In its effort to stake claim to the title of being the "birthplace" of wine, Georgia a few years back petitioned the European Union, successfully earning the right to sell its wine in Europe using the tagline "The Cradle of Wine."
Considering there are others -- namely next door Armenia -- that are also claiming to be the place where wine was born, it appears that Georgian authorities are taking extra steps to solidify their claim on the title. As the Georgian wine news site Hvino.com reports, Levan Davitashvili, director of Georgia's National Wine Agency, has said his organization has provided numerous labs -- including one run by the American space agency NASA -- with archeological material that will prove "Georgia’s status as the motherland of wine." From Hvino's report:
According to Levan Davitashvili, the research project can’t be accomplished in a short period of time, but the Georgian side expects that a lot of material will prove that grape vine domestication and wine production started in Georgia.
Director of the National Wine Agency notes that in April new excavations were carried out in the region of Kartli, and the unearthed artifacts will supposedly prove that Georgia is the homeland of wine. "We have a fragmentary material. However, it is not recognized by leading scientists.
We are convinced that we are a wine country, but it must be proved scientifically," said Levan Davitashvli.
This blog has previously written about the great work being done by Hvino News, a pioneering website that's been reporting on the Georgian wine industry since 2012.
I recently had a chance to be in contact with the site's Tbilisi-born founder, Alexander Kaffka, who has had a long career in international marketing and advertising, which led to an email interview about his work with Hvino News and the general state of Georgia's wine industry. Our interview is below:
How did you get the idea for Hvino?
I must explain I was born in Georgia, and was seeking for ways to contribute professionally to the country's progress. As my experience is largely in publishing, PR and marketing, I started with writing an article for a Tbilisi-based business newspaper, in which I shared my views about necessity for better international promotion of Georgia's "signature products," including wine and tourism. At that time – back in 2012 – someone interested in Georgian products faced a complete information vacuum. Despite a declaration that wine plays a special role in Georgia’s culture and history, neither the government agency responsible for wine nor the business association of wine producers had any presence on the internet.
The feedback received after article, which was published in The Financial both in English and in Georgian languages under title "For A More Attractive Georgia: A (friendly) view from abroad", was unexpected. It was: If you know how to do it, why don't you do such promotion by yourself?
Over the last year, the Hvino.com website has become an increasingly essential source for news and information about developments in the world of Georgian wine. The site, which is run by a Tbilisi-based agency called Artenom Georgia Consulting, has now added a new feature which could make it even more indispensable: an online shopping guide to Georgian wine, complete with ratings from some impressive partners (Wine Spectator, for example).
The guide, which allows users to enter names of specific bottles and get ratings and information about the producer, can be found here.
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.