Following up from the great ‘Discover Georgia in New York’ event that took place in the Chelsea Market from September 25-27, and which enabled visitors to acquaint themselves with the fashion, art, food and wine products of the ancient Caucasus nation, aficionados of that land’s culture had an opportunity to savor the viticultural products of the region in depth at a wine tasting held at the Astor Center on October 6. Although Georgian wines have been available in the US for some years, the occasion was only the second time that a “critical mass” of these – representing many different wineries and major areas – have been presented to American oenophiles, with the broad assortment poured displaying the diverse styles and rich history of over 8,000 vintages cultivated.
While certainly the growth in the industry there has paralleled the general growth of wine culture and appreciation worldwide, and consequently yielded an ever greater number of wines with a palate profile similar to those being produced elsewhere, Georgian wines are indeed unique with regards to their traditional manner of production, the grape varieties inherent to the region, and the enduring importance of winemaking to the nation and its people – so central is it to the native Orthodox Christian religious iconography that the original Georgian Cross was composed of grapevines. That direct relationship between the people and their wines is reflected by the fact that today over 90% of all wine grapes are grown on family farms in Georgia, and while wine accounted for 5% of all Georgian exports in 2013 that level has been growing ever since. Dedicated to maintaining and expanding the presence of Georgian wines throughout the world are several national agencies, including Georgia’s Wine Culture Project, which has committed considerable resources to this goal, Georgia’s National Wine Agency and the Georgian Wine Association.
It would be impossible to discuss the aforementioned singularity of Georgian wine culture without citation of the qvevri, a clay vessel used to ferment and store wine according to a centuries-old tradition; this venerable vessel has recently been included on UNESCO’s “List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” One wine presented which uses the qvevri in its production method was the 2014 Otskhanauri Sapere by Amiran Vepkhvadze. The booklet noted this wine could be “as likely to start a war as to finish one,” and assuredly it was quite different than what most Americans would be familiar with; an opaque deep red in color, with a nose of savory thistle, it was fundamentally sour in taste, with next to no evident sugars, and a tannic aspect exceeding its moderate, yet penetrating acidity and a relatively thin body. Another producer making wines in qvevri was Orgo. Their 2013 Rkatsiteli had an astringent nose, with a cloudy, light amber appearance and a medium to full bodied character trending towards fuller tannins; the 2013 Saperavi had a nose redolent of wheat bread, a very dark nearly opaque purple color and a savory to spicy profile, with a hint of cherry fruitiness. Also aged in qvevri, the 2013 Our Wine Rkatsiteli had, like Orgo’s, a cloudy amber color, with an even more pungent nose – I thought of Explorateur cheese – and a salty, quite tannic and full-bodied presence on the palate; it is described, aptly, as “almost more food than drink,” with flavors “ranging from uni and daikon to smoked ham and oolong tea.” A wine of a similar character to the above, but with each of its values – body, tannins, acidity, and even a faint sweetness – more pronounced was Malkhaz Jakeli’s 2012 Saperavi, an opaque purple-colored wine with a nose suggesting black olives.
Another producer utilizing qvevri in their process is Pheasant’s Tears, and I found their wines less idiosyncratic than those detailed above. Their 2013 Rkatsiteli, like the white varieties above, had a light amber-to-orange hue, and a savory nose of olives and gold currants; it opened sweeter than the aroma, but resolved drily, with a tannic and spicy character at the last. Their 2013 Saperavi was opaque garnet in color, and had a rich savory nose of black olives and tobacco – there was not much fruitiness to it, and it was the most tannic wine I had on the day (and Georgian wines can really bring the tannins). After some water, I tried their other wines. The 2013 Tavkveri Rose was their best – a golden rose in color, with a nutty aroma, it wasn’t terribly tannic at all, with a medium body, a savory opening delivering a nutty and buttery taste, with fruity undertones ending in a dry and soft finish. Low acidity and subtle sweetness. The 2013 Tavkveri was a dark opaque garnet, with an ashy nose, and a gritty graphite character in flavor, and it too was considerably tannic. The 2011 Chinuri was light amber in color, with an aroma suggestive of a dry Port or Sherry and a soft presence on the palate, but nonetheless sharper than the 2013 Chinuri with no skins – which I preferred; it had a cloudy, straw-colored pigment, and a nose similar to a dry apple or pear cider, with a medium body and a mild, spicy flavor.
Generally, more to my palate were the sparkling selections of Bagrationi 1882. The Classic Brut was almost white in color, with a clean and faintly floral nose, and had a soft first taste, expanding to an emerging sweetness on the palate as it opened up. Slightly darker, in an off-white/straw hue, was the Classic Extra Dry, which had a strawberry floral nose, and similarly began softly with some fruitiness, expanding as it rounded into a savory finish with notes of olives. The Reserve Brut was pigmented as the Extra Dry, fuller bodied than the previous two, with a sweet opening giving way to mellower flavors suggesting olives, gold currents and gooseberries. The Rouge was light red in color with a raspberry aroma, and featured a buttery texture, with a fruitiness of red currants and strawberries.
The leading brandy producer in Georgia is JSC Sarajishvili, which, originally founded in 1884, was the first brandy producer in the Russian Empire. The Sarajishvii VS had a fairly astringent nose, with hint of tobacco, but opened with some sweetness on the palate, evening out airily. The Sarajishvili VSOP was also very dry, not quite as astringent as the VS, and resolved with some sweetness, mainly of apricot.