On Georgia: June 2022
Sarah Abbott MW on a week in Georgia visiting producers with UK trade and media
Much has changed in the 2 years since I was last in Georgia. Against many challenges (Ukrainian flags fly from houses, restaurants, wineries), hundreds of wineries have established, grown, exported. My Georgian colleagues and contacts had told me about this blooming. I had a taste of it in the delicious and intriguing new samples we received in 2020 and 2021.
German winemaker Patrick Honnef, CEO at Château Mukhrani, summed it up: “This is great opportunity for Georgia, Sarah. There are lots of young winemakers coming back to Georgia [after studies and work abroad] and they are making excellent wine.”
This filling of the middle – the space between large ‘wine factories’ and tiny ‘no compromisers’ – deepens the relevance of Georgian wine. You can see it in the increased availability of Georgian wine in the UK, and in the number and diversity of importers listing or evaluating Georgian wine.
Georgians think of themselves as God’s first winemakers. But a few years ago the casual (or even wine-loving) tourist to Tbilisi could not stumble on wine shops selling great Georgian wine. That started to change with the opening of super store 8000 Vintages. Today, Tbilisi’s wine scene is a joy, with enoteca-style wine bars dotting the centre.
We began our week at one of them, Nino Meris wine shop. Charismatic and diligent Nino is a winemaker. (Her eponymous qvevri wines are bright, light and pure.) Her small shop, enclosed by arched slivers of old brick, sells the wines of Georgia’s new wave. predominantly small wineries, made by owner-winemakers. Nino also runs wine courses and tastings, and as tourists return to Tbilisi, her decision to take on the lease during Covid-related uncertainty is paying off. Nino is on the tourist trail. North of the river, in a more grafittied neighbourhood, Wine Merchants was the venue for a romp through tastings with young producers. Set up by two former employees of the National Wine Agency, it offers sharing platters, and a wine shop with a great range of Georgian wine.
It is not, of course, only youngsters behind this Georgian new wave. The crackling Tevza wines, a hit with our group at Wine Merchants, are the new personal project of Giorgi Tevzadze, a UC Davis-trained enologist with decades of experience in major Georgian wineries. And during our knock-out tasting at Ivane Nareklishvili’s under-construction marani, we heard how he had studied for his PhD in enology in Italy, worked for 20 years for leading wineries, and finally realised his ambition to start his own winery in 2018. (Nareklishvili’s wines are already imported by Lea and Sandeman and listed in some of London’s finest restaurants.) Outside of the natural wine community, Georgia does not sustain the cult of the winemaker. Large wineries rarely promote their winemaking team by name.
What is this “new wave” of Georgian wine? Partly, it is a back swell against the polarisation between exigent industrial versus cultish natural. This has always been a caricature. But the middle is deeper now, and more diverse. The dominance of Kakheti and its rich, bold wines is refreshed by the increase in wineries in the cooler west. The regions of Kartli, Imereti and Racha are sprouting talent and their renaissance brings diverse wines from minority varieties. The freshly succulent wines of Ambra, Kvanchkara Winery, and Ori Marani were examples.
But it was the orange wines that made the biggest impression on our group. Some arrived as true believers, and others as sceptics. All were struck by the finesse, purity and nuance of the wines. So much so that they came up with a new name to distinguish these wines of intent from the natty orange: Fine Amber. This myth of qvevri winemaking as hands-off, leave it to nature, trust in the stars is pernicious. Making wine – amber, red or white – in qvevri is labour-intensive and requires a sort of intimacy between wine and maker. As well as surgical cleanliness. The amber wines we tried from Château Buera, Vazisubani, Dakishvili Family Cellars, Nareklishvili, Ori Marani, Château Mukhrani, Papari Valley and GWS were fine, pure, precise and expressive of variety and place. That our group were both surprised and excited by this shows how much work there is still to be done on bringing Fine Amber into the wine community.