I attended a dinner featuring Georgian wine and food earlier this week. No, not the Atlanta, Georgia-Georgia, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. While there has been some buzz about Georgian wines over the last few years, I didn’t really know what to expect. Admittedly, I also did not know much about the country itself.
A Little Bit About Georgia (The Country)
Georgia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. The country is located on the Black Sea, bordered by Russia, Armenia, and Turkey. In square miles, it’s slightly smaller than Ireland, and the population is 4.3 million (Ireland’s population is 4.7 million). The terrain is mountainous, with many varying types of soils and climates. The Georgian language is very difficult for outsiders (it even has it’s own alphabet); other languages, such as Russian, are also spoken. Agriculture, including tea plantations, orchards, and vineyards, is an important part of the economy.
Winemaking in Georgia
Winemaking in Georgia goes back 8,000 years (seriously, that is not a typo). The tradition of making wine, however, did not go uninterrupted. Assaults and invasions from neighbors, including the Greeks, Romans, Turks, and Arabs, at different points during Georgia’s turbulent history, had natives escaping their vineyards to safety. They did, however, preserve cuttings from their vines, helping to keep tradition alive.
The biggest difference between winemaking in Georgia, and winemaking anywhere else, is the use of giant clay pots, called qvevri (pronounced with a “k”). Although some Georgian winemakers currently use stainless steel tanks and oak barrels to make and store wine, the traditional method values the qvevri. These egg shaped vessels, similar to amphora in other wine regions, can hold as much as 10,000 liters of juice (more than 13,000 bottles of wine). In the time-honored method, the entire winemaking process takes place in the qvevri, from fermentation (turning the grape juice in to alcohol) to aging. The qvevri are not used to transport wine, as they are buried underground to stabilize the temperature.
The Grapes of Georgia
There are more than 500 grape varieties grown in Georgia. Some of the most common include:
- Saperavi – A bold, dark red grape, and one of the few grape varieties that has red skin and red pulp (in most instances the pulp, or juice, inside the grape is clear).
- Rkatsiteli – A white grape that results in full bodied wines with fresh acidity.
- Takveri – A red grape used for dry, sparkling, and dessert wines.
- Mtsvane Kakhuri – A white grape that produces dry, crisp wines.
- Kisi – A white grape that produces amber colored wines with ripe fruit and floral notes.
Fermentation in qvevri is a natural and gradual process, where the juice of the grapes stays in contact with the skins for longer than in modern winemaking processes. This gives the wines a deeper color, and the whites can look almost amber. The whites I sampled tasted fresher than the color led me to believe they would. They were medium to full-bodied due to the lengthy skin contact, but were still refreshing, especially with the flavorful Georgian food. The reds were rustic, to be sure, but I could taste the pure fruit without any oak to mask the authenticity. Many of the wines are not yet imported so there is no real point in naming names.
The Foods of Georgia
The Georgian cuisine has been influenced by many cultures, such as Iran, Asia, and Turkey. Bread and dumplings, fresh cheeses and vegetables, pickles and oils, all taste unique based on the herbs and spices from the region, including coriander, mint, fennel, garlic, bay leaf, and clove, among others. At Oda House, a wonderful and traditional Georgian restaurant in the East Village, NYC, we sampled: Pkhali (chopped and minced eggplant, spinach, and leek with ground walnuts and spices); Lobiani (bread filled with mashed pinto beans); Imeruli (cheese bread); three preparations of Sulguni cheese (fresh, smoked, and with mint); and the ‘fan favorite’, a beet salad with parsley, prunes, chopped walnuts & mayonnaise-sour cream sauce. All of it was crazy delicious and well suited to the wines.
Books, Resources and Places to Try Georgian Wine & Food
Oda House Restaurant NYC
Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus by Carla Capalbo
Wines of Georgia Website
Where to drink and buy Georgian Wine
I’m excited to try more wines from the region, and I’ll certainly be back to Oda House to sample more of the unique and flavorful food.