I’m always pleased when wine questions turn up in the pub quiz, a recent example being “Where can you find the worlds largest wine cellar?”. Having visited the sprawling vast caverns of Champagne, where you sometimes need a motorised vehicle to get around, I offered it up as my answer. I was wrong, its actually in Moldova.
This reminded me that many people naturally think of France as the birthplace of wine when the truth is much more Eastern European. In fact, it’s just across the Black Sea from Moldova, in Georgia.
The oldest known evidence of wine-making there dates back 8,000 years, with scientists able to trace the organic compounds found in wine-making in various pottery shards. This historical importance, along with over 500 unique indigenous grape varieties and unusual wine-making techniques, should make Georgian wines an easy sell. How come then, most of us have never seen or tried them?
Traditionally focused on the domestic market and surrounding countries, the rug was firmly pulled from under Georgia’s feet when Russia imposed an import ban on their wines in 2006. Low standards and a plodding reliability on the norm caused them to lose 90% of their exports overnight.
Although lifted in 2013, the ban pushed them to improve quality and focus on further export opportunities, signing trade agreements with the EU and the quickly expanding Chinese wine market. Russia once again accounts for 50% of exports but, in just 4 years, China has become their third largest market.
These sales are all good but, due to the local economies they are mostly low value, with rival brands competing on bottle prices in the £1-£1.50 bracket. Serious future growth is dependent on higher value sales; hence them now looking to richer Western markets including both the UK and US.
Wine is not immune to the recent food trends for ‘natural’ ingredients and processes, and buzzwords including organic and biodynamic are never far from reach when talking about current production styles.
This ‘back-to-nature’ style perfectly suits Georgian wine as many producers still practice the traditional methods used for thousands of years. Instead of fermenting/ageing wines in ultra-modern temperature cooled facilities, they bury them underground in large egg-like clay jars called ‘Qvevri’, where they utilise the naturally cool and consistent underground temperatures.
Whilst this continued soaking of the grape juice on its skin is not so different to regular ‘over-ground’ red wine production around the world (the red colour comes from the grape skin, not the flesh), globally produced white wine sees little skin contact. The Qvevri production sees them pick up a much darker hue, becoming ‘Gold’ or ‘Amber’ wines; a whole new spectrum of colour and taste.
These differences give unique selling points to Georgian wine and, with a little development to the quality classifications and labelling (both hindered by largely unpronounceable place names and grape varieties), they’ll be coming to a store near you very soon.
Two high-street staples have already taken the plunge and you can buy a Georgian white (aka gold) from M&S and a red from Waitrose. Will you take the plunge too?