After Years Of Russian Neglect, Georgia’s Wine Industry Has Emerged On The Global Market

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During the Soviet occupation of Georgia, the communists forced its growers to produce quantity rather than quality, and even under Gorbachev’s more paternalistic anti-alcohol directives, he cut the quantity but also the amounts exported to Russia. Since the mid-1990s, however, Georgia, with an 8,000 year-old history of viniculture, has increased its regional and international profile, now with 525 grape varieties grown on 55,000 hectares under cultivation and 1,100 wine companies licensed to sell commercially, with 93.4 million bottles exported to 53 countries for sales of $238 million.

To gain perspective on this rapidly growing industry, I spoke with George Margvelahvili, who hosted the 10th International Organization for Vine and Wine Congress, the same year his Tbilvino’s first winery was opened in Tbilisi, and a a second in 2008 in Kakheti, the main wine region of Georgia; in 2014, then with his brother planted 405 hectares in Kakheti. Also, I spoke with Joerge Matthies, owner of the Mosmieri Winebar and Shop in Tbilisi. Their comments have been combined.

Georgian viticulture is ancient dating back to 5000 BC, and the Middle Ages were its so-called Golden Age of wine. Why? What grapes did they use?

According to scientists, the first Neolithic grape seeds found in Georgia (Kvemo Kartli) date back 8,000 years. From that time onwards, viticulture and winemaking were continuously carried out on the territory of Georgia. This distinguishes our country from others in the region. There is no era, without archaeological, ethnographic, historical or written material on Georgian viticulture and winemaking from Neolithic to the present day.

There are probably many varieties that did reach nowadays, of which we know neither the name nor has ever seen anyone born in the 21-20 and 19th centuries. However, all those varieties that are widespread today have a rather long time to come. From sources we know that such varieties as Saperavi, Rkatsiteli, Khikhvi, Mtsvivani, Tsolikouri, Alexandrouli, etc. existed in the Middle Ages. However, it’s very interesting to know what characters did the grapes have before phylloxera.

What damage did the Soviets do to Georgia’s wine industry? Quantity over quality?

The Soviets had the so-called 5-year plans that pushed quantity over quality. They ignored all those interesting ancient grapes and planted only 3-4 varieties that were most resistant to diseases and yielded biggest quantities. That is why Georgia now has huge vineyards of Rkatsiteli and Saperavi and few vineyards of other varieties, though many interesting varieties like Kisi and Khikivi were almost lost. We are trying to rediscover forgotten grapes and grow them in our vineyards. We [Margvelahvili] have currently 8 varieties that are grown in our vineyards: Rkatsiteli, Saperavi, Kisi, Kakhetian Mtsvane, Khikhvi, Aleksandrouli, Mujuretuli, Kakhetian Mtsvivani. We plan to add more varieties in future because we see that they yield beautiful results that are absolutely worth the effort.

Gorbachev wanted to cut back on production as part of an ate-alcohol campaign. How did this affect the industry?

In general, we feel like any industry should be regulated by the market. It does not do any good when the government artificially and forcefully interferes and tries to change the flow of things governed by the market. This was true for Gorbachev’s forceful attempts at an anti-alcohol campaign, obviously it damaged the industry mainly affecting big state enterprises. However public and farmer families kept practicing viticulture and winemaking

At what point—the 1990s?—did the industry begin to revive?

From the mid 1990s the industry started to show signs of new life and by 2000 began reviving when exports to Russia were not yet banned, which happened in 2006. It was a difficult and painful transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy but it happened nevertheless. New, private wineries emerged that started to make wines and attempted to introduce them to the world. Closed by the Iron Curtain Georgians who had been making wine for at least 8000 years, had to learn modern winemaking methods, as well as find our own foreign markets Only after 2010 did the industry really gain strength, owing to tourism think that this learning continues today. Since late 1990s we have worked with foreign winemakers and wine consultants from different countries such as Australia, France, Italy to finetune our technological process and get the best out of Georgian grapes and terroirs. Among the challenges remaining is the huge dependence on the new Russian market (58% in 2021) and the relatively low awareness on western markets. We are the only sizable winery in Georgia to have fully stopped sales to Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine. All of our efforts are now focused on entering and increasing our presence on western and Asian markets (UK, USA, Germany, China, South Korea, etc.).

Am I correct that there are 10 recognized areas now? Kakheti, Imereti, etc.

What you list are the regions of Georgia (Kakheti, Kartli, Imereti, Guria, Samegrelo, Afkhadzia, Adjara, Racha, Lechkhumi, Meskheti-Javakheti). In almost every region of Georgia you have vineyards with different soil composition, climate, grape varieties and winemaking techniques. Throughout the regions there are the so-called PDOs (Protected Designations of Origin) or micro zones that are designated for this or that particular wine. Currently there are 25 of them. Our 405 hectares of vineyards are located in three of leading Georgian PDOs (all in Kakheti): Tsinandali (famous for white dry wines), Mukuzani (famous for red dry wines) and Kindzmarauli (famous for medium sweet wines). The biggest wine producing region is cut Kakheti in the east which makes up 70% of all production.

What are qvevri? Are they it widely used?

Qvevri is an egg-shaped clay vessel with a pointed bottom where the wine is made. The qvevri is buried in the ground. Grape juice together with skins and seeds is poured into the qvevri where it is fermented and macerated for 5-6 months. During this time, the wine is with skins thus greatly impacting the wine, which acquires amber color, structure and rich bouquet of aromas. Such wines are becoming popular in the world under the name of Amber wines. In 2013, UNESCO recognized qvevri as part of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. What is important is that qvevri has been alive throughout the history of Georgian people and is still very much alive today. This is a living tradition counting 8000 years. Many families around Georgia make wine for themselves in qvevri. We started producing qvevri wine in 2011. It was just one wine and in very small quantities. Now we produce five different wines in qvevri. It is still a small part of our production but is growing.

How much wine is made semi-sweet?

George is actually don’t drink semi sweet wines. These wines such as Alazany valley, Kindzmarauli or Khvanchkara became popular during the Soviet union. Even today Russia along with most other post-Soviet countries in China are the most important destinations for semi sweet wines. At Château Mosby area we produce less than 10% semi-sweet or semi-dry wines because dry wines are much more demand of the premium sing.

At our wineries [Margevelahvili] it is difficult to say exactly but a lot. In our portfolio the share of dry wines is increasing due to the reason that the share of western countries in our export geography is widening. Plus, as I said earlier, we had to exit the Russian market and increase our focus on more stable markets where dry wines are more appreciated.

What is the current production?

I can say that wine production in Georgia is booming. There are hundreds of wine producers from tiny, one-man operations to family wineries to big, large-scale producers. Last year Georgian exported more that 90 million bottles, plus local consumption. We managed to sell more than 5.5 million bottles in 30 different countries. Chateau Mosmieri they current production capacity of 130,000 bottles per year made from more than 21 ha

Where are Georgian wines exported?

The biggest export market for Georgian wines was Russia (58% of all Georgian wine exports in 2021 went there). Other top markets include Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Poland, China, Baltic States, etc. We are working a lot to increase presence and sales in other markets such as the UK, USA, Germany, South Korea, etc. It is a difficult process, but we feel that being successful on stable markets is the right way to develop.

Has climate change affected the vineyards?

Yes, of course and that’s why all our vineyards are equipped with drip irrigation systems. Also harvest shifted closer to summer and many other factors to which our vineyards must be adopted and our viticulturist team have to consider.

With what other countries do Georgia’s prices compete?

Depending on the markets Georgian wines share shelves with numerous other country wines such as Spain, Italy, New World, etc. Georgian wines cannot compete by price because there are plenty of lower-priced wines on the world market. Georgian wines should compete with quality, uniqueness, and history behind it. In mass wine segments Georgia competes with countries such as Moldova and other Eastern European countries as well as low price wineries from major wine producing countries like Australia, Argentina, Chile in South America