Misunderstanding Romanian Wine


It is easy to misunderstand Romania and its wine industry.

Romania is a very old culture but a surprisingly young nation-state. The Great Unification of 1918 finally brought all the historical provinces together under one roof a hundred years ago, an act that Romanians celebrated on December 1, their Great Union Day.

Contemporary Romania is even younger, dating to the end of the Soviet era in 1989. It entered the European Union in 2007 — another important date. Romania is a country with deep roots and vigorous new growth. It is both very old and very new, a work in progress (like the rest of us).

It is tempting to view Romanian wine as both old and new, too. Wine has been made in Romania for six or seven thousand years and the culture both embraces wine and consumes it with gusto.

Romanian wine today is also a work in progress and Sue and I learned as much as we could about its current status and future prospects when we spent a week there last month. We participated in the International Wine Competition Bucharest (held in Iasi this year) and I gave a lecture to students and faculty at the University of Agricultural Sciences and and Veterinary Medicine.

King of Wines

73205One particular Romanian sweet wine — Grasa de Cotnari — has an important place in wine history. Grasa de Cotnari, Tokaji of Hungary, and Constantia of South Africa were once the most celebrated wines in the world. King of wines, wines of kings, they were the kings of the hill in a world where luscious sweet wines were treasured above all others. Time have changed, however, and wines like these no long rule as they once did.

The thing about Romanian wine is that just when you think you understand it, you discover that there’s another layer and you have to start over.  Sue and I wanted to taste a few Romanian wines before our trip and I hit pay dirt at a local Total Wine store where I discovered several wines made by Cramele Recas, one of Romania’s largest producers (and a Total Wine Winery Direct partner). Two were international varieties (Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir) and two were native Romanian varieties (Feteasca Negra and Feteasca Regala). All were inexpensive — typically $5.99 per bottle or $5.39 as part of a Winery Direct six-bottle purchase.

The Recas wines were clean and well made, with good acidity and varietal character. We shared some with our neighbors, who were surprised at the Pinot Noir given its price. The Recas winemaker has lots of experience producing commercial quality wine at affordable prices. He divides his time between Recas in Romania and a winery in Australia that you might have heard of. It’s called Yellowtail.

But Wait … There’s More

So Romanian wine is cheap but pretty good — a bottom shelf bargain. Is that right? Well, yes it is, but as soon as we arrived in Iasi we discovered another layer. There has been a very strong movement to higher quality since the end of the Communist era and especially since Romania joined  the European Union and opened its doors more widely to international competition.

The semi-sweet wines that were a mainstay during the Soviet era remain popular. Sugar can be used to cover up a variety of wine flaws, and so sweet wines are often suspect, but we tasted some that were well-made and delicious.  Many producers make both dry and semi-sweet versions of their wines to satisfy the diverse consumer audience. I don’t think these sweetish wines will or should go away, but dry wines are clearly the future and a lot of effort is going into their production.

But which dry wines? Romania is fortunate to have a wine grape treasury that includes a number of indigenous varieties that make distinctive, delicious wines. In the right hands, Feteasca Regala (white), Feteasca Neagra (red) and Busuioaca de Bohotin (rosé) produce exciting wines, for example, and there are other promising varieties.  I admit that my prejudice is for the native grape varieties and not the international varieties that you see everywhere, but it is important to have an open mind.

davinoWe spent a day in the Delau Mare region near Bucharest, which is known for its excellent red wines. Our last stop was Davino, which was Romania’s second privately-owned winery (S.E.R.V.E. was the first). We tasted the Purpura Valahica, which is made from Feteasca Negra clones specifically selected for the local terroir. It was terrific — a wonderful example of just the sort of terroir wine I had my heart set on finding. Romanian grapes, Romanian soil, Romanian wine-maker, even Romanian oak.

But then we tasted a Cabernet Sauvignon and it was wonderful, too, and impressed me even though I was not really interested in international grape varieties. And then came the Domaine Ceptura Rouge — Cab, Merlot, and Feteasca Negra. It was a fascinating fusion. Bottom line: Romanian wine does and should focus on its native varietals, but in an open context that allows winemakers to make the best wines they can.

No One-Liners in Wine

The wine that fills Romanian glasses represents an interesting mixture of past, present, and future, dry and sweet, native and international. No wonder it is hard to pin it down. But that’s not all. Home-made wine is very important in terms of total consumption and I understand that some of this is made with the hybrid grape varieties that were introduced here after phylloxera.

The popularity of the home-made stuff is a bit of a problem, since it can be so different from commercial production using vitis vinifera grape varieties.  Convincing thrifty buyers to pay more for a very different product is a challenge.

The Romanian case reminds me a bit of the challenge that U.S. winemakers faced in the 1930s when Prohibition finally ended. Home-made wine production had surged dramatically during Prohibition, encouraged by a loophole in the law that allowed limited home wine production. The quality of the wine was, um, variable and its taste is how consumers came to think of wine, which is perhaps why they focused more attention on beer and spirits. It took decades to fully overcome that memory.

Jon Fredrikson always says that there are no one-liners in wine, so perhaps this multi-layer aspect is what makes Romania akin to other regions, not different from them. But the tendency to be misunderstood is particularly powerful in Romania based on our experience. Resist any attempt to over-simplify the country or its wines!

What lies ahead for the Romanian wine industry? The future looks bright, but there will be headwinds. Come back next week to learn more.

Wine Book Review: Getting Up to Speed on Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova

gilbyCaroline Gilby, MW, The Wines of Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova.  (Infinite Ideas/Classic Wine Library, 2018).

Sue and I are heading off to Romania in a few days for the 2018 International Wine Contest Bucharest, which will be held in Iasi, Romania this  year.  I’ve been searching for a good book to get me up to speed.

I hit pay-dirt with Caroline Gilby’s new survey of Bulgaria, Romania,, and Moldova. I have only read the Romanian section so far, but I am very impressed. (Gilby says that it is important to read about all three countries because their histories are quite different and inform one-another. I will catch up with Bulgaria and Moldova on the flights to Iasi.)

Gilby’s book has answered many of the questions I had about the Romanian wine industry and given me some new topics to explore while we are there. I like books that make me question and think and this volume really does the job.

Wine books about particular countries or regions often follow a fairly standard format. History, climate and terroir, grape varieties, regions, producers, wines. All these important topics are covered very well in Gilby’s book. But there’s a lot more, too.

The evolution of the Romania wine sector has been punctuated by a number of important events. Phylloxera is one that is common to many regions, of course, and it is noteworthy that many local grape varieties were replanted and therefore preserved while others were replaced with international varieties.

Wines made from international varieties are popular in Romania, while wines made from the indigenous grapes get more attention abroad, where another Sauvignon Blanc is nothing new but Feteasca Regală can be something to get excited about.

The communist era and its collapse have left Romania a real puzzle that I hope to begin to unlock during our short visit. Wine is old in Romania, for example, but the wine industry is surprisingly young, with many important projects dating from just the last 20 years.

Romania’s vineyard area is quite large, but the average plot is tiny. There are more than 800,000 winegrowers, for example, who have less than half a hectare planted to  vine on average. This is a legacy of the collective farm system, where families had tiny plots to farm for themselves. Putting together large enough vineyards for commercial farming has been a struggle, but progress is being made.

International influences extend beyond grape varieties. There are flying winemakers, of course, as there are everywhere these days, but also a good deal of investment from abroad. It is not every country that can count both the Antinori family and also Pepsi Cola as important participants in the wine sector’s development.

Romanians drink a lot of wine (in fact, they have been net importers for the last few years), but they are not always the target market for new projects because much of the domestic consumption is of home-made wine (this reminds me of Georgia). The new winery projects, with higher quality but also higher costs, have to compete with both home-made wine and cheaper imports from Spain and elsewhere.

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Hence a focus on exports to the EU and beyond, which is where we come in, I think, because my book Wine Wars analyzes the forces driving the global wine markets and some in Romania think it can be useful in thinking about strategies for their next step.  They commissioned a translation of Wine Wars titled  Războaiele Vinului  or “War of the Wine.” I’m flattered by the attention and pleased to help out.

I’ll give a talk about Romania and the wine wars  at the university in Iasi in addition to our work at the IWCB wine contest and some cellar and vineyard visits. Should be a good trip! Looking forward to meeting everyone and learning more about Romanian wine.

In the meantime, let me recommend Caroline Gilby’s new book. The stories she tells about Romania are fascinating. She writes with style and authority.  I’m very impressed and looking forward to learning more as I read about Bulgaria and Moldova.

Wine in America: Surprising Idaho and its Diverse Wine Scene

strangefolkThere is a big world of American wine out there, full of surprises. Wine is made in all 50 states, so “Support your local wine industry” is practical advice. Sometimes this requires you to head off the the vineyards, but sometimes they can come to you. Case in point … the booming Boise, Idaho wine scene.

There is an urban winery trail of sorts developing in Boise and our friend Jim Thomssen spirited us away for a quick survey of the scene between sessions of the Idaho Wine Commission meetings in February. His goal, it developed, was to show the diversity that is driving Idaho wine and, I think it is fair to say, American wine today, too.

One Size Does Not Fit All

One size does not fit all in Idaho wine. Idaho is dominated by Chateau Ste Chapelle and Sawtooth winery, which are part of the Precept wines portfolio that also includes Waterbrook, Canoe Ridge, Sagelands, House Wine, and Gruet among others. Precept owns Idaho’s two largest wineries and a huge proportion of its vineyards, whence many smaller wineries source their grapes. Ste Chapelle makes excellent wines (we tasted a vertical of their Tempranillo with dinner one night) as well as a series of “soft” blends that are Idaho best-sellers.sawtooth

In our previous visits we have focused on wineries in the Sunnyslope region of the Snake River Valley, where grapes are grown and wine is made. Some of our favorites include Bitner Vineyards, Huston Vineyards, Koenig Vineyards, and Fujishin Family Wine Cellars. They set a high standard for quality and their wines are delicious.

Given our tight schedule, Jim scheduled appointments at two wineries just outside the downtown core, Telaya Wine Co. and  Split Rail Winery.  The wineries are about the same size in terms of annual production and source grapes from both Idaho and Washington, but that is where the similarities end.

Precision Winemaking

Earl Sullivan is a scientist by training and a former international pharmaceutical industry executive and Telaya winery reflects the precision and systems thinking that comes with that background, both in terms of the wines, which are balanced and structured, and the winery itself, which was strategically located next door to a destination hotel along Boise’s popular river walk.telaya

Production and hospitality spaces in the two-year old winery were custom designed to facilitate efficient wine-making and to provide visitors a warm welcome. The patio by the river is a popular spot in warm weather.

We especially liked the Turas blend of Syrah, Malbec and Petit Verdot from the Snake River Valley and the elegant single-variety  Petit Verdot, too. Precision wine-making can yield delicious results and Earl Sullivan’s well planned and executed wine business is very successful.

Relentless Experimentation

A short drive away, Split Rail Winery is a very different experience. The brightly-painted winery and tasting room live in a former auto repair shop out on the highway. Jed Glavin’s philosophy is to explore his favorite Rhone varieties (including a tasty SGM  field blend that we sampled) and to provide wine in all imaginable delivery systems including bottle, keg (for the on-trade), cans, and take-out growlers. I have included an image io the Strange Folks line of canned wines. Pull tabs, not corks. Pretty crazy, huh?

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Jed’s intention is to experiment relentlessly and he’s OK with it if he never makes the same wine twice, letting vintage variation and other factors rule. It says something about Jed that he’s willing to take so many risks to see what develops.

And it says something about Idaho in general and the Boise area in particular that he has an enthusiast following that is excited to see what he will come up with next.

A Happening Place

In fact Boise is quite a happening place, with crowded restaurants featuring local ingredients, a bustling craft beer scene, and some interesting cider makers, too. In fact, cider was one of the features of this visit. A Basque friend introduced us to Basque cider during a visit to Spain last year and, knowing that Boise has a large Basque population, we sought out (and found!) several of these very dry ciders, including one on draft at the Basque Market restaurant, just across the street from the iconic Bar Gernika.cider

Jim took us to Meriwether Cider Co. out on the highway near Split Rail where a variety of tasty ciders (very different from the Basque products) are made and a loyal local following has developed. Cider has many advantages over wine — you can make it year around from stored apples, not just once a year when the grapes are ripe. And cider making has a tradition of flavorings and infusions that encourages experimentation. We know some winemakers in Oregon who also make cider and are very successful in both markets.

The Leadbetter family that owns Meriwether Cider will soon open a cider house in downtown Boise to feature both their products and those of other local cider makers. I was pleased to meet Gig Leadbetter at the wine meetings, which included cider industry people in Idaho because of the many synergies and, I suppose, the obvious need for producers in smaller markets to work together when they can.

The Idaho wine industry is anything but cookie-cutter in terms of size, scope, and style — and that’s part of what makes it so interesting. The fact that broad local support has developed for this rainbow of wine is inspiring, both for Idaho and for American wine.

 

Four Takeaways from the Global Wine Tourism Conference in Mendoza

ucoSue and I are back from the second United Nations World Tourism Organization global wine tourism conference in Mendoza, Argentina. It was an intense and interesting few days in a welcoming and dynamic part of the wine world. Here are a few things we think we learned at the conference. More to follow.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Mendoza has come a long way as a wine tourist destination and they are justifiably proud of their accomplishments. Unlike Napa Valley, which is next door to cosmopolitan San Francisco and fast-paced Silicon Valley, Mendoza takes a bit of effort to visit, so its emergence as a tourist hub, is noteworthy. We were impressed with the renovated airport, which features more flights to more places more often and will surely help boost wine tourism in the future.

When Sue and I visited Mendoza a few years ago we noted that it wasn’t very easy for an independent traveler to visit many of the wineries and this problem has been addressed in several ways. Some wineries have opened tasting rooms in the city, effectively bringing the vineyard to the tourist. Among the other efforts is a special hop-on hop-off bus that visits select wineries. How convenient! We also saw many tour operators who put together custom tours of wineries as well as the many other visitors options in region.

Mendoza has a lot to be proud of when it comes to wine tourism, but the many Argentine officials and local dignitaries who spoke at the conference’s first session perhaps could have shown greater restraint. Bad news: the talking went on so long that lunch, which was scheduled for around 2 pm, was actually served closer to 6 pm. Good news: our lunch began with deep-fried empanadas served hot and fresh outdoors in the Bodega Norton vineyard. Incredible.lunch2

Don’t Look Back

Gabriel Fidel is a sort of Renaissance man. Scholar, business leader, public servant, politician — he wears many hats in Mendoza and he has been influential in the rise of the wine and wine tourist sectors.  His talk charted the evolution of wine tourism in this region and included a warning not to be too proud of the past, because the future holds more challenges.

Twenty years ago, Fidel explained. The challenge was to get wineries to accept visitors at all. They just get in the way! Okay, then once wineries got the messages about the importance of visitors there was a need for facilities, then services and trained staff, and then finally some attention to creating experiences beyond the typical tasting room offer. Wine tourism does not take place in a vacuum, so wineries need to match the programs in other wine regions and take into account the level of service that tourist expect in non-wine settings, too.

Now the challenge, Fidel said, is to move ahead again rather than just taking satisfaction in past achievements. Don’t look back, Satchel Paige said, something might be gaining on you. And in this competitive environment, it is gaining fast.

Wine Tourism and Sustainable Development

My contribution to the conference was a short speech on how wine tourism can be a tool for sustainable regional development. Done right, I argued, wine tourism can benefit people, planet and profit. Done wrong … well, there can be real problems. I cited specific success stories as well as critical issues, highlighting the strategies needed to anticipate and address problems.

One journalist who attended the conference wrote to me to say that she hadn’t really thought much about the impact that tourism can have on local people and the  world they live in and now she could appreciate its importance. I guess my message got through.

We visited one winery where our guide quite unintentionally revealed how wine tourism transforms local communities.  His father was in the construction business and, were it not for winery development, that’s what he would be doing, too.

But now the opportunities are in wine tourism and hospitality more than traditional occupations such as construction.  His family struggles a bit to understand the changing local labor scene (and the changing nature of work itself) and how exactly he can earn a living drinking wine, as they see it, and talking to strangers like us all day rather than working hard to make, build, or grow things.

Mendoza to Moldova

The transformative impact of wine tourism will be tested in Moldova, which was named as the host nation of the 2018 UNWTO global wine tourism conference. Moldova is probably the most wine-dependent country on the planet. Wine is the largest export category and the country is working very hard to open up markets in the west and in Asia and to reduce its long-standing dependence on the unreliable Russian market for wine sales.

Selling more wine at higher prices would be great for Moldova, but wine tourism is perhaps strategically more important because of its ability to increase rural incomes outside of wine production and sales. Wine tourism done right stimulates the hospitality industry with potential impacts on crafts and other local industries. Wine tourism has great potential to draw visitors to Moldova and stimulate rural development.

Hosting an international conference like this is a big, expensive job. Good luck to our Moldovan friends as they plan next year’s events.

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Sue took the photos above — the view from Bodega Moneviejo in the Uco valley and the delicious late-lunch empanadas at Bodega Norton.

Book Review: Cracking Croatian Wine

croatianCracking Croatian Wine: A Visitor-Friendly Guide, by Dr. Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan, published by Exotic Wine Travel.

The Wine Economist and I (Mrs. Wine Economist) live in a community with a distinct Croatian history, with many Croatian-Americans residents, and a Slavonian American Benevolent Society that dates from 1901. A home nearby regularly flies a Croatian flag. Our city, Tacoma, Washington, and Hvar, Croatia, are sister cities. So Cracking Croatian Wine: A Visitor-Friendly Guide, by Dr. Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan, seemed like a logical extension of our local culture as well as an opportunity to learn more about Croatian wine.

Horkey and Tan, the force behind Exotic Wine Travel, explore off-the-main-tourist-path wine destinations. Cracking Croatian Wine follows on the heels of Uncorking the Caucasus, Wines of Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia. For both books, the authors spoke to (and tasted with) wine makers, sommeliers, and others with expertise and experience. The wines in both books are generally not available in our upper-left-hand corner of the United States, but some are available by mail. Even in our Croatian-heavy community, Croatian wines are rarely seen. (If anyone knows if they are available locally, let me know.)

uncorkThe real value is for the visitor to Croatia. Those who are visiting Croatia for beaches or historical cities and just want to enjoy a regional wine with a meal will find several options. Those who want to dive in deeply into Croatian wine will find plenty of opportunities to explore. The lists of wineries, wine bars, and wine shops offer good starting points.

Horkey and Tan write in a consumer-friendly, conversational style that is accessible to both the casual wine drinker and the aficionado. They present “wine and a story,” beginning with descriptions of the regions. Each featured wine includes helpful information about the place, the winemaker, the grape, wine-making techniques, and what they found in the glass.

I especially appreciate that they categorize wines for the connoisseur, the adventurous palate, and “fun and easy.” They also offer suggestions for those looking for budget wines.

It is clear that they immerse themselves not just in the wine culture of a place, but in the broader culture as well. Their brief discussions of Croatian history, cuisine, and geography are helpful — and necessary — for context but do not overshadow the wine-centric focus of the book.

Two aspects of the book were disappointing. The first is that the pronunciation guide does not appear until page 33; by the time you reach it, you already have encountered strings of consonants and accents. The pronunciation help along the way (the grape varieties, for example) is welcome.

Of more concern is the lack of good maps. The only map is a half- page, gray-scale map of the whole country, without showing its neighbors for context. More detailed maps of each region would be helpful to those who are not familiar with Croatia’s geography.

Belated full disclosure: my own ethnic background is half Serbian-American. I hope Horkey and Tan will produce a book on Serbian wine.

— Sue Veseth, Contributing Editor

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Reading through Croatian names reminded me of The Onion’s 1995 classic “Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia; Cities of Sjlbvdnzv, Grzny to Be First Recipients,” read here by Tom and Ray Maggliozzi.

 

Second Thoughts on Wine Strategies for Georgia, the Cradle of Wine

127895The 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.

Conventional Wisdom?

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 Onlyimage_2408901_full

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). oro5-160x284

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?p1110808

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 expp1110789ansion 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.2014042019

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.

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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.

Republic of Georgia: First Impressions of a Wine Industry in Transition

qvevri1Sue and I were fortunate to be able to extend our visit to the Republic of Georgia at the conclusion the  of United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) first Global Conference on Wine Tourism. The conference’s focus was on wine tourism, but we wanted to learn more about the Georgian wine industry itself.

Georgia’s DNA

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.vino1mo

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!p1110666

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.

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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.