Monday, May 1, 2017

Challenge Yourself with Delicious & Historic Georgian Wines

Imagine you consider yourself a huge fan of punk music, but all you know is Green Day and Blink 182. Then one day someone plays you the self-titled album from the Ramones. Your musical worldview is crushed by the weight of history and sheer awesomeness, forcing you to radically adjust your beliefs. This is the kind of experience Georgian wines offer the wine-lover.

Wine as a human endeavor arose from the soils of Georgia, which abuts the Black Sea on its western edge and stretches east toward the Caspian Sea. People have been fermenting grapes in this region for some 8,000 years. Yes, you read that correctly. Archaeologists have found lots of evidence of clay fermenting vessels in Georgia that date back to around 6,000 BCE. And Georgia boasts hundreds of indigenous grape varieties — go ahead, try and pronounce them: Tsolikouri, Tsitska, Jgia, Aladasturi.

My first experience with Georgian wines took place about 15 years ago, when I was living in Ukraine. I was still a teenager but I was legal in Ukraine, and the wine shops in Kyiv were packed with all sorts of Georgian vino. (During the decades under Soviet rule, Georgia was the grape basket of the USSR, producing millions of bottles of usually sweet wine for consumption by party officials and other privileged people.) I found dozens of funkily-shaped bottles with three or four languages on the label, which represented pure adventure for my inexperienced but curious palate. For three bucks a pop, they were good. Very good.

Over the years, as I returned to visit family in Ukraine, I snagged as many different Georgian wine bottles I could find. I cellared some of them and cracked them open for wine nerd friends in blind tastings just to mess with them and watch their confused faces when I unveiled the bottle.

And it’s easy to feel totally confused by Georgian wine bottles — their labels are to the average consumer what J.L Borges’ “Labyrinths” is to those looking for a beach read. Sure, the Georgian alphabet looks beautiful with its rounded edges and intricate swirls, but it’s near impossible for the outsider to decipher. Then there are the words that appear in English. Kindzmarauli, for example. Is it: a) a region; b) a grape variety; c) a producer; or d) a proprietary style? It isn't so simple.

If you’re a wine nerd and ponder questions like “Do tannins exist in white wines?” or “What are the limits of minimalist winemaking?” then it’s time to explore Georgian wines. If you’re a casual drinker who is curious about what this “natural wine” phenomenon is all about, Georgia is the place. Or if you’re just looking for something completely different to drink with big meals and family gatherings, dig into Georgian wines.

In recent years, Georgian wines have seen a lot of attention from hip restaurants and sommeliers in places like New York and San Francisco, especially in restaurant and wine bars focused on the concept of “natural wine.” Regardless of your thoughts about the loaded label “natural wine,” this heightened focus on Georgia should not be lumped in with some trope about pretentious wine hipsterism.

Georgian wines are as wild and old school as it gets, and evangelists for Georgian wines possess justified passion. Also, the recent focus on Georgian wines doesn’t stem from some drastic change in the Georgian winemaking culture, although a marketing presence in the United States has helped open up some eyes. Georgian wines are ancient, and this cradle of winemaking culture does not react as quickly and precisely to changing market trends like California and other savvy New World wine cultures.

I think a lot of the attraction toward Georgian wines stems from a shift in the American consumer base toward unique, “natural,” even challenging wines. And for wine gurus who fancy themselves experts, Georgian wines offer a dizzying lesson in humility. To wine newbs, Georgian wines offer endless exploration and some aroma and flavor profiles you won’t find anywhere else in the world. No matter what your background or experience with wine from other countries, when it comes to Georgian wines, prepare to have your mind and palate jostled around. You may not “like” some Georgian wines — at a recent trade tasting, I found at least one wine that I would not consume. But all great adventures are, at times, odd or uncomfortable. That’s all part of the journey.

Traditionally, Georgian winemakers ferment their grapes in qvevri like these.
I won’t attempt to go into all the details here, but I want to touch on a few basics about how Georgian winemaking is unique. Organic and biodynamic vineyard practices are commonplace in Georgia, and many indigenous varieties fare well in their home soils. These are hand-made wines in the truest sense. Traditionally, Georgian wines have not been fermented in vats or barrels, but large clay vessels which are buried up to their necks in the ground. These vessels, called qvevri, are traditionally filled with whole clusters of grapes, where ambient yeasts start fermentation whenever they damn well please.

In most wine regions, white wines are destemmed and pressed very quickly, meaning the juice inside the grapes gets very little skin contact. This is what gives many Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris wines have bright flavors and pale color. But if you toss a bunch of white grape bunches into a qvevri and let all the juice, grape skins and stems do their thing (usually without help from commercial yeasts), you get a vastly different wine. Sometimes called “orange wines” due to their color, Georgian white wines can be fascinating and sometimes wild things. Overall, Georgian wines comprise a rainbow of colors in the glass — from clear lemon color to cloudy orange creamsicle, from pale strawberry to neon purple.

There are some winemakers in Georgia utilizing more modern winemaking methods, like less skin contact for white wines, fermentation in stainless steel, new oak barrel aging for reds. These wines are fascinating as well, especially when tasted alongside qvevri wines, and I expect Americans may see more of these wines popping up.

I recently attended a trade tasting of Georgian wines put on by Wines of Georgia, a trade group, where Georgian wine Alice Feiring presented a lecture on the history of Georgian wines. She literally wrote the book on wines from Georgia:
“For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World's Most Ancient Wine Culture.”

I tasted a few dozen wines and managed to get the names of producers, regions and grape varieties down for formal tasting notes (which was not an easy feat). I’ve pasted them all below for your perusal. If you’d like to track down any of these wines, I broke my tasting notes down by the U.S. importer. 

Terrell Wines

2014 Giorgi Revazashvili's Marani Chinuri - Georgia, Kakheti
Pretty aromas of floral spice and lemon curd. Tart, zesty, gorgeous acidity, lots of tart orange, lime juice, crusty minerals and earthy spice elements. Made without the typical extended skin contact. Lots to investigate, but this is straight delicious. Made from Chinuri grapes with some Gorguli and Mtsvane grapes blended in. 10% alcohol. (88 points)

2015 Archil Guniava Wine Cellar Kvaliti - Georgia, West Georgia, Imereti
Orange pith, honeycomb, lemon meringue, brisk acidity with waxy texture and complex spice elements. A blend of Tsolikouri, Tsitska and Krakhuna grapes. (87 points)

2014 Okro's Wines Melkos - Tsolikouri - Georgia, Kakheti
Orange zest, limes, very tangy and bright, surprisingly fresh, not as intense in the herbal/tea elements, stays bright. A blend of Melkos and Tsolikouri grapes. (87 points)

2015 Nikoladzeebis Tsitska - Georgia, West Georgia, Imereti
Chalky, mineral-laden, lemon curd, lime, zesty and bright and very refreshing, quite complex. Tsitska is the grape variety. (88 points)

2015 Nikalas Marani Kisi Akhoebi - Georgia, West Georgia
Smells like orange zest and all sorts of black and white teas and herbal spices. Tart, zesty ad pithy with some tannin from the skin contact, giving it a bold structure. Lots of tea, sage, pickling spice and some funky, earthy tones, but I find this wine delicious. Kisi is the white grape variety and Akhoebi is the vineyard, a respected, biodynamically farmed site. (89 points)

2015 Kortavebis Marani Rkatsiteli - Georgia, Kakheti
Smells of honey, bruised pear and orange peel. Chalky texture, lots of brightness and bit to this wine, with orange and candied lemon. Notes of dusty earth and wild herbs, lots of complexity to ponder. (88 points)

2014 Antadze Winery Rkatsiteli - Georgia, Kakheti
Smells like white tea, honey, sour apple, almond and spicy herbs. So pure and mineral-packed with spiced tea, apricot and honey notes. (89 points)

2014 Antadze Winery Rkatsiteli Amber - Georgia, Kakheti
Darker amber color with vermouth, spiced tea, orange peel, wild herbs. Chalky texture with lots of spiced tea elements. Fascinating, if somewhat inaccessible wine, but I find it so tasty. This bottling has an extra six months of whole bunch cluster fermentation in qvevri. (88 points)

2015 Kortavebis Marani Mtsvane - Georgia, Kakheti
Lots of waxy and herbal elements with orange blossom, green tea, honeycomb and spiced liqueur notes. (88 points)

2015 Makaridze Winery Aladasturi Rosé - Georgia, West Georgia
Smells like bitter lemon and orange marmalade. Zesty, Sour Patch kids-esque on the palate but lots of orange blossom, spiced tea, mushroom and rose petal notes. Wow, there is a lot going on in this wine, a rosé made from the red grape Aladasturi. (90 points)

2015 Tsikhelishvili Wines Jgia - Georgia, Kakheti
Aromas of spicy red berries, rose hips and raspberry bush. So spicy on the palate with vibrant acidity and moderate tannic structure. Crisp, bright red berry fruit doused in smoke, leather saddle and some funky spice. Intriguing but also delicious. Jgia is the grape variety. (89 points)

2015 Winery of Zurab Topuridze Chkhaveri Rosé - Georgia, West Georgia
A very cool rosé wine. Smells like red apples, sour cherries and tonic water. Tart and earthy on the palate with a unique combo of savory herbs, sour cherries and wild raspberry. (88 points)

2015 Archil Guniava Wine Cellar Kvaliti  - Georgia, West Georgia, Imereti
More dark fruits on the nose with notes of herbs, spices and tar. Smooth but structured, savory (mushroom, spice rub) but juicy currant and fig fruit keeps it vibrant. Long, smoky, leathery finish. Very impressive. Made from the Ouskhanuri Sapere grape, one of Georgia’s oldest grape varieties, and some Tsolikouri (a white grape) blended in. (90 points)

Blue Danube Wines

2015 Doqi Rkatsiteli - Georgia, Kakheti
One of the few wines not fermented in qvervi. It’s made in a Western style (without skin contact, stainless steel), and it smells like Chenin with its ripe apple, juicy limes, honey and floral tones. Brisk, fresh, crisp, clean, lots of bright citrus and floral elements. Very pretty. (88 points)

2013 Kindzmarauli Marani Kakhetian Royal - Georgia, Kakheti, Kindzmareuli
Nose shows orange peels and spiced tea. Palate is tart but juicy with citrus and salted almonds. (87 points)

2014 Gotsa Tsitska - Georgia, Kakheti, Babaneuri Valley
Aromas of oranges and lemon zest. Crisp and bright on the palate with complex herbal tones and lots of salty, tea-laden spice. Some skin-contact tannins provide depth and structure but it stays vibrant. Wow, this one really gets me stoked. (91 points)

2004 Shavnabada Mtsvane - Georgia, Kakheti
Aromas of honey and oranges and wet tea leaves. Dried apricot flavors topped with complex elements of herbal tea and dried honey. Moderately oxidized but still shows some life. Aged in a monastery’s qvevri for many years before being bottled. Funky but fascinating, and I love the flavor profile. (87 points)

2015 Gotsa Saperavi - Georgia, Kakheti, Babaneuri Valley
A Jura-like combo of tart red fruit, spiced tea and red flowers on the nose. Crisp and bright with juicy cherries, rose petals and black tea. Delicious, balanced, complex, yet easy to drink. (89 points)

2015 Amiran's Wine Cellar Krakhuna - Georgia, West Georgia, Imereti
Smells like sour apples, potting soil and compost heap – seriously weird. So, so, so funky. This wine is perplexing, strange, wild, unbalanced. Krakhuna is the grape variety. (N/R)

Made in a monastery, this is an
absolutely fascinating Saperavi
2009 Shavnabada Saperavi - Georgia, Kakheti
A fascinating, delicious and contemplative wine. Nose of currants, pencil lead, dusty earth and herbal smoke. Such serious tannic structure, this is a dense wine but shows some vibrancy. Reminds me a bit of a young Loire Cabernet Franc with its dark fruit, complex non-fruit elements, and bright acidity, but this shows classic Georgian elements of black tea, pipe smoke and incense. Love it. This wine is aged eight years in qvevri. (91 points)

2014 Amiran's Wine Cellar Otskhanuri Sapere - Georgia, West Georgia, Imereti
Wow, pretty dark plums, violets, lots of earth on the nose. So structured with solid tannins and bright acidity, lots of tart black plums, currants, smoke, anise, dense herbal notes. Love it. Aged nine months in qvevri. Made from the Otskhanuri Sapere grape. (90 points)

2015 doqi Khvanchkara - Georgia, West Georgia, Racha, Khvanchkara
Dark plums and earth on the nose. Slight sweetness but it’s balanced nicely with zesty acidity. Juicy dark fruit and earth tones, almost Beaujolais-like. (86 points)

2014 Kindzmarauli Marani Kindzmarauli Original Semi-Sweet - Georgia, Kakheti, Kindzmareuli
Zesty oranges and ruby red grapefruit aromas. Herbal and spicy on the palate with sweet red currant paste. Fun, not too rich. (86 points)


2011 Artevani Rkatsiteli - Georgia, Kakheti
Nose of salted almonds, green herbs and spice rub. Rich texture but refreshing with bright flavors of orange peels, notes of almond skin and wild herbs. Long, complex finish. (88 points)

2015 Artevani Saperavi - Georgia, Kakheti
Smells of savory spices, dark plums and sweet violets and cola. Pummy, dark, rich structure with bold tannins but bright acidity with bold black cherries and spiced black tea. Rich, burly structure, a lot more accessible considering it’s fermented in stainless steel (not qvevri). (88 points)

2015 Artevani Saperavi Medium Sweet - Georgia, Kakheti, Kindzmareuli
Dark purple color with aromas of violets and sweet plum cake. Coffee, flowers, dark earth on the juicy palate with dark, saucy black fruits. The sugar stands out too much but the flavors are tasty. (85 points)

Georgian Wine House

2014 Schuchmann Mtsvane - Georgia, Kakheti
Salted almonds and lemon curd. Zesty and fun if a bit simple. (85 points)

2013 Shalauri Cellars Rkatsiteli - Georgia, Kakheti
Nose of dried apricot, orange peel, almond. Dry and herbal with some tea, honeycomb and orange peel elements. (87 points)

2015 Our Wine Rkatsiteli Akhoebi - Georgia, Kakheti
Smells like spiced tea, candles, pine tree and apricot with a vermouth-like spice and bitter element. Fermented in qvevri for six months with skin and stem contact. Fun but a bit weird (even in a Georgian wine tasting). (86 points)

2015 Dilao Amber Dry - Georgia, Kakheti
A fresher style with bright orange and apricot aromas and flavors, some peach nectar, some white tea elements but not too herbal of funky. A 50/50 blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane. (87 points)

2015 Dilao Saperavi - Georgia, Kakheti
This is really impressive and delicious. Fresh and juicy cherry and plum aromas with roses and violets. Pure and vibrant on the palate, plush tannins, fresh acidity. Packed with dark currant, lots of charcoal and spiced tea elements. Rich, fruit-forward, but balanced. Perhaps a great entry for New World palates into Georgian Saperavi. (90 points)

2015 Dakishvili Family Vineyards Saperavi Vita Vinea - Georgia, Kakheti
Smells of tart red plums, earth, incense sticks. Bright and vibrant but structured, firm tannins, crisp acidity. There’s some cedar and coffee (this wine is aged in oak after qvervi fermentation), but also some earthy, herbal, incense stick notes. Complex but so damn delicious. (90 points)

2014 Schuchmann Saperavi Pirosmani - Georgia, Kakheti
Smells like sweet cherries, cola and violets. Friendly, fun, dark and juicy and fruit. Pirosmani denotes a fruit-forward style of making Saperavi. (86 points)

2014 Schuchmann Saperavi - Georgia, Kakheti
Nose or rich, dark plums and cherries with savory herbs. Dry, sturdy tannins, juicy acidity, the plum and black cherry fruit is pleasantly saucy and I get complex notes of pepper and herbs. Delicious. (89 points)

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