- Birthplace of wine and viticulture. This area of the South Caucasus is called the Cradle of Wine.
- Some 8000 years ago (6000 BC), Ancient Georgians realized they could make wine by burying grapes underground over winter.
- This use of Qvevri (buried Amphorae) continues as the primary method of vinification today.
- Only has about 100,000 acres of vineyards planted, spread across thousands of growers.
- Vineyard ownership is very fractured, with the average vineyard owner farming just 2 acres. Most have been in family control for centuries.
- 75% of production is white grapes (often as Amber Wine).
Since the initial spark that became this wine club, I’ve wanted to feature the country of Georgia. It is a natural starting point for wine education and an important study in today’s natural-wine obsessed world. So why has it taken so long? Well, because Georgian wine is inherently quite expensive and I never found two bottles that could financially make sense to include in the club. That is, until Orga Winery’s Dila-O label was brought to my attention. These two bottles represent some of the best value in Georgian wine and give us a great entry-point to learning more about the country’s rich history.
History + Production
It is widely held that wine was ‘born’ in the Caucasus, the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, between today’s Russia and Iran. Today, the countries of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and parts of Russia make up this region. The wild grape vine, a woodland climber that would climb trees and shrubbery looking for sunlight, became a popular source of food, medicine, and nourishment. Eventually, these vines were cultivated and grown into something loosely resembling today’s cultivated grape vines.
Around 6000 BC (roughly 8000 years ago) tribal peoples in this area - specifically eastern Georgia - realized that by burying wine grapes underground over winter, they could create an alcoholic beverage. Or, rather, a drink that made you feel different, largely better, as the concept of alcohol likely wasn't realized by then. By creating clay pots (Qvevri) and burying them underground, the ancient Caucasians could ensure that the temperature was stable enough to allow the grapes to slowly ferment without becoming rancid.
For those wondering, the (intentional) brewing of beer is largely considered to have started in 3000 BC in Mesopotamia (Northern Iraq). Ancient Chinese in the Henan Province were creating a fermented rice/hawthorn berry/honey/grape mixture in 7000 BC, before the Georgians. However, this isn’t something that seems to be still in practice today. And, going even further back, possible ‘accidental’ beer has been found dating back to 11,000 BC in modern-day Israel, though there is no evidence that this was done purposefully, intentionally, or consistently. Therefore, I will continue to perpetuate the claim that alcohol as we know it was first crafted by some ingenious group of thirsty sheep herders in modern-day Georgia.
Globally, Georgia is an insignificant producer in terms of quantity of wine produced, but remains relevant on the global stage as far as quality. Georgia vineyard ownership is highly diversified, with tens of thousands of growers across the country each holding an average of just 2 acres each. Together, they produce about 2 million hectoliters of wine annually, which is far outside the top 10 and about 25% of what Portugal or Germany alone produce.
This lower, diversified production wasn’t always the case - at its peak Georgia was producing almost 2x this volume of wine. This was during the early days of the Soviet Union, where the federation was relatively prosperous and Georgian wine was highly sought after. During Gorbachev’s rule, an anti-alcohol campaign was started and many of the large producers were shut down. Today, the industry is focused on small producers making quality wines, rather than bulk production. However, with Russia and Ukraine totaling 75% of Georgian exports, the current invasion of Ukraine may very well cause a devastating effect on the Georgian wine industry in coming years.
Styles + Regions
With ¾ of wine production being white grapes, it’s important to address the elephant in the room - Orange Wine! Generally referred to as Amber Wine by Georgian winemakers, this style of wine is when a white grape is fermented with the skins and seeds intact. Often, it is done so in large, clay Qvevri that have been lined with beeswax and buried neck-deep in the ground. These components add color and tannin, resulting in an astringency and tannic quality on the mouthfeel and an orange color in the glass.
While this may seem novel to many, it has a long history of use in Georgia. Historians aren’t quite sure when people learned to press grapes to extract the juice sans skins. Even though evidence of press basins and tools to squeeze large volumes of grapes have existed for thousands of years, we can’t be sure if these were being utilized before fermentation (to make white or rose wine), or after fermentation (to extract/filter the finished product). Either way, it seems that Orange wine is - and has been - here to stay!
The vast majority of Georgian wines you’ll see in the United States will be from the Kakheti region. This region is the eastern swath of the country from the capital Tbilisi to the borders with Azerbaijan and Russia. Kakheti is picturesque Georgia - orthodox monasteries in historic towns, golden hills as far as the eye can see, sheep roaming in pastures. The Alazani river is the defining feature of this valley, running from the Southern Caucasus mountains, through the northern part of Kakheti and eventually becoming the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan. In Kakheti, most wineries follow the traditional methods and give all their wines the full Qvevri treatment.
Just south of Tbilisi, on the northern border of Armenia, lies the Kartli region. Here, Georgians practice ‘European Style’ winemaking to make classically styled still and sparkling wines. That is to say, they use modern steel presses, steel tanks and/or oak barrels to create wine that is more in line with what we are used to. While these wines may seem less traditional, they are by no means corporate or generic. Plenty of small family producers still make quality wines from this region, utilizing both native grapes and international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.
The last major wine region, Imereti, is located to the west of Tsibili, but not quite to the Black Sea. Here, traditional practices are still utilized but different grapes, such as Krakhuna, are fermented in other vessels, called Churi. Winemaking practices here consist of less skin contact, resulting in wines with pale yellow color (rather than amber) and higher acidity.
The other major regions - Racha-Lechkhumi, Meskheti, and along the Black Sea - all have their merits but are outside the scope of this writeup.
Orga, ‘Dila-O’ Amber, Rkatsiteli-Mtsvane, Kakheti 2021
Orga winery is a small, family owned winery in the village of Kisiskhevi, located in the middle of the Kakheti region. They are focused on fermentation using the Qvevri tradition and source almost exclusively from 50+ yr old vines.
This is a light Amber wine, giving both the Rkatsiteli (50%) and Mtsvane (50%) one month of skin contact in qvevri. These indigenous grapes are fermented with the native yeast (whatever is on the grapes/in the winery). After a four week maceration and fermentation, the wine is aged for another ~6 months before being transferred to stainless steel for a short cold stabilization (to remove tartaric acid deposits) and bottled unfined/unfiltered.
The wine has ample notes of honeydew melon, cantaloupe, juicy apricot, white pear, and a bit of that classic white tea / seville orange that orange wines are known for. On the palate there is just a touch of astringency from the skin contact and the qvevri, and good acidity from the Rkatsiteli grape.
Orga, ‘Dila-O’ Red, Saperavi, Kakheti 2020
The Dila-O red is 100% Saperavi, which is the traditional red of this region. Like the Amber wine, it is fermented in buried Qvevri, without the use of commercial yeast or other manipulations. The wine is left to ferment for several weeks before being pressed offed, aged for a year in Qvevri, and then stabilized in stainless steel before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. Like the Amber, there is only a small amount of Sulfur Dioxide added at bottling to keep the wine stable during the export/shipping process.
This is a young, juicy red great for fall drinking. The wine is plummy and spicy, with notes of dark berry fruits, black pepper, and violets on the nose. On the palate, it is fresh, with marked acidity and fine, astringent tannins.