By the time most people land at Tbilisi International Airport in Georgia, they’re bleary eyed and staggering with fatigue; most international flights don’t land until very late at night, or around four in the morning.
But every so often, when Wines of Georgia are doing a promotion, the passport officer will wake you up by stamping your passport with one hand, while unexpectedly presenting you with a half bottle of red wine with the other.
Wine is the lifeblood of this country in the Caucasus, and not just because it’s a major export earner. Wine, made here for 8,000 years, is deeply interwoven with Georgia’s national identity.
Mr. Putin knows this. He’s acutely conscious of the meaning of wine and the value of terroir — especially other people’s.
Which gives the rest of us a way to protest his invasion of Ukraine. Every glass and bottle of Georgian wine that we buy right now strikes a psychological blow against the Kremlin.
The importance of Georgia
Wine lovers who know about Georgia probably know it for its natural, orange, and qvevri wine.
Georgia also makes plenty of conventional wines; in the past, not all of them were good. I discovered this for myself when I spent two days judging wine there in 2012; horrible Rkatsitelis, boring Saperavis, and oceans of sickly-sweet red wine. But every so often, something different would appear. Like a shaft of sunlight penetrating the gloom, these wines had unusual, golden flavors.
By my third visit in 2015, there were far fewer flawed wines, and way more delicious ones.
This was politics in action.
In Soviet times, Georgia was a beloved destination for Russians, who were drawn to the country’s natural beauty, wonderful food and wine, artistic culture, and independent people. It was also the birthplace of Stalin, who ― true Georgian that he was ― valued wine so much he instituted a 1930s campaign to get everyone drinking sparkling wine.
Great idea, poor execution. Across the Soviet Union, indigenous vines were uprooted and replaced with the same few varieties. Vineyards were doused with chemicals, and the grapes trucked to factories where they became wine made to recipe.
This vandalism was visited on countries where vines have grown since ancient times: Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Slovenia, and Bulgaria. While they all produce wonderful wines today, their overall wine sectors still struggle, more than 30 years after communism collapsed.
Not only were Georgia’s 500-plus indigenous varieties uprooted ― they’re now being restored ― the Soviets also did their best to sever wine’s deep, historic links with the Orthodox Church. One of the country’s most revered sites is the 11th-century Aleverdi Monastery; the Soviets painted over its religious murals, and poured fuel into their historic qvevri. More than 50 years later, these antique vessels still stink of gasoline.
The end of the Soviet Union was even worse.
“They turned everything off,” a member of the wine trade told me. The lights, the water, the electricity. “We went from living a normal life to living like Neanderthals,” she added.
Into the political vacuum stepped strongmen and mafiosi, keeping the country broken and corrupt — until the 2003 Rose Revolution, when Georgians installed a new government, and cleaned up the corruption, with support from Europe and the U.S.
“In one week, we were a normal country again,” she said.
One thing didn’t change: Georgia kept selling its wines to Russia.
Wine and war
In 2006, Putin’s government banned Georgian and Moldovan wine, claiming they were unsafe; this was widely understood to be punishment for their Western aspirations. The bans were lifted in 2013, only for Moldovan wine to be banned a second time.
In 2014, I visited a Moldovan winery and walked the underground tunnels with the aging winemaker, who had made wine to the same recipe her whole career.
The winery had once exported more than two million wine bottles to Russia. Output had trickled to 20,000 bottles, sold here and there. The tunnels were silent.
“We turn these bottles every day,” she said, pointing to riddling racks, filled with bottles hanging upside down.
The racks were draped in cobwebs so thick and black, they looked like netting. Those bottles hadn’t been turned for years.
Today, there are thriving, quality-focused wineries in Moldova. But Georgia rebounded faster. Partly it was due to not suffering a second ban. Partly it was Georgia’s better tourist potential. But mainly it was because, in a dress rehearsal for what’s happening in Ukraine, Putin sent in tanks in 2008: Georgia had sought to become part of NATO, among other issues. The fighting lasted just five days before peace was brokered, but it convinced the Georgians to speed up their reorientation to the West.
Overseas funding flooded in, which modernized the wine industry. Wines of Georgia hosted international wine journalists, fascinating new wines appeared on Western shelves, and the road from the airport was renamed after George W. Bush (truly).
Not everybody was thrilled. Free markets are turbulent, and while they’ve been great for Georgia’s younger generation, they’ve been tough for older people nostalgic for the security of communism. Russia has been quick to stoke these divisions.
The invasion of Ukraine, Georgia’s second-biggest wine market after Russia, has brought things to a head. Georgians won’t talk about it, because they don’t want to be seen as looking for sympathy when their friends, relatives, and neighbors are suffering so badly. But not only have wine sales collapsed, the war has terrified many Georgians, who wonder if they’re next.
Here’s why we should help.
“Putin is extremely conscious of the value of wine. He’s used it as a status symbol, as a diplomatic tool, and as a weapon of war.”
Wine as politics
Curiously, one of the first things Putin did after he invaded Crimea was pledge more money for its wineries.
Putin let Italian ex-Prime Minister Berlusconi help himself to an 1890 wine, the equivalent of handing out a stolen Fabergé egg. Worse, Putin illegally sold both Ukrainian wineries to oligarchs.
And while Putin is known to drink very little, he’s finally succumbed to Wine Trophy Syndrome and built himself a showcase winery on the Black Sea. Its wine tourism aspirations are somewhat stymied because visitors need secret service clearance, but the wines are served at state banquets.
In other words, Putin is extremely conscious of the value of wine. He’s used it as a status symbol, as a diplomatic tool, and as a weapon of war.
We can do that too.
Here’s how to help
Buy Georgian wine. Not only is it delicious and good value for money, but every glass and every bottle you buy will have three impacts: economic, political, and existential.
The more wine Americans buy, and the more demand is generated, the more importers will look to Georgia. This will help Georgians financially, plus drive improved quality. That’s the economic impact.
Second, every purchase is a little tug on the rope, pulling Georgia further away from Russia and toward the future it wants for itself. That’s the political.
The existential? The sight of Georgian wine flowing away from Russia into America will hit Putin — hunched at the end of his long, lonely table — where it hurts. In the heart.
But it’s not enough just to buy the wine. You have to be seen to be buying it. When you open your bottle, take a picture and post it on social media, tagging in both the Georgian embassy, @Georgiainusa, and the Russian Embassy, @RusEmbUSA.
Next, add two hashtags. The first is #Gaumarjos, the Georgian toast.
The second you already know: #Slavaukraini.
Then, enjoy your wine. And hope that, very soon, we can do the same for Ukraine’s wineries.
8 Georgian wines to try
Marani Casreli Kakheti Qvevri Chitistvala 2019 (~$20)
Marani Casreli has focused on producing natural, traditional Georgian wines since 2014. The winery’s organically made Chitistvala is a consistent favorite for George Gomiashvili, wine director at the Georgian restaurant Le Grand, which he co-owns in Los Angeles with his brother Tamaz Gomiashvili. “I always recommend customers to try it because it is so distinctively Georgian,” says George Gomiashvili. “The wine has a really distinctive oxidative texture and a lot of dried apricot, honey, and sage notes that you’ll find in qvevri-aged wines.”
Kapistoni Asuretuli Shavi (~$22)
This wine comes highly recommended by Tamara Chubinidze, owner of New York City’s Chama Mama restaurant. It’s the big, bold, red wine perfect for pairing with hearty Georgian dishes and meats like lamb, beef, and pork. Seven generations of winemakers have produced Kapistoni wines in the Saguramo village of the Mtskheta region in Georgia. This shining red is made with indigenous Asuretuli Shavi grapes. It displays intense aromas and flavors of wild strawberries and blueberries while delicate floral notes linger in the background with fine tannins.
Marina Kurtanidze Kartli Mtsvane 2019 (~$23)
When you want something exciting and different, seek out a bottle of Marina Mtsvane, says Sarah Grunwald, founder of Taste Georgia. The wine is produced in Kakheti by Marina Kurtanidze and Tea Melanashvili, who were the first women to own and operate a winery in Georgia in 2012. “I have always believed wine and food are the best ambassadors to a culture. Georgian wine is no exception, and this bottle is some of the most food-friendly wine on earth,” says Grunwald. The wine is spicy and complex, displaying a wealth of stone fruit characteristics with a solid backbone that can stand up to bottle aging. “I find this wine ages well without losing any of the freshness,” Grunwald adds.
Iberieli - Zurab Topuridze Chkhaveri Amber 2019 (~$23)
This wine is made with Chkhaveri, one of many indigenous grape varieties in Georgia. The grapes grow organically within the hills of the Kakheti region, in vineyards owned and operated by the family of Zurab Topuridze. A bright and refreshing amber-colored wine, this is the bottle Natia Khidasheli, a sommelier and wine educator for Taste Georgia, likes to pour when introducing drinkers to the orange wine category. “I call this wine beginners amber. It is much lighter, fresher than other varieties,” says Khidasheli.
Lapati Chacalix Rkatsiteli 2019 (~$24)
French winemakers Vincent Jullien and Guillaume Gouerou launched Lapati Wines in 2015 to amplify Georgian grapes through modern and science-based winemaking practices. The duo’s organically-made Chacalix is just one example of their accomplished mission. “This is one of our best-selling wines at Le Grand,” says George Gomiashvili, adding that this bottle is often the one he recommends to new Georgian wine drinkers. “It’s a very high-quality wine that uses carbonic maceration to achieve all these beautiful flavors of black tea, marmalade, and candied pears. Even though it spends quite a bit of time macerating on the skins to generate that nice amber color, the wine still has very soft and well-integrated tannins, so it’s really enjoyable to drink.”
Ori Marani 'laora' Traditional Method NV (~$25)
Founded in 2017, Ori Marani winery sits on Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains, within the village of Igoeti in the Shida Kartli region. The winery was established by Bastien Warskotte, a French winemaker from Champagne who uses his bubbly know-how to produce quality sparkling wines with Georgia’s native grape varieties. A blend of Goruli, Mtsvane, Chinuri, Aladasturi, and Chkhaveri is used to create a wine that’s booming with power and richness. “This is a very enjoyable and well-made sparkling wine,” says Grunwald.
Nine Oaks Estate Kakheti Khikhvi (~$31)
This amber wine hails from Eniseli, within the Kakheti region in the valley of the Alazani River near the Caucasus Mountains. It’s a wine Chubinidze often recommends to guests experiencing Georgian wine for the first time. Velvety smooth, the wine is made with Khikhvi grapes in a traditional qvevri with prolonged macerations, which gives the juice its deep amber hue. It’s full-bodied and rich with minerality, pronounced peppery notes, and smoked wood.
Mukado Traditional Kvevri 'Dry Amber' Mtsvane 2014 (~$58)
Lado Uzunashvili, the winemaker at Mukado, produced wines in places throughout Europe and Australia before launching his own winery in 2012. “Lado’s depth of knowledge allows him to stay true to Georgian traditions. But, at the same time, he utilizes science and modern winemaking techniques to create the best possible expressions of various Georgian grape varieties and styles of wine,” says Lasha Tsatava, director of the Boston Sommelier Society. The Mtsvane is fermented in a traditional qvevri before it ages an additional six months. That extra time in the vessel allows the wine to develop a bounty of aromas and flavors. “You might have to come up with a new set of descriptors for this wine and take your palate for a flavorful rollercoaster ride,” says Tsatava.