Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Georgian Wine: All About Context (Part 1)
--Andrew Jefford, Decanter Magazine
I've got Georgia on my mind...
The wines from the country of Georgia are still a niche product in the U.S. but I hope that changes. All wine lovers can find something of interest in the diversity of Georgian wines. In 2017, Georgia exported almost 77 million bottles of wine, about 6.4 million cases. Their top export market is Russia, which currently purchases about 60% of their wines by volume. And the third export market, and which has been growing significantly, is China, with exports doubling from 2015 to 2016. As for specific wine styles, about 50% of Georgia's total production comprises semi-sweet wines, many which end up in Russia. And though qvevri wines get lots of publicity, they comprise no more than 3% of total production.
Recently, I attended a seminar, titled "Georgia in Context," and tasting on the wines of Georgia at Puritan & Co. The two presenters included Alice Feiring, a Georgian wine expert and proponent of natural wines, and Taylor Parsons, a sommelier from Los Angeles. Alice has written a book on Georgian wine, For The Love of Wine, which is fascinating and recommended if you are interested in Georgian wines.
Back in December 2016, I attended a prior seminar on the wines of Georgia which was led by Taylor. At that time, Taylor approached Georgian wines as a potential buyer, coming at them with fresh eyes. At the recent seminar, Taylor stated that his prior seminar was more "Wow, this is Georgian wine," an indication of the newness of those wines to the U.S. market. Now that those wines are becoming better known, this new seminar would be more about context. As was stated, "Context matters in everything, but especially in wine."
Our contextual understanding of wine includes four aspects, including evolution & development, culture, geography/climate/topography, and typicity. A contextual understanding of Georgian wines though is a work in progress, with additional study and research needed to gain greater comprehension of everything that plays a role. A greater understanding will also allow us to provide consumers even more reasons why they should drink Georgian wines.
Some general comments were made about the country of Georgia, noting that it has a population of under 4 million people, less than the number of people that live in the Greater Boston area. Much of the country is mountainous terrain, including the Caucasus and Likhi Mountains. There was then a brief historical sketch of Georgia and its wine industry, which extends back 8,000 years. One important event occurred during the 19th century when Europeans, and especially the French, helped to influence wine production. Another important event occurred during the 1970s, when the overall wine quality of George decreased substantially as Stalin ardently pushed for massive quantity over quality.
At this point, I want to take a minute for a brief historical detour, touching on the influence of France upon the Georgian wine industry. In The Classic Cuisine of Soviet Georgia: History, Traditions and Recipes, by Julianne Margvelashvili (1991), there is an intriguing, albeit brief, passage concerning the possible origins of sparkling wine in Georgia. The passage states, “In the 1840s a young Georgian from the vineyards of Kakheti found himself a prisoner-of-war in France’s champagne region. He was not a warrior by nature, but he was a winemaker by heritage. It was not long before he made it his business to learn the techniques of champagne production. Upon his liberation and return to his father’s vineyard, he taught how French champagne is made.”
I've tried to gather more information about the events in this passage but have been unsuccessful so far, but my research continues. If anyone has any more information, I would appreciate it if you contacted me.
Back to the seminar. Next, there was an explanation of the three main types of wine making in Georgia: traditional, modern and pragmatic. In general, traditional wine making includes the use of indigenous varieties, stem & skins maceration, the use of qvevri, and no filtration or fining. On the other hand, modern wine making generally uses steel and/or oak, inoculation, no skin & stems maceration for white wines, and the use of filtration and fining. The pragmatic style is a hybrid of the two other styles, using whatever aspects they believe will be best for their wine.
Since 2011, a number of home wine makers have made the transformation into commercial wineries. During the time of Stalin, these home wine makers helped keep wine making traditions alive, as well as preserving indigenous grapes species that Stalin cared nothing about. With these people, there is plenty of intuitive wine making, simply following old traditions that have been passed down through the generations. These individuals may not have been formally trained, but they are relying on the knowledge and experience of their ancestors.
Considering scientific endeavors, Georgia lacks adequate information on its soils, needing a soil study to examine and review its various soil types and terroir. They do not possess a definitive soil map and that should probably be a priority for the country. That will help them better plant their grapes, decide which areas are better regions for vineyards, and much more. The quality of Georgia wines could be enhanced with a comprehensive soil study.
There were some comments on the nature of qvevri, giant earthenware vessels which can be used to ferment and age wine. For example, it is said that you shouldn't be able to taste the qvevri in the wine. Cleanliness of the qvevri is essential to Georgia wine makers. Many wine cellars possess qvevri of different sizes, allowing them to vary production sizes of specific grapes or wines. In general, whites wines fermented in qvevri include skin contact, though a wine with only two weeks of such skin contact may actually be considered a "no skin contact" wine.
I was shocked to learn that in Georgia, until the 2013 vintage, there weren't any female winemakers! Currently there are approximately 7 or 8 female winemakers, many second generation daughters who work in the family winery, or even have taken over the ownership. This reminds me in some respects of the Japanese Sake industry, which was also dominated for centuries by men. It wasn't until 1976 that a woman was legally permitted to become a Sake brewer. Prior to that, women often weren't even permitted inside a Sake brewery, especially when brewing was occurring. I will be following up on this aspect of the Georgian wine industry, to highlight the contributions of these women.
The region of Imetri is broken into three sub zones, Higher, Middle and Lower Imetri. It is a mountainous region, with lots of humidity, varied soils, and lush vegetations and forests. There are some subtropical areas as well as ancient forests. The primary grapes of this region include Tsolikouri, Tsitska, Krakhuna, Aladasturi, and Otskhanuri Sapere. The cuisine tends to be lighter, more vegetarian, and spicier, while the wines tend to be lighter and more delicate. The wineries are also often kept outside, as they say, "Qvevri need to feel the rain."
The region of Kakheti is broken into two sub zones, Inner and Outer Kakheti, and comprises about 65% of all Georgian vineyards. The region has plenty of sub-alpine plains, with fertile soils (with more clay), and includes the basins of the Alani and Iori Rivers. The primary grapes of this region include Rkatsiteli, Saperavi, Mtsvane Kakhuri, Kisi, and Khikhvi. They also have the greatest number of international grapes. It is a hotter region so white wines generally have longer skin contact, giving them a deeper orange/amber color, to help preserve the wines, almost like UV protection. The cuisine is more "shepherd's food," using the meat of cows and sheep, often grilled, as well as plenty of cheese and bread. Lots of comfort food.
Puritan & Co., posed an intriguing question, asking "How do persuade people to drink 'skin contact' wines when they respond that all those wines taste the same?" Puritan has a cool wine list, and it includes about 10-15 skin contact wines. Peter noted that the issue is not limited to their customers, but includes some of his peers in the wine industry as well. This issue is also applicable to Japanese Sake, and I've heard that same criticism before, that they all taste the same. Thus, I was very curious as to possible solutions to this dilemma.
Taylor stated that "Skin contact is all about the savory." It is not about the fruit, and those who expect fruit in their wines may be turned off by the savory aspect. Taylor then compared the concept to people who say how all "New Oak" wines may taste the same for some people. With Georgian wine, Taylor recommends that you tell people to forget their wine preconceptions, to go beyond the similar textures and seek deeper within the wine. Confronted with something new, people commonly try to create an analogy to something they know. And that can color their opinion of the new item. It takes an active measure to be more open to something that is new, to see it with fresh eyes. And that is the challenge for advocates of niche beverages, whether they are Georgian qvevri white wines or Japanese Sake.
One of the last bits of wisdom from the seminar was from Taylor, who started, "Don't apologize about wine. Don't be dogmatic about what is good wine."
(To Be Continued..)