Several regions have claimed bragging rights to producing the earliest wine. Pottery wine jars about 7,000 years old discovered in northwestern Iran were the earliest evidence of winemaking, until slightly older evidence was discovered in Armenia. But now Georgia (the country, not the state) can claim the earliest-known wine production. Just south of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, 8,000-year-old pottery jars were excavated from two neolithic villages, and chemical residues on their inside walls indicate that they once held wine.
These jars were used to store small volumes of wine, but wine has been made in Georgia for thousands of years in large, oval, clay jars called qvevri. Some qvevri, which are still widely used by Georgian winemakers, can hold up to 10,000 litres, but they are typically about 800 litres in size, enough for about a thousand bottles of wine. They are usually buried in the ground so that the lids that cover the neck are at ground level. After grapes are crushed, the juice, along with some of the skins, seeds, and stems, are poured into the qvevri, and because they are buried, the temperature is constant while the wine ferments and matures. Some producers now sit their qvevri on winery floors and control the temperature as winemakers elsewhere do with tanks and vats.
Georgian wines, especially those made in qvevri, have become very popular in the last few years. They are thought to be in some sense natural wines, because they are made with relatively little intervention after the grapes are harvested. Many winemakers around the world now use clay amphoras for fermenting and aging wine, and a few have adopted qvevri. Consumer interest in Georgian wine has coincided with its growing availability. Until recently, the main markets for Georgian wine were Russia and Ukraine, but since the Russian attack on Ukraine, those markets have almost disappeared. This has made large volumes of Georgian wine available to Europe and North America—and to China, now a major importer of Georgian wine.
Georgian wines span a broad spectrum of styles. Almost all are made from a handful of Georgia’s hundreds of indigenous grape varieties, the most important being rkatsiteli (a white variety) and saperavi (a red variety). Amber wines, made by leaving white juice in contact with grape skins, make up a larger proportion of wines in Georgia than elsewhere because of the qvevri method, and they largely inspired the trend in skin-contact wines elsewhere. Among Georgian wine regions, there are variations in the length of skin contact, and so in the depth of colour and the character of the tannins.
Wine styles include red, white, and orange wines, still and sparkling wines, and dry and sweet wines. Marani Tsinandali, a blend of rkatsiteli (80 per cent) and mtsvane (20 per cent), is a crisp, dry white with nicely defined fruit and bright acidity. Best Georgian Wines Amphora, a rkatsiteli aged in clay amphoras, is a rich amber colour with a very complex flavour profile of fresh and dried fruit, set off by well-balanced acidity. Best Georgian Wines Saperavi is a lovely oak-matured red that’s replete with nicely layered red fruit. The acidity is well calibrated, and the tannins are easygoing. Teliani Valley Alzani Valley Semi Sweet is a red wine made from saperavi that, despite its name, is more fruity than sweet.
Expect to see more and more wines from Georgia in wine stores and on restaurant lists. Because many are made in qvevri, they often have a distinctive flavour profile, and of course, there are variations in quality, as with wines from any country. Even so, Georgia’s wine offerings are often delicious as well as intriguing, and they’re well worth exploring.
Some Georgian wines
Marani Tsinandali White 2017 (Kakheti Region)
Best Georgian Wines Amphora White 2018 (Kakheti Region)
Best Georgian Wines Oak Barrel Select Saperavi 2022 (Kakheti Region)
Teliani Valley Glekhuri Sisiskhevi Saperavi Qvevri 2022 (Kakheti Region)
Teliani Valley Alzani Valley Red Semi Sweet Wine 2022 (Kakheti Region)
Photography courtesy of the Georgian National Tourism Administration.