Culture: Georgia Is Famous for Orange Wine. It Can Do So Much More.
When Gocha Chkhaidze, co-founder of Georgia’s Askaneli Brothers winery, talks about Georgian wine, his eyes light up. Making animated gestures, he speaks with such conviction that the whole room can’t help but go quiet and listen. His mission to bring global recognition to the wine of Georgia, a small nation on the Black Sea sandwiched between Russia and Turkey, is so clear that one can understand his vision even without speaking the language.
Chkhaidze is definitely not alone. A growing contingent of Georgia wine industry insiders are waging an informal influence campaign to elevate the country’s vast array of wines. It’s a battle of perception: Although the number of Georgian wines exported to the United States hovers just under a million bottles—an increase of more than 3.5 times over between 2012 and 2022—Georgian wine largely remains a specialty offering.
That’s because it’s closely associated with amber wine, also called orange wine. This white wine is aged on skins, which lends it a signature orange hue. Georgia has become known for producing these amber wines in qvevri, or large clay pots, which are generally buried underground and fall into the natural wine category. They have been a part of Georgia’s history for thousands of years.
But amber wine accounts for only 5% of the country’s total production, according to Tamta Kvelaidze, head of marketing and public relations for the National Wine Agency of Georgia. “We want everyone to know that Georgia produces both qvevri wine and traditional (European) wines,” she says.
Amber wines are “only a small picture of our country and winemaking potential,” echoes Patrick Honnef, CEO and technical director of JSC Château Mukhran. In fact, Georgia is home to around 500 indigenous varieties. Many of these are grown at the nation’s Scientific Research Center of Agriculture, which was established in 2014 to suss out grapes suitable for wine production and the best ways to utilize them. This program is helping to fuel the growth of diverse Georgian wines available across the globe.
Here’s a glimpse into Georgia’s wine culture beyond its amber offerings, and how it evolved to where it is today.
A Deep History
The country’s winemaking history dates to at least 6,000 B.C.E., making it one of the earliest (if not the earliest) regions to engage in winemaking. Despite this longstanding tradition, Georgia is often thought of as a relatively young region.
Several factors have contributed to this perception. One of the biggest stems from the Soviet occupation of Georgia, which lasted from 1921 to 1991. According to Amber Revolution: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine, during several generations of occupation, Georgians were forced to grow specific grapes that were then used for bulk wine. Any individuality in terms of grape growing or wine production was strictly prohibited, nearly wiping out many of Georgia’s traditional winemaking practices and indigenous grapes.
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But even after the Soviet Union collapsed, the Georgian wine industry functioned as it had for decades—producing bulk wine, with most of its exports going to Russia. For instance, in 2005, 45 million of Georgia’s total 50 million exported bottles went to Russia, according to Mamuka Tsereteli, senior fellow for Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council.
But something interesting happened in 2006. “For political reasons, Russia banned imports of Georgian wines,” Tsereteli explains. The ban would last until 2013 and Georgian winemakers suddenly had to diversify and cater to new markets—quickly. “The production of higher-quality wine started to grow.”
Now, the country finds itself in what Honnef calls the “spring of the Georgian wine renaissance.”
The Rise of the Modern Georgian Wine Industry
“When I came to Georgian wine, first as a consumer and then as a reviewer, I had pretty limited exposure,” says Emily Saladino, Wine Enthusiast writer at large and wine reviewer for Georgia and Greece. “A lot of what I experienced in New York was amber wine from Georgia carried by the natural wine movement.” But after a few tastings, “I saw my own perceptions change to realize the diversity.”
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These days, notable Georgian wineries like Askaneli Brothers, Chelti Winery, Dugladze Wines & Spirits, Chateau Nekresi and more produce everything from dry white wines and sparkling rosés to deep barrel-aged reds. There’s also been an uptick in operations that employ the French winemaking art of bâtonnage, a technique that involves hand-stirring individual barrels to infuse wine with the texture and complexity of settled lees. It’s often used with the white grape Goruli Mtsvane, with which Château Mukhrani makes a particularly notable wine. Winemakers Lado Uzunashvili and Gogi Dakishvili have also employed this method with both the white grapes Kakhuri Mtsvane and Rkatsiteli.
Honnef was first drawn to Georgia by its winemaking potential. Originally from Germany, he’d just finished working at Chateau d’Aiguilhe in Bordeaux when he visited Georgia in 2009. A few years later, in 2013, he moved there full-time. “I fell in love with the country, the spiritual vibrations,” Honnef recalls. He’s enamored with the country’s variety of grapes.
“I am in love with Kartli Shavkapito, a red variety that creates wines I would describe as a fusion of Pinot Noir and Langhe’s Nebiolo,” Honnef says. “[The wines are] fresh and crispy, middle dense, with cherry and plum aromas and sweet spice on medium powerful tannins.” As far as other red grapes and their potential, he’s excited about Ojaleshi, Orbeluri, Usakhelauri, Mujuretuli and Alexandrouli. He also believes the “lesser-known variety of Dzelshavi could make great red wine, once we understand it better.”
For those just getting to know Georgian wine, Saladino suggests seeking out Rkatsiteli, which makes a lovely skin-contact wine as well as more traditional whites. “It’s almost like a Pinot Grigio,” she says. “It’s a white grape that’s easy-drinking and chameleon-like.”
Both Saladino and Honnef praise Kakhuri Mtsvane—sometimes known simply as Mtsvane. “Mtsvane is a great one because it’s so food-friendly and has a lot of nuances,” says Saladino.
Bringing Georgian Wine to the Rest of the World
There’s admittedly a lot to learn about Georgian wine. “We have 525 grape varieties, we cannot educate people on all of them,” says Tsereteli, who acknowledges that the spelling and pronunciations of various Georgian wine grapes can be intimidating to everyday drinkers.
Kvelaidze nonetheless hopes that wine professionals will take the leap to help translate the appeal of Georgian wines to their customers. To aid this, Wines of Georgia offers a free course for wine trade, press and educators with Napa Valley Wine Academy. It offers an overview of the country’s grapes, winemaking styles and proposes language with which to teach consumers.
“It reminds me of encountering Italian wine, where there’s so many indigenous grapes that go by different names,” notes Saladino on the challenge of educating drinkers. But Italian wine has the benefit of coexisting alongside Italian food culture in the U.S., which she believes has helped open minds to unfamiliar Italian varietals, many with names difficult for most Americans to pronounce. “We don’t have the same Georgian food culture here—yet.”
Saladino and others see Georgian cuisine as one of the best ways to educate consumers on the diversity of the nation’s wine. “Americans can have anxiety toward wine, and I can think of no better antidote to that anxiety than exceptional Georgian hospitality,” she says. Indeed, those fortunate enough to travel to Georgia are likely familiar being served plates upon plates of food and wine glasses refilled before they’re even finished.
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Chkhaidze himself has opened several restaurants around the world in hopes of bringing Georgian culture—and wine—to a global audience. The restaurants serve traditional Georgian dishes such as ajapsandali, a red pepper, eggplant and onion dip; khachapuri imeruli, a traditional cheese bread; and khinkali dumplings filled with meats or cheeses. These are, of course, complemented by a host of Georgian wines.
According to Wines of Georgia, over the last six years, the country’s exports to the U.S. have grown by 29% and demand is continuing to increase. In other words, it’s a great time to try Georgia wine—especially those beyond amber wine. Saladino perhaps puts it best: “As someone who just appreciates Georgian wine, I feel really lucky that we live now,” she says.
Last Updated: September 1, 2023