A Georgian Wine Education: Why I'm Learning Chinuri Before Chardonnay
“So what kind of European wine is this most like?” This is a question I get almost too regularly. Where I work, at Pheasant’s Tears Winery, which specializes in unusual natural wines made from endemic Georgian grape varieties, we have a predominantly foreign clientele. Talking through the wines with these guests means explaining a winemaking tradition almost wholly different from anywhere else in the world. When they ask for context, outside of a few obvious comparisons, I feel myself at a loss. That’s because my wine education, all of four months long, has so far been entirely in Georgia. When I serve wine professionals and first time drinkers alike they all think it’s an unusual path to take. I couldn’t be happier with it.
Georgian wine may be little known in the wider world, but interest is growing in some important places. After nearly 80 lost years of Soviet mass production and civil war, a group of Georgian natural producers have started bringing back the 8,000-year tradition of Georgian winemaking. In roughly a decade this tight-knit group of growers from the original birthplace of wine have started making serious waves around the world.
Georgian natural wines, including Pheasant’s Tears, have been poured at Noma and El Celler de Can Roca. From 2010 to 2015 those two restaurants have dominated the 1st and 2nd spots on Restaurant magazine’s list of the world’s 50 best restaurants. Yotam Ottolenghi, the British-Israeli celebrity chef, has started buying up whole vintages of Georgian natural wine for his London restaurants. Even the winemaking styles of Georgia are spreading. In the early part of this decade, roughly a dozen different French natural producers ordered Qvevri, the beeswax-lined clay vessels used in Georgia for fermentation and aging. Among those seeking something new, be they sommeliers seeking unique glasses for a tasting menu, chefs searching for bottles that pair better with middle eastern cooking, or producers looking to break the mould of old-world production, Georgia is a font of inspiration.
It helps that outside of the very largest wineries, Natural is the norm in Georgia. That 8,000-year tradition didn’t survive because of a few large wineries pumping out standardized bottles for export. People made wine for themselves, in their homes, growing grapes in their own plots. This means that people have been growing Georgia’s five hundred and twenty five grape varietals naturally and fermenting with minimal intervention. These growers hadn’t heard of Europe’s “Natural Wine” movement until about six years ago. They’d just always made wine naturally.
Twenty some years ago the natural wine movement took off in France. A few producers started throwing out the chemical, high-sulphur winemaking techniques that had become prevalent worldwide. They stopped, crucially, adding yeast to accelerate and control fermentation. The wild yeasts, present on the skins of the grapes, were more than enough to make wine from the juice. Their approach, eschewing bankable consistency for a unique expression of place, has taken off all over the world. About six years ago the French growers met the Georgians and realized that a whole country had been doing things their way all along.
So now, Georgian growers are the darling children of the wine industry’s fastest-growing segment. Their long skin maceration whites, known as Amber or Orange wines, are being emulated worldwide. These wines, usually made in Georgia from Kakhetian varietals like Rkatsiteli, Kisi, Kakhuri Mtsvivani, and Mtsvane, have heightened tannin, rich colours, ranging from light amber to deep orange, and totally unique flavours. Until recently this style was preserved in the villages of Slovenia, Croatia, Italy's Collio and, of course, Georgia. Now with the rise of natural producers from all those regions, amber wine is in vogue. The rich honeyed cider aroma of Mtsvane and the deep dried apricot nose of Rkatsiteli are new loves of the wine world because, like so much else from Georgia, they’re incredibly different. Producers in France, Italy, and Spain are revitalizing their own amber wine traditions. Growers in Australia and Oregon are trying new experiments.
So when I say to Canadians that they make good wine in Georgia, most people start asking if it’s not too humid around Atlanta. Georgian wine is, still, a relatively unknown story. People are only now beginning to tell it. Alice Feiring, a leading natural wine writer, recently published an account of her own experiences in Georgia. Among other things, her For the Love of Wine serves as the main source for this piece. I remain at a loss when contextualizing Georgian wines, but given their uniqueness I’m not sure how much good any context might serve. And yes, I still couldn’t tell you how the 2015 Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs are tasting, or how to distinguish whether a Pinot is from the Burgundy or Ontario. But for a jumping off point, coming to the world from Georgia feels like the right sort of different. After all, wine itself took this road into the world.