2021 October-November Analysis

Reinventing Georgian wine by ‘thinking outside the qvevri’

As Georgian wines continue to find fame and fans abroad, the competition between them is stiffening. Producers are now looking for innovative approaches to differentiate their wines from top competitors. Wine blogger and tour organizer Daria Kholodilina gives her take on the many exciting inventions in the world of Georgian wine.

Source: Chateau Mukhrani

Being a wine aficionado in Georgia has never been so exciting. A walk through the Tbilisi districts of Vera or Sololaki provides a testament to the number of new brands and bars that are thriving despite the pandemic. A recent Galt and Taggart report is equally optimistic in its assessment, expecting the industry’s revenue to double in the next five years to $350 million.

Much of this is happening on the back of external markets that are welcoming newcomers who can deliver quality, unique wine experiences. However, Georgian winemakers are running into competition – with themselves. In an effort to differentiate their products, winemakers are getting creative and innovating in qvevri production methods.

Source: Chateau Mukhrani

Skins and stems vying for a place under the sun

Though wine has been a part of Georgia’s material culture for 8,000 years and the country is affectionately known as the ‘cradle of wine’, it is only in recent years that wine has acquired the culture of consumption found in the more classic wine countries, including tastings and increased attention to flavors and properties.

This recent change in the focus of local wine culture has been accompanied by increasingly sophisticated qvevri winemaking process, a trend that started with a dozen vintners back in 2007-2008 and has regained its popularity to the extent that larger producers like Teliani Valley have jumped in to get a piece of the action. It has also led to the emergence of new maranis [Geo. wine cellars]. The National Wine Agency says they have been growing since 2017 at a rate of around 50 new maranis a year.

The uniqueness of qvevri wines has not gone unnoticed by markets thirsty for new tastes. However, importers, tour organizers and eager oenophiles venturing into the country’s wine-growing regions often end up hearing much of the same story when it comes to the qvevri and its place in the long history of Georgian wine. This author likes to joke that bingo card terms compiled from one marani would win every time at almost any other. The words ‘tradition’, ‘qvevri’, ‘ancestors’, ‘skins and stems’ and ‘gaumarjos’ are powerful, but lose marketing appeal when overused.

While a healthy respect for ancient traditions is to be appreciated, producers should remember a niche importer may taste 10 or 20 equally good samples made through the same process of skins and stems left in the qvevri for six months before being bottled immediately. With similarly high levels of tannins, exotic flavours of black tea, camomile, baked quince and apricot pie, as well as a narrative of the family’s winemaking roots, retailers have difficulty selling the same stories repeatedly. It is becoming increasingly clear to market insiders that in order for Georgian wines to compete in these new competitive markets, they need to diversify their products and think outside the qvevri.

Many new ideas have arrived with people who have seen something beyond the existing paradigm and are eager to implement it in Georgia. For instance, Frenchmen Vincent Jullien and Guillaume Gouerou at Lapati Wines (2012-2013) and Bastien Warskotte of Ori Marani (2017) have contributed to the development of a natural sparkling wine culture and brought the term pét-nat into the Georgian wine vernacular.

Source: Chateau Mukhrani

Pét-nat (pétillant naturel, or natural sparkling) is a wine that finishes its primary fermentation in the bottle and gets its bubbles from the carbon dioxide that is released as a byproduct of fermentation and pressurization. It has been a trendy drink internationally for quite some time, but the hype in Georgia mostly started with the help of these French winemakers.

Both cellars have added a Georgian twist to the global trend by making their base wine in a qvevri. Usually, the traditional sparkling wine would be conceived in stainless steel or wood, but here we see an innovative French-Georgian fusion technique.

Another fresh and unorthodox practice of qvevri wine making is installing the vessels ‘naked’ in the cellar. Instead of resting them on the floor as has been done for centuries, winemakers are experimenting by keeping the qvevri on metal feet that keep it balanced. Barbale, Chateau Mukhrani and Igavi Wines have all implemented the new technique recently. Papari Valley, a winery famous for its underground qvevri terraces, has also set up some terracotta giants outside of the ground.

It’s too early to tell if there is a dramatic difference between “airy” and “earthy” qvevris. The main goal of this novel technique is to increase micro-oxidation for certain types of wines, a change of style that also leads to a slightly different final product. One recent example is Shavkapito from Barbale. In a recent cellar tasting, this author noticed a distinguishably milder taste and aromas that opened up faster from the qvevri that had rested outside the ground compared to its traditional peer.

When talking about the variety of vessels, it’s impossible not to mention Chateau Mukhrani. A visit there, in the company of assistant winemaker Vano Tsertsvadze, showed some truly exciting innovations: the winery is actively experimenting with a traditional trio of “stainless steel vats, barriques, and qvevris under the ground,” but also with qvevris on feet, bigger barrels, and concrete eggs. As Tsertsvadze explained, the winemakers there are researching the influence of vessels on different wines, playing with blending and seeking the perfect synthesis of various techniques.

Practices like these inspire those who want to start or upgrade their winery to stand out and establish niche products on the export market. With 50 new maranis emerging annually, the market is sure to see even more interesting innovations in the years to come.

Daria Kholodilina is a WSET-certified Georgian wine enthusiast, wine tours curator at Trails and Wines (www.trailsandwines.com) and a supporter of small organic wineries. She shares her wine adventures on Instagram at the handle @darikomogzauri.

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