2023 February-March Analysis

Georgia’s lesser-known vines come out from the cold

Georgia’s vine story is famous and oft told: that an amazing 525 of its unique indigenous grape varieties still survive, and the number could be even more. But this proclamation deflates radically when it comes to commercial wines from major producers, which produce only 40 varieties. Yet many of the vines that have been largely ignored could contribute substantially to vineyard health as climate change erodes productivity.

The value of rarer vines is now being recognised by the world’s major financial institutions and donors, who have backed climate and terroir research. Driving action in the vineyards, they are looking kindly on requests for wine company funding that incorporates investment in planting and development of old and rare varieties. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has recently made such a loan.

Only if you venture into specialist outlets like 8000 Vintages is it possible to see (and taste) any real evidence of Georgia’s abundance of grape varieties. “We stock around 75-80 wines from unusual grape varieties,” says Irakli Chkhaidze, the group’s co-founder and director, giving a good indication that unusual varieties are still alive and can produce delicious wines.

8000 Vintages has made it a mission to encourage the production of wines from rare Georgian grapes, accepting for sale any that pass its blind-tasting entry qualifications and meet its standards on “aroma, color, and taste.” It also offers a number of wines made in family vineyards, both these and the rare wines being supported by regular Saturday tastings (for which customers pay just GEL 15). Regulars, says Chkhaidze, tend to be serious wine enthusiasts, and the concept is not as yet commercial.


While the quality of Georgian wines has improved immeasurably since Soviet times (when quantity, not quality, was the target) and are now regularly winning international prizes, in Georgian wine production at large the vine selection, of red especially, has not moved on a lot. During the Soviet era it was Rkatsiteli and Saperavi that covered Georgia’s vineyards, and they still occupy most hectares. Saperavi, the grandee among Georgian reds, still dominates Georgia’s red wine repertoire (giving around third of Georgia’s total grape harvest) and Rkatsiteli the whites (with around 57% of the harvest). Three other indigenous white varieties, Mtsvane, Kisi, and Khikhvi now get much more space in the vineyards, but those harvest numbers show just 10% for the rest, both red and white – in official harvest figures, at least.

Behind the scenes the picture is more encouraging, with active exploration of the potential of rarer grape varieties. Although not a lot are currently for sale, a number of the rarer ones are being trialed by some large commercial wine companies for viticultural and marketing reasons.

The small wineries, scattered through the regions, many with ancestral family land and ancient vines, have always been able to offer a wide selection of wines from heritage grapes. One international online wine retailer, the Wine Guild, quotes on its site of wines the number of varieties cultivated that originated in Georgia’s historical provinces: Imereti boasts 75 different varieties; Kartli 72; Samegrelo 60; Abkhazia 58; Guria 53; Adjara 52; and Racha-Lechkhumi 50.

The Georgian Wine Marketing Story – the ancient culture, its long viticultural history, the romance of the location – is the principal source of interest in rarer vines for the big commercial wine companies.

Vineyard at Chateau Mukhrani
Source: Chateau Mukhrani

Combating climate change

Precipitation and other climate change problems can for now be solved by throwing money at them, and with sales strengthening, they are financially well placed. But mitigating climate change has become something of a grail for Georgian agriculturists, in response to dire threats to the vineyards and orchards from hotter temperatures and more volatile weather forecasts, detailed research by the likes of the United Nations Environmental Program, USAID, and the EU.

“Since the 1960s, different climate trends have already been observed in Georgia. Temperatures in the west and the east increased, as well as the number of hot days, particularly in the lowlands. While precipitation in the mountainous areas in the west increased, precipitation from the mid to the east decreased,” states a German-funded development study titled Supporting Climate Resilient Economic Development in Georgia.

Most concerning is the present and future state of eastern Georgia, the major wine growing area, likely to be most badly hit by warming, lack of rain, and with its soil already in a bad way, says the research. In its Georgia Environmental Performance Review just a few years ago, the United Nations said: “Nearly 35% of agricultural land is degraded as a result of water and wind erosion, which are affecting particularly the mountainous areas and crop fields, especially in eastern Georgia. Modern farming techniques for cultivating steep areas such as terraces and buffer strips are not commonly applied.”

Looking at Kakheti, a recent report from the ISET Policy Institute reviewed 1986-2015 statistics. Comparing them with the previous 30 years, stated that “increased average temperatures have already been observed – in every season – in Kakheti,” (+0.31oC in the spring, +0.94oC in summer, +0.60oC in autumn, and +0.30oC in winter). Its report Desertification in Kakheti – a Threat to Kakhetian Agriculture? went on to say that: “Furthermore, temperature increases are predicted to continue into the future, right until the end of the century.” It goes to some length to underline this threat of desertification – only too real given the complete drying up of the Alazani River last year.

Responses to climate change can be seen everywhere in Georgia. The government is repairing irrigation channels and wine companies and farmers are installing drip irrigation (some with just water, some with nutrients, too) in order to reduce the risk of land degradation. This is being supported by government programs such as Plant the Future. Nevertheless “the scale of these existing interventions still appears to fall short of the requirements, both in Kakheti and in the rest of the country,” commented the ISET report.

Growing interest

Given the climate perils, a lot of research in Georgia has been done on the vines themselves. Some of this has been at the National Grape Collection, based in the LEPL Scientific Research Centre of Agriculture in Jighaura, north of Tbilisi, supported these days by Austria and the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organisation (FAO), which holds 435 indigenous grapevine varieties and is searching for more. But much work is being done elsewhere, as shown by the published research of leading Georgian scientist in the sector, David Maghradze, who apart from other affiliations, is a professor at the Caucasus International University. Referring to the renaissance of the ancient vines, he says: “the list will become large in the next few years and more wineries will find their attention attracted to the rare Georgian varieties in the near future.”

In one publication Climate Analysis for Modern Georgian Viticulture, working with a team of researchers from Milan University, he has drawn up a table of rarer Georgian varieties by region – the objective is to identify for vineyard owners, “facing a new climate and market scenario”, the most productive match of vines with climate, precipitation, terrain and terroir. In this National Wine Agency-backed report is the chapter Concise Guidelines for Sustainable Viticulture, which gives, incidentally, for the mere drinker, excellent clues to where the rarer wines can be found.

Recommendations among the reds varieties include Chvitiluri in Samegrelo, Skhilatubani and Jani in Guria, Satsuravi in Adjara, Dzelshavi in Racha, Rko Shavi in Imereti, Danakharuli in Inner Kartli, Asuretuli shavi in Lower Kartli and Ikaltos Tsiteli in Kakheti. There are fewer rare names among the white varieties, but Samegrelo has Paneshi and Chetchipeshi, Guria has Sakmiela, Adjara has Brola, Lechumi and Racha Tsulukidzia tetra, Imereti Dondghlabi, and Kakheti has Grdzelmtevana and Chitistvala. His lists also cover the best choices among the rootstocks available in EU markets and their characteristics.

Endemic exploration

Among the major companies who are exploring the lesser known vines are Château Mukhrani, Kakhetian Traditional Winemaking (KTW), and Tbilvino. In fact, Tbilvino signed just recently a 12 million GEL loan from the EBRD, which, among other new projects, is for “cultivation of vineyards of endemic Georgian grape varieties.” Director Zurab Magvelasvhili told journalists that the company had been exploring endemic varieties for the last ten years.

At Château Mukhrani, CEO and technical director Patrick Honnef says: “Three years ago we started looking for other grapes local to our region with the aim to revive our microzone’s varieties. Alongside the leading team of the nursery in Jighaura, we identified six grapes that we would like to look at closer: two reds – Buza and Danakharuli – and four whites – Tetri Budeshuri, Jvari, Tsivvazi and Chitiskvertskha.”

The experiment involved planting a total of about a hectare at the Château, one row for each variety. “Now we need to wait a few years to identify if they are really able to make outstanding wines.” The hope is that a delicious, award-winning Flagship Wine will emerge at the end of the ten-year experiment, one that can be marketed at home and abroad as honoring Georgia’s proud historical legacy.

He added: “In Georgia, there is an ongoing interest in local varieties. It started 20 years ago, slowly, very slowly. We were lucky that in 2003-2004 the people who were working on the rebirth of Château Mukhrani took the risk of planting local varieties like Shavkapito, Goruli Mtsvane, and Chinuri.”

Respect for Georgian traditions and heritage means that at KTW, “saving old Georgian endemic grape varieties” to “produce unique wine” is seen as a corporate “responsibility.” As part of this vision, it has “saved and recovered unique grape varieties from Ilia Chavchavadze’s vineyards” in Saguramo, and has rescued the Marani, restoring it as a tourist attraction and headquarters for its Guramishvili wine cellar brand.

From its initial focus on the main area for contemporary Georgian wine production, Kakheti, KTW has lately reorientated “towards central and western Georgia due to the extraordinary grape varieties that are (or have been) harvested in those regions,” says Sandro Chkhaidze, KTW’s chief strategy officer.

In western Georgia’s Guria region, where KTW has built a chateau at Askana, wine is being produced, using mostly European methods, from grapes such as Chkhaveri, Danakharuli, Kaikatsishvili, Tsitska, Tsolikouri and Jani. Operating in central Georgia, the group has created the Guramishvilis Marani label for wine, sparkling wine, ice wine, and chacha from local indigenous rare varieties such as Shavkapito, Buza, Danakharuli, Khikhvi, Tsolikouri, Aladasturi, Chinebuli and others. “These are sourced from our own vineyards in the Saguramo region, as well as from the Jighaura nursery,” he says, making “delicious wines” with commercial success.

Further KTW restoration work on Georgia’s viticultural heritage has been the donation to Gurian and Adjarian farmers by KTW founder Zurab Chkhaidze of 150,000 seedlings of 15 different near-extinct grape varieties. The only requirement from the farmers was that their mission was to make sure the vines “flourished.”

To help Georgian farmers, at Jighaura work is being done to discover the potential and benefits to the vineyards of planting Georgian vines and to promote this gene pool to all levels of grape growers, with regulation tuition sessions. Recent discoveries made have included “resistance against downy and powdery mildew,” a major killer disease affecting vines internationally, which should interest new breeding programs. Local Georgian varieties have already been included in “different breeding programmes in Georgia but also other countries, and about 200 new varieties were bred,” says David Mughradze.

However, finding rare Georgian grape varieties to plant falls in the same category of difficulty as finding wines made from them. Sources are available, says David Maghradze, but you may have to give a nursery a special order. Or befriend a vigneron or collector with an ancient vineyard!