I visited Georgia regularly between 2002 and 2006 when I chaired the Georgian National Wine Competition, but there has been a huge surge of interest and investment since then. Back then, the story was all about the Kakheti region, wines made in ‘Qvevri’, and the Saperavi grape. Today, a panoply of varieties, red and white, is celebrated, and there are many more styles than Qvevri. There are also many areas joining Kakheti as quality wine regions. Those featured in this tasting are marked on this map of Georgia’s vineyards:
Georgia is a land of great variation in terroir and climate. It is an extremely mountainous country – around 70% of the topography is mountain. It has one coast to the west, on the inland Black Sea. Here, more coastal vineyards enjoy a sub-tropical climate. Further east, hot, drying winds from the south help to create a more Continental climate. Kakheti in the east remains the main centre of production, producing 70% of all of the country’s wines. It is where all of Georgia’s larger players are based. The west tends to be home to more of the smaller, family estates.
Many producers draw on Georgia’s ancient winemaking traditions, the country tracing winemaking back at least 8,000 years and acknowldged to be the, or one of the, cradles of wine. Most famous is the use of Qvevri. Qvevri are large clay pots, buried underground, where both white and red wines are fermented and matured. Usually this is in contact with the skins. The use of Qvevri and similar amphora has seen a surge of renewed interest around the world, particularly among ‘natural wine’ producers. Many such white wines having a distinctly yellow to amber colour from their long skin contact.
Georgia was once the engine that supplied the Soviet Union with its wine. But since the decline of the USSR, followed by years of poor relations between Georgia and Russia, the vineyard area has shrunk. Conversely, quality has increased with fresh investment and an explosion of smaller, family-owned but commercially-operated wineries.
Georgia remains a niche producer in terms of UK recognition, but sales are growing. A few examples can be found even on multiple retailers’ shelves. I recently attended a ‘virtual’ tour with four producers, along with a tasting of the eight wines below.
Murkhrani has a German-born chief winemaker, Patrick Honnef. Patrick met the partners who had bought the historic estate in 2002 while he was working in Bordeaux. The estate itself was founded in 1876 by Georgian nobility who had returned from France with a château winemaking concept. Like many others, the estate had fallen into disrepair during Soviet times, but has seen massive investment by the partners since. This includes planting of more indigeous varieties, up to the current 100 hectares.
(2021) A blend of 60% Rkatsiteli and 40% Mtsvane, this wine is fermented naturally in Qvevri, but partly matured in older oak barrels. There's a touch of gold/amber to the colour, and a little floral touch to the nose as well as aromas of seeds and oils, a little buttery quality too. In the mouth there is very nice balance here, a certain sweet apple ripeness, but straw-like, dry flavours and plenty of dry extract and acidity to give it an almost spicy, lip-tingling finish.
(2021) 100% of the indigenous Tavkveri from the Kartli region, matured in Caucasian Oak barrels. A soft touch of brick on the rim, this has an orthodox nose of black fruits, delicate and fragrant tobacco and cedar spices, a little meatiness beneath. On the palate the wine has good, savoury black fruits, touched with a little leather and olive, but there is lightness and a certain silkiness too, on to a peppery finish, the sandy tannins and plum-skin rasp of acidity give a savoury character. Very good.
Tblivino is one of the largest producers in Georgia. Once a Soviet ‘wine factory’, it is now owned by two brothers who have invested in all areas, particularly in vineyards. Under Soviet times the model was to buy grapes as a negociant operation, but not to own vineyards. It was essentially a bottling operation. Today they farm 350 hectares of their own vineyards and produce five million bottles annually. There is also a new second, state of the art winery in Kakheti, operating since 2012.
(2021) From eighteen-year-old vineyards in Kakheti, this is from one of the bigger producers, the wine quite widely available. It was fermented in and spent five months in qvevri and again has quite a deep yellow-to-amber colour. There's an orange and apricot quality on the nose here, juicy and citrussy, a suggestion of honey and light waxiness too. In the mouth the fruit is significantly sweeter than the Château Mukhrani Qvevri white, again some honey, but then a salty lemon core of acidity pushes on to the bone-dry finish.
(2021) After fermentation in stainless-steel, thirty percent was aged in French oak barrels for a short period. A very much more modern, perhaps even international style here, with plum, cherry and liquorice aromas, some brightness and pot-pourri lift to the aromas, saffron and vanilla in the background. On the palate it is smooth and unruffled, plenty of creamy black fruit and crowd-pleasing ripeness. Does it lack a little Georgian personality? Arguably yes, but it is a fine and delicious wine of character and class. £13.50 by the case from justincases at time of review.
Lukasi was founded in 2011 by a husband and wife team, Mamu Dolidze and Katevan Gersamia. Their first release was a 2013 vintage Saperavi, which quickly picked up awards in international competition. After winning a trophy in a major Japanese wine competition, Japan remains a very strong market, especially for the unusual off-dry pink Chkhaveri wine tasted here. Lukasi’s vineyards are located in various zones throughout Georgia. They also buy some fruit from growers. Winemaker is Zura Goletiani.
(2021) The late-ripening variety Chkhaveri was harvested in the middle of November, in a very limited quantity. It is fermented with skins as a red wine, but the paler grape ends up as a deep amber/pink in colour, and I guess must be classed as rosé. There's an attractive strawberry bob-bon character, a little dusting of icing sugar, but then a grippier herbal and slate note comes through. In the mouth it is off-dry to medium-sweet, masses of cherry cola and strawberry, but an intriguing fudge and chocolate, almost like a much lighter and drier Banyuls. Enough souring acidity to balance, this is extraordinary stuff, possibly not for everyone or every occasion, but fascinating.
(2021) From vineyards at an altitude of 450 - 480 metres in Kakheti, this was matured in French Oak barrels for one year (Seguin Moreau, Sylvain) 30% of which were new. Darker and more brooding than Tblivino's upfront example of Saperavi, and yet there is a similar velvety density of black fruit touched with those violet notes. Great polish and suaveness. In the mouth really lovely fruit - so sweet and fleshy, like the darkest and ripest of black plums, really good balance as tight tannins grip and the acidity squeezes the finish into a long, dry but tapered elegance.
Baia Abuladze is the eponymous owner of Baia’s Wines, and another woman in charge of a Georgian winery. It’s a great example of a re-energised scene after the decline of Soviet influence. Baia established Baia’s Wines in 2015, aged just 22. It is a small and very personal operation, their own vineyards covering just a couple of hectares and with a production of 8,000 bottles. After working a vintage with a biodynamic estate in the Mosel, their vineyards are farmed organically and without irrigation.
(2021) A blend of three indigenous varieties, Tsolikouri (60%), Krakhuna (20%) and Tsitska (20%) from woman winemaker Baia Abuladze. The three high acid varieties were traditionally used for sparkling wine, but this dry, still wine was made in Qvevri with partial skin contact and spontaneous fermentation. A little paler than the other two whites here, but still a straw/buttercup yellow depth. The nose has dry, straw, butter and light floral notes, but is relatively reserved. In the mouth the wine comes alive with sweet apple fruit, a blast of pithy citrus and another very dry finish that is quite vibrant, salty and punchy.
(2021) Made from just one of the 525 indigenous Georgian grape varieties found on Baia’s Wine estate in the village of Obcha, the Otskhanuri Sapere made in qvevri with skins, where fermentation starts spontaneously. Once fermentation was complete the skins were removed before further ageing. The most vivid dark purple, staining the sides of the glass, this has intense raisin and plum fruit that is dark, liquoricy and meaty. In the mouth this is dry, Indian inky and mouth-filling. It has the youthful punch of its concentrated fruit and tannin (maybe a high quality, unoaked Nero d'Avola as some sort of comparison?). Would be an interesting wine to taste again in a couple of years.