Discovering wine in Georgia
This is a matter of considerable pride to the nation. Georgia is still visibly poor and developing. The roads are generally in terrible condition, and the hardship of life in rural Georgia comes as a shock. The mountains, the ripening crops, the thickly wooded hills and golden light: these are all beautiful. But the faces of Georgia’s young farmers look prematurely aged. Georgia has also struggled to emerge from Russia’s shadow since gaining independence in 1991. Moscow can’t break the habit of meddling in Georgian politics, encouraging separatist movements in the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As Georgia has moved closer towards NATO and the EU, Russia has tried to bring it to heel by turning off its oil and gas supplies. In 2006, Moscow imposed sanctions, banning, of all things, imports of wine in a attempt to deal Georgia’s economy a crippling blow.
At the Khareba winery in the Alazani Valley, the harvest is under way. The scene is like something from Soviet propaganda: a brigade of women working quickly along acres of vines, snipping bunches of grapes with secateurs. I’m standing in a lookout tower with the vineyard’s owner, Alexander Khareba. ‘In 2005, Georgia exported 52 million bottles of wine to Russia,’ he sighs. ‘Everything I produced, I sold to Russia. Now I have to find new markets.’ Alexander, like other Georgian wine producers, is bullish about the embargo. Throughout Kakheti, you hear the same story: this is Georgia’s Gloria Gaynor moment, when its wine is set to break out of its abusive relationship with Russia. Georgian wine-makers say that their rightful place is among the great wine-producing nations. And in the ancient technology of the qvevri, they feel they have a secret weapon.
In his wine cellar in Napareuli, six miles down the road from the Alaverdi Cathedral, Gela Gamtikulashvili crosses himself and prises the cover of a qvevri from its airtight clay seal. I am struck by the sense of occasion and a slight feeling of anxiety. This, after all, is the culmination of 8,000 years of work. Will the natural yeasts have done their work? Will the wine be drinkable? As the lid comes off, a sweet aroma fills the air and all doubts vanish.
When Gela closed the qvevri last autumn, it was full of cloudy rkatsiteli grape juice. Now, a magical transformation has taken place. Gela scoops out the wine in clay cups for the first toast. It’s perfectly clear, the colour of straw, and the first sip is as bright and pure as sunshine.