At this point, it's widely accepted that the 2006 embargo imposed by Russia on the import of Georgian wine ended up being a good thing for Georgia's wine industry. Previously dependent on a Russian market that favored low-quality, semi-sweet wine, Georgian wine makers have been forced to improve the quality of their product as they tried to break into other markets, especially in Europe and the United States.
In a very informative blog post on the website of the Wine Spectator, the publication's associate editor, Robert Taylor, takes a look at how the Georgian wine industry has evolved since the embargo and what its future might look like if the Russian market opens up to it again. From his post:
After independence, despite privatization, Georgian wine did not become better since, like many other industries, it suffered from disorientation, insufficient financing and a lack of regulation, Kaffka said. Russia's declaration of a sanitary embargo "was not completely groundless," he noted. "In the huge flow of what was marketed as 'Georgian wine' in the 1990s, surely there was a large amount of low quality and plain fake product."
But the 2006 embargo forced the Republic's wine industry to improve quality and seek out new markets, competing with—and hoping to join—the world's fine wine regions. Up to that point, more than 90 percent of its wine production had gone to Russia.
This adapt-or-die situation meant Georgians had to put serious investment into their vineyards and wineries and re-style their wines to appeal to the Western palate for dry whites and reds. None of Georgia's hundreds of native grape varieties has fit that bill better than Saperavi, a black grape whose Georgian language translation is "paint dye," for its extremely dark hue.
I recently tasted one of the best Georgian Saperavis I've tried yet. (I'll admit that I opened it with trepidation as quality still varies dramatically; I'd particularly warn against those sold in kitschy clay vessels.) The Teliani Valley Saperavi Kakheti 2008 comes from one of Georgia's best wineries, which was established in 1997 and has become a leader in modernization. With help from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development, Teliani Valley built a new production facility in 2005. The basic Saperavi Kakheti is aged in oak barrels for three months; the Mukuzani subregion cuvée, which Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews has enjoyed, receives a year in barrel.
I was surprised by the 2008's smoothness, but the grape's cherry and plum flavors were as familiar as ever, as was this underappreciated wine's price tag: $11. I'd say rush to buy some Saperavi yourself, if anyone else seemed to be paying attention. At bargain prices, they're worth the search; U.S. imports of Georgian wine have increased, but only to more than 3,300 cases in 2011.
Other wineries and vineyards have shown similar improvements. After visiting many, "I'm very impressed with the way they are treating the vines," said Virginie Ajot, who consults for distributor Georgian Wine House and serves as the U.S. brand ambassador for Georgia's Château Mukhrani after working in the French wine industry for 20 years. "Most of the [Georgian] wineries I have visited are organic and sustainable; they try to use as little chemicals as possible and I think they are doing better and better every year."
As Taylor's post points out, Russia's recent admission to the World Trade Organization could mean that Moscow will ultimately be forced to lift its embargo on Georgian products, which could present some of Georgia's winemakers with a dilemma: do they continue going in the direction of improving the quality of their wines as they seek new markets, or do they fall back to the familiar ways of making low-budget, low-quality wines for the large Russian market that could very well be thirsting for their traditional fix of Georgian wine?