Georgian wine and the struggle for true independence

By Sara Lannebo

When you think of wine producing countries, chances are high that countries like France, Italy, or Spain come to mind. After all, they are among the top in exporting high quality wines. But while these countries undoubtedly make delicious wine that have both cultural and historical impact on many places in the rest of the world, there is a small country on the crossroads of Europe and Asia with a rich, vibrant history of viticulture that is struggling to make its way into the field of the big players: Georgia.

Georgia is a rather small country located in the South Caucasus, locked in between the Greater and the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. Its terrain is diverse, mountains mixed with subtropical zones and fresh breezes from the Black Sea to the West. Many regions are perfect for growing grapevines and have been so for millenia; the country is sometimes referred to as the ‘cradle of wine’.

Buried qvevris.
Photo: Rozbeh Javid

The first wines of Georgia, dating back to as early as 6,000 B.C., were made in qvevris, clay vessels. The egg-shaped qvevri is buried under ground to keep a stable temperature and the crushed grapes and their juice is poured in after harvest in the fall. The fermentation then starts itself: wild yeast appears without any additives. The process of fermentation and maturation takes around six months. Using wild yeast with little to no additives is the ancient method we today know as natural wine. Today, wine producers elsewhere use oak barrels and steel tanks, but the qvevri method is still widely used in Georgia. The result is a more complex wine with distinct tastes different from many standard types.

However, the natural qvevri wines only make up for a small part of Georgia’s total wine production. Steel tanks are more efficient since they can produce greater volumes, but qvevris are widely used in small-scale productions or for private use. Despite this, the qvevri method is a booming industry just waiting to be discovered in the rest of the world. In fact, the general increased interest of natural wine has recently made many open their eyes to this small, conflict-ridden country.

But what took so long for Georgia to open the door to the greater international scene? The answer is simple: its neighbor to the North. While the Soviet Union was a roadblock in Georgia’s possibility to ‘discovery’, Russia is (unpurposefully) the reason Georgia made more significant – and successful – attempts of marketing its wine in the West.

When Georgia was a part of the Soviet Union, it was essentially used as a wine factory. The Soviets liked wine – and lots of it. The demand, which was already high, increased when the five-year plans were introduced and required mass production. The quality decreased when volume was prioritized. Fields were treated chemically to increase efficiency and grapes that had been cultivated to make wine for thousands of years were ripped up to make room for those more profitable. Many grape varieties were forgotten about during this period, but they survived: in people’s gardens, they remained and were sometimes cultivated and processed for private use. And after independence in 1991, more and more of the hundreds of different varieties native to Georgia were slowly replanted on a larger scale. Today, there are still ongoing attempts at finding those that disappeared when the five-year plans were introduced.

During the politically unstable years after independence, Russia remained the largest consumer of Georgian wine. But unsurprisingly, the wine industry was heavily affected by the politics in the region. As political unrest remained – with the South Ossetia and Abkhazia territories demanding separation from Georgia – the relations with Russia deteriorated. Under the reign of President Saakashvili, Georgia reached out to the West with the goal of joining NATO and perhaps even an EU membership, something Russia strongly opposed. Saakashvili, who came to power after the peaceful and pro-democratic Rose Revolution in 2003, made it clear that he wanted to free Georgia from its dependence on Russia. The unsolved conflicts over the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia were a big problem that stood in his way of gaining support from and influence in Europe and the US. Solving the conflicts was therefore among his top priorities, but the regions saw increased Russian support as Saakashvili tried to strengthen Georgia’s bonds to the West. Then came 2006, when Moscow placed an embargo on Georgian wine.

While the move was officially motivated by claims of low quality, many suspect it had political explanations. Since Russia was by far the biggest importer of Georgian wine – making up for around 80% of Georgia’s export – the ban was expected to have a devastating blow on the industry. And it did, particularly for the big companies producing the semi-sweet wines popular during Soviet times. But what also happened was a shift in the industry: the ban opened the door to a different market. Georgian wine makers now turned their heads to where Saakashvili had been pointing – the West. But the demand for sweet wine of mediocre quality in Europe and the US was low. Instead, more and more small-scale wine producers appeared and the use of the qvevri became more widespread as they tried to diversify the market. Producers were inspired to go back to ecological cultivation and experimented with more unusual grape varieties. The efforts to create wines through ancient practices coincided with the gained momentum of the natural wine trend in the 2010s. Through clever marketing and genuine interest in creating distinct and different wines, Georgia slowly got the attention of the greater international scene.

The Russian ban on Georgian wine was lifted in 2013, and today Russia is again one of the top importers. Nevertheless, there is a symbolism in the struggles of the Georgian wine industry. Despite mass production and chemical treatments to the vineyards during Soviet times, war and political unrest after independence, and a six year long ban from its top importer, the ancient tradition of Georgian wine has remained an integral part of both the culture and economy. Europe’s recently discovered fascination with the natural wines of Georgia and the country’s decreased dependence on Russia shows its success in trying to ‘go West’. And as the country still struggles to be further discovered in the world of wine, the qvevris are standing strong in the cool ground, waiting for the next batch of crushed grapes.

Cover photo: Rozbeh Javid

Sara is a student at the Peace and Development Program at Uppsala University. She spends most of her spare time on her bike, on her roller skates, or in the kitchen: cooking, baking, and learning new cocktails. And of course, indulging in the end products.

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