, revealed high financial returns — about twice the average for Georgian businesses in general, he said. That is incredible. It would be interesting to dive deeper here, to see if the same is true about smaller wineries and if the returns to growers are also positive.
Georgian wine is not a single thing, so it is important to understand its components. Home production was very high during the Soviet era and is still large, especially compared to other countries we have visited. The foundation of Georgia’s high per capita wine consumption is wine made at home or by friends or family, although Kodrzaia noted that commercial wine sales have increased in the domestic market.
Georgian’s prefer white wine — and it is easy to see why if you sample a fine Chinuri, for example. But traditional export markets prefer red wine, so that is a production focus. Russia and the CIS markets demand semi-sweet red wines, which Georgia produces in abundance. Uncertain political relations, however, are behind a movement to diversity export markets and reduce dependence on Russia.
China has emerged as an important market for Georgian wines, but the Chinese prefer dry red wines over the semi-sweet products. Chinese consumers are drawn to the story of Georgian wine — its long history and Silk Road associations– as well as its quality. Many Georgian Wine Houses have opened in Chinese cities to tell the cultural story and promote the wines.
Rising Tide in the U.S. Market
The United States export market is growing quickly from a small base, with above-average prices. Over 800,000 bottles were exported to the U.S. through October 2020, for example, a substantial increase from 678,000 in 2019 and less than 200,000 in 2014, when the current surge began. The average ex-cellar price of exports to the U.S. was $5.11, according to Georgian statistics, more than double the export price for China and CIS countries. So you can see why the U.S. market is a focus.
Georgian wine is exceptionally diverse, so it will be interesting to see which of its many facets shines brightest in the U.S. market. Natural wine is a growing market niche and many Georgian products can fly that flag proudly. But many of the traditional producers are quite small, so critical mass is an issue. Iago Bitarishvili is an immensely important producer, for example, but only 5000 bottles of his amber Chinuri were made in 2019 according to the data we received.
Georgia is home to literally hundreds of native grape varieties, which creates a kaleidoscope of interesting choices for some consumers and a confusing blur to others. (Sue suggests an initial focus on red Saperavi and perhaps also white Chinuri — excellent wines that buyers will not be afraid to try to pronounce.) Many of the wines are hand-sells, however, which makes Covid closures of restaurants and wine bars in many areas an additional challenge. The six wines that were included in the Georgian Wine 101 tasting were made from these grape varieties: Tsitska-Tsolikouri, Kisi, Chinuri, Tsolikouri-Otskhanuri, Tavkveri, and Saperavi.
But Georgia, Georgians, and Georgian wine have survived these thousands of years because of their determination, commitment, and resilience, so they are unlikely to be defeated by these temporary challenges. We look forward to learning more and Georgia and its wines and to witnessing their continued export growth.
Georgia’s Lost Eden
Just as I was putting the final touches on this column a friend wrote to tell me about a new Georgian wine he sampled over Thanksgiving and really enjoyed. The project is called Lost Eden Red Blend and it ticks many of the boxes needed to break through in the crowded marketplace. It is a blend of 100% Saperavi from several vineyards — I’m guessing the marketing folks thought “red blend” would be more approachable that Saperavi. The wine is made by an 11th-generation (!) winemaker. The packaging is unique, don’t you think? You will remember this wine if you try it and like it.
The wine is “semi-dry” with 15.4 g/l residual sugar and 13% alcohol. 4500 cases made. Suggested retail $18.99. It is a type of wine we tasted and enjoyed in Georgia and that is popular here in the U.S. where many consumers talk dry and drink sweeter. The wine is modern in style, according to on-line documents, but pays its respects to tradition by blending in a portion of wine made in the traditional qvevri method of clay vessels buried in the ground.
Some of my friends will be disappointed that a wine like Lost Eden gets attention. They would like Georgia to be known in the U.S. exclusively for its traditional qvervi wines. But Georgia is a small country that punches above its weight in the wine world by leveraging all of its many advantages, including some high quality sweeter red wines.
We haven’t tasted the wine, but we have sampled the story told on the website, which draws on the people and country, their culture and history, and of course the food, too, including the iconic supra feast. Georgian wine is complicated, as noted above. This is only one side of Georgian wine, but one that seems likely to spark greater interest in the wine and the country in general.
Georgian wine is on the move. Let’s see where it goes next!
The mission of Boston-based Storica Armenian Wines is to introduce U.S. consumers to the pleasures of Armenian wine and they seem to be off to a good start.
Just last week, for example, Wine Bible author Karen MacNeil‘s Instagram #TasteWithKaren webinar featured Vahe Keushguerian, founder of Keush wines, for a tasting of three of his Armenian traditional method sparkling wines. One of them, the Keush Origins, was our Open That Bottle Night 2021 wine. A delightful wine from an unexpected source, made from indigenous grapes that we’d never before experienced. A great introduction to Armenian wine.
Armenia’s Deep Roots
We are only now getting to know Armenian wine a little but, but already I can see that this is a topic full of fascinating puzzles and paradoxes. Wine in Armenia is both very old and very new. Landlocked Armenia’s latitude is a bit too low, but its high elevation compensates and creates a sort of grape vine Eden. It is impossible to prove, of course, but Armenia just might be the place where Vine Zero was born, the ultimate source of the vitis vinifera grapes that fill most modern wine bottles today. The oldest known evidence of a working winery was found here.
Armenia’s neighbor Georgia shares some of this history and sometimes calls itself “the cradle of wine” (Armenians like to say they are the “birthplace of wine”) and I rather naively assumed that, because we have visited Georgia and tasted many of their wines, that this might give me a head start in understanding Armenia and its wines. But that’s not how it worked out at all.
No Escaping It
Wine is inescapable in Georgia. It is integral to the national identity. Home-production is so important that it has taken a while for commercially produced wine, most of it aimed for export markets in the former Soviet state markets, to attract a critical mass of local consumers. Georgia is now investing to develop new markets in China, Europe, and North America in order to reduce their dependence on former-Soviet state exports.
Wine grapes are inescapable in Armenia, as near as I can tell from my research, but wine maybe not so much until quite recently. The World Atlas of Wine estimates at more than 80% of wine grape production goes to make brandy, the national drink.
The wine sector is relatively small, according to this source, with about 50 wineries in 2018, 30 of which only appeared in the last ten years, driven in part by investment from members of the vast internationalArmenian diaspora and technical “flying winemaker” expertise.
Armenia’s wine past is a mixed bag, as I’ll explain below, but its future is simply irresistible according to winemaking superstar Alberto Antonini. He rates his Zorah project in Armenia (along with his Otrona project in Argentine Patagonia) as the most interesting opportunities in today’s wine world.
Stalin Did It
Why was there so little attention to wine in its birthplace? It is complicated, of course, but one line of reasoning traces the situation back to Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Soviet system was all about exploiting the efficiencies of division of labor to generate maximum output with scarce resources. Thus was Georgia (Stalin’s birthplace and source of his favorite wine) selected to supply wine for the Soviet bloc while Armenia was assigned to specialize brandy production despite the fact that good wine was made in both countries.
That Armenian brandy is excellent and has been compared favorably to Cognac might make Stalin’s policy credible, but the impact on Armenia’s wine sector remains. The production and market structures established in the Soviet era have been slow to change, but change they have and the wines that Storica is introducing to the U.S. market is part of the story.
Sue and I enjoyed our OTBN selection of Keush Origins sparkling wine, a traditional method blend of indigenous grape varieties: Voskehat, the most-planted white grape, and Khatoun Kharji, a grape variety that is rare even in Armenia. Sourced from 60-100 year old vines planted at 1800 meters above sea level. An extreme wine with character and finesse. It was an impressive start our Armenia research.
Next in line was Zulal Voskehat 2019, a dry white wine with medium body, good balance, and a very interesting finish, which evolved as we enjoyed the wine with pasta primavera. Vineyards planted on volcanic soils at 1400 meters in the Vayots Dzor region near the Azerbaijani border supplied the grapes for this wine.
Zulal, which means “pure” in Armenian, is a project founded in 2017 by Vahe Keushguerian’s daughter, Aimee Keushguerian. The focus is on indigenous grape varieties and own-rooted vines so old that they pre-date the Soviet era. They are, I suppose, a pure expression of Armenia’s wine past but made using modern cellar practices. It is part of a movement to bring wine back to the center of Armenian culture.
Areni, named for its home village in Vayots Dzor where evidence of the world’s oldest known winery facility was discovered, is said to be Armenia’s signature grape variety and, based on our sample bottle of Zulal Areni 2018, it is a sound choice. Grapes from vines at 1400-1750 meters elevation (wow!) were vinified in stainless steel to produce a fresh, medium-bodied red wine that one tasting note placed somewhere between Pinot Noir and Sangiovese, although I think it is something all its own. We enjoyed the spice and plummy flavors, which went especially well with our dinner of chicken and sautéed spinach with peanut sauce. A keeper for sure.
There is a Zulal Areni Reserve, which is aged for a year in used Caucasian and French oak, that we are setting aside to share with our Armenian-American friends Z and G. It will be a great pleasure, when the pandemic clouds have finally passed, to share with them this is wine as well as a Keush Blanc de Blanc traditional method sparkler. I am confident it will be worth the wait.
Armenian wine has a lot to offer and these first tastes are just the beginning. The Keush and Zulal wines are a fascinating introduction to the Armenian wine renaissance.
We celebrated Open That Bottle Night (OTBN) 2021 on Saturday with a pandemic-mode Zoom gathering of the usual suspects. We shared stories, honoring the tradition, and felt good about being together even if we could not also share the particular bottles of wine we brought to the party. Next year. Fingers crossed!
Usually the wines we select for OTBN are a backward glance. They remind us of people, places, or events that live in our memories and are released when glasses are poured. This year was different. Sue and I recently received samples of wines from Armenia from Storica Wines, an Armenia wine import company. We’ve never been to Armenia. Never tasted the wines. OTBN was our excuse to pop the first cork, look ahead not behind, and imagine a future Armenian adventure.
First Taste of Armenian Wine
Wine has a very long history in Armenia just as it does in neighboring Georgia. Armenia calls itself the “birthplace of wine,” while Georgia fancies itself the “cradle of wine.” Georgian wine, as I have written here, is getting lots of attention just now. Perhaps Armenia will be next? That’s a question we will discuss in more depth in a future column. The focus for today is our OTBN discovery.
The particular wine we opened is the Keush Origins Brut traditional method sparkling wine. It is made from native Armenian grape varieties: 60% Voskehat and 40% Khatouni. The grapes come from 60 to 100-year old ungrafted vines grown at over 5000 feet elevation in the Vayots Dzor region. Does that get your attention. Extreme wine! Voskehat is Armenia’s most important white grape variety and is used to make many styles of wine. Khatouni seems to be relatively rare, even in Armenia. I couldn’t find a listing in the encyclopedic Wine Grapes volume.
Wine Gets Personal
Wine is about people as much as grapes and that’s true in this case, too. The Keush Origins Brut was one of the Armenian wines highlighted by our friends Dr. Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan in their handy book Uncorking the Caucasus: Wine from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia, so it was satisfying to imagine that we were tasting it for the first time with them.
Matt and Charine were impressed with the Keush Origins wine they tasted — it was the first release of this wine. But it is easy to tell that they were also quite taken with its maker, Vahe Keushguerian. who is profiled in the book. Keushguerian, in turn, is obviously taken with Armenia and its wine industry’s potential. They write that
Vahe is committed to reinvigorating Armenia’s wine culture. By using DNA technology to identify grapes found in abandoned monasteries and villages, then cultivating those grapes in his nursery, Vahe and his team have been rediscovering historic wine grapes and bringing them back to life.
We will have more to say about Armenian wine’s past, present, and future in a few weeks when we’ve had time to open the rest of the sample bottles. In the meantime, what about the Keush Origins OTBN sparkling wine?
Well, no one comes to the Wine Economist website for wine ratings or tasting notes, but we enjoyed the Keush Origins Brut from Armenia quite a lot. Dry, of course, and mouth-filling. Easy to drink and enjoy and paired very well with cheese, meats, and Sue’s home-made focaccia. Looking forward to opening the other Armenian bottles in our small stash.
Let me close with some reflections on OTBN 2021. Open That Bottle Night 2020 was the last in-person gathering we had before everything closed down last year and distancing and isolation defined social relations. We hesitated a bit about shifting the meet- up online. A Zoom OTBN might honor the tradition, which is important to us, but it wouldn’t be the same. In the end we decided to move ahead and see what would happen.
And I am glad we did. Wine brings people together — that’s one of its superpowers — and it did so again even if we couldn’t actually share the wine, only a screen, some stories, and good company. I was surprised at how much this moved me and am grateful to our friends for making this possible.
Here’s the wine list from OTBN 2021. Thanks to Dottie and John for inventing OTBN and keeping its flame alive. Cheers!
Tempus Cellars 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla
DePonte Cellars 2014 Pinot Noir, Oregon
Opus One Winery 1989, Napa
Chengyu-Moser XV Winery, 2017 Rosé of Cabernet, Ningxia, China
Our Blood is Wine, directed by Emily Railsback, released by Music Box Films, 2018. Available as video-on-demand via iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc.
Our Blood is Wine is a fascinating look at traditional wine-making in Georgia (the republic, not the U.S. state) and how it survived the traumatic Soviet era to be widely celebrated today as a natural wine icon. This documentary has been made with the same restraint and respect for tradition that the Georgians use in making their qvevri wines. The wines let nature tell its story to a greater extent than most wines do. And the film lets Georgia tell its story in a very natural way, avoiding unnecessary intervention. Highly recommended.
I admit that I was a bit concerned when I learned about Our Blood is Wine. Georgia is unique and I worried that the film would treat it with the generic techniques that are so often found in wine films — sunny vineyard scenes, the changing of the seasons, pick-up trucks with faithful dogs. You know what I mean. These scenes are charming and beautiful, but they are clichés. They could be anywhere, so they end up being nowhere. Wine films are filled with them.
Georgia is different, special, so the film needed to be different, too. Sitting at a key geopolitical crossroads, Georgia has experienced invasion, occupation, and foreign rule repeatedly and yet somehow the people, their culture, Christian religion, unique language and alphabet, have all survived. Georgians are survivors and the same is true of their wines.
Our Blood is Wine shows the hard work and sacrifice of artisan winemakers in Georgia instead of sunny vineyard scenes. We travel along with Chicago-based sommelier Jeremy Quinn, our inquisitive guide, but he is not the star of this show. He usefully yields the screen to the Georgians who have created these wines, preserved the indigenous grape varieties, and crafted the fantastic qvevri themselves.
One thing that keeps the film moving is the fact that we mainly see people at work and often (as in a scene where several sweating shirtless men carefully move a large, awkward, heavy qvevri into place) the actions speak as loud as any words ever could. The hard work contrasts with the beautiful Georgian music that forms the film’s soundtrack.
The Soviet era, which the film shows through archival footage, was particularly hard on Georgian wine. Georgia-born Joseph Stalin made sure that he had a constant supply of good wine from his home region, but the rest of the country’s wine industry was not so lucky. Private vineyards were seized and industrial wine production replaced private cellars to satisfy undiscriminating palates elsewhere in the Soviet empire.
Traditional wine-making practices survived through home production and even today most Georgian families make wine for their own consumption, some of it very good. Georgian wine consumption is high by U.S. standards. The rule of thumb for a party is two bottles of wine for each female guest and three bottles for each male. The domestic industry is necessarily focused on export since it is hard to compete with homemade wine for local sales.
There are, as I wrote in 2016, three wine industries in Georgia today. Some large producers focus on sweeter wines (which can be very good) to sell to traditional Russian and former-Soviet markets. Another industry has grown up around exports of clean international-style wines made with indigenous Georgian grapes. And, finally, a relatively small craft industry exists to satisfy the growing global demand for the natural wines made in qvevri — traditional hand-made clay pots that are buried in the earth. These wines and the people who make them and love them are the focus of Our Blood is Wine.
Sue and I were delighted when, at the end of the film, the art of Georgian wine was driven home through the work of an artist who actually paints with wine and the juice of the grapes instead of oil or watercolor. Saperavi art? Could it be, we wondered? Yes! The artist was our friend Elene Rakviashvili, who helped us to learn about Georgian wine and culture when we visited in 2016.
Our Blood is Wine is worth seeking out for what it teaches about Georgia, history, culture, politics, and of course wine. One of the best wine documentaries of recent years.
Wine lovers have a lot to celebrate. The calendar is dotted with days devoted to particular wines. International Malbec Day. International Grenache Day. The list goes on and on. They are all great in that they help us both celebrate wine and remember its incredible diversity.
But the greatest wine holiday of them all IMHO is Open That Bottle Night, which is celebrated on the last Saturday of February each year (that’s February 26 in 2022). The idea, according to John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter, who invented the occasion when they were wine columnists for the Wall Street Journal, is to ferret out some of the wines that you have squirreled away to open on some indeterminant special occasion and open them up to enjoy now. Ferret? Squirrel? What are you waiting for?
Or, as Orson Welles might have said in one of the old Paul Masson television commercials, we will drink no wine until its time. It’s time now!
Sue and I take turns picking a bottle for our OTBN celebration — the choice often driven by the memories the bottle holds as much as the wine itself. This year we are remembering our trip to the cradle of wine, Georgia, where I spoke at the first United Nations World Tourism Organization wine tourism conference back in 2016.
At one point the conference paused to visit the Alaverdi Monastery, which has been producing traditional wines since 1011. We surveyed the monastery and toured the marani (cellar) with its clay qvevri vessels, which are buried in the ground in the traditional way. I was surprised and delighted when I was called aside to receive a gift from the archbishop — the bottle of the monastery’s golden Rkatsiteli that we will uncork on OTBN 2022.
I remember tasting this golden wine and being moved. Here is Tim Atkin’s tasting note for an earlier vintage. I guess he was moved, too.
This is the wine that first won me over to the charms of the qvevri – the most astoundingly complex nose of tea leaves, baked apples, jasmine, herbs and plum compote (and bear in mind my description does not remotely do it justice). Very much an amber/orange style, with chewy but perfectly ripe tannins – and yet the fruit shines through effortlessly. Outstanding.
Inspired by the choice of wine, Sue has announced that she will pair it with homemade Khachapuri, which is sometimes described as a Georgian cheese bread. If you’ve ever had Khachapuri, however, you know that description doesn’t really do it justice.
Sue plans to riff on the King Arthur Flour recipe for Khachapuri, which substitutes ingredients readily available here in the United States for some of the Georgian originals.
The food and wine will be great in themselves, I’m sure, but more important will be the memories of people and places that they will inspire.
Those are our OTBN plans for this year. What bottle will you open on February 26? What memories will be uncorked. Please share your thoughts using the Comments function below.
Cheers to Dottie and John, who gave us Open That Bottle Night and to everyone who celebrates it in 2022!
Here’s a photo Sue took of the wine — remember it is a white wine! I know it looks dark in the decanter, but it really had amber notes in the glass. And it held our attention for a couple of hours as we tracked its development, An experience to remember
Sue and I have crossed paths with Matt and Charine in typically exotic places — Tbilisi, Georgia; Iasi, Romania; Carcassonne, France — and we have come to value their judgement and to admire their creativity, energy, and commitment. They bring these qualities to their wine guides, which are written to help independent travelers (and travel dreamers, too) get the most out of their experiences.
Hungary is a great choice for their latest book. Hungarian wines were once celebrated as among the best in the world. Then a perfect storm of crises changed everything. Phylloxera, war, depression, war, communism, post-communism struggles, and emergence into an increasingly competitive wine world. It is amazing that Hungarian wine survived. But it did.
More and more visitors are coming to Hungary (many on those ridiculously popular river cruises) to discover the culture, history, music, and food of this unique land. And they are discovering the wines, too. But this is unknown territory for most visitors (and most wine consumers generally), so they need a sympathetic guide to get the most out of their experiences and that’s where Matt and Charine come in.
“The book will offer practical information that help visitors to learn about Hungarian wine, shop for Hungarian wine, enjoy Hungarian wine, and most of all, feel empowered to explore Hungarian wine,” said Matthew Horkey.
“The Exotic Wine Travel’s guidebooks are always written and designed with one goal in mind: to help wine lovers and travelers save time and money by helping them to skip or shorten the trial-and-error process of finding the wines they like. We always aim to produce a guidebook that we wished we had when we first visited a wine country,” said Charine Tan.
A book launch is like a grape harvest — it sets in motion the process that eventually fills our glass with delight. Looking forward to a great Hungarian wine vintage from Matt and Charine. Cheers!
As the door to 2021 slowly swings open, the landscape looks both familiar and transformed at the same time. When the U.S. wine industry entered 2020, for example, the problems seemed to be stagnant demand on one side and excess wine grape supply on the other. Not a good situation for the world’s largest wine market, but not something beyond our ability manage, either.
Those problems are still with us, although they’re a bit lost in the fog. Structural wine production capacity is still too large, but this is disguised a bit by a smaller 2020 harvest in California and widespread smoke damage, which took some grapes off the market.
Overall wine demand is still under-performing, too, but that is hard to gauge exactly because of the way that wine channels have been disrupted by the covid pandemic in general and bar/restaurant restrictions in particular. Consumers are buying much more through retail channels, a good deal more direct-to-consumer and much less in the on-trade. Whatever the net impact, which seems to be negative, the effects on individual wineries in particular sales channels is significant.
The Unified Sine & Grape Symposium‘s “State of the Industry” session is about two weeks away so those of us on the panel are working to put our thoughts about 2021 in order. Here are some of my working notes. The theme here is that, while there is plenty of bad news going into 2021, if you take an international perspective on the U.S. situation, it quickly becomes clear that things could be much worse. If that sounds like a “glass half full” perspective, well it is.
Take the loss of on-premise sales. These lost sales are costly indeed, but producers in Europe had it much worse because they depend much more on bar and restaurant sales. No wonder their industries are hurting to badly and that crisis distillation is back in some E.U. countries.
If people in the U.S. wine industry are looking for something to be thankful for, they might consider how lucky they are not to be Australia. The U.S. industry has been caught in the trade war crossfire to be sure. Importers and distributors have been hit by U.S. tariffs on many European wines, for example, and China has imposed tariffs on the relatively small amount of U.S. wine sold there.
As if matters weren’t bad enough, the U.S. recently imposed 25% tariffs on French and German still wines above 14% abv, which had been spared in earlier rounds of the trade wars. U.S. firms that import, distribute, or sell these wines are collateral damage in the bigger trade fight, which has nothing to do with wine. These are daunting challenges, to be sure, but nothing in comparison to what Australia is experiencing.
The Australian wine industry invested heavily in opening the door to the Chinese market and moving up-market once inside. And they were remarkably successful. As you can see above in data from Wine Australia, China was by far Australia’s largest export market by revenue in 2019, accounting for $1.3 billion of the $2.9 billion of wine exports. China bought almost three times as much as the #2 export market, the United States.
Australian wine is #1 in China, too, measured by value. Australia overtook France in the Chinese sales league table in 2019.
This was good news for Australian producers back with economic relations with China were happy ones, but now a variety of tensions exist and China was imposed up to 212% tariffs on Australian wine. I don’t know if sales will go to zero immediately, but that is a lot of tariff to absorb. Although anti-dumping measures are cited in this case, the real conflict is elsewhere. Economist have long held that anti-dumping tariffs, ostensibly designed to deal with damage from predatory pricing, are often subject to political abuse.
Australian producers hope to be able to divert previously China-bound production to other Asian markets and some of it may end up in the U.S. and U.K., too. But realistically there is just too much wine for these markets to absorb and margins in the pivot markets are unlikely to match those in China.
But things could be even worse. What if Australia was even more dependent on Chinese market? The turn of the political screw would be even more painful then. And that is what happened in the past to Moldova and to Georgia when their biggest wine export market, Russia, decided to use wine as political tool.
The Good News is That the Dollar is in the Dumpster
You can find another good news story by looking at the foreign exchange markets. Typically when there is any kind of crisis around the world there is a rush to the security (and liquidity) of the U.S. dollar. Uncertainty drives the dollar in turbulent times. Or at least that’s what we thought.
A strong dollar translates into cheaper imports, which would not have helped in any way restore domestic balance in the U.S. wine market. A strong dollar isn’t the worst thing for domestic producers, but the negatives outweigh the positives for many firms.
As I noted in a Wine Economist column back in August, this crisis is different and the dollar didn’t soar, it plunged as this graph (above), which shows the dollar versus the euro, indicates. And then, after bouncing around for a while, it plunged again.
Now this is bad news for consumers who want to buy imported wine because a cheap dollar buys less on international markets, so European wines, many already subject to U.S. tariffs, are even more expensive. But it is good news for U.S. wine producers who compete against euro-priced imports. The cheap dollar gives them a cost advantage in the domestic market. There is also a theoretical advantage in export markets, but honestly those markets are pretty congested right now with lots of unsold wine (some of it from Australia) looking for a home.
But foreign exchange news isn’t completely sunny for U.S. wine because the dollar isn’t falling against all currencies. As this graph shows, the Argentina peso is even weaker, so the U.S. dollar steadily increased in relative terms, making wine from Argentina a fierce competitor where price is the key factor, especially bulk wine trade.
Economics is often called the dismal science and these examples of good news have a decidedly glass-half-empty feel. Stay tuned for glass-half-full analysis in coming weeks.
My new book Around the World in Eighty Wineshas received the Gourmand International 2018 award for best U.S. book in the wine and spirits tourism category and will now compete for “Best in the World” with winners from other countries. The global gold, silver, and bronze medals will be announced this May at award ceremonies in Yantai, China.
Here is the list of international champions in the wine and spirits tourism category:
Austria – Kulinarische Tourismus und Weintourismus (Springer)
Canada – Les Paradis de la Biere Blanche (Druide)
China – Compass to the ocean of wine (Zhejiang S/T) 9787534179549
France – Des Vignes et des Hommes (Feret)
Georgia – Georgia, Miquel Hudin (Vinologue)
Germany – Seewein, Wein Kultur am Bodensee (Jan Thorbeke)
Portugal – Vinhos & Petiscos (Caminho das Palavras)
Scotland – I love champagne, David Zyw (Freight Books)
Singapore – Cracking Croatian Wine, Charine Tan, Dr Matthew Horkey
Switzerland – Randos bieres en Suisse Romande, Monika Saxer (Helvetiq)
USA – Around the world in 80 wines, Mike Veseth (Rowman & Littlefield)
I am especially pleased to see that Cracking Croatian Wineby Charine Tan and Dr. Matthew Horkey is also on the list. Sue and I met Charine and Matt at the 2016 UNWTO global wine tourism conference in Tbilisi, Georgia and we like and admire them a lot. Their books are valuable additions to the resources available to wine tourists in particular and wine enthusiasts generally.
I don’t know who will be named the “best in the world,”, but I appreciate this recognition. Good luck to Charine, Matt, and all the other national champions in all the categories.
As I explained in an earlier column, I came to Georgia full of questions about the wine industry here and with a preliminary hypothesis to help me shape the inquiry. Here’s what I was thinking.
Georgian wine is very old and the wine culture is strong. I have never been anywhere where wine was so central to the culture. Wine and vine were everywhere we looked. Wine grapes were a central element, for example, of a Soviet-era war memorial we saw in Sighnaghi. And grape vines are at the heart of the image of Georgia as a Christian nation. Saint Nino fashioned the first cross using her own hair to bind two lengths of grape vine. Wine is Georgia’s DNA.
A great deal of the wine that is consumed is produced by families for their own use and to give to friends and neighbors. The fact of such large family production necessarily shapes the market. Not much imported wine enters Georgia, for example. And a great deal of the commercially produced wine must be exported.
The Russia Factor
Russia was for many years the largest export market for Georgian wine and because of this the focus was on semi-sweet red wines made in state-owned factories and often sold in bulk. Quantity was a priority over quality. But then came the Russian embargo of Georgian and Moldovan wines in 2006 and in an instant the most important market, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of sales, was gone and did not return until 2013.
The Russian embargo was the worst thing that could have happened to the Georgian wine industry in the short term and the best thing in the long run. In retrospect it is easy to see that such complete reliance upon a single foreign market for wine sales was not a healthy situation.
The sudden loss of that market forced Georgian producers to develop new markets, improve quality to be competitive in those markets, and find strategies for product differentiation to raise margins and secure market niches.
Silk Road to China
A recent report lists Georgia’s five largest export markets as Russia, Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland although there have been substantial sales increases (albeit from a low base) to Germany, the UK, and Canada.
The recent rise in the Chinese market has been particularly noteworthy and follows on investments in Georgia wine shops and culinary centers that were established in China. There are ambitious plans to open 100 Georgian wine houses there.
One wine executive we talked with noted a “Silk Road” connection that works in Georgia’s favor. Georgia has negotiated a preferential trade agreement with China and Chinese traders and investors who visit the country taste and enjoy the Georgian wines, learn about the country’s 8000 year wine history and its Silk Road connection. Nothing could make more sense than to buy Georgian wine with its long history and connection to China. Very smart of Georgian producers to leverage this cultural advantage!
Natural Wine Buzz
Here in the United States much of the buzz about Georgian wines concerns natural wines made using the traditional qvevri clay containers to ferment and sometimes age the wine wines. Alice Feiring is a leading advocate of these wines and her recent book For the Love of Wine gives a highly personal account of her passion for them.
No one we talked with is sure how much Georgian natural wine is made by families for their own consumption, but commercial production is relatively limited. One producer estimated total output of perhaps 120,000 bottles more or less with several wineries in the 3000 to 6000 bottle capacity range. Little of this wine is sold domestically in Georgia because of its relatively high cost and the existence of family-produced alternatives.
So the focus is clearly on export to markets where natural wines have a strong presence including Italy, France and Denmark, and developing natural wine markets such as UK, Canada and the United States.
Given all of this my working hypothesis when we left for Georgia was this. The Russian market is the past, now they need to look to the future. But which future? The natural qvevri wines are Georgia’s key to differentiation in the new markets, but high quality natural wine is too narrow a category to carry the ambitions of a great wine producing nation.
Process of Elimination
My hypothesis, based on the process of elimination, was that the way forward is for Georgia to focus on increasing the quality of their conventional wines, making them in a clean international style and differentiating by stressing a small number of exciting indigenous grape varieties (perhaps red Saperavi and white Rkatsiteli and various blends) from among the dozens of native Georgia wine grapes.
In other words, I saw Georgia in a very conventional way, much as I view Turkey or Portugal, for example. That was then. What do I think now? Come back next week to find out.
Thanks to the Georgia National Tourism Administration for inviting us to extend our visit to Georgia and generously providing us with help in visiitng the wine regions and meeting wine producers.