Passport…check. Power plug adapters…check. Load up iPod with new music…check. Pack clothes for as many different types of weather because I have absolutely no idea what to expect…check. Girlfriend gives me drugs for the 12-hours of flight time each way…double check.
That was pretty much the process I went through after I got the word that I was headed to the Republic of Georgia for an introduction to their wine & culture. Instead of just calling it “Georgia” I obviously have to call it the “Republic of Georgia” to differentiate it from our southern US state that’s famous for peaches, Dirty South hip-hop and Chick-Fil-A sandwiches. Ironically the US state is bigger than the Eurasian country…so maybe it’s not so crazy that the clarification needs to be made.
[A historical progression of the Georgian flag since the 5th century AD. From left to right: 1. a Medieval Georgian flag, 5th Century AD; 2. Democratic Republic of Georgia flag, originally 1918-1921 and again from 1991-2004; 3. Georgian SSR flag, 1922-1990; 4. current Georgian flag, 2004-present.]
Although it’s known as Georgia internationally it turns out they have their own name for their homeland, Sakartvelo, a name derived from the core region of the country, Kartli. So why then is it known elsewhere as Georgia? There are a few explanations, but it is likely that their devout national Christian beliefs and the patron saint of the country, St. George, have much to do with it. This is not to mention that Georgian men named George are as common as Americans named John, and the the red cross of St. George is prominently featured through the middle of the national flag.
Another reason for the separate names is that it is very hard to establish an international identity when, throughout history, your country is constantly being invaded and absorbed into whichever conquering power is marching through the region. The Ottomans, the Romans, the Persians, and the Soviets have all claimed it at some point. Yet somehow through it all they still remain proudly Georgian.
[12th/13th century depiction of “St. George & the Dragon” housed at the National Art Museum of Georgia]
GEORGIA, RUSSIA, AND WINE:
Upon my arrival it turns out that Georgia is completely unlike whatever few preconceptions I had beforehand. The most important of which is this: Georgia is NOT…I repeat…NOT Russia! As a self-proclaimed map nerd I already knew that it has been a sovereign nation since the USSR dissolved in 1991. But as you look at how close it is to Russia one starts to think that they must be pretty similar people. Then as you continue to look at how many other cultures surround Georgia – Turkey to the southwest, Azerbaijan to the southeast, Armenia to the South – you start to see that this country is influenced by many different types of people, religion, and cultures.
Geographically it is located on the Black Sea and is at a crossroads of Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Yet the Georgian demeanor seems more in line with Mediterranean cultures like Italy or Greece – emotive, warm, & fiercely proud of their culture. Except for a few large chunks of time during the last 200 years, a mere drop in the vast historical ocean for such an old culture, Georgia has been proudly independent of their neighbors to the north. This eludes our American national consciousness because we generally still believe that all countries that were a part of the former USSR are still bulked in to the category “Russian”.
[Click on image to zoom in. Image from here]
But don’t tell that to a Georgian! This is no potato, beet, and vodka culture. Far from it. Located on the 42nd parallel – on the same line as Barcelona, Corsica, Oregon and Cape Cod – proto-Georgian tribes settled the area around 12th century BC and have been there ever since. Everything grows here. Flavorful fruits, vegetables, and vibrant flowers grow bountifully while green grass extends across the river plains, the rolling hills, and the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. The whole country is a polyculture of this growing next to that and exists in such a way that (except for the cities) the whole country could be considered a natural park.
With this kind of climate and geography it should be no surprise that growing grapes and making wine has been happening all over the area for millennia. Based on the discovery of fossilized grape seeds that have been carbon-dated and determined to have been used for making wine, it turns out they have been making wine in the region since before 6,000 BC!!! Georgia has a legitimate claim to being one of the original winemaking cultures anywhere in the world, and with 8,000 vintages and counting they are certainly able to say that they have been doing it the longest.
Geographically the country is a template that enjoys everything a vine growing region needs. They have the Greater Caucasus Mountains that protect the country from the extreme cold weather of the Russian north and the Lesser Caucasus mountains bordering the Turkish south. One more mountain range, the Surami mountain range, bisects the country into eastern and western. The eastern half of the country experiences more extreme summers and winters with warmer days and cooler nights. The western half of the country receives more rainfall and is a more moderate climate because it’s exposed to the Black Sea. For a country smaller than South Carolina (at around 27,000 square miles) Georgia has a very diverse set of conditions that are important to growing wine grapes and producing a wide array of different kinds of wine. Simply put, it’s a winemaking paradise and a winemakers playground.
REBOOTING THE CRADLE OF WINE:
So why then does an 8,000-year old winemaking culture elude the American wine consciousness? Surely there are many reasons to cite. Politically, the Soviets carry much of the blame since they absorbed Georgia into their vast republic. We also don’t see much Georgian wine heading across the Atlantic because most of it is consumed by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and the Balkans where the wine has a reputation for very high quality. Yet, perhaps most the most devastating reason lies in Soviet communist policies in the 1950’s that valued quantity over quality. It was an era looking to streamline the fractured and diverse Georgian wine industry by ripping up many of the old vines from hundreds of different varieties and replace them with a very short list of local varieties known to yield large volumes. In the context of the modern Georgian wine industry this was the biggest blow because much of the heritage of cultivating certain grape varieties found nowhere else in the world was almost completely lost.
To put this into perspective, of the 4,000 vitis vinifera grape varieties known in the world, about 520 of them are native to Georgia. This is a massive number for such a small place! Yet, because of the large gap between today and the last time these vines flourished, the cultivation of most of these varieties has to start over and be relearned. And start over it has. More and more plantings of tongue-twisting grape names like Tsolikouri, Chinuri, Tsitska, Kisi, Usakhelouri, Chkhaveri, Goruli Mtsvane, Krakhuna, Shavkapito, Otskhanuri Sapere, and Aleksandrouli (and many many more) are being being replanted and grown around the country. As these plantings continue to occur and as vine age increases, it is with little doubt that so too will quality.
Although Georgia has been making wine for longer than any other country it is only now establishing itself in the international wine market beyond the surrounding region. As Russia’s shadow has receded in the last 20+ years Georgia has grown in political and economic independence. This has loosened the grip on their trade relationship to the north and they have turned their focus westward using wine as one of their most valuable ambassadors. They are replanting experimental vineyards with the local grape varieties in order to better understand the way each vine behaves. Even the Natural Wine Movement [the champions of “nothing added, nothing taken away” grape growing & winemaking] has cast a new spotlight on a select group of producers who make wine only using the old traditions and are helping to promote them around the world.
Through thick and thin, the fact that the vine has survived here for so long is a testament to the symbiotic relationship between this land and these people. It is obvious that wine is one of the most important aspects of their national heritage and that they should be a valued part of the international wine community. In time that reputation will reach further west and there is little doubt that more and more of their wines will fill our glasses.
If you live in Brooklyn, NY come by Hotel Delmano where I have put a few of my favorites on the list by the glass and by the bottle.