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Georgia wineries return to their roots

AFP-JIJI

In his wine shop hidden down a labyrinth of narrow streets in Georgia’s Black Sea port of Batumi, Gela Danelia stares with rapture as sunlight refracts through a glass of his garnet-red produce.

“I only produce some 8,000 bottles per year but what is most important to me is that I restored the technique that was kept secret by generations of my ancestors,” the winemaker said.

It may take Danelia’s visitors only seconds to finish a glass, but wine has a heritage dating back thousands of years in the tiny Caucasus nation.

Many experts consider Georgia the cradle of wine-making.

Today, Danelia is among a growing number of producers who have gone back to their roots and use age-old methods for commercial production. Their aim is to carve out a niche on the world market for their full-bodied reds and sumptuous whites.

“The unique technique we use is part of Georgia’s millennia-old tradition of wine-making,” he said.

Danelia’s exact method is a closely-guarded family secret. But the traditional Georgian process involves storing the wine for months and even years in giant clay vessels, called kvevri, that are buried in the earth.

Almost every household here prides itself on producing its own homemade wine using these ancient methods, but until recently they were not used for larger-scale production.

Archaeological finds have shown that viticulture in Georgia dates as far back as 7,000 B.C., well before western Europeans were even thinking about having a tipple.

Drunk by the gallon-load at raucous feasts with lengthy toasts and copious amounts of food, wine has always played a central role in the culture of this country nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains.

But traditional production lost prominence during the communist years in the former Soviet state, when mass demand saw the old methods abandoned and standards slip.

“Any red-colored drink labeled as Georgian wine was guaranteed to be sold in Russia and the situation gradually but inevitably led to a significant deterioration in the quality of our wines,” Danelia said.

That began to change when tensions flared between Georgia and Russia, culminating in a brief war in 2008. The Kremlin imposed an embargo on Georgian wine in 2006 that cut off its insatiable main market.

Without the easy sales to its giant northern neighbor, Georgia’s wine industry had to scramble for new outlets and new strategy, prompting some producers to consider a return to traditional ways.

“Georgian wine is a true treasure still to be discovered by the outside world,” said Georgian wine enthusiast Levan Kitia.

“If we want to take up our own niche on the international market we have to revive what makes our wines so special — ancestral techniques and historic vine varieties.”

Moscow finally lifted the embargo last year. By then, however, many producers — a growing number of whom were reverting to traditional methods — had not only branched out to new markets in dozens of countries but also nearly returned to pre-ban production levels.

“The renaissance of the traditional Georgian wine-making is well underway,” says Malkhaz Kharbedia, president of the Georgian Wine Club.

The shift also brought international recognition when the United Nations culture agency, UNESCO, last year inscribed the kvevri method on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

For wine expert Kharbedia, it’s not just the thousands of years of history but also the full-bodied taste that make Georgian wines remarkable.

“The method gives particularly good results in producing so called orange wines” that owe their name to the amber-yellow color obtained from leaving grape skins in as the wine is made, he said.

The technique, refined over the past six or seven years to boost quality and revive forgotten varieties, has indeed drawn attention from commercial producers outside Georgia.

It “is now used across the globe — in Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia wine region, France, Germany, New Zealand, and California,” Kharbedia said.