Georgia, a country located in Eastern Europe and West Asia, is culturally and geopolitically considered to be European. We were interested in exploring the country, but one of our main reasons to go to Georgia was to learn more about its wines.
Georgia has been producing wine for over 8,000 years, which gives it a claim to being one of the cradles of wine production. The region is known for its unique winemaking methods and grape varieties. Some of the most notable Georgian grape varieties include Saperavi (red), Rkatsiteli (white), and Khikhvi (white), among many others.
Kakheti Wine Tour
We hired a car and driver for a day trip from Tbilisi to explore Kakheti, Georgia’s largest wine region in the eastern part of the country. We had previously learned a good deal about and tasted a number of Georgian Wines at a San Francisco wine trade tasting and have tasted a number of other wines at a local Georgian restaurant (Cheese Boat in San Francisco and its San Carlos sister restaurant, Tamari). But we wanted to learn more about the eight millennium-old process by which Georgians have been making wines in large egg-shaped clay pots (called qvevri) that are buried in the earth and taste more of these wines.
Overall, we learned a lot and became more familiar with Georgian wines. But all of our stops were not equal in their presentation and wines. We had a good experience at Orgo and an excellent experience at Schuchmann. However our other stops were disappointing.
Our first stop was at an artisanal winery in the Kakheti region of eastern Georgia who produces 300,000 bottles per year of qvevri and European-style wines. About 65 percent of its production is white (especially the relatively fast ripening, low-maintenance Rkatsiteli), 30 percent is red (especially Saperavi), with the remainder is rose (often from purchased Pinot Noir grapes), sparkling (especially from purchased Chardonnay grapes), and fortified Ruby (typically from Saperavi) wines.
The family has been producing wines for friends and family wines for about 50 years but only began commercial production (from 10 hectares of wines) about 12 years ago. Their wines typically spend about:
- Four to five weeks of fermentation with skin contact during which they stir the skin/juice mixture three or four times per day and another four to five months of qvevri aging after removal of the lees (depending on the style) for whites; and
- 20-30 days of skin-contact fermentation for reds plus 6 to 12 months of qvevri aging without the lees for reds.
Although Orgo uses some French oak barrels, they typically only use them for its limited production of some West European varietals (especially Cabernet Sauvignons) and Saparavi-based fortified wines which it may age for up to three years.
Since many homes (at least those with their own land) also have their own qvevris and make their own wine from purchased grapes, many families drink their own wine, or that made by family and friends rather than buying licensed winery-produced wines. Most wineries, therefore, count on domestic sales for only about 10-20 percent of their revenue while selling the rest to export markets. Most labeled wine production goes to Europe (especially Germany, England, and Russia), North America (Canada and the United States—which is particularly difficult due to the need for multiple small distributors to invest in the effort to promote and educate dealers and restaurants on Georgian wines) and Asia (especially Japan, South Korea, and increasing, China).
We tasted four enjoyable wines, accompanied with black olives, cheese, and bread.
- 2020 Rkatsiteli Amber was fermented for 4 months on the skin followed by two months in the bare qvevri. We found it to be dry with ripe apple with a smooth finish.
- 2020 Kisi Amber had a richer, fuller pallet with more pineapple notes and a pleasant earthiness and equally smooth finish.
- 2021 Cuvee (50% Kisi, 25% Mtsvane, 25% Rkatsiteli) was fermented and aged in stainless, which gave it more crispness and a green apple taste.
- 2021 Saparavi had three weeks of skin contact plus four months off the lees. The medium bodied wine had black cherry notes and a long smooth finish. It was very pleasant, if not especially complex.
Schuchmann was our favorite stop. A German engineer with a passion for wine developed the winery in Kisiskhevi. It has been producing wine only since 2010 but has rapidly grown to 1.5 million bottles per year production though the purchase of established vineyards, new plantings, and purchasing about 30% of its fruit (especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay). Its production, almost the inverse of Orgo, is about 60 percent white wine and 30 percent red with much of the remainder coming from sparkling wine (mostly from Chardonnay) and chacha (produced from the liquid that rises to the top of the pomace and double distilled to 40 percent alcohol).
While they make 80 percent of its wine in stainless tanks, we were mostly interested in learning about and tasting its qvevri wines. Unlike with Orgo, Schuchmann ages most of its reds in French oak barrels after three-to-five weeks in Qvevri.
It makes the vast majority of its qvervi wines in large, 3,000 liter pots, but they also use smaller vessels for experiments and small production batches. They demonstrated the uses of traditional wooden stirring tools (for stirring the skins into the juice) and two qvevri cleaning tools (a brush made of multiple layers of tree bark and another consisting of a bunch of trimmed branches for scrubbing the vessel with water).
We then proceeded to two tastings of four wines apiece, which provided us with a great range of wines. These came with bread with sunflower oil, pesto (that even non-pesto eaters were happy to test), and a delicious tomato/red pepper spread with quince jam. We enjoyed all the wines, finding six of the eight to be particularly interesting.
Our preferences of its white wines were in reverse order of the tasting:
- 2021 Schuchmann Rkatsitelli, a light, crisp stainless fermented wine with a bit of apple and pear;
- 2021 Schuchmann Tsinandali stainless, fresh dry white with 80 percent Rkatsitelli and 20 percent Mtsvane with citrus and peach;
- 2020 Vinoterra (the brand the winery uses for its qvevri wines) Rkatsitelli that was fuller bodied and a softer finish and notes of dried fruit and raisins; and
- 2020 Vinoterra Kisi , fuller, softer, rounder and more complex than the Rkatsitelli with dried apricots and almond.
Our red flight consisted of four very different iterations of Saparavi:
- 2021 Schuchmann Saperavi, a pleasant, although not especially complex unoaked, medium-bodied wine with a fruity nose and a note of spice;
- 2020 Mukuzani (a designated district within Kakheti) Saparavi that spends a minimum of six months in French oak, followed by stainless steel aging that shows darker fruit and more tannin;
- 2019 Vinoterra Saperavi, a lovely wine from 30-50 year-old vines that is fermented in qvevri and spends a year in oak barrels with complex dried fruit, almonds and a hint of tobacco with a smooth, long finish; and
- 2019 Vinoterra Kindzmarauli (a region of Kakheti with light sandy soils that is especially suited for growing grapes for semi-sweet wines) Saparavi that is fermented in qvevri and aged for 12 months in stainless steel and that showed more red fruit.
While we enjoyed all the reds, the 2019 Vinoterra Saperavi was our favorite of the tasting and the 2019 Vinoterra Kindzmarauli provided a lovely ending.
Schuchmann Winery also has lodging and a restaurant. We were so pleased with the tasting (from which we had plenty of wine left over) and found the menu to be sufficiently interesting that we decided to stay for lunch. We began with a very rich, very good cream-based mushroom soup followed by a tasty dolma with meat and yogurt sauce and a tasty, but dry Apkhazura (veal/pork combination) with blackberry sauce and mashed potatoes that were a bit dry.
The wines left from our tasting and the beautiful surroundings provided a lovely complement to our meal.
Hands down, Tsinandali is the largest most dramatic facilities we stopped at. They offer paid tours through acres and acres of manicured lawns and gardens, along with those of their winemaking facilities. We, however, weren’t there for tours. We were interested in learning about and tasting the wines, learning about their blends, and how they produced specific wines that we were tasting. However, the winery didn’t offer only tasting events. We had to pay for a tour even if we didn’t take it so that we could taste the wine.
Our problem came in our perception of the institutionalism of the organization and the staff and in quality of the wines we tasted. Something of a feeling that these are the rules and the rules must be followed. The people had to do their assigned job rather than try to provide experiences for their customers. It was a similar attitude that that we had of Russia and the Eastern European countries when we visited in 1990.
In terms of the wine, the server poured the wines, told us what they were, and then walked away. While we asked questions and he briefly answered them but didn’t invite conversation. This actually worked out since the wines were the least appealing wines of our trip and we found little to ask about. Our tastes consisted of:
- Prince Alexander Cbauchavadze Rkatsiteli/Mtsvane, a light, watery Western-style white (stainless steel with minimal skin contact;
- 2020 Sola Kakhuri qvervri-produced white with Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Kisi and other grapes that had too much acid for our taste;
- 2021 Alexsandrouli Laleshi Sapavari-based Rose that was very light and way too sweet for our tastes;
- 2020 Saparav-based Western-style red that was too acidic with an almost artificial red cherry taste;
- 2021 Anna semi-sweet Aexander Saparav that was undistinguished; and
- Prince Alexander Chacha, a 41 percent alcohol distillate, the only taste with which we did not find fault.
It was a stopped that we could have easily passed on in lieu of the smaller places with better wines and who wanted to educate and create a customer experience.
We also made a very disappointing stop at Shalauri Cellars. Our driver attempted to translate with the owner at this very small family winery who only spoke Georgian (and our driver had limited English). While we were able to see his qvevris, we were unable to taste his wines or to learn much due to the language barrier. While we understand the issues, it was not a worthwhile stop.