A Visit to Georgia

5/26/16 -

(Photo: Ramoz in his vineyards)

We'd probably been in the country for 15 minutes when we had to stop "just for a snack". It was delicious and judicious - it turned out to be a pretty long night in the wine bar. There was dinner too, but late enough that the snack sustained us for some hours. The Georgian culture of hospitality is extreme. There are no half measures. They make even uber-hospitable Italians seem a bit... maybe not stingy, but restrained. I'm pretty sure there's no such thing as drinking without food, and there's no such thing as just a little food.

The table gradually gets covered in drifts of plates in layers. The food, by the way, is really good. A neophyte can find references to Ottoman Turkish food, Persian food, Russian food,  Russian Jewish food - bits from all of the various tribes and nations who have passed through (and believe me, a lot of them have passed through this geographically crucial place) but even a neophyte can tell that the food, like the wine, very much has its own identity.

I went to Georgia in August 2015, for just 5 days on the ground, with Pascaline Lepeltier, Chef Kris Yenbamroong (from Night Market in LA), and John Wurdeman from Pheasant's Tears as our guide. Friends who'd been to Georgia had generated pretty high expectations, but it was MUCH better than I'd hoped for. I've spent some time in places with deep-rooted wines, but never any place where wine is so directly and intensely linked to and expressive of history, art, music,  religion, and food - a lot of life.

You can read about this again and again, as I did, or hear it told, but if you get a chance to visit Georgia, don't hesitate. If you're really lucky, you'll spend some time with John Wurdeman - American born, but with a Georgian soul, and the smartest, most generous tour guide you can imagine. He sings pretty well too, and a couple of our meals included John and friends performing magnificent Georgian polyphonic music, which I wish I could play for you now. (Photo: Zaliko in his qvevri shop with John Wurdeman (6' 2", for scale).

Before our trip I'd only tasted Georgian wine a few times, an intriguing but very limited sampling. Many of us know about the anfora used there - I write anfora because that seems to be the term in use in western Europe, but those anfora are really qvevri, clay pots quite possibly invented in Georgia, and certainly perfected there.

In fact wine in Georgia is very ancient indeed, with the oldest archaeological evidence of winemaking that's turned up anywhere - circa 8,000 BC. The photo on the right (taken in the wonderful Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi) shows bits of grapevine that are covered in silver. These were found in tombs that date from about 3,000 BC.

The long history of wine in Georgia matters because it matters to the Georgians, because  their history is something alive to them in a way I've never experienced anywhere else, and because their grasp of their history and its relation to wine is a critical element as they build on the roots that survived the 20th century, the USSR, civil war, and other assorted chaos. The old style of  production of wine - mostly by families, for their own use, on a small scale using ancient methods - was almost wiped out by the Soviets in their drive to collectivize (Stalin, lest we forget, was Georgian and so paid special, far from benign attention to the region). The people we visited in Georgia have revived and reinvented traditional wine; along with the challenges I've touched upon, they face considerable pressure to internationalize their wines, to plant Chard and Cab, to doctor the wines to make them uniform.

So what about the best wines from Georgia? They are very good indeed, and it's the distinctiveness of the native Georgian wines that's interesting and that makes them special. Many we tasted were just plain delicious, drinkable and great with the food.

The style of many white wines from Georgia will likely already be familiar to you from some European examples - they are orange wines, made by fermenting and aging the juice with the skins in qvevri. The best Georgian wines are often better that the western versions because they maintain a remarkable freshness, purity, and sense both of the variety and of place. If you've come to feel that skin- fermented white wines are too uniform, you should try the Tsikhelishvili Rkatsiteli. There are also some terrific whites made without skin contact. There are also some wonderful red wines (think along the lines of COS "Pithos"), mineral-driven and savory light reds - simply fantastic wines.

All of this and more is properly discussed in detail in Alice Feiring's excellent new book "For the Love of Wine." Alice's personal approach perfectly suits the very personal and passionate character of Georgian wine; she has spent a lot of time there and really understands the wines. Please join us and Alice for a book-signing and tasting on Saturday, June 4th, from 4-7pm. Four of Georgia's best winemakers will be present: Nikki Antadze, Ramaz Nikoladze, John Okrashivili and John Wurdeman.   -Jamie Wolff

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