Explore Georgia

The cradle of wine

Qvevri buried in the ground at Mukhrani Castle.  This is the traditional way of making wine.  Pouring the tanks ensures even temperatures during the winemaking process.##Photo by Neal d.  Hulkower

By Neal D. Hulkower

I like to say, “Join the American Association of Wine Economists, commonly abbreviated as AAWE, and see the world.” Since my arrival in 2012, I have attended annual meetings in Stellenbosch, Mendoza and Padova as well as in the United States. When the pandemic interrupted the conference for two years, I jumped at the chance to attend the Fourteenth AAWE Conference in the capital city of the Republic of Georgia. , Tbilisi.

I’m sure you’ll agree that a country with the slogan ‘8000 Vintages’ is an obvious and thirsty choice. Georgia’s claim to be “the birthplace of wine” is based on evidence of viticulture and wine production as early as the mid-sixth millennium BCE. Those interested in perhaps too much information should seek out The Wines of Georgia, an authoritative reference written by Lisa Granik MW.

Wine permeates Georgian life, and numerous wine bars and shops dot Tbilisi. Many people in this country of just over four million people (if you count Russian-occupied territories, just under 3.7 million if you don’t), maintain personal vineyards and do their own wine, as they have done for centuries.

While there are at least 400 Georgian grape varieties, only a handful are used to make wine. About 75 percent of the wine grapes grown are white, with the most common variety Rkatsiteli. The Saperavi grape variety is the most frequently planted red. International grape varieties are also planted, including a small amount of pinot noir used for the production of dry and sparkling wines. (Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery in New York’s Finger Lakes grows and produces both Rkatsiteli and Saperavi. However, no one in Oregon has experimented with these or other Georgian varieties.)

Traditionally, wines were made in large earthenware vessels called qvevri, also known as churi in western Georgia. This practice continues today, but modern techniques are also gaining ground. Kakheti, in the far eastern part of the country, is the source of 75% of the wine grapes and 68% of the wine.

With war raging across the Black Sea from neighboring Georgia to the north, coupled with lingering concerns about the pandemic, attendance at the conference has dwindled. I joined the smaller than usual international group of academics, marketers and other wine professionals. We enjoyed the welcome reception on the first evening, followed by two days of presentations at Tbilisi State University and two more tours.

My wife having stayed at home, my son, Kenny, himself an oenophile, chose to accompany me. We took a short walk from our hotel to a cozy wine bar and “Wine Not?” After telling our host, Ana Berikashivili, that we would like a glass of white and red, she first offered a taste. It rained, so we chose it as our white. Since she wanted an honest opinion, it was only after we approved that she shared that it was her wine, a Mtsvane (another popular white variety) made at Berika Winery in Kakheti.

The next day we visited the nearest of four locations of “8000 Vintages”, a highly regarded shop with an overwhelming collection of Georgian wines and floor-to-ceiling lockers. We were helped by a young woman who was studying oenology. We picked up two authentic icewines for Kenny and sampled Rkatsiteli and Saperavi ahead of a second visit I had planned after the conference. When I got back I let her select a few bottles to add to my stash, more info below.

I chaired the first session of the second day, providing a summary of an analysis of the results of the 1980 wine tasting that led to the creation of Domaine Drouhin Oregon. “Counter-tasting Olympiads of Wine According to Borda” compares the rankings mainly of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay by averaging the scores given by the judges with those using the more mathematically justifiable Borda Count. Although there were some differences overall, both methods ranked The Eyrie Vineyards 1975 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir second to the 1959 Joseph Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny – which could be considered a ringer due to his age. Either way, this impressive performance convinced Robert Drouhin, the first Burgundian, to open a winery in Dundee Hills in 1987.

A notable AAWE attendee was Robert Joseph, the British wine writer also known as Devil’s Advocate. Also co-owner of Le Grand Noir wines and editor of Meininger’s Wine Business International, his main duties seemed to be to remain realistic in the face of highly academic and arcane discussions while serving as an advocate for wine drinking. common people.

After my presentation, Joseph explained that in Europe, Borda is used to select the best of category in wine competitions, unusual in the United States. This of course led me to list my objections to wine competitions for which I have little respect. As a comparative wine snob and, worse, opinionated, nerdy analyst, I appreciated the repartee. Later, he emphasized that all wine-related discussions should be consumer-centric. Wise advice.

Later that day, I gave my second presentation, “What else can I afford to drink?” It took into account current availability and prices for most of the French and German wines I tasted between 1969 and 1979. I recorded sampled bottles in four notebooks. During my research, I also found prices for more recent vintages that are the same age as those tasted in the 1970s.

To establish the upper limit of affordability, I simply used the price of the most expensive bottle in my collection. I also compared current prices to inflated ones using factors for wine created by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As these are for base wines, they resulted in much lower price estimates for high-end collectible bottles. This leaves open the question whether there could be a method to predict future prices of luxury wines based on an appropriate selection of factors.

To my surprise and delight, my second article received one of three Christophe Baron awards for best conference presentation. In lieu of non-consumable recognition, winners received bottles of Cayuse Vineyards 2018 Armada Vineyard Syrah—far favorite.

One of the many joys of these conferences is the flood of local wines served during breaks, lunches and dinners, simply too numerous to mention. A memorable bottle appeared towards the end of dinner at the Funicular restaurant above the city. There, we were offered a Shalauri Cellars 2016 Saperavi, served in a carafe. Despite being well on my way to satiety, this caught my attention. The story of how I ended up with a free bottle involves the persistence of a former freelance journalist from the UK who decided she would repay the kindnesses she had received by pouring them out to me. This bottle goes very well with a vegetarian chili.

After the lecture was over, we visited Ikalto Monastery and Ikalto Academy. Viticulture and oenology were taught there in the 12th century. We had the opportunity to sample two dozen wines in the village of Tsinandali, then dine and taste at Mosmieri, a winery founded by German industrialist Joerg Matthies.
We also visited Uplistikhe Cave Town, one of Georgia’s oldest urban settlements. I risked my life and limbs negotiating steep paths of varying widths and depths trying to maintain one foot while being buffeted by high winds. The reward – close access to the remains of an ancient settlement which included a cellar. I always wonder if the risk was worth it.

Our trip included a stop at Mukhrani Castle, founded in 1878 by an heir to Georgia’s royal family. A great tour of the impressive facilities followed, one with traditional and modern winemaking vessels as well as a distillery for making cha cha, the Georgian version of grappa. As I was tasting one of the bold reds, a hallmark of Georgia, a couple approached, excitedly asking me if I thought it was like a Willamette Valley pinot noir. “Not even close,” I insisted.

Before leaving Georgia, I went back to “8000 Vintages” to fill out a file. Many whites are made with prolonged contact with the skin, which gives them a richer color and more tannins, which guarantees their ability to age. Can’t wait to open Amber Tchotiashvili Family Vineyards 2017 Rkatsiteli. The most expensive bottle, a Badagoni Wine Company 2015 Saperavi, costs $38.40. Fortunately, the labels are in English and Georgian. I found it to be incomprehensible script that looks to this language-challenged observer like a collection of artfully arranged squiggles and picture brackets punctuated with tridents and the universal on/off sign.

Until recently, little produced wine arrived in Western countries. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the biggest importer of Georgian wines, the focus shifted from quantity to quality. Those looking for something completely different from the international varieties and ubiquitous winemaking styles would do well to seek out bottles from Georgia, or better yet, plan a trip to the country.

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