Georgia's Ancient Wine Culture: A Story of Resilience and Revival

Georgian wine culture, among the world's oldest, predates many ancient civilizations. However, due to the country's tumultuous history, it has faced numerous challenges that have affected its development and recognition.

Currently, Georgia's wine industry is undergoing a renaissance characterized by enhanced quality, intensified marketing efforts, and a consequent surge in global interest. The recent airing of a double-length segment on 60 Minutes about Georgian wine, titled “Ancient Vines,” attests to the growing buzz surrounding the country’s wine history, traditions, and native grape varieties.

Today, there are approximately 2,000 wineries in Georgia, ranging from large-scale to medium and small family-owned operations. With over 500 unique Georgian grape varieties, the country offers an incredible diversity of wine styles, including amber, white, and red dry wines, along with semi-sweet and sweet variations.

The best-known traditional Georgian wine is amber, which is produced in qvevri (large clay containers buried underground) from white grapes. Many Georgian wineries continue to honor ancient traditions by storing the grapes' fruit, skins, pips, and stems in these clay vessels. Increasingly, though, modern techniques, like oak or stainless steel aging, are also being adopted, ensuring a more consistent style of wine from year to year.

Grape Collective recently spoke with Tamta Kvelaidze, Head of Marketing & PR at the National Wine Agency of Georgia, to learn how the narrative of Georgian wine is being reshaped.

For such an old wine civilization, Georgian wines aren't as well represented worldwide as, for example, French or Italian. Why is that?

Despite Georgia's rich winemaking history, global representation faced challenges, partly due to historical disruptions, including Soviet influence and vineyard reductions. However, recent progress in quality, image, and market diversification, especially after the 2006 Russian embargo, has significantly improved Georgia's wine industry’s standing on the international stage.

With a population of 3.7 million, Georgia has faced a tumultuous history, including Russian Empire occupation in the 19th century and subsequent Soviet rule in the 20th century. The recent challenges and transformations in Georgia, mirrored by its people, find expression in the wine industry. Under Soviet rule, Ukraine was considered the bread basket of the USSR, and Georgia was the “wine basket.” Vineyards were uprooted and nationalized, and the grapes that were encouraged to grow were Saperavi for reds and Rkatsiteli for whites, grown for volume, not quality. The 500-plus indigenous grapes, many of which are only grown in Georgia, would have been lost completely if not for the small family vineyards and plots permitted to thrive in the countryside, along with the massive state-run vineyards. 

The Soviet rule also significantly reduced the amount of land devoted to grape growing in Georgia. Then in 1985, much of Georgia’s vineyards were ripped out when Mikhail Gorbachev launched a campaign to combat alcohol abuse. The total vineyard space was reduced to a quarter of its original size. 

Despite Georgia declaring its independence in April of 1991, wine culture didn’t magically return to its Golden Age. It took another act of aggression on Russia’s part, in fact, to inspire the wine Renaissance taking place in Georgia today. When Vladimir Putin put an embargo in place against Georgian wine in 2006, 90 percent of it was going to Russia. But when winemakers turned to other markets, they discovered that Western consumers had a much drier palate and one more suited to classic Georgian wine.

Post-Soviet revival has led to the rediscovery of forgotten grape varieties, the flourishing of small wineries, and a shift toward quality. Georgian wines now account for 4.5% of exports, and the industry is embracing its diverse indigenous grapes, paving the way for a promising future.

The U.S. trade and media show a lot of interest in Georgian wines, however many consumers are unfamiliar with them. Recently, I mentioned Georgian wine to my neighbor, and she said, "I didn't know they made wine down south." She thought I was talking about the U.S. state of Georgia. How are you getting the word out?

Since 2013, The National Wine Agency of Georgia has been carrying out a targeted marketing campaign on strategic markets, including the US, UK, Germany, Poland, Baltic Countries, China, and Japan. The campaign’s main goal is to diversify the export markets of Georgian wine to reduce dependence on specific markets (mostly Russia). 

Georgian wine has seen significant growth in the United States, with a 29% year-over-year increase in exports from 2016 to 2022. We are thrilled about the success of our 2023 integrated communications program in further strengthening our relationships in an important market. It is exciting to witness influential trade and press in the US, as well as consumers, embrace our country’s unique, high-quality wines that reflect a rich history and modern innovation.

Can you tell me about Georgia's winemaking traditions and the qvevri's significance?

With over 8,000 years of history, Georgia’s wine culture is one of the oldest in Europe. The discovery of the oldest traces of winemaking in Shulaveri Gora led to Georgia being recognized as the Cradle of Wine Civilization.

The qvevri winemaking method, still prevalent today, is recognized as an important part of the country's cultural heritage, celebrated for producing wines with a unique character and depth. Qvevri was the first vessel ever to be used in winemaking, with archaeological finds dating back 8000 years. Qvevri are the first non-food product in Georgia with the status of a protected geographical indication (PGI). Georgia’s Qvevri winemaking method is listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Georgian wine is made all across the country. How many different wine regions are there?

The country of Georgia is divided into ten viticulture and winemaking zones and sub-zones, according to Georgian Law "On Grapes and Wine": Kakheti, Kartli, Meskheti, Imereti, Racha, Lechkhumi, Guria, Samegrelo, Abkhazia, and Ajara.

Tell me about Kakheti, Georgia's leading region for wine production.

Today, the total area of vineyards in Georgia is around 55 thousand hectares, with 76.7% located in Kakheti, which borders Russia to the northeast and Azerbaijan to the south. The areas further north benefit from their closer proximity to the main Caucasus Mountain Range and the cool breezes that flow south. The main growing area straddles both sides of the Alazani River and is called the Alazani Valley. Kakheti’s climate is moderate, tending towards subtropical, with hot and dry summers and temperate winters.


What are the most commonly used grapes in Georgian wines and their characteristics?

Saperavi for the reds and Rkatsiteli for the whites. Saperavi, Georgia's most widely planted red grape, holds a significant role in the past and future of Georgian winemaking. Found in all viticulture districts, particularly in Kakheti, this ancient grape is versatile, producing dry red wines with high aging potential and naturally semi-sweet and delightful rosé wines. Saperavi, meaning "something to color with," is known for its inky, opaque appearance and aromas ranging from dark berries to spices.

Rkatsiteli is Georgia's superstar! This historic vine is the country’s most widely grown variety, planted on 34% of all vineyard surface areas. Arguably one of the oldest grape varieties in the world, Rkatsiteli is especially predominant in eastern Georgia. Documentation suggests Rkatsiteli has been cultivated for over 2000 years (and some researchers argue much longer), particularly along the Alazani River.

Rkatsiteli, whose name means “red stem” (rka=vine cane; tsiteli=red), is favored by growers because it is less finicky as to site and can achieve relatively high sugars while retaining its acidity; contemporary bottlings easily can have 13% alcohol by volume. It is arguably most expressive when grown on the northwestern part of the Alazani Valley in Kakheti on calcareous soils.

Rkatsiteli’s cylindrical, medium-sized bunches contain medium-sized, oval berries; when dry-farmed, the grapes acquire a pinkish-yellow hue. Late-budding (the end of April) and late-maturing (early October, after Mtsvane Kakhuri), for vitis vinifera, Rkatsiteli is relatively resistant to downy mildew when grown in Kakheti; it is less resistant in the western, more humid regions. A hardy vine, it can withstand most winter frosts.

Rkatsiteli is produced through both traditional and European vinification methods and is the principal grape in most Kakhetian white wines. Because Rkatsiteli has relatively quiet aromatics, it is often blended with 15-20 percent Mtsvane Kakhuri to add high-toned aromatics and soften the resulting wine. When vinified in the European style, Rkatsiteli offers subtle floral aromas with citrus, quince, and apple notes. If vinified in qvevri, the wine is typically more powerful, moderately tannic, and has crisp acidity; the oxidative handling elicits flavors of honey, dried orange peel, spices, apricots, and other stone fruits.

I’ve heard that the market in Georgia for its own wine is very low because every family makes their own wine. Is that true?

Yes, most families make wine for family consumption. Even my father makes wine. Every family in the villages and even in Tbilisi has small vineyards, and most of the families make wine. But, it should be noted that the consumption of bottled wine has increased significantly in recent years. Under the influence of the Soviet Union, there was a rather bad perception of bottled, factory-made wine, and home-made wine was considered the best and most reliable during that time. However, along with the development of the wine industry, the quality of the wine from the large wine producers has changed and improved, and consumer perception (mostly the new generation) has also changed. Tourism development is also worth noting, contributing to the increase in the consumption of bottled wine in the local market.

A recent research study said that wine was being made 3,000 years earlier than was believed. And it wasn't only coming from today's Georgia, the Caucuses. How does Georgia respond to those claims?

Using archaeological discoveries for nationalistic purposes, however, is a common practice, and many countries claim to be “First,” “the Cradle,” or “a unique culture.” This sometimes manifests itself as a form of competition, a rivalry to boost a country’s importance. 

As for now, the World Scientific Society recognized that the earliest trace of winemaking was discovered in Georgia, and the earliest traces of viticulture and cultivated wine, which date back to the 6th -5th Millennia B.C., were found in the ancient Neolithic settlement in Georgia.

If scientists discover earlier facts and traces of winemaking in another area tomorrow, this will not affect the importance of the fact that Georgians have been making wine for 8000 years. We only welcome more clarification of the facts in the history of wine. However, until this happens, we can say for sure that the people from Gadachrili Gora were the world’s earliest winemakers.

Is there anything else you want to add?

We want to tell the world about Georgia’s great history of winemaking—how people from Georgia were the world’s earliest winemakers and how Georgia’s wine culture is entwined with the country's national identity. But this doesn’t mean that Georgia remains in the “past.” Through a long journey, Georgian wine has become very modern, fun, friendly, and vibrant.

We would like consumers to taste Georgian wine not only occasionally when they decide to taste something unique but also to make it a part of their daily lives. We are a country with a history of wine that no one else in the world has, and we are focused on development and confident in a successful future.