This content was produced in collaboration with our partner, Wines of Georgia.
Georgia’s wine culture is not only the oldest, but also arguably the world’s most unique, literally grounded in the clay vessel known as a qvevri, in which many wines ferment, often with months of skin contact. Since the turn of this century, Georgia is leading the world in a “qvevri revival,” with the vast majority of Georgian producers, big and small, making wine in this oldest of winemaking vessels.
Today, Georgia is a vigorous hub of activity, with winemakers of all ages committed to their ancient traditions and grape varieties—yet experimenting as well, whether by incorporating some Western practices, developing unique blends, or newly reclaiming “old” styles, such as pet-nats. While Georgian wine production is still dominated by a few large producers, it is the 1,250 tiny, family producers that have captivated the world’s attention, producing a diverse array of wines.
The recent discovery of clay pot sherds infused with acids unique to grape wine confirmed the presence of intentional winemaking in Georgia at least 8,000 years ago. Over the centuries Georgians always made wine in these terracotta pots, developing a thriving wine culture. The rituals associated with enjoying wine are a central part of being Georgian—almost every family had a qvevri and made wine—and continued even after the arrival of European winemaking techniques in Georgia in the 1800s.
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Over time, production came to include steel tanks and oak barrels, sometimes in combination with qvevri fermentation. But phylloxera, and soon after, the Soviet Union, did great damage to the Georgian wine industry through the 20th century. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Georgian re-established its independence, but a resulting civil war decimated the country’s economy—including the wine industry. State wineries, run under a command economy, in which the government determined what goods were produced and at what price they sold, were not equipped to pivot to a market economy. Not until the end of the 1990s did the country become sufficiently stable to justify investment and reconstruction, setting the stage in the 21st century for a new chapter generation harnessing ancient traditions to showcase their ancient varieties.
Today’s Georgian wines are a remarkably diverse and intriguing lot, ranging from fresh, clean, vibrant whites, reds and rosés, to succulent, layered wines filled with character and singular expression.
Georgia’s climate patterns are determined both by altitude, given its perch in the Caucasus mountain ranges; and by proximity to the Black Sea. To the north, the Greater Caucasus Mountains block the very cold air from Russia. The Likhi Range divides the country in half, keeping the humidity and cooler air in the western area. Here the climate is almost tropical at lower altitudes, and frosts are rare. The eastern part of the country, where 70 percent of the vineyard grapes are planted, is quasi-tropical. It is quite hot in the summer, with little rain, but the area benefits from Caucasus breezes.
Straddling a seismically active area where two of earth’s lithospheric plates collided (creating the Caucasus Mountains), Georgia has a remarkable diversity of soils and subsoils. Depending on whether the vineyard is planted on a mountainside or a river valley, most of the vineyards undulate over alluvial, calcareous marl soils and volcanic tufa. About 15 percent of Georgia is limestone, sometimes with marine fossils.
Details of soils and subsoils are still being analyzed, though most tend to be based on sand, clay, or a combination. As such, the understanding of terroir is still in its infancy. Decisions as to where to plant which grapes have often been based on demand or historical association with a region rather than precise matching of climate or soil conditions to a variety.
With its long but fractured history as a nation, Georgia has had little legal regulation or definition until recently. Beginning in 1997, Georgia began to develop a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) appellation system. As in other countries around the globe, a producer or group of producers can apply for a specific area to be elevated to PDO status, providing such information as historical records, climate patterns, soil types, and other distinctive elements of terroir.
Some PDOs are based on historic noble estates developed in the 19th century; others on wine styles developed during the Soviet period. Still others are based on vineyard areas long known locally as yielding wine of distinctive character. Some PDOs are linked to a specific grape variety. As in other countries, the appellations stipulate where and how the grapes must be grown, maximum harvest yields, and how the wine is to be vinified. Thus, a PDO on a label may suggest a wine’s style (dry or semi-sweet); a particular grape variety or blend; or a specific locality.
Georgia currently has a total of 24 different PDOs, the vast majority of them in the eastern region of Kakheti. Two of the most well-known and most often exported include Tsinandali, a light white wine based on the Rkatsiteli variety; and Mukuzani, a powerful Saperavi.
Winemaking and the Qvevri
While wine is made in qvevri throughout Georgia, producers use the vessel differently in the eastern and western parts of the country. With 70 percent of the country’s wine hailing from the eastern region of Kakheti, it is the skin-contact amber wines from this area that are most associated with Georgian wine production. (“Orange wine” has become the modern term for such wines—making them oddly named, at least to the Georgians who have been producing these amber wines for 8,000 years.)
For these wines made according to the Kakhetian technique, after the grapes are crushed, the juice and crushed grapes run directly into the qvevri, typically with a percentage of ripe stems. After the fermentation is completed, the qvevri is sealed with stone or glass lids. Over the winter months, the wine undergoes a natural settling and clarification as the solids fall to the bottom of the qvevri. The amber color comes from the extended skin contact; this is not an oxidative winemaking process as commonly believed. In the springtime, the wine is removed from the qvevri for bottling, or may be put into another vessel (oak, steel tank, or another qvevri) for further aging.
High-quality qvevri-produced amber wines have a firm tannic texture across the palate; whites develop aromas of dried apricots, orange peel, nuts, and an exotic array of spices. Winemakers in western Georgia also ferment wine in the clay vessel (here called a churi), but the maceration period is limited to roughly one month for both red and white varieties. Typically, no stems are included, resulting in light, fresh and dynamic wines that also reflect the cooler terroir.
Georgians were justifiably proud when UNESCO registered the qvevri on its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2014.
Georgia has more than 500 indigenous grapes, with about 45 in commercial production. Phylloxera and mildews arrived in the late 1800s, destroying vineyards and eliminating numerous native varieties from widespread production. Vines are currently grafted onto American rootstocks, though especially in western Georgia, there are a handful of “vine trees” that are well over a century old.
Of the 55,000 hectares planted in Georgia, two-thirds are planted to white varieties. The leading white variety, Rkatsiteli, is planted throughout the country and typically accounts for over 60% of total wine production. At 33 percent of total wine production, Saperavi is the dominant red wine; all the other varieties account for 6% of production. Since 2014 Georgians have undertaken intensive efforts to diversify the cultivars planted and wines made.
Many Georgian indigenous varieties are believed to be quite ancient; over time the cultivars adapted to their specific micro-terroirs. Eastern and western Georgia have different grape varieties, and some smaller localities have distinct varieties and clones.
Major White Varieties
This is Georgia’s dominant variety, arguably its greatest and most noble, and grows throughout much of the country. Rkatsiteli is most expressive when grown on calcareous soils, such as in the northwestern part of the Alazani Valley in Kakheti, and fermented in qvevri. It is a hardy variety that turns out some of Georgia’s deepest, most complex and long-lived wines. Flavors depend on its method of production, but it frequently has stone fruit and apple flavors, with a tinge of minerality.
Meaning “green from Kakheti” and often simply called “Mtsvane,” this grape grows well on the calcareous soils in Kakheti, in eastern Georgia. It has high-toned, intense aromas of fresh-cut lime, lime blossom, and citrus; occasionally with tropical flavors, often with a light mineral undercurrent.
Predominantly grown in Kartli, north of Georgia’s capital city Tbilisi, Goruli Mtsvane produces a light, fresh, and delicate wine. It may be blended with other varieties to add acidity and tension. Its flavors can be quite citrusy with light floral and green apple notes.
Another Kakhetian variety grown throughout the region. It has a distinct aromatic signature of wildflowers, boxwood, and honey. Khikhvi is relatively versatile as it can be produced in dry, semi-sweet, sweet and, as in PDO Kardenakhi, fortified styles. It is also commonly blended with other Kakhetian varieties.
Kisi is indigenous to Kakheti, where some 50- to 60-year-old vines still exist in the northwest corner of the Alazani Valley. Skin-contact examples can be quite complex: pear, citrus, green tea, tarragon, stone fruits, and walnut. High-altitude Kisi vines are likely to produce distinctive terroir-expressive wines in the future.
A leading variety from Kartli, with some recent plantings in Kakheti, Chinuri is made in both skin-contact and non-skin-contact styles, and it also appears in sparkling wines. Quince is perhaps the signature fruit character of the grape, and good examples are best enjoyed two to five years after harvest.
Tsitska is a western variety, cultivated throughout upper and central Imereti in central Georgia. When vinified to dryness, Tsitska wines express yellow fruits such as quince, melon, pear, dried flowers, and occasionally fennel. Traditionally, Tsitska was blended with Tsolikouri, and sometimes Krakhuna. With its naturally high acidity, it’s a common component in Georgian sparkling wine.
The leading white grape of western Georgia, Tsolikouri wines can be delightfully aromatic, medium- to full-bodied, and slightly oily, with soft acidity and a broad, juicy texture. They show subtle notes of yellow fruits and melon, with a thread of minerality and a light floral lift. It may be fermented in and matured in neutral oak. Tsolikouri is often blended with other western varieties and it’s the primary grape in the semi-sweet PDO Tvishi.
Another west Georgian variety, less commonly seen, Krakhuna is indigenous to the Imereti region. Traditionally it was blended with other local white varieties. Broader and richer, with more phenolics than other Imeretian white wines, Krakhuna imparts tropical notes and stone fruit flavors. While delicious for early consumption, the wines can benefit from cellaring, especially if made with skin contact.
Major Red Varieties
Saperavi, which translates as “something to color with” or “to dye,” is Georgia’s leading red grape variety. A very old variety, Saperavi yields wines that can be dry, semi-sweet, very sweet, or fortified. Both traditional and European methods are used; barrel aging is not uncommon. Inky and opaque, its varietal character is quite distinctive, showing pronounced flavors of dark berries, black chocolate, tobacco, black tea and licorice. When vinified dry, it can produce complex, concentrated wines that benefit from extended aging for seven to 10 years. Semi-sweet versions are for early enjoyment, best consumed within one to two years of bottling.
Aladasturi once was widespread throughout central Georgia—dominantly Guria and central Imereti—but was largely wiped out by fungal diseases and phylloxera. It now grows in Guria, Imereti and Samegrelo. Aladasturi’s naturally low pH often inhibits malolactic fermentation; as a result, some Aladasturi wines can be especially crisp and vibrant. Good examples are light-bodied, below 12% ABV, with delicate tannins, notes of black cherries, lifted black pepper, and savory flavors.
This was the dominant variety in the mountainous district of Samegrelo in north-western Georgia. It also grows in Racha-Lechkhumi, on the slopes overlooking the Tskhenistskali River. A late-ripening western variety, Ojaleshi is made in dry and semi-sweet styles. The wines have intense, fresh aromas of blueberries, blackberries, and boysenberries.
Aleksandrouli has long grown in the mountainous hillsides of Racha-Lechkhumi on the Rioni River. Drought-resistant and able to thrive in a variety of soil types, Aleksandrouli is being increasingly planted in Kakheti. The grape’s fame emanates from its role as the main component of the semi-sweet Khvanchkara field blend. Whether fermented for dry or semi-sweet wines, its silky tannins are wrapped in flavors of deep red and black berries with notes of violets, black tea, and licorice.
What’s Happening in Georgia Today
The Georgians have a unique blend of pride, resilience, and determination that has repeatedly enabled them to regroup and rebuild from adversity time and again, always retaining their core values, integrity, and culture. Since their country’s independence from Soviet rule, Georgia’s winegrowers eagerly embraced the opportunity to grow; individual growers and winemakers are able to choose their own destiny and make the kinds of wine they feel are authentic expressions.
Today, however, tradition is balanced with innovation. A commitment to indigenous grape varieties is joined with new plantings in different localities. Long-forgotten blends are being revived and new ones created. Producers making wines in qvevri are experimenting with techniques to soften tannins and retain more freshness.
The Research Project for the Study of Georgian Grapes and Wine Culture, managed by the National Wine Agency and involving many international partners, is using DNA analysis and similar advanced scientific tools to understand the genetics of Georgian cultivars as well as the relationships among varieties. The research has been ongoing, primarily published in scientific journals.
Western Georgia’s fine winemaking industry collapsed in the late 19th century following the phylloxera invasion, but is on the cusp of revival, with young (and some not-so-young) winemakers bringing their unique varieties to market. With every passing year, Georgian winemakers throughout the country are increasingly reconnecting with their ancient vinous heritage to produce the most distinct, compelling, and remarkable wines the country has ever produced.
Georgian wine exports to Europe and the U.S. since 2016 have experienced rapid growth at an average growth rate of over 30%. Surprisingly, this pace has continued through 2020. With family after family becoming certified each year to sell their wines commercially, the region is poised for stable, sustainable growth. Alice Feiring’s writings have brought attention to the natural wine community in Georgia and their role in driving the natural wine movement forward. While Georgian wines remain very much a niche category in international markets, including the U.S., progress is also seen in restaurant placements and a handful of leading, forward-leaning merchants creating sections for Georgia in retail wine shops.
Its 8,000-year history of unbroken winemaking aside, the last two decades have brought such an extraordinary transformation that in many ways Georgian wines are still at the beginning of their modern story on the world stage.