Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Georgia On My Wine

"What's that smell?"

Not exactly an unusual question at a wine tasting. But this time it was tinged with more than usual puzzlement, and maybe even suspicion. Should a wine actually smell like this - subterranean, murky, feral? None of the usual descriptors bandied about at a tasting came into play. This was a wine without strawberries, grapefruit, melons, plums or any other familiar fruit association. It was dark, alien, mysterious, more earthy than fruity.

Someone suggested smoked fish. Another suggested the grill of a Weber kettle the morning after it had played host to tri-tip or ribs. Another suggested root vegetables with a lot of dark, damp earth still clinging to the skin. None of this was unkind, just curiosity triggered by a wine with which only a handful of people in the room had a frame of reference.

"Fresh black truffles," ventured Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti. Exactly, virtually everyone immediately agreed. While not a smell commonly associated with most Californian, European or South American wines, it wasn't off-putting, just unfamiliar, and both threatening and delightful in its strangeness. Corti didn't quite know what to make of it, but did add that he's also smelled the same thing in older Burgundies from esteemed producers working with grapes off a great vintage.

This was no Burgundy, however. It was a white wine from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The grape that yielded it is called mtsvane kakhuri. It was cultivated in the eastern Georgia province of Kakheti, and the juice was fermented in clay vessels called kvevri, also spelled qvevri, coated with beeswax and buried in the ground. It soon was followed by another Georgian wine with an even more forthright smell of fresh black truffles. It had been made with another rare grape, rose rkatsiteli. Their aroma wasn't their only distinguishing characteristic. For white wines, they were unusually deeply colored, their yellow edging toward orange. What's more, they were unusually tannic for white wine, the offshoot of long fermentations in contact with the skins of their grapes in the clay jugs.

Not many Georgian wines make it to California. These two and several others were being opened at Sacramento's Waterboy restaurant only because a delegation of a dozen vintners from Georgia was touring the United States. Corti was their local host.

Georgian vintners touring teaching winery...
Earlier that day, the group, sponsored by the Georgian Wine Association and the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia, toured the new teaching and research winery at UC Davis. Earlier, it had visited the Finger Lakes district of New York before jumping cross-country to Lodi. After leaving Sacramento it would be taking in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. The group was on a mission not only to better understand the American approach to winemaking but to learn how Georgia might emulate wine regions that have successfully capitalized on wine tourism.

The Georgians are convinced they have a story to tell that will entice American wine enthusiasts to come visit them, to learn of their wines and foods, and to explore the architecture, history, nature and celebrated hospitality of a country far removed and little understood. Georgia stretches east from the eastern shore of the Black Sea, with Russia to the north, Azerbaijan to the east, and Armenia and Turkey to the south. Its most celebrated natural feature is the Great Caucasus Range along its northern border.

Georgian wine regions like Kakheti, Imereti and Kartli aren't yet ranked with Tuscany, Bordeaux and Mosel as choice destinations for wine lovers, but the group sees no reason why they shouldn't be.

They certainly have history on their side. Wine has been made in Georgia for 8,000 years. The country often is called "the cradle of wine." Even the looping letters of the Georgian alphabet suggest the tendrils of a vine. More than 500 varieties of wine grapes are native to Georgia, some 420 of which continue to be cultivated. If grape varieties like mtsvane kakhuri, rkatsiteli and saperavi are unknown in the West, it's largely because the wines they yield have been so appreciated for so long in their immediate neighborhood. Until about a decade ago, 80 percent of Georgia's wine exports were to Russia. Five years ago, however, Russia clamped an embargo on wine imports from Georgia, prompting the country's current search for new export markets as well as its eagerness to develop a program of wine tourism.

...then sampling a test cabernet sauvignon
The loss of the Russian market also is creating an identify crisis for Georgia's wine community. Georgian vintners appreciate the uniqueness of their grapes and their winemaking techniques, but they also fret that their wines may be too unusual for an international clientele for whom fruit-forward, unchallenging cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot have become the dinner-table standards. Thus, they are cultivating those varieties, and adopting more modern winemaking methods to make the resulting wines more identifiable and accessible to outsiders. At The Waterboy, however, they preferred to show off the sorts of wines that have developed avid followings in Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In addition to the earthy mtsvane kakhuri and rose rkatsiteli, they included another interpretation of mtsvane kakhuri not far removed in freshness and spunk from a sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio; a solidly built orange-tinted white wine from the native grape kisi; an amber-hued white wine laced with the nutty suggestiveness of tawny port, made from the grape rkatsiteli; and a meaty and firm red wine from the grape saperavi. White or red, one characteristic many of the wines shared was a fetching peppery spiciness with which Americans who like petite sirah, zinfandel and syrah could relate.

Right now, not many Georgian wines are to be found in the United States. Whether that changes will depend largely on how they are priced when they do start to arrive, where Americans see them fitting in at the dinner table, and on how adventuresome the American palate wants to be. In the short run, Georgia's wine culture may have more going for it with wine tourism than with wine exports, given the country's diverse and stirring landscape, its ancient cathedrals and monasteries, its rich heritage of cloisonne enamel art, polyphonic singing and live theater, its isolated throwback villages, and its national parks. From the way the Georgians talked of their native land, it's ancient, rugged, varied and rich with surprises, with wines equally ancient, rugged, varied and surprising.

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