Decanter: Georgia – finding its path

It’s been an eventful five years.  My first visit to Georgia, in April 2013, came at a tense but exciting time for the nation’s wine producers.  Russia’s 2006 ban on the import of Georgian (and Moldovan) wine had presented Georgian producers with a salutary crisis: they lost 90 per cent of their export market overnight, and had to scramble to find alternative customers.  How?  In part by storytelling: Georgia’s tale is unique.  The world relished it.  Over the last half-decade, it’s been hard to find a wine-lover who didn’t dream of heading to Tbilisi.

This wasn’t, after all, ‘just another’ wine-producing country.  Present-day Georgia may occupy the land where the vine itself was first domesticated; it’s recently surrendered to archaeological attention the world’s earliest pure-wine residues, dating back some 8,000 years.  It has an extraordinary patrimony of indigenous varieties, and unique wine-making techniques, too, unchanged for a millennium or more; these have proved seductively interesting for the natural wine movement worldwide, and for those who perceive modern winemaking as an impasse.

Wine lovers reaching Georgia discovered a country where the tendrils of the vine weave church, state and national culture together in a tapestry without parallel elsewhere.

My first meeting in 2013 was with Metropolitan David of Alaverdi, one of the country’s leading ecclesiastics, who told me that, for Georgians, growing vines and making wine “was always a road back to God”, that the birth of wine inside a maternal qvevri was “like a prayer,” and that history had decreed that Georgia “became the Lord’s vineyard”.  None of this sounds strange to Georgian ears.

Earlier this month I met Levan Davitashvili, Georgia’s Minister of Agriculture and Environment – whose former roles, significantly, had included working as the head of Georgia’s National Wine Agency, as well as promoting the German-owned Schuchmann Winery.  Until recently, over half the Georgian work force was involved in agriculture, of which viticulture is often the most prominent segment.  Even urban Georgians make their own wine, in garages and on balconies; vines leaves and grape bunches beckon everywhere in the national iconography, in wooden carvings, in stone friezes and details; the Georgian toastmaster or tamada is a unique figure unmatched in any other culture, likewise of great antiquity.  It was Georgia that Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin chose as its debut ‘Guest Wine Region’ last year.

The Russian ban was lifted in 2013 and the last five years have seen a whirlwind of national development.  Russians quickly rediscovered their passion for Georgian wine – while the Ukrainians never lost it, so between them these two countries take most of the country’s exports (Russia alone accounted for 51% of wine exports in 2016).  Georgia, though, has managed to negotiate and sign free-trade agreements with both the EU and, more recently, China.

Sales to China doubled in a single year between 2015 and 2016 and continue to grow; Minister Davitashvili told me that it’s now the third largest export destination for Georgian wine.  Moreover China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to make Eurasia (under Chinese domination) an economic and trading counterweight to the trans-Atlantic zone (dominated by the USA), looks certain to benefit Georgia further and to increase commercial ties between the two nations.

Any foil to Russian influence is generally welcomed in Georgia (whose initiatives towards the EU were widely seen as the true reason behind Russia’s 2006 wine embargo); the loss of control over Tskhinvali and Abkhasia still smarts in Tibilisi, and Levan Davitashvili pointed out that despite the renaissance of trade with Russia “there are lines that we can’t accept – [like] occupation, and this is something that our Russian colleagues should also understand”.

In terms of tourism and inward investment, too, Georgia has seen an explosion of interest and activity not least from Russians themselves, who relish Georgia’s food and wine — and its openness and intellectual freedom of expression, a contrast to the oppressive, dissent-silencing atmosphere at home.  Iranians, Azeris and Middle Eastern tourists, meanwhile, are flocking to Tiblisi’s new casinos and luxury hotels, while Turkish and Chinese entrepreneurs are setting up their own private businesses in Georgia, as are Iranian farming entrepreneurs.  Western European hipsters arrive for Georgia’s electronic music scene, regarded as being second only to Berlin in terms of creativity.  “We are a small country and we need to be liberal and open,” said Levan Davitashvili.  “That is our philosophy.”


Author: Andrew Jefford
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