Georgia: The cradle of wine?
I have a place on my “must visit” list that many people don’t even know exists. It’s beautiful, (or so I’m told) surrounded by mountains and filled with smiling, happy people that will embrace you as a friend as soon as you leave the plane. This place is called Georgia … And no, I’m not referring to the Georgia found among our neighbours to the south. The Georgia that I want to visit is the country, and I found out about it from a man on a train.
He was my seat partner during a recent trip from Montreal to Toronto. This man, whose name I unfortunately forget, shared stories of his travels around the world (and then some). Of all the places he told me about, it was his story of visiting Georgia that stuck with me. He described this small country in the South Caucasus, squashed between Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Black Sea, as beautiful without comparison; the people there will accept you as family but if you betray them, will consider you an enemy until the end of days; the churches are really, really, really old and the wine is fantastic.
Being the naturally curious person I am, I started to research. Turns out to have been voted one of the top 10 most interesting wine regions to visit according to the Lonely Planet book Wine Trails (specifically Kakheti, Georgia, if you’re interested). This buzz is partly due to the fact that Georgia is among the oldest wine producing regions in the world. They are very proud of this fact and, in 2012, the EU registered the slogan “Cradle of Wine” as exclusive for Georgia’s use. This slogan is everywhere on their bottles. According to the website Hvino, a news site founded in 2010 to help spread the world on Georgian wine, the registered community trade mark (CTM) was an official trademark of the British company “Cradle of Wine Limited” up until their registration expired on January 26, 2010.
“Cradle of Wine has been used … since grape pips dating back to 6,000 BC were found during an archaeological mission in Georgia,” says Georgie Apkhazava, Marketing Manager of the Georgian Wine Association, an association founded in 2010 by wine producers to give them a voice on national and international markets. These grape pips form the basis of Georgia’s claim to be the oldest wine making country in the world. Archaeological evidence — silver, gold and bronze artifacts dating back to the third and second millennia BC found in Georgia have pictures and imprints of vines, grape clusters, leaves and other winemaking symbols — supports the theory that winemaking has been a part of their culture for centuries.
Michael Cecire, contributor to Hvino, writes in his article, The Wonders of the World’s Oldest Wine: “According to recent archaeological evidence, proto-Georgian inhabitants cultivated grapes and made wine as far back as 6,000 BC … Just as striking, many of the same methods that early Georgians used to make their wine — such as using wax-lined earthenware vessels known as qvevri buried in the ground — are traditions that continue even today. Qvevri winemaking is not only historically interesting (UNESCO recognized it in its list of intangible cultural heritage in 2013), but is increasingly dealing shocks to oenophiles for the complexity and varied tones of its wines.”
This ancient winemaking tradition is the reason the European Union decided to reserve the slogan “Cradle of Wine” for wines made in this small country. But their claim to the title of the world’s oldest is not without contention. Georgia’s somewhat more well-known neighbours, Armenia, Turkey and even Azerbaijan, all believe that they are the oldest winemaking region in the world. The argument has been made that the slogan could apply to wine made in any of these countries. But Georgia is adamant that they’re the oldest. In 2014, Georgia’s National Wine Agency hired NASA and several other labs to prove Georgia’s motherland-of-wine status. While I can’t find any record of those results (perhaps the tests are still being conducted), it is safe to say that even if Georgia isn’t THE oldest winemaking region in the world, they are definitely among the oldest, with 8,000 years of wine producing history.
With such a long history, it’s no surprise that wine is a huge aspect of modern Georgian culture. “Georgia’s wine is not only the national drink of choice, but a symbol of Georgian identity and civilizational continuity,” writes Cecire. “Almost every family, it seems, grows grapes and makes their own wine.” According to Cecire, the capital city Tbilisi is covered in vines, from balconies to storefronts to garage doors. The roots of winemaking go deep here and winemaking is an integral part of their lifestyle. But it’s been a challenge to expand into the international market.
“In Georgia, there are about 150 registered wineries,” says Apkhazava. “50 of them very active.” Most of the exported bottles are produced by small estates and monasteries. It’s been said that for every bottle of wine produced for export, there is a homemade cask served only to friends and family. While winemakers have been producing wine for what seems like forever, they have been highly influenced by their neighbour to the north. During Soviet rule, Georgian wines were very popular, preferred over wines from Moldavia and Crimea. In 1985, production covered 316,000 acres of vineyards. Enter Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign; this Soviet statesman carried out this partial prohibition that raised the prices of vodka, wine and beer and restricted sales to specific times during the day. Anyone caught disobeying was prosecuted.
This prohibition severely reduced the export of Georgian wine and resulted in the culling of many old vineyards. The prohibition ended in 1987, but the damage was already done. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Georgia regained its independence (something they’ve gained and lost over and over again since the dawn of time). Their relationship with Russia is a rocky one, filled with conflicts of a political and territorial nature. This tension led to a ban on Georgian wines in Russia in 2006, forcing Georgia to expand their exports to other countries, like Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and China. From 2006 until the ban was lifted in 2013, Georgia’s sales held on and they continued to use their new relationships to expand their market.
However, having the slogan “Cradle of Wine” hasn’t seemed to have helped increase the popularity or notoriety of Georgian wine. Since adopting it in 2012, Georgia is still among the lower echelon of wine-producing countries by volume. “I have not noticed any results [from the slogan],” says Inge Olson, Senior Associate at Hvino News. “I think the reason is, there was no wide marketing campaign or even PR activity to accompany [the new slogan]. Even the mass media, besides our Hvino News, did not cover that event.”
According to an article published on Hvino in June 2015, Georgia exported over 28 million bottles to 42 countries in the first 10 months of 2015, the majority of them to Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, China and Poland. “We know that even in the top wine-producing countries such as Australia, Argentina and even France, Georgian wine is becoming available and gaining popularity,” says Olson.
The US has discovered Georgian wine, importing over 200K bottles during that time — with the import numbers on the rise. Canada is still unknown territory and doesn’t seem to be a major market for them. “Canada is interesting but not a primary market; just a few bottles are sold there,” says Apkhazava. “No big activities are planned in this market.”
For now, we are just going to have to settle for the two or three bottles offered across the country through the liquor stores. Perhaps getting more Georgian wine requires a little push on our part — if we ask for it, will it come? Maybe I’ll just save up and visit this beautiful country myself. I promise I’ll bring back a bottle or two to share!