Georgia's 2016s are Exciting as All Hell
Georgia’s 2016 vintage is world beating. I’m not trying to be hyperbolic. The country’s natural wine scene has a ways to go still. But, in a marathon tasting of more than fifty wines the leading lights of Georgia’s natural scene knocked me on my ass.
The tasting was organized for a Toronto importer named Stephanie Albert by John Wurdeman and Enek Peterson, the manager at Tbilisi’s Vino Underground. It was my first chance in seven months here to get a real picture of Georgia’s 2016 vintage and, in some way, talk about Georgia with another Canadian. We started at noon and ended at five, with two ten-minute breaks. It was exhausting, serious, and very very exciting.
It’s heartening, when you walk to Vino Underground, to see half a dozen Georgian winemakers hanging outside the door. Some had driven five hours, some thirty minutes, to be in the capital and show their new vintage. There were laughs, hugs, and kisses as the fraternity of Georgian natural growers assembled. Inside Enek had set a table worthy of the task ahead of us, stretching the length of the bar, bedecked with glassware and terra cotta spittoons. The bar’s well-worn desk that functions as a kitchen counter was groaning under the weight of some fifty-five different bottles a mixture of 2015s and ‘16s. The smokers and stragglers trickled into the bar and the tasting got started, fifteen minutes later than we were meant to, positively early by Georgian standards.
We started with whites from western Georgia, where producers tend not to practice extensive skin maceration. We moved through thirteen different wines before we hit something with any skin contact. Beka Gotsadze’s Tsitska had a nose like burnt butter and a back palate like tobacco. DoReMi’s Tsitska was classic, with passion fruit, kiwi, and a juicy bone of acidity. From this group, however, Archil Guniava was the standout. His Tsitska, aged for four months on lees, felt like crystalline white honey: dry, herbaceous, and just a little briny.
Guniava’s most remarkable wine was a skin-macerated blend of Tsistka and an essentially unknown grape called Mgaloblishvili. He had grafted Mgaloblishvili to his pergola vines, and 2016 was the first year they gave fruit. Though the Mgaloblishvili didn’t give enough fruit to even constitute 10% of the blend, a month of skin maceration gave the wine a gorgeous pink hue and a nose, to quote Stephanie, like Campino strawberry-yogurt candies. The palate brought the wine back to earth, with a cheesy quality and an acidity begging you to take another sip.
With that, we started graduating up, tasting wines with increasingly long periods of skin maceration. Guniava had one more punch in him, pouring a Tsistka-Tsolikouri-Krakhuna blend aged for four months on fifteen percent of the skins, and a further four months without them. Where his 2015 was tighter and higher in tannin, the 2016 was a reflection of a wetter year, fatter juicier grapes outweighing the tannin off the skins. Already drinking beautifully with a nose of oxidized apple slices and a balance of tannin and acidity that woke us up to the food-friendliness of this style. Merab from Alapiani’s Marani began pouring his 2016 Chinuri. That central-Georgian grape had been given five months of skin maceration, including one third of the stems. Though far less coloured than so much skin contact might imply, this wine eschewed the aromas of apple and pear I’ve come to associate with Chinuri. Instead it smelled of dried barberry and cranberries, and still tannic enough to deal with heavier dishes. The 2016 Rkatsiteli from Papari Valley, macerated for three months with all skins and stems, was young and a little empty on the mid-palate. Its herbaceous and floral nose, however, was enough for John to declare that given time this wine would grow into something beautiful.
The newest vintage of ambers, aged for six months or more on all their skins and stems, were still too young and mouth puckering to taste in early March. So, palates already exhausted, we limped on to reds. The 2016 Tavkveri from Alapiani’s Marani smelled, to me, not unlike manischewitz. That difficult aroma from my childhood, however, quickly gave way to fresh, juicy berries with a firm back palate and a strong feeling of tartaric acid. The Saperavi from Giorgi Vargelashvili was a classic expression of how that grape is often treated. Big, bready, with notes of iron and cheese, it was gorgeous steak wine. DoReMi, whose 2015 Saperavi has been one of my go-tos for heavy red drinkers, have a much lighter outing for 2016. Hardly a proper ‘glouglou’ wine it was still more delicate and fruit forward than its older sibling.
We finished, as the table began to splinter off into a few exhausted groups, with semi-sweet reds. Far from my own taste, it was heartening to know that a few solid natural producers were doing something that sweet wine drinkers could enjoy. At that point, though, I was a little too wiped out to give them a serious taste. Instead, I took a sip of Pet Nat to wash out some of the tannin and wandered outside, dazed, blinking, and hopeful into the late afternoon sun.