The wines of Georgia, revisited

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

The world of wine is vast. It is more than California, France and Italy. It is more than chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. There are more than a thousand wine-producing regions and thousands of different grape varieties in the world.

When we see a wine from a lesser-known wine-producing country or made from a grape we are not familiar with or made in a style that is not what we consider classic, we may call these wines “weird” or “archaic” or “artisanal” or “natural.” But it is important to have a broader perspective and look at the larger world of wine.

I have had the privilege to be introduced to a vast number of wine regions and wines, and, thanks to my work, I have tried wines from Greece, Portugal, Hungary, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Georgia, as well as all wines from the more well-known wine countries.

I first tried wines from Georgia more than a year ago and wrote a piece titled “The Weird and Wonderful Wines from the Republic of Georgia.” In that piece, I wrote, “There is so much for us to learn about Georgian wine. We can try to compare Georgian wines to wines we know but they really do not fit into a familiar category. Georgia is a country with indigenous varieties and unique techniques and winemaking styles.”

A year and a half later, I sat down for another seminar on Georgian wines. Wine consultant Taylor Parsons, who led the panel last year after returning from his first trip to Georgia, led the panel again.

In 2016, Parson explained that he first went to Georgia with “virgin eyes.” For someone who knows so much about wine, he had no depth of knowledge and found himself bewildered and “flabbergasted by a region that has been producing wine for more than 8,000 years.”

He returned to Georgia again this year, and after his second experience, Parsons said he believes that it is our “obligation to tell the whole wine story” of the Republic of Georgia.

Georgia is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world. In the context of the wine world, it is easy to look at Georgia as weird or archaic. But, Georgia has had little exposure to the international world. Georgia is bordered by Russia, the Black Sea and Turkey and has had a long history of turmoil. It is a dramatic wine region with mountains and two different terroirs. The west is wet, humid and sub-tropical, and the east is sub-alpine with plains and a continental climate.

The three main wine regions are Kakheti in the east, Kartli in the middle and Imereti in the west. There are 500 indigenous varieties in Georgia; the primary white grape rkatsiteli and the primary red grape saperavi, are unfamiliar names to most. The wines are made with indigenous materials. They are fermented in clay vessels and buried in the ground. It is easy to find flawed wines — which we need to call “flawed” instead of “weird.” But there are many well-made wines that need to be seen in their own context, not as oddities.

A few favorites from the recent tasting:

— Archil Guniava Vineyards – Described by Parsons as “The Visionary,” Archil Guniava has been making wine in Kvaliti, Imereti since he was a child. Planted in chalk and limestone soils, the Archil Guniava Tsolikouri/Tsitska/Krakhuna 2015 is a blend of three white grapes that spends six months macerating and no sulfur is added. The wine has aromas of floral tea and cider-like characteristics.

— Antadze Winery – Parsons described winemaker Nikoloz Antadze as “The Rebel”. Raised in a winemaking famlily, Antadze was previously a nightclub promoter and today is more like a Zen monk. He produced two Niki Antadze Rkatsiteli 2015, one with no skin contact and one with six months skin contact. The No Skin Rkatsiteli is a cloudy, under-ripe apricot color with notes of tangerine and grapefruit. The With Skin Rkatsiteli is high acidity with nutty, toasty, sour orange notes.

— Aleksi Tsikhelishvili – At 75 years of age, Aleksi Tsikhelishvili is more interested in grapes than winemaking, and Parsons described him as “The Farmer.” The Tsikhelishvili Jghia 2015 has spicy, herbal and strawberry notes and reminded me of a Southern-Rhone grenache wine.

Georgian wine is a story of origin. “It is a mistake to push these wines to the periphery,” Parsons said. Wine is ingrained in their culture, and the people who are making wine are sharing their history. We need think outside of the boundaries we have set about how wine should be made or how wine should taste and take a broader viewpoint about the world of wine. By understanding each wine within its context of history and place, we will expand our wine world perspective.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.