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THE HISTORY OF GEORGIAN WINE

By Malkhaz Kharbedia

THE FIRST PIPS

Few would nowadays doubt the assertion that the oldest traces of viticulture are to be found in Georgia. The history of wine began in Neolithic times, and the clearest traces of viticulture have been found on the territory of Georgia. Several decades ago, archaeologists working among the ruins of the settlement of Dangreuli Gora in a valley close to Marneuli (a town in the Lower Kartli region south of Tbilisi) uncovered a great number of grape pips from the VIth millennium B.C. whose morphological and ampelographical characteristics were identical to those of vitis vinifera sativa. More recently, in 2006 and 2007, renewed excavations of Gadachrili Gora settlement not only uncovered many more grape pips from the Neolithic but have also examined a multitude of fragments of clay vessels – further evidence of the presence of wine. A chemical analysis of the clay vessels revealed deposits of calcium salts characteristic of tartaric (wine) acid. Such deposits of tartaric acid on the internal sides of these clay vessels can only be the result of the presence of wine or grape juice.

These discoveries are proof that the relationship between Man and wine began in the VIth millennium B.C. and that the territory of modern-day Georgia was not only home to the first efforts at viticulture, but also to the first viniculture.

Such finds have been collected in Georgia time and time again over the years, and the following was known before the finds mentioned above were made: grape pips dating back to the V-IVth millennia B.C. were found in Shulaveri, others dating back to the IVth millen­nium B.C. in Khizanaant Gora, others in the gorge of the Iori River, and more among the remains of the early Bronze Age Kura-Araxes culture (Qvatskhelebi). Just as important was the find of grape pips from the XIV-XIth centuries B.C. in a late Bronze Age dwelling in the village of Dighomi. This find was particularly important, as it was the first time that wine and table varieties of grape pips had been found together.

THREE STEPS

Many other ancient traces of viniculture have been preserved in Georgia – evidence which reinforces the country’s claims to be the birthplace of wine as well as a place where the relationship between man and wine was never interrupted (as opposed to Asia Minor and other regions of the Caucasus, where this relationship was inter­rupted for centuries). Equally important are the different forms of viticulture which have been well preserved in our country.

One can imagine there being three basic forms of viticulture, which is somewhat consistent with the three stages of cultural development. The first stage was called maghlari, “raised”, in Georgian, and consisted of extensive viticulture during which vines were trained to grow up trees so as to require minimal care. The second stage – called olikhnari – saw vines being trained up tall stakes or low trees; this practice was the first step towards the most developed form of viticulture, dablari, i.e. low-lying, conventional viticulture. Dablari is, of course, already an intensive form of viticulture during which growers attempt to influence the vine’s development and to control its quantity and quality as well as its growth and foliage through appropriate pruning.

All these forms of viticulture still exist in Georgia to this day. The first two forms (the most archaic) have been kept unchanged – especially in Western Georgia – and based upon an example given in one village the entire process of the development of viticulture (and therefore of mankind) can be seen. Despite this fact, grapes har­vested from maghlari vines were kept separate from those harvested from dablari vines. For example, according to one version of The Life of St. Nino – the young woman who Christianized Georgia in the IVth century A.D. – maghlari vines were trained to grow up pine trees in King Mirian’s paradise (garden) in Mtskheta (the old capital of Georgia). The maghlari vine was known as babilo in those days, and the fact that some of the underground Qvevris in which grape juice was left to ferment were known as sababilo confirms that maghlari wine was kept separate from other kinds of wine.

The transition from maghlari to dablari probably happened between the IInd and Ist millennia B.C., a theory confirmed by the discovery of sickles, Qvevris (clay vessels) and other tools used in winemaking in almost all the different regions of Georgia. According to scientists, viticulture therefore developed in Georgia between the IIIrd and the IInd millennium B.C. and primitive winemaking already existed in the VIth millennium B.C.

It is interesting to note that traces of viniculture have been found in regions of Georgia where vines could not possibly have grown: in 1966, grape pips and vine canes were found on Mt. Bedeni (1,700-1,800m above sea level) in the region of Tetri Tskaro. Scientists believe these grape pips belonged to the so-called Trialeti culture, which dates back to the IInd millennium B.C. These canes were covered in a thin layer of silver, a sign that the vine may have been the subject of a cult. This discovery also confirms the antiquity of the practice of mountainous winemaking, which has been preserved in Georgia to this day: grape must is still taken to ferment up in the mountains in both Western and Eastern Georgia, exactly as was done in the XVIIIth century, when King Vakhtang VI of Georgia ordered grape must to be taken to ferment up in Ko­jori (1,300-1,400m a.s.l.). The renowned XVIIIth-century Georgian historian, Prince Vakhushti Batonishvili, based his division of Georgia into highlands and lowlands according to the presence or absence of viticulture: where vines could grow and be harvested constituted the lowlands, and where they could not con­stituted the highlands.

ANCIENT QVEVRI

The prototype of qvevri was created in teritory of Georgia, during the Neolithic. An an­cient wine vessel found on Mt. Khrami and believed to date back to the VI-Vth millennia B.C. was decorated with bunches of grapes. Many qvevri have been found in Georgia dat­ing back to the early and middle Bronze Age, but the type of qvevri closest in shape to the contemporary Georgian qvevri was found in an ancient settlement near Rustavi. Dating back to the early Iron Age (VIIth century B.C.), this qvevri has a flat bottom and a stone lid, and its shoulders are encircled by three straight and two wavy bands of decoration. The qvevri also bears a symbol on one side.

It has been established that qvevri were in great use during winemaking from the VIth century B.C. onwards, and many qvevri from this period have been found in both Eastern and Western Georgia. Despite similarities in their use, however, West­ern and Eastern Georgian i.e. Colchian and Iberian qvevri – called churi in Western Georgia – differed greatly from one another in terms of shape, manufacture, colour and decoration.

Whereas it is true that the shape of Georgian qvevri had already been developed in the IIIrd and IInd millennia B.C., small qvevri were widely used until the IIIrd century B.C. These were no higher than 1.5m, had a flat bottom and a wide waist, and were either kept free-standing or were buried to a shallow depth.

From the IIIrd century B.C. onwards, the bottom of these qvevri became progressively more pinched in Georgia, so that they could bear the weight of the earth around them. Presumably, the practice of burying qvevri up to their necks began in this period.

THE GEORGIAN TRIAD

The growth of viniculture in Georgia began during the period of ancient colonization (VIth century B.C.). The first references to this fact are found in antique writings of the same period. It was also during this period that local or imported cults linked to wine began to spread – such as the cult of Dionysos – but following the country’s conversion to Christianity in the IVth century A.D., both wine and the vine acquired different mean­ings. Apart from the equation of wine with the blood of Christ (a belief held in common by the whole Christian world), another interesting equation was developed in Georgia following its conversion: the combination of Church, vineyards and irrigation channels. This triad was a small administrative unit with theocratic powers. Viticulture and vine­yards played a part in efforts to preserve political and administrative unity, and were therefore the basis for the country’s government. In addition, materials on pre-Christian Georgia inform us that the planting and irrigation of vineyards were symbols of the es­tablishment of a state.

A country based upon such a system would naturally always have a supply of wine. In monasteries, wine would be produced in large quantities. The wine cellar of the Nekresi Monastery, for example, occupied around 200m2 and contained five wine presses capable of crushing 10 tons of grapes at a time. The same could be said of the wine cellars of the Ikalto, Gelati, Alaverdi and Vardzia Monasteries. Some wine cellars – called salkhino and satsivo – remain in the latter monastery. In the nearby village of Chachkari, which was presumably a part of the Monastery’s economy in the Middle Ages, several dozen wine presses were carved out of the living rock.

There are several detailed written sources on viticulture and winemaking in medieval Georgia. Two of these – the Life of Grigol Khantsteli and Giorgi Mtatsmindeli’s Life of Ioane and Ekvtime (X-XIth centuries) – list the difficulties of viticulture. A poem written by Ioane Shavteli (XII-XIIIth centuries) also refers to the notion of “well-pruned” vineyards, which indicates that in those days the value of properly pruned vineyards was appreciated and that the basic rules of doing so were well known. The Mongol invasions temporarily brought such culture to a halt, and viticulture was only restored in the XVIth century. New wine cellars were built, and trade with neighbouring countries resumed. The names of the places of origin of different wines begin to appear during the reigns of King Teymuraz I and King Vakhtang VI. During this period, sources appear in which different wine appellations – such as Bolnuri, Khornabujuli, Kondoluri, Atenuri, Gavazuri, etc. – were described and praised. Most of the wines’ appellations were given by Vakhushti Batonishvili in his Description of the Kingdom of Georgia, in which he also refers to wines from Akhmeta and Manavi and describes wines from Kartli, Imereti, Guria and Mingrelia – regions where wine was made in large quantities and often exported abroad.

Foreign travellers praised Colchian and Kakhetian wines, and would sometimes describe the traditions associated with winemaking and feasting in Georgia. Viticulture in Tbilisi is also deserving of attention. The city was well-known for its vineyards, and in the XVIIIth century, for example, the vineyards of the Krtsanisi and Ortachala districts belonged to Iulon and Anastasia, the children of King Erekle II. Vineyards were also to be found in what is now the district of Vera and where the zoo now stands, as well as in Prince David Batonishvili’s garden (now near Freedom Square), where 7,000 vines were planted in 1823. Vineyards also covered the left bank of the Mtkvari River, the area where David Aghmashenebeli Avenue now lies and what is now the district of Didube.

FROM THE XIXTH CENTURY TO NOWADAYS

The XIXth century was one of the most important periods in the history of Georgian winemaking. The first four decades after Russia’s annexation of Georgia had a negative impact on the country’s viniculture. However, thanks to the efforts of Prince Chavchavadze and those of the Russian viceroy, Mikheil Vorontsov, Georgian wine came close to matching the quality of European wine by the end of the 1830s, and the first European-style wine cellars were established in Eastern and Western Georgia.

At the same time in the Kakhetian village of Ruispiri, a German man called Lentz built a wine cellar which played an important part in the restoration of the region’s viticulture and winemaking. Lentz owned two vineyards of Georgian and foreign varieties of grape, but would also purchase grapes from local farmers and produce different types of wine. Lentz had the following Kakhetian grape varieties: Saperavi, Mtsvivani, Mtsvane, Janaanuri, Rkatsiteli, Tsobenura and Dampala. In an article published in 1846 in the newspaper Ka­vkaz, Lentz praises the use of qvevri as an ideal vessel for the fermentation of grape juice, but also criticizes some viticultural and winemaking traditions popular at the time.

Viticulture in Tbilisi saw even greater development during this period. Following the arrival and settlement of German colonists in outer districts of the city, foreign varieties of grape were brought to Georgia and were planted in vineyards stretching from the district of Didube to that of Navtlughi – the most popular of these being Muscat.

Some varieties of wine produced under different appellations and which are still popular nowadays – such as Tsinandali and Mukuzani – were produced in the vineyards of Prince Chavchavadze’s estate as from the 1830s. In the 1880s, these vineyards became the prop­erty of the Royal Prince, and the fi rst AOC wines were produced in large quantities. In the early 1890s, Tsinandali, Mukuzani, Napareuli and Teliani began to be regularly produced. In the 1870s, Prince Ivane Mukhran-Batoni built a huge wine cellar in the village of Mukhrani, and in a few years’ time his wine would be exported abroad and even win prizes. He employed the famous Georgian winemaker, Vasil Petriashvili.

In the village of Sabue in Kakheti in 1882, the famous Georgian winemaker Zakaria Jorjadze began to build a wine cellar. Jorjadze took the culture of winemaking to a higher level by combining traditional and modern technologies: he built a special building to house dozens of traditional Georgian qvevri as well as oak barrels in which he would age European-style wines.

The story of the village of Kardenakhi is also very interesting: in the mid-1850s, Dmitri Abkhazi owned 21 hectares of vineyard which he later (in the 1880s) sold to Count Sergei Sheremetiev, a Russian public figure and historian. Sheremetiev built a wine cellar in Kardenakhi combining Kakhetian and European styles in which around 40-50 tons of grapes could be processed.

Scientific studies of Georgian varieties of grape and local ampelography began in the mid-XIXth century, and the first description of Georgian grape varieties was published in Paris and Lyon in the 1870s.

Georgia suffered greatly from vine diseases such as blight and mildew, which began to spread in the 1850s and reached their peak in the 1880s. Over a period of twenty years, the greatest part of maghlari vineyards were ruined in Western Georgia, and in 1895, the American grape variety of Isabella constituted 75% of maghlari vineyards in Mingrelia and 50% in Guria. Some time later, Isabella became the source of wine production in Abkhazeti.

In 1921, following several months of Russian occupation, the Georgian revolutionary committee (Revkom) published its first decree on winemaking, which declared trade in wine to be free, and the first Soviet viticultural units and cooperatives were established a year later. Even in 1926, 80% of the wine companies established in Tbilisi were privately owned. In 1929, however, the newly-established Samtrest (the Soviet monopoly on alco­hol) began to take over the entire winemaking industry of Soviet Georgia and became the owner of all the existing wine cellars in Tbilisi, Kardenakhi, Manavi, etc. New wine producing companies began to be established. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Georgia was still home to many varieties of grape. The state nevertheless ordered a group of scientists led by Solomon Cholokashvili to search for, collect and revive all the varieties which had existed in the XIXth century. In those days, Georgia was producing around 60 different types of wine, 12 of which were based upon local technologies. Unfortunately, many unique wines disappeared from the market very quickly: Khidistauri, Akhmeta-tetri, Rachuli Tetra, Ikalto Jananuri, Tskhinvaluri, Shavkapito, Kvishkhuri, Nagutneuli, Tsolikauri Obcha, Saperavi Sanavardo, Kvareli Nabegari, Kardanakhi Tsarapi, Akhoebi Saperavi, Krakhuna Sviri, Ruispiri Mtsvane, Mtsvane Nasamkhrali, Argvetuli Sapere, Mukhranuli Saperavi, Aladasturi, Gunashauri, and many others. Beginning in the 1950s, winemaking in Georgia suff ered greatly from various reforms, the negative results of which can still be felt to this day. The first steps towards unifying Georgian wine were taken in 1950. It was decided to keep only 16 varieties of grape for production, and the old system of numbering wines was also reformed. Henceforth, Tsinandali wine would be referred to as “Wine No.1”, Teliani as “Wine No.2”, Gurjaani as “Wine No.3”, etc. By 1959 all the winemaking companies belonged to Samtrest, and in the 1970s the total variety of grapes had been significantly reduced and hybrid varieties had been planted. Wine production began to focus purely on quantity, and this attitude changed Georgian wine over the years.

In 1985, during the years of perestroika, a “dry” law was passed in the Soviet Union. This law plunged the Georgian winemaking industry into a crisis which lasted into the 1990s, by which time the aftermath of the Soviet period was already being felt.

The history of the new era of Georgian winemaking begins between 1993 and 1997 with the founding of the country’s first modern wine cellars and wine companies (such as GWS - Georgian Wines and Spirits Company, Teliani Valley, Tbilvino and Telavi Wine Cellar) and was aided by several years of an excellent harvest.

Georgian winemaking has been constantly developing since the late 1990s and many smaller winemakers have been established, some of whom have adopted organic and bio-dynamic methods. This process of development did not suffer under the Russian trade embargo of 2006. As a result of the Russian embargo and the loss of the Russian market, the quality of Georgian wine gradually improved and the country’s wines became more diverse. Georgian wine-makers successfully began to trade on stricter and more competitive markets than the Russian one.

In the summer of 2013, the Russian market was re-opened and regained its leading position in Georgian wine exports. Besides increased profits, however, this is also a big challenge for Georgian wine. I hope that Georgia will pass this exam with flying colours, that Georgian wine will no longer rely upon the demand of a single market, and that it will be able to forge its own identity.

© Malkhaz Kharbedia, Wine Club, Georgian Wine Guide - 2014

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