There is so much happening in the natural wine scene in Georgia, it’s impossible to recount it all here, but I’m going to share some of my tasting notes. Briefly, if you’re not familiar with Georgian wines: the country has been making wine continuously for about 8000 years, and there are shards of qvevri (the clay amphorae vessels, used to ferment wine underground, beloved for their neutral effects on the wine and natural temperature control) dating back to the 6th millennium BC.
During Soviet times, winemaking was both industrialized and policed, as it was throughout the Soviet Union (I’ve written about this in the case of Hungary). Only four out of Georgia’s 525 known grape varieties were permitted–Rkatsiteli, Mstvane, Tsolikouri, and Saperavi–and winemakers who defied the boundaries were thrown in prison.
Fortunately, despite 70 years of Soviet rule, the Georgians managed to keep their winemaking culture alive, and both qvevri production and grape biodiversity have survived, although many varieties are certainly at risk of extinction now. Hopefully, the natural wine revolution that’s happening there in full force can assist in propagating some of these varieties, and not just for the sake of science–there are some really delicious wines made from extremely unique, heritage varieties in Georgia.
There’s really nothing out there quite like Georgian wines; they have entirely unique flavor profiles. The whites are typically made with skin contact, lending them tannic structure and texture, and the reds can be powerful, especially the teinturier (red-fleshed) variety Saperavi, which produces inky dark wine. And it’s important to note that these wines are best when experienced with the country’s incredible cuisines, which vary from region to region (and by household, where family recipes are passed down over generations), but generally feature lots of sautéed vegetables, the flaky warm cheese bread khachapuri, rich and tender roasted meat dishes, lamb stews, and fresh fish, all served family style.
I am not an expert on Georgian wines; the writer Alice Feiring’s book For the Love of Wine is an essential primer on the country’s natural wine revolution, told with Alice’s unparalleled narrative skill, and the MW Lisa Granik is another great resource. But I’ll share some tasting notes here for those who want to learn, and seek out Georgian wines. Many of these wines were tasted at the winemakers’ homes/cellars, while others were tasted at the fantastic natural wine event Zero Compromise, organized by John Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears and held in Tbilisi. For American wine buyers looking to find these wines, I recommend reaching out to the New York-based importer Chris Terrell and to Blue Danube.
In the Imereti region of Western Georgia, Archil makes a wide range of whites, some with no skin contact, others with about 15 percent of skin contact (traditional in that region, according to him) and reds, all in qvevri. He began bottling his wines about 7 years ago, although winemaking goes back many generations in the family; his vineyards are in rich clay soil, on a slope. We tasted in Archil’s cellar. I really enjoyed his 2015 Krakhuna, which sees 4 months of 15 percent skin contact before racking to another qvevri for elevage (most of Archil’s wines follow this approach). There was a nice fruitiness to the wine, and soft tannins; I found all of Archil’s whites to be very drinkable, with wonderful texture. I was also a huge fan of a blend made from Otskanuri Sapere (red grape) and Tsoulikouri (white grape); we tasted ’16 from qvevri and ’15 in bottle and the latter was exceptional, with notes of fresh ripe cherries and fresh acidity. Archil’s daughter Nino also makes excellent wines; we tried her first vintage of a beautiful, dark orange blend of two white grapes.
Gogita is Archil’s neighbor, so he works with many of the same grapes and blends. I loved his Aladasturi, a light, perfumed red wine, ringing in at about 10 percent alcohol, redolent of crushed roses, tasting of blackberries. Georgian glou glou! That’s his Tsitska (white grape) pictured; he makes it without any skin contact and it’s very approachable.
Ramaz’s vineyard in Imereti is a special place, less than half a hectare. He has not cultivated it in 15 years–no tilling, no weeding, absolutely no chemicals–and it is a beautiful, wild thing, filled with medicinal plants, the rich clay soils so alive. Tsistska and Tsoulikouri, both white grapes, are planted here.
Ramaz’s father-in-law was making the “I am Didimi” wines, but now that he’s quite elderly Ramaz makes them; we tasted a few of these. The Aladasturi grape appeared again, and again it was wonderfully light and pretty, with notes of crushed roses on the nose, and fresh cherries on the palate (that was a 2016 wine). We also tasted Ramaz’s wines, of which I was most impressed by his 2016 qvevri sample of Tsolikouri, made with 3 months of skin contact; it was richly textured and perfectly tannic, just a great example of this style of wine. I also loved the 2015 Tsitska-Tsolikouri blend (a fairly traditional blend in Imereti); made with whole cluster grapes fermented on the skins for several months, it was dark orange, and tasted powerfully of citrus and stonefruits, with medium-plus tannins that lingered on my tongue in a way that the best food wines tend to.
MANDILI & IAGO’S WINE
In Georgia, gender roles are still fairly traditional: men make the wine and deal with public/business affairs, while women cook and care for the home and children. But in winemaking, at least, this is changing.
The first commercially available wine made by Georgian women was the “Mandili,” a skin contact Mtsvane made by Marina Kurtanidze (who is married to the well-known winemaker Iago Bitarishvili), along with her friend Tea Melanashvili, using purchased fruit. I tasted it at their winery/home, and it was incredible: perfect balance of stonefruits, acidity, and tannin.
Iago makes wine only from the high-acid white grape Chinuri, one with skin contact and one without, in qvevri that are centuries old. I liked his skin contact one better; it was saline with nice, soft tannins, and had a beautiful bright orange color. (Upon returning from Georgia, I drank this wine here in New York, at Four Horsemen, and again found it extremely pleasant and balanced.)
ZAZA GAGUA & KATI NINIDZE
Another example of women taking up their own winemaking projects. At the home of Zaza Gagua and Kati Ninidze, in the M’artville Gorge of Western Georgia, we are shown first to Kati’s newly planted vineyards, and to the space she is building out as her wine cellar. She beams with pride as her husband explains with a shrug, “She said she wanted her own space to make wine, so.”
Zaza and Kati make very different wines. It may be a cliché to simply say that one is masculine and one is feminine, but they do express their own voices. They have a unique and rare grape in their area called Ojaleshi, which Kati uses in two wines—one is made from a white variant of the grape, and she calls it “Naked Wine.” On the label, two nude women’s bodies are depicted; one is in full splendor, a goddess, free and unencumbered, and self-loving, while the other is literally in a cage. As we tasted the wine—not made in qvevri, but instead produced in stainless steel, a more modern approach—Kati explained that women in Georgia were often taught to hide themselves, and be prudent, but she was for self-expression, and thought women should be able to show their bodies if they felt like it. Kati also poured for us her fresh and fruity rosé, made of Orberluri Ojaleshi. “Somm crack juice,” is the very accurate tasting note that one woman from Minneapolis gave for Kati’s wines. Her husband’s wines featured the somewhat more common white grapes Tsolikouri and Krakhuna, made in qvevri with skin contact, and two robust and sultry red wines. Their two distinct styles compliment each other.
ZERO COMPROMISE TASTING
We attended the second iteration of Zero Compromise, spread out across three locations in Tbilisi, featuring natural winemakers from around the country. It was a fantastic event, and if you’re thinking to go to Georgia for wine purposes, I would definitely suggest timing your trip to coincide with this event. Why is it called “Zero Compromise?” As John Wurdeman put it: “If you’re going to do anything, do it all the way, give it your full heart. The heart has to be vulnerable in order to always be full.”
Some of the “usual suspects” like Pheasant’s Tears and Okro’s were present, as well as somewhat newer labels, including Niki Antadze in Kakheti, whose wines I first tasted (and loved) at La Dive in France earlier this year; and there were some upstarts like Niki’s partner, a French woman from the Jura named Laura Seibel, who has two delicious bottlings. From another upstart winemaker, Mariam Iosebidze–pictured above–I loved the first vintage Tavkveri (a pretty and light red grape, kind of like a Poulsard). Tavkveri is a wonderful, lively grape in every case I’ve tried.
One of the most interesting wines for me was a 35-variety field blend of heritage grapes from Kortavebis Marani. I found this light red enticing, beautiful and difficult to describe; the flavors were very complex and nuanced.
For some time now, the Pheasant’s Tears label from John Wurdeman and Gela Patavishlivi in Kakheti have been all I knew of Georgian wines. John, an American artist who fell in love with Georgia while there making paintings, and became a winemaker, has been very instrumental in getting the word out about Georgia’s natural wine movement, through travels and wine fairs. I got to taste through the Pheasant’s Tears line-up at the vineyard in Kakheti, while trying some dishes from the restaurant they are opening there, Crazy Pomegranate. John’s wife Keti is the chef, and the menu is highly vegetable-centric (John himself is vegetarian), although there were some beautiful meat dishes, too.
Of the Pheasant’s Tears wines, the most exciting to me were: the Vardisperi Rkatsiteli, made from a rare (less than 2 hectares in all Georgia exist) pink-skinned variety of Rkatsiteli; it was light and savory and very pretty; the Poliphonia, a field blend of hundreds of grapes, which like the 35-grape wine shown above I found immensely complex and difficult to describe concretely, but full of flavor; and the Saperavi from Tibaani in Kakheti, with intense, sapid black fruits, lithe tannins, and lively acidity. I have always loved the Rkatsiteli, and it was showing beautifully–fresh and soft, energetic, tannic. All wines tasted were 2016.
Later that night, at John’s other restaurant in town, we tasted the first Pheasant’s Tears vintage of Saperavi, from 2007. The bottle we opened was incredibly reduced and basically undrinkable. But then we found a batch of the ’08 Saperavi; I blind tasted a few people on it and they immediately guessed the variety and vintage. It was stunning–still not very mature, powerful and structured but rounder with age, and incredibly drinkable given the age. These wines can age. These wines, seemingly, can do anything–go with any food, any situation. I cannot wait to return to Georgia and explore more.