In Leningrad, back in 1990, the Georgian bars were the place to be. While the Berlin Wall was falling, the reality hadn’t really sunk in for most Russians; basic necessities like food and shoes were still hard to come by, and it wasn’t clear at the time if life would get any easier under the new regime. As an American student, I was surprised at the glum mood—except in the Georgian bars, where jazz musicians gathered to jam late at night and eat spicy shashlik, skewers of grilled meat they washed down with tumblers of thick red wine.
I’m immediately reminded of that optimism when I walk into Zero Compromise, a wine tasting in Tbilisi devoted to natural wines. Outside, a huge statue of Mother Georgia looms over Tbilisi’s many crumbling buildings, but the scene in Fabrika—a swish hostel/restaurant/lounge—could be in Los Angeles or New York City. The room is packed with tattooed sommeliers and wine cognoscenti from all over the world, and a band of Georgian polyphonic singers occasionally breaks into song. The atmosphere is as electric as those jazz clubs of 1990, where the crowd—both performers and admirers—were celebrating the beginning of a new era.
The biggest difference—besides the music, at least—is that the wines in our glasses are anything but thick, semisweet reds. They come in all shades, from pale and fizzy to dark amber to bright red. They include such a panoply of grape varieties that keeping track of them makes my head swim. After 69 years of Soviet rule, the new reality, when it comes to winemaking, is that there are no rules.
The next morning, I head southeast out of Tbilisi, to Kakheti. This region is the powerhouse of Georgian wine production, providing some 70 percent of the country’s wines. It’s also breathtaking, valleys of grains and vines framed by the snowcapped Caucasus mountain peaks. Azerbaijan is not far to the south; Russia lies to the north. It’s in this area, in a Stone Age settlement called Gadachrili Gora, that archeologists unearthed the oldest evidence of winemaking in the world; DNA testing dated the residues found on pottery shards to between 5,800 and 6,000 BC.
These findings, combined with the fact that Georgia boasts more distinct grape varieties than any other country, suggests to archeologists that the region may be home to the original Vitis vinifera—from which our contemporary vines descended. That vinous diversity, however, isn’t apparent in the plastic bottles of wine at markets and in the flatbeds of trucks parked on the roadside. The revolution on display at the Tbilisi wine festival represents only a tiny percentage of the industry; most wine here is still made in what are called “wine factories,” the whites from rkatsiteli (are-cats-see-tell-ee) and the reds from saperavi, varieties that the Soviets promoted for their hardiness and bountiful production.
At least, it was for factory wines. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, many grape farmers found they could no longer sell their fruit; they converted vineyards to watermelon patches and grain fields, or gave up entirely. By the mid-2000s, Georgia’s vineyard acreage had fallen to nearly half of what it had been in the 1980s. Along the way, many varieties were forgotten, and the few wine factories left continued to trade in the semisweet saperavis that are said to have been Stalin’s favorite.
Although the trend has been toward drier reds in recent years, Lapati’s saperavi—labelled “Super Ravi”—is a revelation, paler than any I’ve ever seen, and it turns out to be addictively drinkable. Bright and full of tart cherry and herb flavors, it’s refreshing, an unusual quality for this grape; its name, in fact, means “dye.” To make it, Jullien explains, all they did was fill two qvevri—the large earthenware vessels traditional in Georgian winemaking—with clusters of saperavi, and seal them up with clay. After two weeks, they cracked open the clay seal, crushed the grapes and drained the juice off into a clean qvevri; then they bottled the wine the spring following harvest. “Super ravi,” Jullien says in his French accent, and I finally get the joke: “Ravi” means “happy” in French.
Jullien is not the only expat attracted to the affordable land, pastoral views and chance to remake a country’s vinous history. Enek Peterson, a young American woman who started a winery in Imereti a few years ago, was pouring her wines at Zero Compromise, and there’s another Frenchman, Bastien Warskotte, working in Kartli, just west of Tbilisi. And there’s the American transplant John Wurdeman, an artist who’s become a veritable pied piper for growers looking to make more natural, artisanal wines. The work he’s done at Pheasant’s Tears has inspired a new generation of winemakers, many of them young Georgians.
Niki Antadze is one of those Georgians, a former DJ who ran a nightclub in Tbilisi until he decided to switch to winemaking. “I saw how people got drunk from vodkas,” he tells me at his winery, a straw-bale structure he built by hand. “It made me decide I didn’t want to drink industrial alcohol anymore—and I didn’t want my friends to, either.” In 2006, he started making wine in his uncle’s basement in Tbilisi; by 2014, he’d moved to the countryside, and “planted” enough qvevri in the ground near his vineyards that he could start production in earnest; he now makes a few thousand bottles each year under his last name.
The qvevri are tricky, he says: There are very few people left who know how to make these earthenware vessels, and so the cost has skyrocketed. Then there’s the matter of “planting” them: Unlike Greek and Roman amphorae, qvevri have pointed bottoms, as they are traditionally buried in the earth. Getting them in the ground—level and intact—is an art in itself. While it used to be that every family had a qvevri, the number of broken, discarded qvevri strewn across the Georgian countryside suggests the care they require—and how careful, or fortunate, the few vintners are with qvevri that are decades old.
Once you’ve planted your qvevri and begun to make wine, Antadze says, there’s still more to learn: “It takes three or four years to know the qvevri,” he has found. “Each qvevri is different. Even if two are the same size, everything else can be different. You just have to get to know the character of each one.”
Not far away, Koba Kvatchrelishvili is reinventing Georgian wines in his own way, at Naotari. A former judo champion, Kvatchrelishvili was also once the winemaker at Kindzmaruli, a 15th-century winery that lasted through the Soviet occupation to become the first commercial winery in the newly autonomous country after 1991. “We made white wines out of only rkatsiteli, but we’d heard from our ancestors that there were other varieties,” he tells me, ducking into his small, dirt-floored winery. “I went from village to village asking about grapes.”
Kvatchrelishvili passes me a plate of small, dark-shelled walnuts, urging me to crack a few and eat their sweet meat with the wine. Trying them, it becomes instantly clear why walnuts are a key ingredient in Georgian cuisine, used in vinaigrettes for tomato salads, in sauces for poultry and fillings for stuffed eggplants: Their sweet, rich nutmeats tame the acidity and tannins of the wine. It’s a terrific example of “what grows together goes together,” often a useful marker of terroir. But Kvatchrelishvili isn’t looking to achieve a food-friendly wine. He’s looking for the taste of a place that was nearly erased.
Gotsadze is an architect who grew up in Tbilisi; his great-grandfather made wine, but Gotsadze is the first to have made it a business. He set up Gotsa, his winery, in the family’s weekend house, about 45 minutes west of the city, in the high hills of the Asureti Valley. “My idea was to find a mountain place,” he says. “Up here, it’s ten degrees cooler than the vineyards. At lower altitudes, you can’t leave wine in qvevri unless your cellar is two basements deep.”
Gotsadze does use qvevri, and he doesn’t use any inputs like cultured yeasts or enzymes. Yet he finds that, even on his hilltop, the ferments get pretty warm. So, before he buried the vessels, he wrapped them in silicon tubing allowing him to cool them with spring water. “And then we drain the warm water into our swimming pool,” he says.
As his wife fills a table with cheese pies and an array of vegetable salads, he uncorks a wine with a pop and lets it spill into glasses: It’s made from chinuri, a grape that’s particular to his region, but in a *pétillant-naturel style. “The first time you have a pét-nat,” he says, “you never want to drink anything else.”
And yet he can’t keep himself from tinkering: He shows off a strawberry-scented chinuri, macerated eight months on the skins, no stems, and then a blend of tsiska and tsoulikouri, two grapes from Imereti, farther west, that he appreciates for their freshness. He begins to uncork bottles faster than I can track them, from feather-light whites to rich reds. “I want to be able to give people something different to drink every year,” he says. “You see here old traditions, but we must add something new—even our great-grandfathers were adding something new.”
Driving through the country, it’s easy to get the impression that all Georgian wine is made in qvevri. They are everywhere, decorating entryways and gardens, or lying in fields like giant eggs. At one winery, the manager explained that “Everyone makes wine in qvevri—unless they are lazy.” He wasn’t referring to professionals, just to everyday people. Such is the deep-seated nature of wine culture here. Yet only about three percent of commercially produced Georgian wines are made in qvevri. Many wineries make interesting wines without them, like Danieli, a small winery in Argokhi in northeast Kakheti.
Owner Eka Tchvritidze, a champion horseback rider who grew up in Argokhi and went to school in the US, explains to me that she’d never intended to go into wine. She’d been living in the US, in fact, when she met her future husband, a Dane named Olaf Malver, and the two began a business leading outdoor-adventure trips. At some point, she says, she realized she had to return home to Georgia, so the two shifted their focus to the Caucasus.
Tchvritidze pours a glass of her 2017 Kisi, explaining that they pick the grapes at four a.m. to preserve the acidity and fresh flavors, then cold-soak the fruit and ferment it in stainless-steel tanks. It’s clean and spicy, with kisi’s soft, succulent fruit at the forefront. “I think of kisi as a supermodel, sleek, curvy and blonde,” Tchvritidze says; she finds that fermentation in steel tanks lets the wine retain a clean angularity that gives it shape and energy.
At the same time, she admits she felt pressure, as a Georgian, to produce qvevri wine. “Olaf didn’t want to; he associated them with dirty, Brett-y wines,” she explains, but she prevailed, and added a twist: It’s macerated on the skins in qvevri for four months, then racked into French oak barrels. The 2017 qvevri version is golden and voluptuous, with flavors of peaches and peach skin, the wine tannic and hearty, yet chic.
Tchvritidze sets out a plate of salty cheese on the table, and this qvevri kisi takes on its gamey tang—a quality that makes me immediately think of it as more “Georgian” than the stainless-steel version. But then I imagine being here on a hot summer day, at a table brimming with the extensive array of vegetable salads Georgia is known for. Or stopping by the lounge at Fabrika for an aperitif. Who’s to say what’s more Georgian in 2018? If there’s anything that defines Georgian wine today, it’s the variety on offer, and the optimism that they carry.