Carlo Catani, an activist with the Slow Food movement, was at a wine show in Italy two years ago tasting some bottles from Georgia when an idea struck him: what if he were able to convince Italian winemakers to make wine using the traditional Georgian method of fermenting it in large clay vessels known as kvevri?
The initial idea was something of a joke, says Catani, who works on promoting wine culture in his native region of Romagna. But the more he thought about it, the more intrigued he was about the idea. “We talked to some producers in our region, and 15 of them agreed to try doing it. Our goal was to help spread Georgian wine culture, but another goal was to get the producers to collaborate among themselves, which was something they usually didn’t do. This was the only way they could make this kind of wine in a good way,” Catani says.
And so was born what is still an ongoing experiment – to make Italian wine with a Georgian accent (or is it Georgian wine with an Italian accent)?
The experiment is not so far fetched, Catani says. Turns out making wine in clay vessels was once done in Italy – in Roman times, that is. “The Romans stopped using this method more or less after the Barbarian invasion. After that they started using wooden barrels,” he explains. “So we more or less have some 1,500 years of a gap in using kvevris. The Georgians have been using kvevris from the beginning, from when wine grapes were domesticated until now. So they have good knowledge in how to use this.”
What does kvevri, the Georgian method of making wine inside large clay vessels buried in the ground, have in common with the traditional Chinese use of the abacus and an Indian style of singing and dancing known as sankirtana? Until recently nothing. But on December 4 all three (plus several other traditions from around the world) were added to UNESCO's list of "Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding."
From UNESCO's description of the kvevri (or "qvevri," as it is sometimes spelled) tradition (which also includes a slideshow worth looking at):
Qvevri wine-making is practised throughout Georgia, particularly in village communities where unique varieties of grapes are grown. The Qvevri is an egg-shaped earthenware vessel used for making, ageing and storing the wine. Knowledge and experience of Qvevri manufacture and wine-making are passed down by families, neighbours, friends and relatives, all of whom join in communal harvesting and wine-making activities....Wine plays a vital role in everyday life and in the celebration of secular and religious events and rituals. Wine cellars are still considered the holiest place in the family home. The tradition of Qvevri wine-making defines the lifestyle of local communities and forms an inseparable part of their cultural identity and inheritance, with wine and vines frequently evoked in Georgian oral traditions and songs.
Try as he might, Russia's Dr. Strangelove, otherwise known as food security tsar Dr. Gennadiy Onishchenko, has not yet stopped worrying and learned to love a Georgian tomato. Or a peach. Or a bottle of wine.
Onishchenko, who apparently has a nose like no other for potential alimentary attacks, now has deduced that a US-sponsored biological lab in Georgia supposedly could be used to poison fruit, vegetables and wine bound for Russia.
To hear him describe it, the lab, named after former US Senator Richard Lugar, sounds like a military-guarded facility hemmed with barbed wire, and with a dark storm cloud constantly hovering overhead. It is a “powerful offensive” weapon and “is out of the control of the Georgian authorities,” Onishchenko said in a statement. The presence of such a force in the proximity of the Russian border is “a direct violation of the Biological Weapons Convention,” he asserted.
The upshot: If Georgia wants to keep selling its agricultural produce to Russia, it has to shut down the Lugar Lab.
Georgian wine and produce may again be appearing in Russian stores after Moscow lifted its seven-year long embargo, but the products remain the potential victims of regional politics. Case in point the recent news that a top Russian official has warned that the presence of a United States-funded bio research lab in Georgia could have a "limiting effect" on the import of Georgian wine.
The $150-million lab, the Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research, was opened several years ago and is designed to help Georgia do research on infectious diseases. But Russia's "chief sanitary doctor" sees it differently, suggesting that cases of Georgian wine might also come with cases of African Swine Fever and other illnesses. Reports the Civil.ge website:
Just few months after Russia dropped embargo on Georgian wines and mineral waters, its chief sanitary doctor warned that presence of the U.S.-funded bio lab in Tbilisi would have “sharply limiting effect” on bilateral trade ties.
Gennady Onishchenko, head of Russia’s state consumer protection agency RosPotrebNadzor, which ordered ban on import of Georgian products to Russia in 2006, told Interfax news agency on July 20 that the laboratory represents “a powerful offensive potential.”
“Russia deems it to be a direct violation of BWC [Biological Weapons Convention],” Onishchenko was quoted by Interfax.
As Georgian wine continues on the path towards what looks like its return to the Russian market, Armenian wine producers are expressing concern that Georgia's gain may come at their expense. Reports the Arminfo website:
Return of Georgian wines to the Russian market following embargo suspension may cut growth of export of Armenian wines to Russia, Avag Haroutiunyan, Head of the Union of Armenian Winemakers, told ArmInfo.
A threefold growth of export of Armenian wines to Russia was planned for the coming five years. Wine export from Armenia grew 60% in 2012 to 1.185 million liters versus 744,000 liters in 2011, with nearly 75% of sales being in Russia. A few years ago, export totaled 500,000 liters, Haroutiunyan said. Before the embargo on Georgian wines in Russia, 50-55 million bottles of Georgian wine were sold in that country annually, despite the fact that the production capacity of Georgian wineries is some 15-20 million bottles. This shows that counterfeit production was manufactured either in Georgia or in
Russia. Georgian wineries have raised significant investments in modernization over the last years and have greatly improved the quality of wines.
"Now, they will offer the best products in the Russia market. Georgian wines are now of higher quality than the Armenian ones, but the prices will be similar. Armenia will have to raise additional investments in modernization of wineries to sustain competition," Haroutiunyan said.
As recently noted on Eurasianet, Georgian wines are slowly returning to the Russian market, after a seven-year ban. What this all means for the Georgian wine industry is still unclear and is one of the issues discussed in an interesting recent piece produced by Al Jazeera English, which took a good look at how the Georgian wine has fared over the last seven years. The video can be viewed below:
After six years of living with an onerous embargo, will Russian consumers soon be able to again get their fix of Borjomi mineral water and sweet Khvanchkara wine from Georgia? Statements coming out from both Moscow and Tbilisi make it sound like that could be the case.
"Russia and Georgia are ready to solve practically the issue of returning Georgian wine into the Russian market. The supply of Georgian wine into Russia was banned in 2006", Andrey Denisov, Russia's First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, was quoted as saying earlier this week.
“We are talking about the restoring the position of Georgian winemaking in our market. At least the both sides are ready to solve the issue.”
Meanwhile, according to the state-run Voice of Russia website, Georgia's Minister of Agriculture, David Kirvalidze, yesterday said his country is ready to negotiate with Moscow in order to enable Georgian wine and mineral water to return to Russian supermarket shelves.
Reporting on these developments, the Independent suggests that what is likely helping along this wine detente between Moscow and Tbilisi are the results of last month's Georgian Parliamentary elections:
In Georgian parliamentary elections last month, the party of pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili was defeated by a coalition led by Bizdina Ivanishvili, a zebra-keeping billionaire who made his fortune in Russia and has promised to improve relations between the two countries. One of the first steps could be the return of the wine trade.
The indispensable Hvino News website has just released a superb resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the rapidly improving Georgian wine scene, a detailed "appellations" map for Georgia's wine-growing regions. Mapping out eighteen distinct regions, from Akhasheni to Vazisubani, the map also provides detailed notes on each region's geographical characteristics and descriptions of the types of grapes grown there. Curious to know more about the Goruli Mtsvane white wine grown in the Ateni region near Gori? Check out Hvino's map, here.
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.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it didn't take long for the the European Union's decision to grant Georgia the exclusive right to market its wine bottles with the slogan "Georgia - The Cradle of Wine" to create some controversy in the Caucasus.
As the Hvino News website, which covers the Georgian wine scene, reports, the Union of Winemakers of Armenia is looking into how it might appeal Brussels' decision. From Hvino's report:
As noted by the Chairman of Union Mr. Avag Harutyunyan, not only Georgia can claim the status of "the cradle of wine", but also other countries in the region, primarily Armenia.
Armenian archeologists agree that in Georgia there are facts which prove the antiquity of the local wine. But for the moment the wine-making complex in Areni is considered the world's oldest, discovered during excavations "Areni-1" in 2011. According to the Director of Academic Institute of Archeology and Ethnography Mr. Pavel Avetisyan, both Georgia and Armenia can be considered the cradle of wine, as well as Iran, and even part of Azerbaijan, in view of the fact that the relevant archaeological materials have been found in all these countries.
This would not be the first time wine is dragged into the region's rivalries. In late June, Azeri hackers took over the website of an Armenian wine company in order to score some political points. More on that in this previous post.