- Russia is still the biggest buyer of Georgian wines. However, dependence is decreasing, exacerbated by the conflicts over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian trade embargo on wine from 2006 to 2013 has led to greater diversification.
- Autochthonous grape varieties are important. The near-black Saperavi grape and the white Rkatsiteli are the two leading varieties
- Georgia should not be equated only with Qvevri wines. Despite the hype, they form only a small part of the production - this is true for the Russian mass market as well as for the western markets.
- Cultivation is often traditional. But wines are also produced in large-scale wineries, some of which still have equipment from the Soviet era.
- Wine tourism is developing well as history, food, wine and epic landscapes come together in unique exotic experiences.
- The “land of 8,000 vintages” balances tradition with modernity as it looks to the West.
Seat 28A on the flight from Munich to Tbilisi offers a view of Budapest in the early evening. Later, the lights of a city with huge industrial plants appear, followed by the seemingly endless darkness of the Black Sea - this must have been the Romanian port city of Constanța. Early in the morning, the plane finally lands in Tbilisi and disgorges wine-starved members of the press.
Difficult Relationship with Russia
On the way from Georgia's capital Tbilisi to the Château Mukhrani winery, the Russian town of Vladikavkaz is signposted; it lies on the other side of the Great Caucasus, which forms the border. Although dependence on the nearby Russian market is decreasing, Russia is still the largest buyer of Georgian wines. The reasons for this began long before the invasion of Ukraine. Since Georgia's independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conflicts over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been smouldering since time immemorial and finally escalated into a bloody war in 2008, there have been repeated disputes and sabre-rattling between Russia and Georgia. That is why solidarity with Ukraine is huge, with yellow and blue flags hanging everywhere in the city and the country. "Slava Ukraini" ("Glory to Ukraine") is emblazoned from the balcony opposite the hotel in Tbilisi.
In 2006, the Kremlin decided on a trade embargo on wine, using the wine sector, which is important for Georgia, as a means of exerting pressure. The "Italians of the Caucasus", who welcome visitors with richly laid tables and plenty of wine, were from then on forced to look for alternatives. A process that took a while but was basically successful. Above all, the small country was able to distinguish itself in the West (and in East Asia) through its unique wine culture. After the Russian embargo was lifted in 2013, wine producers resumed trade relations with Russia, but the volume has never returned to the pre-2006 level.
Georgia borders the Black Sea to the west. This results in high precipitation and mild temperatures all year round. Towards the east, temperatures increase in summer and decrease in winter. Nevertheless, precipitation in Georgia's easternmost and largest wine-growing region, Kakheti, is around 700 mm, with dry and warm to hot summers. In Kartlia, despite its location a little further west, it is below that. The reason is the sheltered location of the Kura River Valley between several mountain ranges. Regular downdrafts from the nearby Caucasus ensure healthy grapes during the ripening period through constant drying.
The Great Caucasus forms the border to Russia and stretches from the Black to the Caspian Sea. Its highest peak, Mount Elbrus (5,642 m), is located in Russia not far from the border with Georgia. Depending on where the inner-eurasian border is demarcated, it may be the highest mountain in Europe. The mountains prevent cold air from entering from the north. In the south of the country lies the Little Caucasus, which continues into Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Georgia is called Sakartwelo in Georgian, which means "someone from Kartli". And that is where Château Mukhrani is located. Well-tended vineyards, a spotlessly clean cellar, the little castle all spruced up - and only recently completed. At Mukhrani, mainly autochthonous grape varieties are cultivated. The fairytale idyll of the castle is a contradiction to the village of the same name, which is known in Georgia mainly as a place of execution for cattle because of its meat market.
Kartli lies around Tbilisi and, as a wine-growing region, is exposed to the influence of the nearby mountains of the Great Caucasus (see Grey Box). Qvevri wines are also produced in Kartli. For this purpose, the mash, also of white wine grapes, ferments and ripens in buried clay amphorae. For climatic reasons, in the Kartli region - and at Château Mukhrani - the stalks are not added because, unlike in Kakheti further east, they often do not fully ripen. This avoids too much green tannin in the wine.
But to equate Georgia only with Qvevri wines and natural wines does not do it justice. Despite the supposed hype about orange wines, they make up only a small part of production in the specialised trade. They neither serve the Russian mass market, nor do producers for the Georgian and Western markets fully rely on the buried clay amphorae. There’s also a lot to be said for ageing Saperavi, Georgia's most important red wine grape variety, in wooden barrels, for example.
The organic winery Papari Valley is located at an altitude of about 500 m. On a clear day, it offers a spectacular view of the silhouette of the Caucasus. Saperavi and the most important white grape variety, Rkatsiteli, are cultivated on 10 ha. In total, around 35,000 bottles of wine are produced.
The artisanal wines are traditionally produced in the Qvevri, using a low-intervention approach. The mechanically crushed grape material comes to the Qvevri in Kakheti together with the stems. The wine vinified there is drawn off in spring. What solid matter remains in the Qvevri is not pressed but distilled. "Chacha" is the name of both the marc and the extremely popular spirit made from it.
The winery, whose first self-marketed vintage was 2015, reached export markets such as Japan, the USA, Germany and France within a short time. Son Sandro demonstrates that Saperavi, the Kurdadze family's most important grape variety, is best suited for colouring lighter wines. He takes a wine glass, fills it with a little Saperavi and empties a 0.5-litre bottle of water into it. Even after the water has completely sunk into the glass, the water-wine mixture remains almost black. "This is how wine was produced in the Soviet Union," he adds with a wink.
Large Cellars with Soviet Equipment
That Georgia is more than just Qvevris is also demonstrated by the two large-scale Kakhetian wineries: Marani (annual production approx. 13 mill. litres) and Vaziani (2 mill. bottles per year). Both have massive tank facilities that date back to the years of Soviet production or, in the case of Vaziani, from its Czechoslovakian brethren. After both wineries overcame communism, they took different paths in distribution.
Marani was the first Georgian producer to use glass bottles in the late and turbulent 1990s. Sounds like a casual remark, but it was a radical move. After all, bottled wine was considered cheap in Georgia at the time, whereas the best wine came from the family. Today, the bottles are sold in Georgian food stores, but they are also exported, above all to Poland, where they have their own sales office. In the winery, Soviet tanks are placed alongside modern stainless-steel tanks, wood and Qvevris..
Vaziani is even more focused on foreign markets and exports 95% of its wines. At a sumptuous lunch, naturally, CEO Natia Metreveli, extols the virtues of the Japanese market, which is immensely important to her company. After sales in Russia collapsed, an alternative was needed. Fittingly, the Japanese were also looking for new grape varieties and styles. That's how Japan and Georgia came together. It is also good for the company that customers in Japan are far less price-sensitive and are open to Qvevri wines, not the semi-sweet wines that Russia has been asking for.
- Wine production: average 2 mill. hl
- Vineyard area: approx. 55,000 ha
- Registered wineries: 1,600
- Export: 107 mill. bottles
- Consumption: approx. 25 l. per capita
Georgia's wine tourism industry is also developing. If you want to drink wine and eat well, the Mosmieri winery, for example, is a good place to go. Needless to say, epic landscapes are included in Georgia. On the edge of the mountains of Kakheti, there is also a resort with an attached winery. At home, travellers can tell you that their vinophile holiday took them close to the Russian multi-ethnic republic of Dagestan. And Chechnya is also not far from the Lopota Lake Resort. Château Buera, located in the resort, was completed in 2018 and resembles a futuristic stylized château, finished in grey exposed concrete.
Château Buera produces Qvevri wines, mostly with a wood barrel finish, as well as a bottle-fermented sparkling wine from the white grape variety Tsitska. The grapes are bought from Imeretia in western Georgia. 14 months of yeast ageing and no additional dosage - this is Georgian wine, too. Incidentally, the tasting takes place in a chic, timeless bar-like ambience whose atmosphere has nothing to do with the grey exterior and is more likely to be found in the big cities of this world.
Between Modernity and Tradition
Tbilisi lies between the two growing regions of Kakheti and Kartli. Stalinist buildings, Soviet reliefs, a metro deep underground. Life pulsates in this post-Soviet metropolis, awakening everywhere. Although the reality of life in the city and the country are different, the capital illustrates how the country is perceived. This also applies to the wine industry. No one wants to go back to Soviet times, the striving towards the West cannot be overlooked. Nevertheless, no one in the "land of 8,000 vintages", as Georgia likes to advertise, forgets its traditions.
Georgia produced about one third of the wines when in the Soviet Union. To discourage rampant alcoholism in the giant empire, Mikhail Gorbachev decided on an extensive grubbing-up programme. The area under vines shrank from almost 130,000 ha in the 1980s to about half its present size. Wine production took place in collective farms, similar to the agricultural production cooperatives (LPG) in the GDR, according to industrial standards. At that time, Saperavi and Rkatsiteli established themselves as high-yielding varieties. Today, however, they are cultivated with reduced yields and deliver good quality.
With independence came hard times. The markets in the former USSR were in the doldrums, factories had to close and well-trained staff had to be made redundant. Privatised large-scale enterprises that emerged from collective farms continued to supply the ex-Soviet republics with mass-produced goods as best they could.
In Georgia, corruption and mismanagement were the order of the day until the Revolution of Roses in 2003. Since then, the country has been steadily opening up and modernising. Many small wineries have emerged in the wine industry, and the large producers have met international standards.