Georgia: the birth place of wine? The Armenians might contend the title, but Georgia is certainly one of oldest wine-making regions in the world. Throughout history, the people of Georgia have consistently produced wines uninterrupted- throughout wars, occupations, political shifts and cultural change.
It is, as such, a country rich with tradition and history when it comes to wine. So when Danilo di Salvo, co-founder of Georgian specialist importer gvino UK, invited me to his virtual tasting on 30 April, I had to say yes.
Georgian wine is fascinating, partly because of their Qvevri method (a traditional process I’ll touch on later), but also because the resulting styles are largely unknown to UK drinkers. People who know me will know I love to talk about the “English palate”, an idea I have of the shifts and trends surrounding our uniquely multicultural exposure to vast styles of wine. I believe the successful wines here are anchored by a tasting note full of fresh fruit esthers, refreshing acidity and a silky-smooth texture. Hitting all three, I believe, is a sure-fire winner for selling in the UK market.
The interesting thing about the best Georgian wines I’ve tasted is that they are in contrast to this; rich fruity notes tend to be along the rhythms of dried fruits, pithy tannins, candied peel, plum pie, pastry, blood oranges, nuts, and so on. The resulting wines are complex but, perhaps most importantly, different and intriguing to the “norm”. However, they are exciting because they still have fresh acidity and a silky-smooth texture.
Change in food and drink comes in steps. Georgian wine is only one step away from the English palate, meaning it can inspire a real shift in people’s perception of great wine. It combines a truly different mix of aromas and flavours while maintaining two core parts of commercial success and broad crowd appeal.
Tasting Georgian Wines
Hosted by Danilo, the gVino UK tasting event was co-hosted by the wonderful Sarah Abbott MW (who is certainly the expert on Georgia), Danilo’s co-founder Anzor, and internationally-respected winemaker Lado Uzunashvili. We tasted three wines from Vazisubani Estate, all varietal wines made in the Qvevri method, featuring a red Saperavi, and two whites: a Khikhvi and a Mtsvane.
Uzunashvili starts the tasting by proclaiming “Pure Georgian wines are all dry”. Whether you are making white, amber, rose or red wine, the finest Georgian wines are dry.
Qvevri Amber Wines
Georgia’s speciality is amber wines. These wines, made from white grapes, are produced in the unique Qvevri method. The Qvevri is an egg-shaped vessel buried permanently in the ground. Winemakers will press their grapes and then pour the juice, grape skins, stalks, pips and all into the Qvevri, which is then sealed and the wine left to ferment for five to six months. The skins rise and form a natural seal, so while the wine develops layers of complexity it doesn’t become over-extracted.
Therefore the wine takes flavour from all of the parts of the grape bunch, as well as oxidative notes. It’s a method that is wildly authentic and the appeal for many winemakers like Uzunashvili is the raw unpredictability of the process. It is natural wine in one of its purest forms.
Qvevri works because Georgians have been making wine this way for centuries. Through generations of trial and error, they have found the sites, viticultural methods, the right grape varieties, types of clay for the Qvevri, timings for fermentation based on locality and desired style, and observation. That means the wines are natural and unpredictable but within the bounds of quality winemaking. These wines are also some of the most long-lived after you’ve pulled the cork, changing over time in your glass and revealing layer upon layer of complexity.
Qvevri-making and knowledge are passed down by families, neighbours, friends and relatives in a communal spirit. Children learn the process from a young age, helping to collect clay, ferment wine, harvest with their families and friends, and watch the Qvevris being fired. It is part of the reason why the Georgian community has persisted in its identity throughout a history of war and occupation, thriving as one of the world’s eldest wine regions.
The image that sticks in my mind about Georgian wine is a photo Uzunashvili shared with us of the vines. Between the trellises, greenery and bright red poppies grow. It is a picturesque landscape and, even though I’ve seen many vineyards, I can’t wait to visit and see this one for myself.
The Vazisubani Estate Qvevri wines were a real treat to try.
Each wine takes a while to open up, the oxygen that mixes with the wine as I swirl my glass is opening up the aromatics.
All the wines we are about to try are coming from the Kakheti region of Georgia in the eastern part of the country. Most of Georgia’s wine comes from this region, dominated by the Rkatsiteli and Saperavi grapes (white and red respectively).
Here’s my notes on the wines:
Vazisubani Estate Kakhuri Mtsvane Amber 2017 ★★☆ – The colour is deep orange, almost like apple juice. A swirl reveals thick legs and viscosity on the glass. It’s heavily extracted with aromas of dried mango, apricots, orange rind and toasted hot cross buns. You could smell it all day long. On the palate, there’s high acidity and a salted, mineral finish. In the mid palate the tannins are grippy and the flavours are filled with dried red apple, nuts and candied peel. If patient, the glass later opens up with bright oranges. Returning to it over the next day, I like it even more as the wine has softened considerably. Drink with mushrooms, game, a cheeseboard, garlic chicken or pork kebabs. £20, gvino UK.
Vazisubani Estate Khikhvi Amber 2017 ★★★ – According to Uzunashvili, Khikhvi is a grape that oxidises more easily than Mtsvane. The wine is more delicate, pouring in a deep lemon peel colour. The nose reminds me of sweet lemon peel, fennel, acacia honey and mandarin. It’s soft and supple with spiced quince, apple skin and rose petal notes over earthy tannins. The finish is of puckering pink grapefruit. This wine is very harmonious. Drink with smoked trout, soft cheese or tapas. £20, gvino UK.
Vazisubani Estate Qvevri Saperavi 2017 ★★★ – Sarah Abbott MW calls this wine “a beast”. It’s certainly a big red. Bright purple at the rim with heavy legs in the glass. The aroma is super pure with cool blackcurrants, black cherries and toasted pastry. The wine spent 6 months on skins, a harsh treatment for any wine, but for Saperavi it’s worked a charm. The palate is a wonderful mix of plum, cassis and blueberry with a biting acidity and a finish of leather, liqourice, bright cranberry and smooth, creamy cocoa. It’s big and fresh with a vast amount of complexity despite being unoaked. The whole wine feels rustic but in the special way you feel when eating a delicious home-cooked meal. It’s heart-warming. Pair with stews, grilled or BBQ meats, roast lamb or cheesy lasagne. £20, gvino UK.