Understanding the Georgian Wine Boom
The country’s indigenous grape varieties, incredible bargains, and off-the-beaten-path wine styles have sparked international interest
Marco Polo, Alexander Dumas, Anton Chekhov, and John Steinbeck are just a few travelers to Georgia who returned home to write of the country’s stunning beauty, remarkable people, delicious food, and distinctive wines. Until recently, though, few in the U.S. wine trade even knew where Georgia was. Now, and seemingly out of nowhere, Georgia has become a dream destination for many in the trade.
There’s a lot of ferment in this country whose winemaking tradition has been continuous over 8,000 years. The Georgian wine industry is in a period of rediscovery, renewal, and growth.
In fact, one could say that Georgia is suffering from a serious case of “wine fever”—seemingly everyone wants in on the game. In 2006 there were roughly 80 registered wineries, but by 2018, the number had ballooned to 961—and more are popping up. As wineries proliferate, the trade is growing along with them. The Wine and Spirits Education Trust, for instance, now offers regular classes within the country. And Georgians are training as professional sommeliers, winemakers, and winery tour guides, and there are increasing numbers of classes for consumers.
According to Levan Davitashvili, a former chairman of the National Wine Agency of Georgia and the current minister of Environment Protections and Natural Resources, Georgia lost 96 percent of its export market following its war with Russia in 2008. Ever since, the country has followed a full-court press to diversify its target markets. Now, with the Russian ban on Georgian wine lifted, Russia remains by far Georgia’s top customer (in volume though not value). Ukraine, Poland, Kazakhstan, and China are also dominant markets.
Today, Georgia exports to 53 countries, and as of June 2019, its National Wine Agency reports that sales to France, Israel, the Netherlands, and Canada have increased by double digits. The U.S., one of Georgia’s strategic markets, saw imports for the first six months of 2019 increase by 88 percent over those for the same period in 2018. (A country of only 3.7 million people, Georgia exported a total of 86.2 million bottles in 2018, a 30-year record high.)
Georgia’s Diversity of Wine Is Its Strength
Georgia has at least 430 indigenous grape varieties, but until recently, commercial production concentrated on only a select few. An intense desire to resurrect the country’s diverse natural heritage is leading producers to plant more “old” varieties, many that had almost been forgotten.
For now, Georgian wines come in a variety of styles that are made mostly in stainless steel—designed to provide an easy entry into Georgian wine for those who normally might opt for Pinot Grigio or a Cabernet Sauvignon but are open to wines from more far-flung places. In this category, producers Marani (Telavi Wine Cellar), Shumi, Tbilvino, Vaziani and Vinoterra offer well-made wines from the Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Kisi, and Saperavi grape varieties.
Each of these wineries also produces semi-sweet red wines from the Khvanchkara and Kindzmarauli appellations, in western and eastern Georgia, respectively. Intended to be drunk when young and vibrant (even with a bit of a chill), these wines are characterized by a fruity, sweet attack that’s immediately freshened by nearly imperceptible tannin and bright acidity. With flavors of dark forest fruits and spice, they finish clean, not sticky, and can be a surprising match with intensely flavored, spicy cuisine. Although most of the Georgian wines shipped to the U.S. are dry, these sweet and semi-sweet wines constitute 70 percent of the country’s wine production. Of this number, 30 percent are produced from state-designated appellations, or PDOs (Protected Denomination of Origin).