Midnight plane to Georgia

Georgia has been revealed as the birthplace of wine by an international team of scientists that found evidence of viticultural processes dating back to 6,000BC.

The news represents a major blow to any Iranians that proudly went around declaring their country to be the cradle of the wine world. The earliest signs of winemaking had been found near Tehran in 5,400BC, but now Georgia has pipped it by 600 years. The project was admittedly funded by the Georgian government, but can boast a roll call of respected scholars from the US, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy and Israel.

They found clear, tartaric acid-based evidence that Vitis vinifera was growing in the country in early Neolithic times and enjoying ideal conditions. For the less archaeologically inclined among our readers, think The Flintstones, Fred and Wilma huddled around a qvevri sipping glasses of Saperavi and waxing lyrical about the myriad marvels of Georgian terroir while Bam-Bam wreaks havoc in the background.

“These results not only set the dates for the earliest production of wine but, perhaps most significantly, just how important wine was in the social setting of the earliest periods of human sedentary village life and that it has remained much so to this day,” says researcher Stephen Batiuk from the University of Toronto.

Sarah Abbott MW, director of the Wines of Georgia campaign in the UK, says that Georgian wine is a paradox, both deeply ancient and newly reborn. “Research such as this really reinforces how profoundly Georgian culture, identity and mores are soaked in wine,” she says. Any country that is soaked in wine is all right by us at DRN, so we decided to explore it a little further.

We caught up with David Heath, who has spent 40 years working with businesses such as BMW and Rolls Royce to help them break into new markets in Georgia. “Recently I was asked by the new UK ambassador to Georgia, Justin McKenzie Smith, to meet with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Giorgi Chkheidze and the National Georgian Wine agency chairman Giorgi Samanishvili, and they have asked for my help to promote Georgian wines in the UK,” he says. “Currently M&S and Waitrose sell Château Mukhrani Rkatsiteli, Tbilvino qvevris and Saperavi qvevris. I have tried all three and they are not the best examples of Georgia. I have been drinking quite a lot of Georgian wines over the past 20 years and can honestly say they have progressed from something only suitable to put on fish and chips to some current excellent vintages.”

Heath is the UK representative for the wines of Schuchmann, a premium producer based in Kakheti, from where 70% of the country’s wine hails. He suggested we go see it for ourselves, so off we went. Travelling to Georgia is an interesting process as Georgian Airways does not offer online check-in from the UK, nor does it have a permanent booth at Gatwick, where none of the staff seem to have heard of it. After much head-scratching, however, a check-in desk materialises and a smattering of passengers shuffles forward. It is the last flight of the evening and Gatwick is a ghost town, with Wetherspoons the only place still open. A red-eye takes you into Tbilisi, where you arrive the following morning, slightly disappointed that a country supposedly soaked in wine does not serve any on its national carrier. A two-hour car journey gets you to Kakheti, where you arrive at the gorgeous Schuchmann château, a €7 million, French-inspired boutique hotel and winery that would not look out of place in the Loire and stands out like a sore thumb amid the ramshackle architecture of rural Georgia.

A slap-up breakfast of eggs, cottage cheese and two large glasses of cha-cha – a grappa that weighs in north of 40% abv – blows any cobwebs away and a tour of the winery is followed by a hearty lunch of superb Georgian haute cuisine, accompanied by several glasses of full-bodied, tannic, remarkably complex and interesting red wine. Then the death threats begin.

“Within three months of your article being published, UK buyers must have made an order for 10,000 cases of wine a year, or I will kill you.” That sort of thing. We think they were joking, but just in case, here is a heartfelt plea to the dear readers of DRN: if you magnificent ladies and gentleman value our editorial content and would like it to continue, please buy Schuchmann’s wines.

To be fair, they do not need to resort to death threats as the quality speaks for itself. The project is overseen by one of the country’s most experienced and respected winemakers, Giorgi Dakishvili, and benefits from German efficiency and some of the best equipment money can buy. It also has a fascinating history.

Rewind a decade and the vast majority of Georgian wine was sold to Russia, where it is held in the sort of esteem Brits reserve for France and Italy. But political tension between the two countries saw Russia slap an embargo on Georgian wine in a precursor to the Russo-Georgian War. Overnight it lost 85% of sales and many producers collapsed. The embargo lasted for seven years and was only lifted in 2013. The country had to desperately spend that time marketing itself as a quality wine producer to alternative markets around the world.

Most wineries folded and a once-thriving industry fell into disrepair. Into that wilderness came Burkhard Schuchmann, a Dortmund native and chairman of German Railways, who made his fortune in the transport business. A Georgian employee encouraged him to visit the country, which borders Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and the Caspian Sea in the easternmost reaches of Europe. He fell in love with Georgia and its wines and began snapping up the best vineyard plots in Kakheti in 2007. He brought in Dakishvili as a partner and started producing quality wines in a bid to export them around the world. “It took time to get into other markets,” says Ekaterina Javakhia, the winery’s export executive. “Many countries didn’t realise that Georgia was producing such quality wine, that Georgia has 525 different grape varieties and that we have had 8,000 vintages. We never used this information for marketing as we were exporting to the Soviet Union and everyone in those countries knows that Georgia makes the best wine. They don’t drink wine from France, Spain, Italy etc. The good point of the embargo is that Georgian producers have developed the quality.

“Awareness of Georgian wine has risen and it has become very popular outside of the Soviet countries. Now we go to exhibitions and competitions and everyone knows about Georgian wine. People don’t know it like French or Italian wine, but the situation is much better than it was 10 years ago.”

In its first year Schuchmann produced 300,000 bottles of wine and the annual output has since climbed to 1.5 million, almost all of which is exported. Some goes to Russia and former Soviet countries, but it is not overexposed to this region and several buyers in Asia, North America and western Europe take the wines, so the marketing drive has clearly paid off. Around 600,000 bottles come from estate-grown grapes, the rest is from grapes bought in from a steady base of local growers. “We have good relationships with them and we can be assured we are getting good quality fruit,” says Dakishvili.

There are no major plans to further increase volume, just quality, and that leaves Schuchmann as a medium-sized winery in Georgia. The largest, GWS and Bolero, produce around 6 million bottles apiece, but Schuchmann is happy with its output, which covers a broad range of styles and varieties. There are two main groups: traditional qvevri wines and European-style wines. The latter category accounts for around 85% of production and vinification processes mirror those used in countries such as France, Spain and Italy, but the former is unique to Georgia and recognised by Unesco. Since early Neolithic times Georgians have used egg-shaped, clay vessels called qvevris to make, age and store wines made with indigenous grapes such as Saperavi.

The winemaking process involves pressing the grapes and pouring the juice, grape skins, stalks and pips into the qvevri, which is sealed and buried in the ground. Punch-down happens around twice a day during alcoholic fermentation, which begins naturally in the first few days and continues for around two to four weeks, when the cap falls. Reds are then removed from skin and stems, while whites are left on the lees, and a stone lid is placed over the top to allow small amounts of oxygen in. The wine typically ferments for five to six months before being drunk, but can be aged for decades in qvevris. “It can be in there 10, 20 or 50 years and it’s very fresh when it comes out,” says Javakhia. “There are no additives. It’s all natural yeast. This is how it was done 8,000 years ago and it is still made like this today.”

Schuchmann is one of the country’s biggest producers of traditional wine, but it is a painstaking and expensive process. “The qvevri method is a niche product and we can’t produce large amounts,” says Dakishvili. “It’s a unique, special taste for wine lovers, but the majority of our production – 85%-90% – has to be the commercial European style.”

Managing director Roland Burdiashvili adds: “We have 87 qvevris and can make 350,000 bottles, so we are one of the biggest producers in the country of this style of wine. It’s not an easy job to sell that many bottles as they are two or three times more expensive than European-style wines. It is an expensive process as everything is done by hand.”

The qvevri wines provide a unique point of difference, but producers’ export strategies have to be largely based around distributing European-style wines. They certainly stack up against their European counterparts in terms of quality, but competing on price is tricky. “Producers in Spain, France and Germany are producing large volumes and selling st cheap prices,” says Burdiashvili. “In Georgia it’s impossible to produce such cheap wine because of production costs. We have unique, indigenous varieties and the quality is very high. Everyone in Georgia is now working to produce quality wines. It was completely different 10-15 years ago, when people were working for quantities, but now we are competing at higher price points on quality.”

Dakishvili agrees that the general quality of Georgian wine has soared in recent years. “There is new knowledge, new equipment. We are very competitive with our commercial wines.

“We have fresh, fruity white wines, light-bodied reds for immediate consumption and well-aged, full-bodied, structured reds. We have diversification of products. UK buyers can open a bottle and see it’s a unique wine from unique varieties, with great potential. The quality is very high and very consistent.”

Abbott says: “The qvevri movement and the Russian embargo jolted Georgian wine into an awareness of and pride in its old winemaking practices, and a new focus on sustainability. More recently, the established large producers have drastically improved quality and refined wine style as they seek to please new export markets.  Wine produced in qvevri is moving from the hippy edges to the thoughtful mainstream. The wine sector in Georgia is now enjoying a new flourishing of small wineries founded by young entrepreneurs, making vibrant, quirky wines that are the darlings of hip restaurants and clubs of Tbilisi and throughout the world.”

Schuchmann has previously been listed at The Wine Society and is now seeking a UK distributor or direct exports to British retailers. So why should UK buyers give the wines of Schuchmann and Georgia serious consideration, apart from a desire to keep the DRN editor out of a shallow, qvevri-style grave?

“We make a Georgian product but with German efficiency standards,” says Burdiashvili. “We make different tiers of quality, different labels, and we work very closely with our importers and take special steps to produce what they want. We are very famous now in Georgia for producing quality wines and we are always improving our reputation in export markets. The UK is a very important market and we believe we have the quality to impress consumers.

“We do green harvesting and cut 20% to reduce quantity and increase the quality of the grapes. It is hand-harvested and we make 100% hand selection. We get good concentration of fruit flavours. For Saperavi, the main Georgian red variety, we can produce excellent wines with strong colour and flavour, with big potential, and this means it can compare well to the best French and Italian wines.” Gaumarjos to that.

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