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Vino Underground and natural wine – no monkey business!

By Robert Linkous

Though on a smaller and less pervasive scale, the natural wine movement, like the Arab Spring, Facebook, and Selena Gomez’s immortal “Love You Like A Love Song,” is a social phenomenon not to be denied. Its headquarters is the new Vino Underground tasting bar at 15 Galaktion Tabidze Street in Tbilisi. There a recruiting drive is in full swing.

At cellar level there are seven wooden tables where patrons and partisans can sit, taste natural wines, and compare notes. But tea, coffee, and cheeses, meats, and sweets in the Georgian mold are also available.

“We want to teach the real culture of wine drinking,” explained co-owner and part-time manager Ramaz Nikoladze. He and his partners, winemakers all, decided against a full-scale restaurant, where customers were likely to drink more wine, to be sure, but with a greater interest in imbibing it than appreciating it. Some people are like that. It is outrageous.

Vino Underground is entirely devoted to natural wine, made with “minimum intervention,” as stated in the credo in its flyer, “biodynamic and organic principles in the vineyards … native yeasts, light or no filtration, and very little or no added sulfur.”

That means no chaptalization, no oak chips, no chemicals, no monkey business. Got it?

Though open only since May 17, Vino Underground has already received a number of keenly interested visitors from abroad, where, so far, Georgian natural wine seems to have found its largest following.

In Georgia there is a double whammy to confront, according to Nikoladze. (And maybe a triple whammy considering how many Georgians make their own wine.) First, Georgian natural wines are “not cheap,” and second, many Georgians distrust bottled wine in general, identifying it with “factory wine” from the Soviet era.

Thus “it is important to be represented in Georgia,” added Nikoloz Antadze, another natural winemaking partner in the venture. “We are happy our wine can be bought in Tbilisi, even if only in a small quantity.”

But as natural wine gains momentum in Georgia, and small growers of it get bigger, sales should increase domestically as well as abroad.

“Our idea is to make natural wine popular,” emphasized Undergrounder Nika Bakhia. Since in Georgia there is little understanding of natural wine, “we have to try to change that, but we have to be modest, not so loud…”

At Vino Underground, of course, curious – or skeptical – tasters can listen to the wines speak for themselves. Meanwhile, the Undergrounders will have plenty to say to each other.

The experience of Antadze, not formally or academically trained, seems typical. He “mostly learned from family, colleagues, experienced winemakers in Georgia who gave very good advice.”

In fact, Bakhia, himself an accomplished artist who spends most of his time living and working near Cologne, comes from a family of scientists, not winemakers. He got interested in wine “because I love it,” he said, and did not hesitate to specify that “love” included drinking. But he believes it has been an “advantage to learn by doing;” Bakhia “had to make my own decisions.”

So why natural winemaking? “The less man goes in nature, the better,” Nikoladze put it simply. Why put “poison in the earth and water?” After all, “Then we drink it.”

For Bakhia, the qvevri is as fundamental to natural winemaking as it is to that in the Georgian tradition. When you use qvevris, “you do not have to cut the oak,” he put it. To refrain from producing wine in oak barrels is to save trees.

At Vino Underground along with wines from Nikoladze, Antadze, and Nika Wine Cellar, wines from Jakeli, Our Wine, Pheasant’s Tears, Berishvili, and Tsikhelishvili are also available by the glass – and by the bottle!

“If people want to drink here, why not?” is Nikoladze’s liberal policy.

Currently over two dozen wines can be tasted, including Nikoladze’s 2011 Tsitska (7 Lari per glass, 28 Lari per bottle), grown in western Georgia near Terjola, fermented without contact between the juice and grape skins, and bottled after six months of maturation in qvevris. With its herbal aromas and dry but crisply peachy mid-palate, it is certainly, as Nikoladze claims, “good summer wine.”

His 2011 Tsolikauri (7 Lari, 28 Lari), meanwhile, deep amber in color, is nutty and just a bit honeyed, but with good zesty acidity and impressive palate impact.

From Antadze and Manavi, in Kakheti, there is a 2010 Mtsvane (10 Lari, 40 Lari) which spent six months in qvevris with skins and stems, after which only the wine was removed to other qvevris for another seven months. With a bouquet as powerful as that of a fine fino Sherry, considerable concentration, and almost creamy texture, it is an Mtsvane with character and distinction.

Of his 2010 Nika Saperavi (7.50 Lari, 30 Lari) Bakhia wryly remarked, “I like it when wine is intense in color, I’m a painter,” and the wine is about as inky black as Saperavi gets. Pulsating with black fruit aromas and flavors, it is an untamed youth at present, but its sticky tannins are free from astringency, and its varietal purity guarantees subtlety and nuance to come.

Already the natural wines at Vino Underground are making friends and influencing people. “Last year in Georgia I sold one hundred bottles,” Nikoladze reported, “but now in one month I sold about ten times more.”

He believes that winegrowing is like a marriage … “the more you give, the more you receive.” What could Selena Gomez possibly add to such a profound sentiment, even if one heard her sing it one million times?

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May 2023