The country of Georgia has produced wine for more than 8,000 vintages! While spending a recent week there, it was easy to see how deeply embedded wine is in the nation’s culture. More than 500 native grape varieties exist and their production methodologies are distinct.
At first blush, that makes it seem like everything is old news, in a sense it’s really quite new. During times of Soviet rule, Georgian winemakers were forced to plant grapes with high yields at the expense of what would be best suited for exceptional wines. Much of the production during these times was for sparkling wines, many of them sweet, to appease the Soviet palates.
Once they declared their independence in 1995, the modern era of Georgian wine started to take shape. And in the current times, everything old is new again. Winemakers across the country are predominately working with less than 10 varieties. Simultaneously grape growers are experimenting with additional varieties to learn which others might thrive in their respective regions. Some of this work is being done at a national “grape library” that is growing each of those 500+ indigenous varieties, plus some international ones as well.
In addition to predominately working with indigenous varieties, there are other factors that set Georgian wines apart. Traditional methodology dictates that fermentation take place in Kvevri’s (sometimes spelled Qvervi). These clay vessels (left) range in size from 50 to 2,500 liters. The Kvervi’s are buried in the wine cellar with just the top peeking out above the surface.
After pressing, the wines sit on the skins in the Kvervi’s for an extended period of time; 3 to 6 months is most common. In many cases after the skins and wine are separated, the wine returns to the Kvervi for additional aging. These processes produce white wines that appear orange in color, although the Georgians commonly refer to them as amber. They retain the freshness and verve of white wines while taking on some of the texture, body and mouthfeel of reds.
Red grapes are also grown in Georgia, particularly in the east which is generally home to larger producers with more vineyard land and winery footprints. Traditional Georgian methodology is largely employed there as well, but the use of oak barrels instead of, or in conjunction with Kvervi’s, is more common.
This traditional methodology, along with indigenous varieties is what sets Georgia apart from other wine growing countries. The easiest way to get a handle on what they’re all about is to taste some orange Georgian wines. In addition to being unique in color, texture and mouthfeel, they’re eminently food friendly. Typical Georgian meals feature many small plates served family style. A typical local orange wine pairs well with everything on the table.
Here is a breakdown of key wine grapes from Georgia:
About 43% of all vineyard plantings in Georgia are Rkatsitieli, making it the most important white variety in Georgia. Rkatsitieli originates in Eastern Georgia. Since its aromatic profile is subtle Rkatsitieli is often blended with other grapes such as Mtsvane Kakhuri for PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) blends tied to specific areas.
This white grape thrives on the Eastern wine regions of Georgia, in and around Kakheti. Some produce it using traditional skin contact and Kvervi aging, while others choose an international style and use tank fermentation and aging. Those made in Kvervi tend towards stone and tropical fruit flavors, while tank fermented variants tend to showcase orchard fruits such as pear.
This typically high acid grape is one of the latest ripening whites. It’s used in the production of light colored whites with soft, lush flavors. When aged on its skins in Kvervi, it becomes orange or amber. Chinuri is also utilized as a component in the production of sparkling Wine. This is the grape used by Iago, one of the Georgian winemakers with the greatest acclaim outside the country.
This grape thrives in the Kakheti region. It tends to produce wines marked by stone fruit and mineral components. Due to a favorable aromatic profile, it’s often used along with Rkatsitieli to produce the traditional PDO blend Tsinandali.
Native to Georgia’s “wild west” region of Imereti, Tsitska is a thick skinned variety that produces higher than average grape yields. This high acid grape is bottled both by itself and in PDO blends. Yellow melon, Bartlett pear and a honeyed edge are typical characteristics.
In Georgia’s cutting edge, “wild west” region, Tsolikouri is the leading white grape. This late ripening variety produces full-bodied whites that are particularly suitable for long skin contact and Kvervi aging. When it’s used in PDO blends, it’s often combined with lighter bodied grapes. Citrus aromas, fleshy yellow fruit and deeply layered favors are representative of Tsolikouri.
This lesser planted grape exists in both red and white variants. Ojaleshi is a thin skinned variety with a strong aromatic profile. Soft, lush flavors dominated by orchard fruit character punctuated by hints of tropical fruit are typical. Of the hundreds of wines I tasted in Georgia, Ojaleshi was responsible for my single favorite bottle from a week spent tasting there.
Georgia’s dominating red grape can be found all over the country, and even in a few international locations. Saperavi thrives in the Eastern Georgian region of Kakheti. In ideal conditions it can produce dry red wines with aging potential. It shares some aromatic and taste markers with Malbec and Merlot. Dark berry fruit, intense aromatics, hints of cocoa, leather and tobacco are all part of the typical Saperavi profile. These characteristics will vary based on numerous conditions including vinification methodology.