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.
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.
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
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 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.
The Republic of Georgia is a wine economy in transition from its former status as a main supplier of wine to Russia and the former Soviet countries to an emerging position with sales in these markets plus Western Europe, North America and Asia.
Last week’s column reported on the main sectors of the Georgian wine industry and presented a working hypothesis I developed before our recent trip there. Home production of wine for family use is very important in Georgia and crowds out the commercial product to a great extent, so the focus is on exports. But what strategic focus is best: which wines and which markets?
The traditional markets in Russia and the former Soviet nations represent the past, I hypothesized. The future? The most distinctive element of Georgian wine today are the high quality natural qvevri wines that have been much in the news recently, but is that too small a niche to support the industry? And production of these wines is very limited in any case.
So by process of elimination, I said, Georgia needs to focus on what’s left — distinctive indigenous grape variety wines made in a clean international style that can compete in global export markets like the U.K., U.S. and Canada.
That is a conventional idea, I noted at the end of last week’s column, and I am generally suspicious of conventional wisdom. Georgia is an unconventional wine country, so I needed to learn more. I’m still trying to make up my mind, but I think my hypothesis was both right and wrong, too. Here is my report.
Orovela Saperavi: Export Only
If you want to see what the future of Georgian export wines in the international style might look like consider Orovela. But don’t look for these wines in Georgia — they are strictly for export and are essentially unknown in their country of origin. You can, however, find them in the United Kingdom at Waitrose stores and Whole Foods and in restaurants, too, where they are possibly the most successful Georgian wine in the market.
Current exports to the U.K., the U.S. and other markets are fairly small at 40,000 bottles, but there are plans to ramp up quickly to 200,000 bottles and then a million bottles in a few years. That’s big by Georgian standards.
The name, Orovela comes from a traditional plowing song, but the project is as contemporary as can be. Brothers Giorgi and Vasili Sulkhanishvili saw an opportunity for Georgian wine exports, began investment in 2000, and rolled out the brand in 2004. There is one red wine, a Orovela Saperavi, and Oro chacha, which is Georgia’s signature grape spirit (think grappa).
Quality was a key factor right from the start and this has paid off. Jancis Robinson declared the 2004 Orovela the best Georgian wine she ever tasted, for example. A search of the Waitrose website reveals that the Saperavi is a “buyer’s choice” selling for £16.79. Vasili told us that the wine is available in selected East Coast markets in the U.S. and sells for $30-$35 in shops and perhaps $100 in restaurants.
The packaging of both the wine and the chacha is beautiful and effective in communicating the wine’s origin and story. Orovela is a completely professional project, carefully designed and tightly focused, reflecting, I believe, the brothers’ international drinks industry experience.
Orovela isn’t the only example of an international-style wine made with Georgian grapes for export markets. We visited both Chateau Mukhrani and Telavi Wine Cellar and were impressed with the substantial investment and obvious commitment to quality.
The idea that Georgia could be successful in global markets with wines like these is certainly valid.But is it the best strategy for the industry? These markets are insanely competitive and effective product differentiation is critical. Are these wines different enough (there is little room for “me too” products) and can that difference and the quality be communicated effectively as Orovela has done?
Back to the Future?
I wasn’t prepared for what I discovered when we started tasting natural qvevri wines and meeting the winemakers. The wines varied a good deal, of course, but many of them were simply stunning and not at all the rustic products that I imagined. Wines from Gotsa Family Wines, Pheastant’s Tears, Iago’s Wine Cellar and the Alaverdi Monatstery especially stood out. The wines had real tension — they were alive in the glass. No funk, nothing mousy, just great wine. I was really impressed.
I admit that visiting the wineries and meeting the people made a difference, as it always does. I was moved by Iago Bitarishvili’s hard work and humility, for example, and excited by Beka Gotsadzes’ energy and ingenuity. The fact that these people can make natural wines like this using traditional Georgian methods is something to celebrate. The wines and the stories that come with them are the product differentiation I was looking for.
Maybe these are the wines that Georgia should highlight, I thought. Certainly they tell an authentic story of Georgia and its wines. But there are problems. The domestic market for such wine is limited, as I explained last week, and natural wines are a niche (albeit a growing one) in the global market. In any case, production of these natural qvevri wines is small and the best makers routinely sell out now. Market expansion requires new investment and new players.
The natural qvevri wines are a great symbol for Georgia and its wines, but can they open doors for other Georgian wines? Not sure.
Past is Prologue?
My confusion reached a peak when we visited Teliani Valley winery, which is a large diversified producer. Production is about 3 million bottles divided 30% domestic, 70% exports, 30% semi-sweet wines for the traditional markets, 70% dry wines, and 90% conventional wines with 10% made in qvevri.
After a brief tour of the big factory-style facility, we were asked to choose wines to taste. Could we try three red wines, I asked? An international-style wine, a qvevri product and one of the semi-sweet wines popular in Russia and other traditional markets.
The wines were produced and the results were interesting. The oak-aged international Saperavi and the qvevri wines were fine, but not especially memorable. No electricity here. Well made, but not distinctive.
The semi-sweet wine was different, which caught me by surprise. 100% Saperavi from the Kindzmarauli vineyard, it was fruity and, well, delicious. To paraphrase my favorite philosopher, Charles Barkley, it tasted like itself — it was good because it wasn’t trying to be something else. It was the surprise hit of the tasting. It was the wine that we would want to taste again.
Sweetish red wines enjoy a growing market in the U.S. (although their sweetness isn’t always advertised). High quality wines like this might have a bright future, not the dim past that I had imagined.
One Wine to Rule Them All?
My working hypothesis was based on the conventional idea that Georgia needed to choose a clear, simple strategy to move forward in the global markets — to decide which of its wines to take the lead.
But Georgian wine isn’t one thing, it is many things. And I think any attempt to over-simplify — to choose the one wine style to rule them all — is bound to fail.
International style, natural qvevri wines, and the semi-sweets, too. These are all Georgia wines and Georgia is all of them and more, too. My hypothesis was off base, but the journey of discovery it provoked has taught me a lot.
Thanks to all the wine producers who met with us during our Georgia expedition and to the Georgian National Tourism Association for all their help and encouragement.
Let me answer the second question first. Georgia is the self-styled “Cradle of Wine,” with documented wine production going back 8000 years so it certainly has standing. It is also probably the most wine-centric culture I have ever experienced. Wine is everywhere. Just about everyone drinks it, most families make it for their own consumption, and its symbolic and practical importance is everywhere to be seen. Wine and vine — these are key elements of the Georgian DNA. Really.
Georgia is a poor nation, especially outside of Tbilisi’s bright city lights. Mexico’s per capital GDP is about $9000 according to World Bank statistics. Georgia’s is about $3800. So anything that can create employment opportunities (especially rural jobs) and spur economic development is welcome here. Tourism of the nature and adventure varieties is a big contributor to national income. Why not leverage Georgia’s rich culture, and especially its deep wine traditions, to create economic opportunity?
So it is easy to see why Georgia would volunteer to host a conference like this — and they did a magnificent job. But what’s the UN connection?
Wine Tourism Rationale
The basis for UN programs in tourism and now wine tourism is surprisingly strong, as the “Georgia Declaration on Wine Tourism (pdf),” which was promulgated at the conference, makes clear. The UNWTO’s mandate, for example, states that, “The fundamental aim of the Organization shall be the promotion and development of tourism with a view to contributing to economic development, international understanding, peace and prosperity, and universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”. Tourism cannot accomplish all these goals by itself, but it can be part of the process.
Tourism is one way that we experience and understand other nations, peoples, and cultures. It creates jobs, of course, but it has the potential to also increase understanding. International tourism has been one of the global growth industries of the last 30 years, so it is not unreasonable that the UN pay attention to this economic and cultural exchange vector.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, includes tourism as a tool for sustainable economic development. “By 2030,” the document specifies, the UN should “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.
The UNWTO had previously identified gastro-tourism as being an important element of its sustainable tourism development program. The wine tourism initiative and this conference were organized as part of the gastro-tourism program.
About the Conference
The first UNWTO Global Wine Conference attracted more than 250 participates from 42 countries. My panel on best practices in wine tourism included speakers from Italy, Canada, Japan, Argentina and the United States (I talked about Napa’s success and also its challenges).
The organizers designed the program to minimize talking head blah-blah-blah and maximize focused interaction among the participants. (I have never before traveled through 11 time zones and back in order to speak for 10 minutes!) There was a lot of knowledge and experience in the room and it made sense to draw it out through small group discussion.
I think the strategy worked on the whole and Sue and I feel our time was well spent, but I wish there have been an opportunity for greater depth on at least some topics. The conference moves to Mendoza, Argentina next year — it will be interesting to see how the program evolves.
One interesting innovation was to move the conference out of the typical sterile hotel ballroom or convention center environment and to have the sessions in wineries, where wine tourism strategies could be seen in practice as well as discussed in theory. Come back next week for an analysis of what we learned from these experiences.
Sue and I were delighted to meet Matt Horkey and Charine Tan at the UNWTO conference. Their fist book, Uncorking the Caucasus: Wines from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia, was published last week and it is recommended reading if you are planning a wine tour to this region or are interesting in these wines generally. Sue and I found their recommendations for Georgia and its wines on the mark.
I like this book so much that I wrote a publicity “blurb” about it. Here it is:
Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan take us along for the ride as they travel the wine roads of Turkey, Armenia and Georgia in their intriguing new book Uncorking the Caucasus. It is exciting to see these ancient wine regions through their eyes and to experience the ways that the very old and the very new come together through wine. A perfect read for wine lovers looking for new wines, new regions, and new perspectives. Pack your bags and join Matthew and Charine as they uncork the Caucasus. Highly recommended.
This is the first in a short series of columns on the UNWTO conference and the Georgian wine industry. Thanks very much to the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Authority for making our participation in this conference possible.
In a few days Sue and I will be jetting off to the Republic of Georgia for the first United Nations World Tourism Organization Global Conference on Wine Tourism.We have been trying to learn all we can about Georgia and its wine and wine tourism industries in preparation for the trip. I thought you might be interested in three of the resources we have found especially useful.
Taber’s Final Frontier
George Taber spent the best part of a year circling the globe collecting wine tourism experiences that he chronicled in an entertaining 2009 book called In Search of Bacchus. Most of the places Taber visited would be on any globetrotter’s wine tourism map — Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany and so on — and his reporting and first person accounts are very interesting. Taber waited until the final chapter to veer off the conventional road map to visit Georgia, which he calls wine’s “final frontier.”
Taber had a great time in Georgia, the “Cradle of Wine,” 8000 vintages and counting. He loved the people and culture and was fascinated by the wine, reporting on the traditional wine-making process using big clay jars called Qvervi (which are buried in the earth as shown below)to ferment and store the wine until ready to drink.
Taber comments on consumption patterns as do most who write about Georgian wine. A rule of thumb, he notes, is to allow for two or three liters of wine per person at a supra banquet or celebration, where tradition requires that guests drain their glasses after each toast.
When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Georgia (see video above) he also cited high alcohol consumption and complained of frequent hangovers, although this might be Bourdain being Bourdain as much as Georgian tradition. I will let you know what I find out.
Anderson found the wine market quite segmented. Most of the large domestic demand was satisfied by basic traditional wines, a surprisingly large proportion being home-produced. Industrial production of wine for export to former Soviet countries made up a second market segment. Rising quantities of wine are made for export to other markets (including US, Canada, UK, etc), where quality expectations are different than the Russian market and production adjustments necessary.
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.
Anderson clearly sees potential for Georgian wine exports if industrial and agricultural upgrading continues, but he is especially interested in wine tourism, which he sees having potentially greater impact on rural incomes and employment. Georgia’s decision to host the UNWTO program is consistent with this priority. International tourism is an important income source for Georgia and wine tourism has growth potential.
Anderson makes a number of specific recommendations for upgrading hospitality and winery facilities to make them more appealing to wine tourists. We will be interested to see what progress has been made in this regard in the short time since Anderson’s report.
Back to the Future of Wine
Natural wine proponent Alice Feiring seems to have found her “tribe” in Georgia. Her 2016 book For the Love of Wineis an entertaining, informative and deeply personal account of her encounters with Georgia wine and wine-makers.
Feiring is taken by the naturalness of the Qvervi wine-making process and the dedication of those who kept this tradition alive during the long Soviet wine winter. Whereas Anderson’s concern is economic development, Feiring worries more about the soul. She sees Georgia’s past as a path to a better, more soulful future.
But she worries these traditional wines are threatened by a new foe — those US, UK, and EU markets that seem to demand “me too” wines made in an international style with lots of additives and manipulation. For Feiring, Russian communism and international capitalism are “twins separated at birth” in the sense that each destroys the essence of wine in its own way.
Feiring’s mission is to support those who seek to make high quality traditional wines. But there are problems. The Georgian domestic market for such wines with their necessarily higher price compared with home production is not large enough to support the craft industry, which means that buyers must be found in other countries.
Feiring’s tribe needs to grow to support the wines she treasures. The natural wine movement is growing in part due to her determined efforts. Perhaps wine tourism will convert visitors to natural wine (and Georgian wine) ambassadors.
That is a sip of what I’m learning and a hint of the sorts of questions we hope to explore. Georgia is definitely on my mind!
We appreciate everyone who helped us prepare for this trip including the officials and staff at the UNWTO and the Georgia National Tourist Administration plus Mariam Anderson, Prof. Kym Anderson, Nino Turashvili, Viktoria Koberidze, Irakli Cholobargia, George Akhalkatsi, and Hermes Navarro del Valle.