I can’t recall how many years ago it was, but I do recall trudging around several of the Marks & Spencer’s stores in Central London trying to find a particular bottle of wine. Now M&S, as this chain is known here, has had some surprisingly interesting bottles in the past, or at least surprising for those of us who like wine at the fringes. But this wine was in a league of its own. It was Georgian, and made in a qvevri.
I was certainly aware of Georgian wine back then, and I knew what a qvevri was, but I’m not sure I’d ever tasted a bottle made in one, or at least not from Georgia. I was certainly an old hand with amphora wines, starting out early on the wines from Sicilian stars, COS. By the second decade of the century there were certainly Georgian wines in the UK, and there were even more skin contact, or “orange”, wines from other places available in the UK. But if a British supermarket chain was importing one, then it had to signal something significant was happening in the world of wine. Georgia has an 8,000 year history of winemaking, and the buzz of excitement around the qvevri tradition signalled that it was finally about to leap into the spotlight on the international stage for the first time in those eight millennia.
Where the journey began for me, Tblivino Qvevris 2011 (Marks & Spencer)
This particular wine was called simply Qvevris and was produced by Tbilvino, a Tbilisi-based winery which was established in 1998 by the Margvelashvili brothers on the site of a facility which had produced wine in the Soviet era but which had since gone bust in the post-communist era of the free market economy. The wine was a varietal Rkatsiteli, Georgia’s most planted white grape variety, and it had seen six months on skins in these ancient and traditional terracotta vessels. It was good, although it wasn’t an earth shattering wine in terms of quality, but on so many other levels it was, for me, revelatory. All of a sudden I went from thinking I knew a little, even a lot, about wine to realising I had a whole world suddenly to explore.
My first job was to taste Georgian wine, which I should probably mention right now is not by any means all made in qvevri, and is not by any means all of the quality made by those producers who have gained a name on export markets (as illustrated by the resumption in more recent years of the export trade to Russia). Now there had been plenty of opportunity to do so, at the bigger natural wine fairs, where the Georgian contingent was becoming famous for its capacity to party. But with my myriad specialisations already diverse (Austria, Jura, Savoie, Grower Champagne, Alsace, Switzerland, Czechia and more), then Georgia just seemed a bit too much when faced with a single day at these events. So I was slower off the mark.
I had been buying more and more odd bottles to sample, but about three years ago I bought a mixed case from the largest importer of Georgian wine here, Les Caves de Pyrene, with currently eight producers listed: Niki Antadze, Okro’s Vinos, Iago Bitarishvili and his wife, Marina Kurtanidze, Ramaz Nikoladze, Zurab Topuridze, Sister’s Wine and Pheasant’s Tears, the latter being probably Georgia’s most internationally famous operation on account of one of its founders, American born John Wurdeman. If it were not for Wurdeman’s help in getting the word out, Georgian wine probably would not enjoy the super-fashionable status it has for a certain sector of the wine buying public.
Iago Bitarishvili (or just Iago) at the Real Wine Fair, London (organised by Les Caves de Pyrene)
Although I visited Russia during the Gorbachev years, I didn’t really have a burning desire to return there after the fall of Communism, and perhaps initially that blunted my desire to travel very far behind the former Iron Curtain as well. But as the 2000s progressed into their second decade I knew people who had been to countries like Romania. Aside from the natural beauty I knew existed (from years of receiving trekking brochures from companies like Exodus and Explore), I was seeing photos of beautifully restored towns and churches, and hearing of an emerging food and bar culture.
By the time I read Simon Woolf’s “Amber Revolution”, my Wine Book of the Year for 2018, I was already harbouring a desire to visit Georgia, but whilst that was slowly getting a little closer to becoming a reality the likelihood of getting there any time soon has now, perhaps for obvious reasons, receded a little. This is a shame because my first “Lockdown” wine book was For the Love of Wine by Alice Feiring. The book had been lying on a pile of nine or ten as yet unread books since I can’t remember when, but all I can say is that it found its perfect time. With three wine trips, to Austria, Alsace and Jura, cancelled for this year I was in dire need of some vicarious wine travel.
Alice Feiring first visited the former Soviet Republic of Georgia (I make this point because even famous Americans have been known to assume that one means the State of Georgia in the southeast of the USA, always a problem when the Rugby World Cup comes around) in 2011, to attend the First International Qvevri Symposium. She was partly there because her second book, “Naked Wine”, was due to be translated into Georgian. This was a sign that the government there, through the country’s wine authorities, were encouraging the renaissance in traditional winemaking. As my first Georgian wine was that 2011 I like to think that perhaps she may even have passed the very qvevri it came from if she made a visit to Tblivini whilst she was there.
In many ways the qvevri tradition and natural, low intervention, winemaking methods go hand in hand (though not always). Whilst viticulture in the Soviet era was based on the napalm death approach, massive yields achieved through equally massive application of agro-chemicals, Georgian families had been allowed to retain a few rows of vines for personal use, and even if they had wished to, synthetic chemicals were just too expensive. This chemical free environment didn’t always lead to good wine, but it did at least allow the qvevri tradition to be kept alive…just.
The essence of Georgian wine, aside from unique terroirs, lies in grape varieties and in particular the rather special autochthonous varieties, many of which are not seen elsewhere. Estimates vary, but the country boasts more than 500 indigenous varieties (some say 525). The ones we know best on export markets today (Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Chinuri, Saperavi, Kisi etc) are just scratching the surface. Pheasant’s Tears is just one producer trying to keep many of these varieties going, and their Poliphonia red cuvée contains, apparently, 417 different varieties, many sourced from their vine library in Kakheti Province.
Alice’s book, published in 2016, details in a little over 160 pages, a subsequent visit to Georgia. Since 2011 much had changed, not least the adding, in 2013, of the traditional qvevri vessel to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It also seems, and I get this from other visitors too, that Georgia has experienced something of a full on renaissance, and not just in wine.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union Georgia declared independence in 1991 and was in almost immediate conflict with Russia, which backed ethnic Russians within Georgia’s border provinces (which was mirrored more recently by Russian action in Ukraine). This resulted in the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 and a subsequent ban on wine imports into its former monopoly market. This could have been crippling to the industry. But necessity being the catalyst to invention, the Georgians discovered that rather than a market for bulk wine, one existed in the West for quality wine, and wine at that which could be sold for a much better price.
By the time of the visit detailed in this book Georgia’s wine, and her most famous personalities, were known in Europe and America, as were their wines. That is in no small part down to the author. What Feiring achieves in this book is not to set out information about Georgia’s delineated wine regions, nor to list her producers, outlining the varieties and winemaking methodologies they use. This is a travelogue, and all the better for that. Feiring journeys with her winemaking friends, those who have mentored her in Georgian wine, and who obviously have a high degree of affection for her, which I think must come from more than merely the fact that she has been by far the loudest champion for Georgian wine in the United States (and internationally) over the past decade.
Feiring naturally spends most time with winemakers, and in many different parts of the country, some of which she hasn’t visited before. She also visits some of the last qvevri makers, and these visits are fascinating if you don’t know the skill, and especially time, which goes into creating every pot. But one of the most interesting people she visits is not connected with wine.
Lamara Bezhashvili could loosely be described as a silk weaver and wise woman. She crops up more than once in the book and obviously has a profound effect on the author. The time they spend together seems to give deeper insights into a country where the connection between people and the land, with its medicinal herbs and folklore which seems to work, has not been completely and irrevocably severed. Such moments remind the reader that this is not merely a wine travelogue. Wine and culture in Georgia are inextricably linked. You don’t take one without the other.
I could detail any number of stories from the book. Most involve eating and drinking prodigious quantities, in a country where hospitality is a religion (literally, it appears). There are sleepless nights occasioned by the requirements of feasting and there are mad dashes which bring to life the enthusiasms of Feiring’s guides (one particular excursion I enjoyed was her trek through mountain undergrowth to see an ancient wild vine).
We also hear about the near mythical Eastern Orthodox Alaverdi Monastery in the Kakheti wine region. Founded originally in the sixth century, it is where Bishop David has led the rebirth of the monastic winemaking tradition since the mid-2000s in a place which is not only the cradle of Georgian wine, but very close to the cradle of European viticulture itself. I guarantee that if you look up some photos of this place (or indeed take a look at those in Simon Woolf’s Amber Revolution book) you will be itching to visit this amazing complex.
Personally I didn’t want to book to end. I also wanted to be able to visit this wonderful country right now, although I know I won’t have adventures like these if I do finally manage to get there. I should mention one aspect of the book, aside of course from the recipes at the end of each chapter, wholly appropriate for a book about one of the most food obsessed countries in the world. Alice Feiring is very open. What I mean is that she reveals an awful lot about herself and her life (directly and indirectly). You will understand that she’s passionate, emotional, perhaps unyielding in her beliefs and focus.
Before I wrote this article I decided to read a few reviews and comments about the book, something I wouldn’t normally ever do. Some people don’t really seem to get on with this side of Feiring’s personality, and perhaps those people number more of her fellow countrymen than those outside of America. In her home country she is, of course, well known for her antipathy towards the effects of their most famous wine guru, Robert Parker. Perhaps that affects the perceptions of her there among a certain type of wine lover, or maybe Europeans are more open to the heart on the sleeve approach Feiring takes than our American cousins. Whatever the truth, I think Alice is generally held in a high degree of affection in the UK and Europe, and especially within the natural wine movement, which itself has plenty of detractors. Her openness and honesty didn’t bother me at all, though I imagine she is not one to suffer fools.
As I said, I finished the book wishing it was longer, which is my only criticism really. I wanted to know more, and I was in a happy state for a week as I travelled vicariously through Georgia’s wine country. What a treat it would be to travel with Alice, as indeed some lucky individuals did from time to time throughout the narrative. There are, of course, other books on Georgia and Georgian wine, but I can’t imagine anyone has a greater knowledge of, and a greater empathy for, Georgian Wine.
If I might leave you with one quotation from For the Love of Wine, it is one which inspires me to visit Georgia, and indeed to drink plenty more Georgian wine:
“What I had come to learn during my travels – six visits in and hopefully many more to come – was that there is no other place on earth so plaited with wine, where that vibrant transformative drink is considered so noble, so spiritual that a country would die for its right to grow it and make it in the way it wants to – naturally, with no additives, even with some irregularities, as long as it gives pleasure“.
A manifesto to be proud of. Whether Georgia can stave off the so-called progress being peddled there by the purveyors of what Feiring calls “powders and potions” on the same page should be a matter of concern not just for the author, but for all of us. We should explore Georgia’s natural wines and support her traditional wine makers.
Alice Feiring’s For the Love of Wine was published by Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press (2016, 167pp) and costs £16.99 rrp in the UK.
Further reading on Georgian wine must include the aforementioned Amber Revolution by Simon Woolf (2018), which has a whole section dedicated to Georgia, past and present, as well as twenty-four mini producer profiles in the recommended producers section at the end of the book.
Of course this book will also give the reader a very broad picture of skin contact wine production in most parts of the world, although it was written a little too early to detail some of the English exponents of the qvevri, like pioneer Ben Walgate at Tillingham Wines (East Sussex). Nevertheless, it’s one of the most important books written on wine in the past twenty years (in my humble opinion, of course), and very enjoyable too.
The qvevri shed at Tillingham Vineyard, East Sussex, UK (Tillingham’s Ben Walgate left and Tim Phillips of Charlie Herring Wines, centre)
As far as I’m aware the latest book on Georgian wine is Lisa Granik MW’s The Wines of Georgia (Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library, December 2019) which is available direct from the publisher via infideas.com, rrp £30. I have not yet read this.
The new 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine (Mitchell Beazley/Octopus 2019, Johnson, Robinson et al) boasts a double page spread on Georgia. The map which takes 25% of that space covers the most important of the country’s wine districts, Kakheti, in reasonable detail. The accompanying text gives a good introduction to the country and its traditions.
By coincidence today I noticed that an article called Skin Contact – Orange Wine 101 has appeared on the Littlewine site (littlewine.co), which gives a broader and basic run-down of skin contact/skin maceration wine in general. Definitely worth reading, especially for anyone not very familiar with this style of wine. Link to the article here.
On the subject of maps, Alice Feiring’s book does contain a fairly simple one, which at least shows the geographical location of Georgian wine regions in relation to the capital, Tbilisi, and sets the country within the context of the Caucasus Region, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, bounded to the north by Russia, and to the south, west to east, by Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The photographs scattered below show some of the Georgian wines and other terracotta-made or skin maceration wines I have most enjoyed over the past two or three years. Just a few. I am rather partial to this style as the wines go so well with food. The hand written label is one of my own efforts, but sadly I no longer have access to white (Seyval Blanc) grapes which went into it. But as you can see from the abv, the experiment didn’t really work, although oddly it tasted pretty decent.
Qvevri winemaking first left Georgia for France’s Loire Valley, with a helping hand from Thierry Puzelat, but it has now reached the UK’s shores, with several producers taking up the style. I’ve already mentioned Tillingham, above, but even Ancre Hill Vineyard in Wales has made an orange wine, with a stunning “Clockwork Orange” influenced label. The qvevri joins other users of terracotta winemaking vessels of different types, such as amphora and tinajas, traditional in Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, and indeed most parts of the Mediterranean world.
Orange Wine from Wales! Ancre Hill, no less
Modern terracotta awaiting installation at Claus Preisinger, Gols (Burgenland)