Passport Magazine March 2006
by Charles W. Borden
It was only a matter of time before we would get to the wines of Georgia, considered by many to be the best of countries of the USSR. There is some basis for this claim, and not only because Georgia-born Stalin provided the industry with extensive resources. Georgian wines have a royal lineage; it is considered the source of the first cultivated grapevines. Tools of grape and wine production, clay vessels for wine, and art and jewelry depicting grapes and grape leaves found in Georgia have been dated as far back as 5000 BC. The ancient symbol of Christianity in Georgia, which arrived in the fourth century, is a cross woven of grapevines.
Georgian grape varieties are little known in the West. The two most important grapes used in Georgian wines, Rkatsiteli and Saperavi, have the potential to produce excellent, if not great, wines. Rkatsiteli is a white variety that is so widely grown in Eastern and Central Europe that it ranks fourth in the world in hectares grown. Saperavi produces substantial deep red wines that are suitable for extended aging, perhaps up to fifty years. Saperavi has the potential to produce high alcohol levels and is used extensively for blending with other lesser varieties.
Georgia has five main regions of viniculture, the principal area being Kakheti, which produces seventy percent of Georgia’s grapes. Traditionally, Georgian wines carry the name of the source region, district, or village, much like French regional wines such as Bordeaux or Burgundy. As with these French wines, Georgian wines are usually a blend of two or more grapes. For instance, one of the best-known white wines, Tsinandali, is a blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane grapes from the micro regions of Telavi and Kvareli in the Kakheti region.
Georgian wines are traditionally fermented in large clay vessels called kvevris, and left with skins and seeds for an additional three or four months; but certain wines such as the dry, red Mukuzani are aged in oak casks. Georgia produces a number of sweet and semi-sweet wines such as the semi-sweet red Khvahchkara and sweet Kindzmarauli.
Unfortunately, the popular Georgian labels are now the most widely imitated and counterfeited, and reportedly, as much as ninety percent of Georgian wines sold in Russia are bogus. There is virtually no protection for Georgian wine names. As a Russian winemaker remarked to me a few years ago, “If there was so much Georgian wine as is found in shops in Moscow, Georgia would be under a sea of wine.” Like wines from other countries of the former Soviet Union, the first rule in buying a Georgian wine is to only buy wines that are produced and bottled in the wine-producing region.
For our Georgian adventure, we selected wines from some of the main reputable producers and those most often found in the supermarkets. By far the best-known Georgian wine label is Tamada, from GWS, which is owned by the French giant Pernod Ricard. GWS started business in the early 1990’s by exporting bulk Georgian wine to Holland, where it was bottled and then sent to Russia for sale. Pernod Ricard has now invested in a completely new winery and planted new vineyards.
Telavi Wine Cellars, which sells wine under the Talisman brand, also has a good reputation. An up-and-comer is Shumi, owned by Georgian businessman Timur Lomsadze, who attended our recent Australian wine tasting. In recent years he has acquired extensive vineyards in some of Georgia’s most important viticultural areas. He is also seeking and propagating some of the hundreds of Georgian grape varieties, many which are practically lost.
Another interesting, and relatively new winery is Suliko in Gori, owned by our host for the evening, David Ananiashvili, who for nine years has operated Suliko restaurant on Bolshaya Polyanka, one of the best known Georgian restaurants in Moscow. The wall is adorned with photos of David with the likes of Boris Yeltsin, Harrison Ford, Kofi Annan, and of course his sister, Prima Ballerina Nina Ananiashvili. David was not happy with the wines he was purchasing in Moscow for his restaurant, so he took the bold step to create his own winery.
We began with three dry, white Tsinandali wines, followed this with five dry Mukhuzani wines and then went on to the semi-sweet Khvanchkara, which is made from Mujureturi and Alexsandrovli grapes. These wines all retail between 450 and 700 rubles. The scores (and the wines) were better than I had expected. David provided us with a sampling of his wines in other categories.
The wine tasting was topped off with several wines that sell for more than 3,000 rubles. John and I had found two wines from Khetsuraini Winery (Otskhaniouri Sapare and Oussakhelouri) that are limited to less than a few thousand bottles from small, very selected vineyards. Suliko is the only other producer of Oussakhelouri, and David provided us with one of the eight bottles he had left in the restaurant. He explained that between the two wineries only 3,700 bottles are produced from a 2.4 hectare vineyard. These wines are definitely premium and could hold their own with a Bordeaux. There was a distinct difference between the two that reflects the different approaches of the winemakers.
Personally, as a result of this experience and a visit the week before, I have found the Suliko cuisine to be the best Georgian in Moscow. Suliko makes its own cheeses and other ingredients, which it sells in a neighboring deli together with its wines. We were presented with a fresh selection of traditional foods, topped of with a personal favorite, Chicken in Blackberry Sauce served in a large clay bowl.
The Georgian wine industry is still emerging from the shadows of the Soviet era, though the winds of political change have been gusting there recently. Hopefully, Georgia’s traditional winemaking methods will be preserved and the names protected as in other countries. As fate would have it, this region is both the oldest wine-producing area in the world and at the same time one of the last frontiers of the future of wine. By comparison, French wines are youngsters. When you pour a glass of authentic Georgian wine, you are following a tradition that preceded the French industry by several millennia.
Knights of the Vine
John Ortega, Publisher, Passport Magazine
Charles Borden, Director, Meridian Capital
Kim Balaschak, Managing Director, Saatchi & Saatchi
Jim Balaschak, Managing Partner, Deloitte & Touche
Eric Boone, Director, Colliers International
Geoffrey Cox, Chairman, Astera Group
John Harrison, Editor, Passport Magazine
Daniel Klein, Partner, Helvig, Klein, Usov
Sammy Kotwani, Imperial Tailoring
Dan LeVan, AIG