Geopolitics rather than terroir may be affecting the quality of Georgian wine, at least as far as Russia, the world’s largest Georgian alcohol tippler, is concerned. After the Kremlin said it would retaliate against countries that support Western sanctions against Moscow, Russia tried Georgia’s wine and found it wanting.
Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian federal food safety agency as formidable as its name, declared on August 4 that both Georgian winemakers and government services for food quality oversight consistently fail to assure the quality of alcoholic beverages exported to Russia. Almost 7 million liters of booze imported from Georgia in 2015 did not meet Russia’s high standard for alcohol safety, in Rospotrebnadzor’s telling.
The agency, long a Russian foreign-policy tool toward post-Soviet countries with Western aims, took issue with Georgia’s staple dry red Saperavi, produced by the company Agora, and two types of brandy, Old Kakheti and Kolkhida, produced by Telavi Wine Cellar. A number of batches of these beverages lacked the required quality-assurance documentation, Rospotrebnadzor claimed.
Georgia’s agriculture ministry responded that it carefully controls the quality of alcohol exported to Russia, but added that it will look into the allegations. At the same time, Georgia’s point man for talks with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, went explaining to Russian media that Tbilisi had not signed on to any of the European Union’s new sanctions against Moscow.
“In total, the European Union imposed about 15 sanctions in connection to the events in Ukraine,” Abashidze told Russia’s RIA Novosti. “Last year, Georgia joined one of them, which is about the exports of products from Crimea and Sevastopol. This decision was automatically extended now, 19 months later. So I repeat, no new decisions were made.”
But Abashidze later conceded that these explanations may not pacify Moscow. Late last month, the EU extended through January 2016 restrictions on Russia’s access to capital markets and bans on the transfer of military and energy technology. The Kremlin vowed retaliatory measures against non-EU countries that joined these sanctions.
Moscow has been flexing its muscles toward Tbilisi in other ways, too. Last month, a Russian-guarded fence intended as a border for breakaway South Ossetia was moved further into Georgian-controlled territory, taking part of a key BP oil pipeline in the process.
By contrast, restoring wine exports to Russia has been perhaps the single most successful achievement in Tbilisi’s attempts to make peace with Moscow. Though it has faced some domestic criticism, too.
Some critics charge that Tbilisi is putting economic considerations before territorial integrity; others that over-reliance on Russia kills the incentive for Georgian winemakers to seek new markets. Sales initially skyrocketed once the Kremlin’s embargo vanished, and Russia returned as the single largest outlet for Georgian wine.
As Russia’s economy has faltered, those sales reportedly have suffered, but, so far, winemakers do not appear to have wearied of Moscow's on-again, off-again romance with Georgian wine.