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Georgia's 21st century winemakers, by Tristan Rutherford

South China Morning Post, 11 July 2018

To meet Georgia’s most acclaimed winemaker, I have driven through deciduous rainforest and semi-desert scrub. “In western Georgia we also have clay over limestone, plus granite in the north and volcanic rock in the south,” explains John Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears vineyards. “Combine this terroir with 525 grape varieties across varying altitudes, and you have the world’s most diverse winemaking area.” Quite simply, the birthplace of viticulture is a boozy Garden of Eden.

To take advantage of vast regional variations, Pheasant’s Tears operates seven small vineyards scattered across a nation half the size of Fujian province. Some of their vines are harvested in the August heat. Other lowland varietals are plucked during the first frosts of December. Compare that to Bordeaux, where most grapes – and they use only three main varieties – are collected during a single week in October.

It wasn’t always thus. During Soviet occupation, only four grape varieties were sown to create homogenised wines for the Russian market. Fortunately, Georgia’s mountainous terrain made this policy impossible to police. A sheer lack of investment kept soils fertiliser-free. Now Georgian winemaking traditions are emerging from their chrysalis just as the market is turning to timeless, natural and all-organic products, created from grapes the wider world has never seen.

Natural wines are still made as they were 8,000 years ago in qvevri. These torpedo-sized ceramic pots are buried underground to harvest the constant heat of the earth. “Unlike stainless steel tanks, qvevri have no right-angles,” Wurdeman explains to cellar visitors in Georgia’s principal Kakheti wine region. “This allows fermenting wine to mature in constant kinetic motion, without a metal taint.” Resulting wines are therefore unsullied and un-oaked, and “speak Georgian” at every turn.

We ascend to the Pheasant’s Tears rooftop for a panoramic dégustation. First up is a 2017 Bakurtsikhe Rkatsiteli, roséd by six months of skin contact. It comes from fields tilled on horseback to ensure that no tractor fumes pollute the grapes. With a glass in hand Wurdeman stands Hemingway-esque: bibulous, enchanting and eloquent as he commands further bottles to crowd our tasting table.

His 2012 Chinuri white is as heady and misty as the bottle’s unfiltered contents. Yet its legs slide down my glass like a silken veil before unveiling a fruit salad explosion on the palate. The hit from a further six Pheasant’s Tears cuvées is zinging, diverse and ultimately pure. “It’s strange that consumers demand zero chemicals in their food, yet seem content to drink additives and preservatives in their wine,” concludes Wurdeman. “In the United States research shows that Midwest drinkers prefer banana and bubble gum aromas, so 100 flavourings are blended into wines destined for those supermarkets. Worse still, winemakers don’t have to list them.”

By making a success of his wines (Pheasant’s Tears is stocked by top Michelin-starred restaurants including Noma and El Celler de Can Roca, and is sold by EverCohol in Hong Kong), Wurdeman has inspired a new generation of Georgian winemakers to produce ever-better natural wines. One is waiting outside the winery in his Toyota 4x4.

Being driven at breakneck speed to a remote mountain winery is an everyday experience in Georgia’s Kakheti wine region. Winemaker Shota Lagazidze barrels his vehicle through a wilderness of cherry and pomegranate trees, before smashing across the Alazani River, Georgia’s largest. His Lagazi Wine Cellar vineyards aren’t laid out in French-style regimented rows. Instead bees and butterflies pause on un-pesticised leaves, while wildflowers grow between the vines. Some rarer varieties, including Ojaleshi, climb up mulberry trees and must be harvested by ladder.

“I make about 1,500 bottles per year,” says Lagazidze. “This is the most you can produce with your own hands.” The fact that every Georgian family makes their own wines explains Lagazidze’s complete lack of ego. “My goal is to experiment, not to export to Japan and the United States.” After a tasting he drops me in the winemaking town of Sighnaghi – the Kakheti region’s answer to St Emilion– to meet another vigneron that sees sense in resurrecting ancient tradition.

Archil Natsvlishvili of the Kerovani Winery has noted the winds of change at home and abroad. “I was recently at natural wine bar RVLT in Singapore,” explains the computer coder and part-time winemaker. “Here I saw drinkers clamouring for small-batch independent wines”. 

In 2012 Natsvlishvili started making his own wine with just 16 rows of vines. This quarter hectare of wine-producing land – enough to make 1,000 bottles per year – would have cost the young Georgian around $4,000, a relative bargain considering no fertiliser or machines are needed during production. Again, Natsvlishvili sees sense in inviting guests to see the dozen qvevris in his cellar, then selling bottles for US$12 in his freshly painted dégustation salon.

“Our country can’t compete in tourism with Turkey or Spain,” he says. “Our attraction is that tourists can only sample these unique grapes right here.” The nation’s wine industry is thus globalised – yet uniquely independent. To prove the point, Natsvlishvili just took delivery of a second-hand disgorgement rack, ordered on eBay from the Champagne region, to create homegrown sparkling wines.

 

It’s just as well his fizz isn’t ready to sample because today I’ve sunk 21 tiny glasses of wine. I crawl into bed at the eco-chic Lost Ridge Inn, which opened in Signaghi last month to take advantage of the wine tourism boom.

Kakheti is just one of the country’s wine regions. The road to the capital Tbilisi leads ribbons through walnut trees and cherry orchards to a dozen more. In the previous decade, the natural wines I sampled would have been drunk only in the home. Commercial wines, most with added sulphates, still make up the lion’s share of the 7.5m bottles exported annually from Georgia to China, a figure up 50% in 2017. Yet one visitor-friendly wine bar is incubating a nation-wide wave of natural winemakers.  

Vino Underground was started in 2012 by seven all-organic vignerons. Each month a team of founding patrons sample natural wines from small batch domaines, before stocking three more. The bar now sells organic vintages by the glass from 80 Georgian winemakers.

Twenty-four-year-old bar manager Ènek Peterson serves as an oral database for these off-the-map wines. As she explains, eastern wines are fermented to a deeper amber colour. This makes them perfect for pairing with grilled meats, poached fish and other foodstuffs that Georgians could carry into battle against Persians and Mongols on their edgy frontier. Western wines, like the Archil Guniava 2016 she pours me, are made in tranquil valleys that welcomed trade. The resulting flavours from Guniava’s half-hectare vineyard, made with the gamey semi-wild Otskhanuri Sapere grapes, are sun-kissed and spiced – the Silk Road in a glass.

Peterson has also caught the winemaking bug. In 2016 the young expatriate American purchased “under a hectare” of land four hours west of Tbilisi, “because I liked the grapes”. Was it challenging? “Considering the only American girls that locals had seen were on TV, and harvesting grapes is a mature man’s job, it was an experience,” she says. The first 200 litres produced at her Freya's Marani vineyard were fermented in the cellars of the Vino Underground bar, with hand-made labels stamped on each. Like the contents of a qvevri, Georgia’s natural wine industry is in constant motion.

Click here to read more of Tristan Rutherford's travel stories about Georgia.