Sunday, 18 December 2011

Watch out the New Kid from the Old World

In November, the Georgian Government invited some 40 delegates from Asia, including media and importers, to attend the Georgia Beverages Tradeshow in Tbilisi. The Asian delegates were joined by visitors from the US and the Middle East to sample wines from over 30 wineries and other beverages at the exhibition.

The 3-day trip, although short, was action-packed. Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW was the guest of honour at the opening forum and she presented the Challenges and Opportunities of Asia’s wine markets to the Georgian producers, who hope to export their wines to this part of the world. Mr Zhu Sixu, deputy director general of the Guangdong Provincial Alcohol Monopoly Bureau, meanwhile, talked about the potential wine and spirits market in booming China.

Georgia has the longest wine making history, over 8,000 years, of any country in the world. Most wines are made from indigenous varieties, the most common being Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane (whites) and the red Saperavi, although some producers are experimenting with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Wine styles are diverse, ranging from dry to semi sweet, and sparkling to fortified. Georgia adopts an appellation system similar to that in Bordeaux or Burgundy where wine can be named after the region or district.

Georgian wine (both white and red) was traditionally made in 'kvevri', ceramic jars containing grape juice, skin and stalks that were buried underground for fermentation and ageing. Some producers still use this technique today. Wine may be left undisturbed for months and white wine thus acquires the deep yellow or amber colour and high tannin. It is structured with herbal, nutty aromas but surprisingly fresh. It is certainly unique but I have to say it is an acquired taste, like Sherry.

WIth the spread of the natural wine movement and non-intervention winemaking practices, some producers in Italy, Germany, Austria and even the US are buying kvevri from Georgia to make their own ‘kvevri’ wine. According to Tina Kezeli, the Executive Director of the Georgian Wine Association, kvevri are exported to Europe at a price of €2/litre of capacity. Making kvevri is a highly skilled craft. The inside is lined with beeswax while the outside is coated with lime. However, it is a dying art and the priority of the industry is to establish a kvevri school to make sure this traditional craft is taught and preserved.

Nevertheless, even Tina admitted that kvevri wine will never be mainstream in the international wine market because it is expensive to make. On the bright side, the young generation of Georgian winemakers is spending time abroad and bringing modern winemaking techniques and sometimes investment with them back to Georgia. This is good news for Georgia because these young winemakers respect tradition but also realise their wine needs to appeal to the international consumers. They experiment with different times of kvevri wine on skin and stems, and even merge the traditional and modern winemaking techniques, such as fermenting juice with skin and stems in stainless steel tanks above ground, ageing kvevri wine in barrels, or blending indigenous and international grape varieties, with the aim of producing more accessible yet still unique wine. They are also focusing more on the dry style rather than the semi-sweet style which was preferred by the Russians.

To understand Georgian wine, you need to know their history. Their wines were highly prized in Russia which imported over 90% of the production. One day in 2006, Russia turned its back on Georgia and put an embargo on its wine, citing counterfeiting. The Georgian wine industry suffered as a consequence but managed to attract foreign investment in around 2008, just before the war with Russia broke that drove potential investors away and caused a major setback to the industry and the country. Now Georgia is ready again and it is determined to step into the international arena.

I can see this determination in nearly every Georgian I met, from the wine industry to the government officials and from the young people to shop owners. Their wines may be rustic, the grape varieties difficult to pronounce, and wine regions/wine styles confusing, but give them time, they will shine. This exhibition was only the first step in introducing themselves to Asian customers.

I believe the combination of traditional craft and modern technique, the indigenous grapes, the history and story behind the country, and the determination of the Georgians will be a recipe for success for Georgian wine. I truly wish them all the best.

Importers interested in some unique wines can check out the Beverages Tadeshow website for wineries information or email Invest in Georgia.

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