First Sip: The Basics Of Georgia’s 8,000-Year-Old Wine Culture
With wine enthusiasts’ attention largely bestowed on the world’s top-producing countries—France, Italy, and Spain—it may come as a surprise to you that the country with longest continuous viniculture is actually the Republic of Georgia. It was there, in the South Caucasus, more than 8,000 years ago, that the wild grapevine (Vitis sylvestris) was first domesticated for wine production.
Unique to traditional Georgian wine production is the use of in-ground earthenware vessels called kvevri, in which harvested grapes are fermented for, historically, up to 50 years. While most commercially available Georgian wines are made in stainless-steel tanks or oak barrels, it’s not uncommon for Georgian families to have their own kvevri for personal use, as well as a dedicated wine cellar, or marani.
After all, hospitality-minded Georgia is home to the supra, a wine-fueled, multicourse feast held for any and every special occasion. Key to the supra is the ritual toast from the tomada, or toastmaster, who inaugurates the festivities by downing wine from a drinking horn, known as a khantsi. (Laroot’s Sunset in Tbilisi lunch, a vegan repast of tomato-stuffed zucchini rolls, is a tribute to the supra and, by extension, the Georgian diet, which is one of the most nutrient-rich on the planet.)
Buoyed by support from a national wine agency, Georgia’s wineries, keen on replanting indigenous grape varieties that were once near extinction, now number around 1,000. The majority of Georgia’s grapes are grown in the eastern provinces, such as Kakheti and Kvemo Kartli, away from the rainfall originating from the Black Sea. And of the 500 or so varieties that are cultivated, 75 percent are white.
A staple white wine of the kvevri tradition is amber wine, yielded by grapes that remain unskinned during the first few days of fermentation; with notes of apple, orange, nuts, and honey, amber wine is typically dry and served at temperatures preferred for red-wine drinking. Other popular whites include rkatsiteli, chinuri, and kakhurimtsvivani. Georgia’s traditional red kvevri wines, meanwhile, are made from an ancient local grape called saperavi (Georgian for “dye”), known for imparting a full body, high acidity, and notes of autumn berries and ripe orchard fruits.