When Iago Bitarishvili organised a pioneering tasting of traditional Georgian qvevri wines in 2009, he went looking for fellow winemakers who were producing the style on a commercial basis. He found just five across the whole country.
“Georgian technology” as it’s affectionately known had been albeit abandoned by the beginning of the 21st century.
Those five wineries were Pheasant’s Tears, Ramaz Nikoladze, Our Wine (Soliko Tsaishvili RIP), Vinoterra (now Schuchmann wines) and Alaverdi Monastery.
If Iago organised the same tasting in 2020, he’d be able to choose from well over 150 wineries. Yes, it’s a vague estimate. Figuring out how many wineries in Georgia produce the traditional qvevri style is close to impossible. Even Georgia’s National Wine Agency doesn’t record this information. However, help might be at hand from the OIV, who are about to ratify a new “white wine with maceration” category. Irakli Cholobargia (a senior advisor at the NWA) suggests that from 2021 Georgia’s amber wines (which represent the apothesis of the qvevri tradition) may finally be categorised as such – rather than simply being bundled invisibly into the white wine category.
An official amber wine category?
Some more detail about that OIV addition: It’s been reported in the Georgian press as an “amber wine” category, specific to Georgia. National pride may have slightly distorted the facts. As confirmed to The Morning Claret by the OIV’s head of economy and law Tatiana Svinartchuk, the OIV’s committee rejected both the names “amber wine” and “orange wine” as confusing – hence the neutral (and in my opinion equally confusing) phrase “white wine with maceration”.
The new OIV category is the eighth to be included in a list of “special wines” alongside styles such as sparkling, liqueur or flor-affected wines). Georgia was instrumental in petitioning the OIV for the creation of this category, mainly so that amber/orange wines can be properly signposted at wine competitions, and not risk being marked down as faulty white wines. The OIV recognises Georgia and specifically “the ancient Georgian method of winemaking in traditional Qvevris, inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013”, however the category allows wines from any country, provided they meet the following specification:
White wine derived from alcoholic fermentation of a must with prolonged contact with grape pomace, including skins, pulp, seeds and eventually stems.
The OIV defines “prolonged contact” as a minimum of one month’s “maceration”, and specifies that the wine “can be characterised by an orange-amber colour and a tannic taste.” Presumably Elisabetta Foradori’s Nosiola Fontanasanta (nine months on skins, but light in colour and delicate in texture) need not apply – neither should Dario Prinčič’s Pinot Grigio (dark and tannic, but only a week of skin contact) nor Mlečnik’s Cuvée Ana (a giant among orange wines, but with only three or four days of skin contact).
In 2009, qvevri wines were only just starting to become available outside Georgia – and they variously captivated and shocked wine drinkers who had never seen or tasted anything like them before. I remember my own flabbergastment when I first tasted some amber wines at the Real Wine Fair in 2012. Now, according to Georgia’s National Wine Agency there are 350 wine producing/processing companies with export licenses – plus a further 1,165 who do not (yet) export.
The NWA estimates that somewhere between 150 – 250 of these produce the traditional qvevri style. Their figure is calculated by taking the membership of Georgia’s Natural Wine Association (150), adding the members of the Bolnisi Wine Association (a further 35 maranis all making qvevri wines) and then estimating that there are at least a further 50 wineries not in either of these organisations.
It’s a far cry from the early days of Georgia’s independence, when its wine industry consisted only of commercial “wine factories” that had been taken over from the soviet days and repurposed into private JSCs (Joint Stock Companies). Back in the 1990s, the only game in town was bulk production of semi-sweet plonk destined for the Russian market. Now, Georgia exports just shy of 100 million bottles a year (admittedly 60% of which still ends up in Russia), and of this, perhaps 5% (or 5 million bottles) is qvevri wine.
A flood of new wineries contributes to this significant niche production, all claiming to be the real deal. “Traditional Georgian method”, “natural wine” and other non-legally binding phrases abound on the labels, which often look like design throwbacks to the 19th century.
Boom or bust?
Some of these wines and winemakers deliver the goods, but inevitably some are bandwagon-jumpers and some showcase decidedly amateur winemaking. Far too few of these wineries grow 100% of their own fruit, often sourcing either via old-timers with fragmented plots or other less than transparent routes. With Georgia’s existing vineyards in terrible condition by the time the country became independent in 1991, top quality fruit – especially from organic viticulture – is in very short supply.
Then there are the subtle differences which remain opaque on wine labels. Not all “qvevri wines” are the small production, artisanal product that you might expect. An increasing number of the major wineries have introduced boutique qvevri lines – the frontrunners here are Tbilvino (“Qvevris”), Telavi Wine Cellar (Satrapezo) and Schuchmann (Vinotera). Whilst these are often good, they can sometimes lack authenticity (Satrapezo’s Mtsvane is aged in barriques) and the viticulture will be at best conventional.
Then there are legion producers who make qvevri wines but who would not necessarily qualify as “natural”. There is nothing to stop a winemaker adding selected yeasts to the qvevri (although this is rare), and filtration, cold-stabilisation, fining and sulphuring are often practised to make wines more stable and “export friendly”.
Finally there’s the real McCoy – those growers who adhere faithfully to the time-honoured Georgian tradition – no additives, no filtering or other processing, no oak ageing – just “Georgian technology”. The best of these growers also practice organic or biodynamic viticulture – although a minuscule number have achieved certification. The more reliable guarantee of these principles is to look for members of the Natural Wine Association. At the time of writing, the list of members on their website is frustratingly non-operational.
And don’t be fooled – just because a picture of a qvevri appears on the label, it doesn’t follow that the liquid inside the bottle ever came into contact with clay. There are plenty of shameless marketeers in Georgia. That said, a small number of growers have shown that authentic “Georgian style” wines can be made even in steel tanks. My recommendations include Nine Oaks, Dano and Georgian Sun.
The amber nectar
Here’s the rub – we’re all in love with the simplicity, timelessness and rusticity of Georgia’s qvevri style, but nailing it needs a skilled and experienced hand. The difference between a perfectly made qvevri wine vinified from top quality fruit, and a clumsy example from a cellar with poor hygiene or a vineyard with scant quality control is vast. Foul, fault-ridden wines still dog the industry, even if they are receding in number compared to a decade ago.
Nonetheless, lovers of the traditional Georgian qvevri style have never had it so good. I reviewed 73 Georgian wines over the last few months, many from producers previously unknown to me. Here are some favourite amber discoveries:
Tchotiashvili Kisi 2016
I loved this super precise, grippy Kisi from micro-winery Tchotiashvili in Kakheti (Eastern Georgia). It has really typical papaya & baked plum fruit, with serious structure, but perfectly ripe tannins. With four years of age, this is really hitting its stride – still youthful & rather monolithic, but glorious with it. It’s proof perfect that these wines often deserve a lot more bottle age than they tend to get.
Unfiltered, traditional qvevri winemaking at its finest.
Babaneuris Marani – Kisi 2017
The village of Babaneuris is looking for official recognition as a top micro-zone for the Kisi grape variety. Here there’s a bit more altitude as the vineyards are in the Caucasus foothills.
The nose shows some fresh apricot and roasted twigs and herbs. Instead of Kisi’s normal roundness, here we get really exciting acidity that lifts the palate. There are notes of dried apricot and green plum, and grippy but ripe tannins that coat the mouth and add a smoky, nutty character to the finish. Pretty tight right now, decant this to get the best out of it.
An exciting wine with real depth, just about ready to drink now but would benefit from several years more ageing. Superb stuff.
Baia’s wine – Tsitska Tsolikouri Krakhuna 2019
Expressive and tangy citrus fruits, green plum and a bit of kiwi. Really zippy and leesy with a lovely tannic prickle on the finish. This has it all – fruit expression, structure, freshness. It’s a great example of the Imeretian style, where there’s less skin contact and the fruit speaks a bit louder than in Kakheti.
Oda Family Winery – Tsolikouri 2019
Smoked honey and citrus on the nose, and the palate. The tannins are fairly delicate but present, and there’s a lovely creamy, leesy character to the texture. The fruit character is quite exotic, suggesting green plum, angelica peel, kiwi & lime. Super fresh and harmonious, long on the finish. A great wine.
Note the political message on this bottle. Keta and her husband Zaza (who makes wine under the name M’artville) are both campaigning to stop Russia’s attempted landgrab as it advances metre by metre on Georgia’s borders.
Chona’s Marani – Rkatsiteli 2019
Pleasingly hazy, expressive on the nose and the palate. This has that compacted, pungent feel of dried herbs and baked fruits that is so inviting with Qvevri fermented amber wines. Big on texture and fairly low on acid, the wine carries itself well, finishing on some more vegetal tones. The fruit suggests umeboshi plum with hints of jasmine and woodsmoke. Complex, nuanced and fascinating, with layers of interesting flavour and aroma.
Here are three qvevri-fermented reds that were all quite sensational in their own ways:
Gvantsa’s Wine – Otskhanuri Sapere 2019
Gvantsa is Baia Abduladze’s sister (Baia’s wine), and now finally gets her own label. Crushed berries, lovely velvety texture with pure fruit and sappy tannins. Very harmonious and elegant, with lovely tannins that support but don’t dominate. A gorgeous wine from a grape variety that – at least on this reading – we all ought to know better.
Varzia Terraces – Tamaris Vazi 2018
This is an historic release with a hell of a story behind it. The project of Giorgi Natenadze, this wine is the first harvest from terraces planted in the southerly Javakheti region – a place that was desecrated by Ottoman invaders who completely destroyed all its vineyards 400 years ago. Natenadze is the first to replant and make wine here again. He replanted these terraces in 2016.
I have no reference for Tamaris Vazi (well, who does?!). But here we get brambly fruit with a lovely fresh, slightly spritzy character. Very fruit forward, with a spicy, almost iodine-like character on the finish. Well integrated tannins with a nice sappiness. Great wine.
Made in qvevris in a small purpose-built marani right by the terraces.
Bio Marani – Saperavi 2016
A fascinating and different style of Saperavi, with a roasted, briney aroma and crunchy redcurrant, cranberry and cassis fruit.
Light on its feet, with a charming earthiness that is the only clue to the evolution here. It reminds me of great Loire Cab Franc from the likes of Breton or Bobinet.
Attractively tannic and gamey, this has plenty of Saperavi-typicity with superb drinkability into the bargain. So often growers tend to harvest it too late and the alcohol spirals up to 14% or more.
This winery has 15 ha in the Alazani valley sub-region of Kakheti.
For more, view all my reviews of Georgian wines here.
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You’re quite right – the proposals for the new designation need much more discussion, this needs to be considered from a branding perspective because it’s essential to help independent producers market their wines in international markets – that would suggest a couple of things; 1) Amber is a clear designation that is less confusing than Orange – it’s the colour that best describes the wine and let’s be clear that’s what red, white and rose do. It could also be clever to designate a Black wine category – in Georgia we often call Qvevri Reds “Shavi” – Black. 2) It would be wise to cast the Amber designation as wide as possible – allowing wines that have 20-30% skin contact for minimum 7 days would mean that the wines of Imereti, Guria, Adjara and Samegrelo would be included in the Amber category which is beneficial for the end-consumer and wine… Read more »
I disagree about amber – worldwide, the term “orange wine” has far greater concurrence and is a bit less esoteric than “amber”. Furthermore, orange is the same word in English, French and German which is also very helpful.
My feeling is that “orange” sits better in the red/white/rosé paradigm too.
That said, I acknowledge that Georgians have a better bond with the term amber and that it will always be with us as an alternative term.
You raise a very valid point, which I decided to circumvent in the article, about the wines of western Georgia. And of course there are qvevri wines made with no skin contact at all. Edge cases abound!
I can see what you’re getting at, the elephant in the room being that Orange is easily confused with the fruit of the same name where Amber isn’t – I’d also note that your wonderful book is entitled Amber Revolution – I suppose Orange Revolution ran the risk of being confused with events in Ukraine in 2004? 😉 Anyway, I’d contend that because Amber/Orange wines are a minuscule % of global sales there is still time to set a definition. I’d also add that Amber is a precious stone and this may subconsciously add to the value proposition. Your circumvention of Western Georgia was sensible and indeed I made a Tsolikouri with no skin contact this year which has come out what can only be termed as white – I wouldn’t want to call the wine Amber or Orange because it’s not – but it absolutely is a Qvevri wine.… Read more »
You are partly correct. I wanted to avoid political implications in the title, and “Orange revolution” would have not only referenced the Ukraine affair but also Northern Ireland. However what is all important is the sub-title “how the world learned to love orange wine”. The term orange wine is the one that the wine industry (restaurants, importers, journalists etc) has largely got behind. It is 10-times more common than the terms “amber wine” or “skin fermented white wine” or whatever. So this is not my diktat or choice, simply an observation on the wisdom of crowds if you like. Yes, orange can be confused with fruit wines. But Rosé could be confused with herbal teas I suppose! Ultimately, these terms only have meaning if you know a modicum of what is being categorised. When you really start to unpack the terms “white wine” and “red wine”, they are as nebulous… Read more »