Awards and citations:

1997: Le Prix du Champagne Lanson Noble Cuvée Award for investigations into Champagne for the Millennium investment scams

2001: Le Prix Champagne Lanson Ivory Award for

2011: Vindic d'Or MMXI – 'Meilleur blog anti-1855'

2011: Robert M. Parker, Jnr: ‘This blogger...’:

2012: Born Digital Wine Awards: No Pay No Jay – best investigative wine story

2012: International Wine Challenge – Personality of the Year Award

Monday, 19 November 2012

#EWBC: Reflecting on Georgia

A gift from Georgian Passport Control: a small bottle of wine 

Alaverdi Monastery

It was certainly a fascinating trip. Fascinating to visit a country where wine culture is so unreservedly celebrated and enjoyed. Sadly this is becoming more unusual in other countries, including those like France with a strong wine tradition.

This respect for and celebration of wine was immediately apparent when we were each given a small bottle of wine as we cleared passport control. This very welcome gesture was introduced in late August. It has encouraged Georgian Passport Officers to smile at visitors!

Luarsab drinking a toast@Azarpesha

This was further reinforced during our short stay with four meals - two lunches and two dinners - featuring a succession of wine toasts. The Georgians are very proud of their long 8000+ years' tradition of winemaking being one of the strong candidates for the place where wine started. They are also proud of the number of indigenous grape varieties which from recent research suggests are likely to have been the origin of many of the world’s grape varieties.

Of the wines that we tasted the Qvevri wines – fermented in amphora – were certainly the most interesting and unique. I was particularly impressed by the complex and arresting whites with their oxidative notes, their echoes of the wines of Jerez with some even having a small touch of the pine aromas I remember from the draft Retsina, which came in tin jugs, that I drank when I first visited Greece in 1966.

Some Qvevris@Schuchman Wines (above and below)

A Qvevri in place

Given the Georgians' pride in their hundreds of native grape varieties – over 500 with some 40 in production it is a little surprising that only three made up most of the wines we tasted – the often tannic Saperavi for the reds and Rkatsiteli and Kisi for the whites. Admittedly we were only in Georgia for a short time and most of our visits were in Katheti in eastern Georgia, where Rkatsiteli is particularly popular.  Saperavi is a powerful, tannic grape which I fancy might well be improved by adding a small amount of the Georgian equivalent of Merlot or Grenache to soften it out.

Of course the Georgian wine industry is still very much in transition after Russia imposed the ban on importing their wine in 2006. With a new Prime Minister elected – Bizdina Ivanishvili – there are now moves to improve relations with Russia and the ban may be lifted. Will the Russian market once again dominate production in Georgia? Our brandy guide gave us an indication of what may happen:

“We are selling two million bottles now. It was five million before the ban. We expect this will rise to six million if commercial relationships with Russia are improved. Once we just exported to Russia but now the Russian market would be much less important.”

The visit to the Georgian National Museum where we saw some amazingly intricate jewellery from between 3000-5000 BC

Lunch at Azarpesha with owner Luarsab – very good food and wines plus our introduction to Georgian toasting and to the traditional polyphonic songs. Video here from Magnus Reuterdahl. 

A man passionate about brandy

Sarajishvili, a brandy producer in Tblishi. Founded in 1884 by David Sarajishvili, who was a friend of the Camus family in Cognac. The company was state owned between 1921 – 1994. Not only was the brandy quality good but our guide, who has been with the company since 1983 was memorably passionate. We had a sip of the wonderfully mellow 1893 from barrel and then tasted the XO with some canapés including some chocolate truffles, which proved to be very popular.  

View of the Caucasus Mountains in the evening light 

Schuchman Wines 

Schuchman Wines – the mist descends

Schuchmann Wines where we had some memorable Qvevri wines including the 2011 Rkatsiteli, a 2008 Mtsvane and a dense and brooding 2009 Saperavi, but with perhaps the softest tannins we encountered from this butch variety. 

Part of Chateau Mere

Gia Piradashvili, owner of Chateau Mere
The fantastical Chateau Mere hotel in Telavi and its jovial owner.

Father Gerasim, Alaverdi Monastery

Alaverdi Monastery, which is in the process of being restored after being vandalised and neglected during the Soviet times with petrol being stored in some of the larger Qvevri. Good to meet Father Gerasim again – having met him briefly last May in London at The Real Wine Fair. All three wines tasted stood out. We started with the 2010 Rkatsiteli with its slightly orangey hue, oxidative style like a fine very dry sherry, nutty and wonderfully austere. The 2010 Kisi was very individual with a pungent nose, rich dried apricot flavours and very austere finish. A wonderful and very individual wine that will usually need to be hand sold to people unfamiliar with Qvevri wines. We finished with a sample of the youthful 2011 Saperavi, which had rich, deep, dense colour, power, damson fruit and other black fruits. Clear potential.   

Bread baking in 'tandoor'

Lunch at Shumi with bread freshly baked in a tandoor style oven and a polygot, toastmaster who toasted us enthusiastically in English, French and, finally, slightly slurred Italian.

Our final dinner, although most of us weren’t hungry, was made by the toasting and wonderful polyphonic singing.

Tsinandali Palace – feast and song

Another toast!

Also visited:
Château Mukhrani – an ambitious project to revive the property established in 1873 by the Prince of Mukhrani.  The founder’s son sold the property to Georgian government and it was abandoned during the Soviet rule. There are three partners in the project with the majority share held by Swede Frederick Poulson, who has a pharmaceutical business. The first vines were planted in 2002. The aim is produce 650,000 bottles from 90 hectares of vines.

Reconstructing Château Mukhrani

I liked the first easy drinking, juicy red 2010 Shavkapito, which is an early ripening variety but felt with their ‘more important’ reds they were trying a little too hard. They did, however, have a very good, concentrated and well balanced Muscat with apricot, fig and dried fruit characters. It is fortified with Cha Cha, the local grappa.  

Sparkling wine producer Bagrationi, which makes both bottle fermented as well as charmat wines. The bottle-fermented wines were OK but not exciting. The winery was depressing, looked run down and needing investment.    

Low point
The traditional Georgian dinner at a tourist restaurant in Tbilsi. Ersatz and souless! 
It would have been helpful to have the names of people we were visiting and their roles as well as a list of wines to be tasted. Much time was taken up finding out details of the wines we were tasting. This meant that the same questions were asked again and again.

Some of the visits were allowed to overrun. Our visit to Château Mukhrani was allowed to meander through the stables until we eventually left late and this put the whole journey to Kakheri back.    

Our thanks to Georgian Wine Association and, in particular to Tata Jaiani, for organising our memorable  trip and looking after us so well.  

Tata Jaiani



Michel Smith said...

Once more : wish I was there...

Jim Budd said...

Michel. Hopefully next year. Jim

Luiz Alberto said...

What a wonderful trip!! I share the same disappointments that you do Jim, but the best moments were so amazing that my (selective) memory has already deleted the things that didn't work so well. I hope to be in another trip with you soon... It's always a pleasure!