Rows of vines stretch across the valley, grapes ready for harvest in the early autumn sun. In the distance are hills, and, beyond that, the Caucasus Mountains, still clear of snow, a shimmering painterly backdrop to an age-old agricultural scene. From this organic vineyard, free of pesticides and herbicides, these grapes will be hand-harvested and fermented in clay jars buried in the ground with minimal intervention. The result is a white wine that is, in fact, amber, the taste of which is unique, and which in each glass provides a way of understanding not only the past of the country but its possible future.
If this seems to exaggerate the significance of a glass of wine, the vineyard, or even wine production as a whole, consider first that some of the earliest archaeological evidence of wine fermentation is to be found in Georgia. It has been making wine for some 8,000 years and is still doing so today. Over the millennia, Georgians developed an understandable expertise, and had more than 500 varieties of grapes, many of them exclusive to the region. Unfortunately, during the 70 years of Soviet occupation (1921-91) the country was designated as an area for winemaking, with the emphasis being on mass production. Most grape varieties were forgotten as collective farmers’ unions focused on using a limited number of high-productivity types, and tailored their wines for the taste buds of the Russian workers who preferred semi-sweet styles (which is still the case today).
ON THE GRAPEVINE
The renaissance of the Georgian wine industry is a recent phenomenon, and is less linked to the fall of the Soviet Union than the change in relations with Russia when, from 2006 to 2013, an embargo was imposed on Georgian goods. Up until that moment, Russia was still the market for the vast majority of wine exports (about 95 per cent). With the embargo, the country had to look to new markets, initially to former Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland and the Baltic States, and then to Western Europe and the US. For that, quality had to improve, and they had to create something unique. That’s where the 8,000 years of winemaking expertise came in, and that truly special creation – natural wine.
Fortunately, during all those years of Soviet occupation, some farmers had continued making wine for their private consumption in the traditional way, and using many of those little-regarded grape varieties. This involved putting their crushed grapes into clay jars buried in the ground – called qvervi – and leaving the wine for its first fermentation (for 20-25 days) with skins and stems. These are then removed and it is leftfor between six months and two years to complete the fermentation. The resulting “natural” wine – whether red or white – is peculiar to the country and increasingly prized by enthusiasts. The white wine, because of its preparation, has a distinctive, unmistakable look and taste (it varies widely, not least because of the various terroir from which it comes, and those hundreds of varieties of grapes). And so the circle turned, and qvervi wines became a central part of the marketing of Georgia’s wine industry and tourism sector.
The wine industry provides an allegory for Georgia’s position today – geographically, geopolitically and economically. Its natural major trading partner is Russia, but with the occupation of two of Georgia’s regions – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – and frequent blockades and embargoes, not just of goods but even of flights, relying on Russia is a dangerous game for both exporters and the country. Yet nor can they afford to ignore Russia, or deliberately inflame the situation.
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