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The wines of Georgia

The wines of Georgia

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The wines of Georgia

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484 pages
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Nov 25, 2019
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9781910902974
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The Republic of Georgia can claim over 8,000 years of winemaking history. However, the current wine industry is very young. Following independence from the Soviet Union, Georgia has for the last 25 years been resurrecting its unique winemaking tradition and rediscovering the distinctiveness of its native varieties. A handful of producers in 1997 has now exploded to more than 1,300. Wine is arguably more important to Georgia than to any other country and its people firmly believe their country to be the birthplace of wine. Yet Georgian wines are still largely unknown in the West.

Lisa Granik, who began visiting Georgia 30 years ago, starts The wines of Georgia with a brisk tour through the history of the country and analysis of its complex geology, before moving on to consider Georgian wine culture. She explains not only winemaking methods and viticulture but also the centrality of wine to Georgian culture generally, describing the supra tradition, which is poorly captured by the English word 'feasting'. Georgia can claim more than 400 native Vitis vinifera varieties; here Granik profiles the most commonly planted grapes, as well as the many 'lost' varieties being revived.

The second half of the book details each of the major regions. Of Georgia's 20 PDOs, 15 are in the east, in Kakheti. With a history of wine education dating back 900 years, this prolific winemaking region is home to the qvevri, the conical clay vessel that for many represents Georgian winemaking. Stretching west, the regions become more sparsely populated; some places are still pioneer wine territory, with more amateur and self-taught winemakers. Granik provides details on the most significant producers, along with tips on sites of interest and places to eat and stay, for those visiting the country. This definitive book on Georgian wine is an essential text for anybody studying or making wine today.
Lansat:
Nov 25, 2019
ISBN:
9781910902974
Format:
Carte

Despre autor

Lisa Granik practised law in Washington DC and taught law at Georgetown University and then at Moscow State University and the Institute of State and Law (Tbilisi, Georgia). Following various positions in wine importing and distribution, in 2010 she established Tastingworks, a professional strategic management consultancy for wineries keen to establish or improve their penetration in the US market. She has been a member of the Council of the IMW since 2015.

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The wines of Georgia - Lisa Granik

INTRODUCTION

They spoke of Georgians as supermen, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven.

John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal, 1948

Georgia is a country of extremes. Mountain gorges and cliffs abut broad river plains. Swift rivers slice beneath serene alpine pastures. Fierce loyalties, attachments, jealousies and suspicions abound. Professional archaeologists and amateur winemakers all dig in their different ways to uncover lost traditions, lost vines, lost civilizations. Some slavishly follow ancient practices they don’t fully understand, while others quietly and thoughtfully experiment. This contrast is brilliantly conveyed in the massive socialist-realist sculpture Kartlis Deda (Mother Georgia) in Georgia’s capital city. She stands on the Tbilisi mountainside, a bowl (piale) of wine in one hand (if you come in peace, welcome!), a sword in the other (if you don’t, beware!) thus embodying at once the Georgians’ warmth, pride and fierce defence of their independence and culture.

Georgians have a tremendous sense of pride, not least in their wines and wine culture. They firmly believe their land to be the birthplace of wine and see wine as a metaphor for their own blood. References and allusions to wine abound in Georgian culture, song, legends, literature, religion and art. Georgians are renowned for their joi de vivre – accompanied and enriched by their association with wine.

Georgia, known to its inhabitants as Sakartvelo, the land of the Kartvelians, has seven different climate zones, forty-nine different soil types and hundreds of grape varieties, all within a country of fewer than 70,000 square kilometres (26,900 square miles), just smaller than the Republic of Ireland and a little larger than the state of West Virginia. The Georgian language is a tongue-twisting jumble of consonant clusters challenging the English speaker. It has 8,000 years of wine culture and winemaking history, but, at the same time, its current wine industry is remarkably young – and in a hurry.

Situated at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, with fertile lands and dramatic vistas, over the centuries Georgia has been repeatedly ravaged by invaders from every direction. But the Georgians have resisted and persisted, retaining their native languages, culture, religion and identity. Invaders left their mark, but the Georgians stayed put and rebuilt.

And so again, today, they rebuild, seemingly at warp speed. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent civil war, changes in technology, education, transportation and communication have facilitated the re-establishment of democracy and a market economy. A frequent visitor to Georgia cannot help but be astonished at the changes in construction, architecture, culture and even (slowly) infrastructure every several months.

So, too, in the wine sector. Out of the wreckage of hulking Soviet ‘wine factories’, a sophisticated variety of modern wineries has emerged. In tandem, hundreds of individual Georgians don’t just see their past, but want to live their future in winemaking: barns are being renovated, weekend homes expanded, and old wine cellars re-energized or spruced up to support small-scale family winemaking. A handful in 1997 grew to 400 by 2016, and then exploded to over 1,300 by 2019. Of these, 300 export their wines, with more hoping to jump on this bandwagon. Georgia now produces an array of wines for different consumer tastes.

I have tried here to give a complete picture of Georgia. This book is not a guide to every winery, a tour guide or a memoir. It need not be read front to back. It is intended as a reference for wine lovers who are curious about this most ancient of places and how Georgians live their wine culture, grow their indigenous grape varieties and make their unique wines. In the writing, I have endeavoured to be fair and give voice to many opinions and perspectives. The constant growth in the industry makes it impossible to comment on each producer; I have had to be selective. I have highlighted producers who give insight into their vineyards, the lone soul working in a long-forgotten terroir and those attempting something unusual, whether it be resurrecting the old or innovating the new. Websites are included (where one exists); as of the time of writing, most communicate via Facebook Messenger, so that is noted where there is no website.

I am immensely grateful to all of the producers who have met with me and answered my seemingly endless flow of questions. My hope is that many of the questions posed here will prompt Georgian winemakers to take their own wines and terroirs more seriously, to work to understand them more deeply, to respect their individuality and to elicit their finest expression. I apologize to those with whom I have met, especially those who have received me so graciously, but are not included. There are many more delicious wines than I could discuss here. Let us hope for another opportunity.

As this book explains, Georgia is a country that reveres tradition, history and culture. A resurgence in Georgian traditional winemaking in the past two decades has converged with a renewed interest in things ‘artisanal’ (as opposed to corporate) and ‘natural’ products (as opposed to the synthetic and ‘manipulated’). This has captured the attention of many a wine lover within and outside Georgia and has contributed to the explosion in the number of people deciding to make wine ‘as our ancestors did’.

As in other matters, Georgia today has a wine industry at extremes. There are a number of larger producers (twenty-two as of 2019) who run extremely professional businesses producing over one million bottles (84,000 cases) annually. At the other extreme are the hundreds of tiny wineries that produce only 3,000 to 5,000 bottles annually. Most of these are weekend winemakers, hobbyists, amateurs trying to market the simple home wines they remember their grandfathers making for their family and friends.

This presents a great challenge. There is the notion among many that making wine is simple: just pick the grapes, crush them, put them in the qvevri (the clay vessel in which wine is fermented), punch the grapes down a bit, close it for a few months – and abracadabra! Great traditional wine. In fact, however, it is hard. It is not just that winemaking, especially Georgian traditional winemaking, involves hard physical labour. It is hard because it is complicated, involving both science and craft. Many Georgians attempting to make wine in the simplest way have no foundation in wine science. They thus have set themselves up to make wine in the most difficult of circumstances, as often they are not in a position to recognize or understand when something is awry until it is too late. Their final product may be wine, but it is home-made wine, a style of wine that was never intended to be marketed, to withstand the variable conditions of shipping, of competing in an international marketplace.

I have enjoyed many of these home-made wines. Some of them may be natural wines, others not. They may be a bit wild, and are perhaps not the most finessed; they may not be perfectly clear, but can be a tasty, pleasurable drink. Being home-made, however, does not excuse flawed wines, especially when those flaws obscure the expression of variety and terroir. Too many producers still use mouldy and damaged fruit, deny (or are unaware) that their qvevri are dirty or use ‘traditional’ as an excuse for any number of microbiological and bacterial disorders. The problem is not traditional wines per se. It is inexperienced or hobby winemaking posing as professional. Ideology is not a proxy for quality.

In many ways, then, these home-made wines cannot be compared to wines made by professional winemakers. I distinguish between the two. A critical distinction lies in the instability of many home-made wines. They may be eminently enjoyable in Georgia but are unlikely to look or taste the same after being subjected to temperature changes and sub-optimal transit and storage conditions once the wine producer has seen them off. I would wish, for the reputation of Georgia’s promising winemaking industry, that the producers respect their vineyards and their wines enough to ensure that the wines they sell are the finest they can produce and that they reach the consumer in top condition. Then the consumer can replicate the delicious Georgian experience at home.

Tasting notes, where provided, may differ slightly from those found elsewhere. All of the wines I have tasted while researching and writing this book will have changed considerably by the time anyone reads about them. I therefore speak more broadly about fruit character, simply noting whether the wine is fruity or not, and focus more on the wine’s personality and style (rustic or polished), texture (tannin character and quality), concentration, complexity, density, length, energy and overall harmony. I distinguish between wines that offer hedonistic pleasure and those that aspire to elevated expression.

I have written this book because I firmly believe that the Georgian wine story deserves to be told. It is not enough (though perhaps it could be) that Georgia is the first documented place for wine production. Nor is it enough that they have hundreds of indigenous grape varieties: if these varieties didn’t make distinctive, delicious wines of place, they wouldn’t matter. But these claims, of which Georgians are deservedly proud, are secondary to their distinct winemaking culture and traditions that produce wines of a thoroughly different and unique category. These wines deserve to be tasted, understood and enjoyed. They need to be considered on their own terms but held to similar quality standards as other fine wines of the world. My objective here is to set forth what makes Georgian wines unique and to help consumers and all wine lovers who are trying to understand them.

I have taken especial care with a section on Georgia’s geology. Georgia is terra incognita to many reading this volume, and the underlying geology does much to explain the complexity of Georgia’s terroirs and how they came to be. I have included a technical glossary in the Appendix to aid the reader with unfamiliar terms.

I also hope this volume will encourage Georgian producers to continually strive to produce soulful wines of place and character. Georgia may be the birthplace of wine, but its reputation as a source of fine wine will rest on producing balanced, stable, intriguing, expressive, unique and, yes, delicious wines.

Political changes in the past thirty years and a revolution in communications have brought Georgia out of relative isolation. Georgians have always interacted with foreigners and been influenced by them but, in the end, they have pursued their unique path. This is how they have survived for millennia. And so it will be with their wines in the future. This study of Georgian wine shows that the category has never been static; qvevri evolved, as have winemaking methods and techniques throughout the country. I firmly believe the best of Georgian wine is yet to come: I trust that, over time, with more experience and a deeper understanding of all that makes these wines unique, we will be blessed with an even greater array of fine wines that express the heart, soul and vibrant personality of this very special country.

Note

This book attempts to cover Georgia in its entirety and in historical context. Georgians will take exception to the exclusion of Abkhazia, which they regard as an Autonomous Republic within Georgia. Georgia lost control of Abkhazia following the 1992–3 war and today the state of Georgia considers the area occupied by Russia; only five countries within the United Nations, including Russia, recognize it as a separate state. I have never visited it, nor are any wines from Abkhazia available in the West, and I have never encountered them, even in Georgia. The political state of affairs has always been sufficiently fraught that it seemed unwise to travel there for a book on Georgian wine. Thus, while the text includes Abkhaz grapes currently being planted in other areas of Georgia, a proper examination of the wines of Abkhazia will have to wait until the dispute is resolved.

PART 1

BACKGROUND

1

GEOLOGY

Georgia has a complex geology marked by a long, sometimes violent and ongoing tectonic evolution. Supra-subduction volcanics, granite formation, deep regional metamorphism, deformation and orogenesis (mountain creation) have all contributed to the creation of a remarkable diversity of terroirs in a small country.

Georgia sits within the Caucasus, which comprises several distinct tectonic units (terranes and subterranes¹). The mountain range itself runs for more than 1,100 kilometres in a north-west to south-east direction from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. The collision of the two plates created an intracontinental fold and thrust mountain belt system. The complexity of this system is compounded by the differing angles of the faults and thrust belts. While one (the Adjara-Trialeti) runs west to east, the Greater Caucasian fold-thrust belt follows the contours of the mountain range in a west-north-west to east-south-east direction.

In the late Proterozoic–Early Cenozoic eras, from 2,500 to 541 million years ago (mya), Georgia was home to the now-vanished Tethys Ocean. Underneath the Transcaucasus lies the southern active edge of the Euroasiatic lithospheric plate. Later, the Eurasian and Africa–Arabian lithospheric plates collided; the relatively rigid Georgian Block slid under the Greater Caucasus. This collision and uplift ultimately created the Caucasus Mountains and determined Georgia’s structure and geological evolution. Even today, the two plates continue to converge at a rate of approximately 20 to 30 millimetres per year; the northward movement of the Arabian plate creates ongoing tectonic stress.

The convergence of the two plates and the accompanying interplate subduction was just the beginning. It prompted paroxysms of geological activity, forming a complex network of active faults, fold-thrust mountain belts and volcanic eruptions. During the Jurassic period (201 to 145 mya), eruptions, convulsions and magmatic activity led to intensive folding, uplift and displacement throughout the region. Later, during the Neogene period (from 23 mya), the final major plate collision gave rise to the Caucasus Mountains. Further activity, from the late Miocene to the end of the Pleistocene epoch (from 10 mya to 11,700 years ago – the end of the last glacial period), provoked the formation of molasse troughs – sandstones, sandstones with quartz fragments, shales, calcareous clays, non-marine alluvial and fluvial sediments and other shallow marine accretions with rich microfauna deposited at the base of the mountains. At the same time, there were numerous volcanic eruptions, particularly in the central part of the region.

As a result, there are now a variety of distinct zones across the Transcaucasus, each with a distinct, complex geology, different compositional structures and diverse layers, often with a mishmash of elements. Driving through the country, visible layers of rock, often at various acute angles on the same mountainside, testify to long-ago deformations. Shale, basalt, magma and the ancient sea floor were pushed up as subduction broke the earth’s crust. On some mountainsides and river gorges, one can clearly see how different types of rocks or rock formations have folded over, been thrust into or stacked one on top of the other.

For our purposes there are four significant tectonic units within Georgia. First are the two fold-thrust mountain belts, the aforementioned Great Caucasus and the Adjara-Trialeti. Third is the Transcaucasian Massif and its forelands, which extend from the Rioni River in the west through to the Mtkvari and Alazani Rivers in the east; it also extends further south into Armenia and Turkey. Fourth, the youngest structural unit is the Javakheti plateau, located in the centre-south part of Georgia, bordering Turkey and Armenia. The Plateau is composed of Neogene continental volcanic formations from long-extinct volcanoes. Two seismic faults directed lava flows through the region.

Within these four basic units there are sub-units, also complex, but with different characteristics. The Dzirula Massif (effectively Imereti, where the river of the same name runs) separates the Rioni basin in the west and the Mtkvari Basin to the east. The massif is composed of late Neogene rocks, limestones, clays and sandstones, schists, material from extinct volcanoes and marine fossils. Here, in central Imereti, many of these clays and sandstones have a high level of manganese. Both the Mtkvari and Dzirula subterranes have Jurassic calcareous elements. Limestone, however, is more prevalent in the east and gradually decreases closer to Kutaisi.

Telavi, and much of the Alazani Valley, is part of the Mestia–Tianeti subterrane. Its origins lie in the Middle Jurassic period when calcareous sandstone and limestones were deposited. The lower (earlier) Miocene period contributed various grey calcareous clays, sandstone with quartz fragments, thick, coarse-grained sandstones and micro-conglomerate interlayers with rich microfauna. The upper (later) Miocene brought more clays, both grey and blue, thick, coarse-grained calcareous sandstone and oolitic limestones with numerous fauna and conglomerates. The Pliocene brought even more layers of clays and loams.

West of Tbilisi, stretching to Batumi on the Black Sea coast, lies the Adjara–Trialeti fold-thrust mountain belt. This subterrane covers Adjara, parts of Guria and western Imereti. Also middle Jurassic in origin, it is extremely complex, with volcanic sequences, basalt formations, limestones, Bathonian carboniferous sediments and granitic stocks being just a few of the geological elements of the subterrane.

In the southern part of the country, the Artvini–Bolnisi rigid massif has two tectonic units – the Javakheti zone to the west and the Bolnisi zone. Like the Javakheti zone, the Bolnisi zone, further east and south of Tbilisi, has deep faults, but the territory is covered with volcanic rocks from the Cretaceous and Paleogene eras as well as sedimentary cover and limestone.

Bolnisi

Regardless of the subterrane, the long-gone Tethys Ocean has contributed to the many carbonate rock outcrops, and marine fossils are visible in the rocks of many wine regions. There are molluscs and fish fossils in Akhaltsikhe, Kvaliti, Mtskheta and Racha vineyards.

Three earthquakes, in 1988 (6.9 magnitude), 1991 (7.2) and 2009 (6.0), demonstrate the continuing instability under a seemingly placid surface. Both the 1988 Spitak earthquake in Armenia near the Georgian border and the stronger quake in Racha in 1991 caused great devastation and loss of life. The 2009 earthquake in Racha was less severe, with no human casualties, though rockfalls blocked roads, damaged service lines and caused damage to at least 200 buildings (Nikolaeva and Walter 2016). Milder earthquakes (under 5.0) have shaken Georgia at least once annually over the past five years, and Georgia continues to be an earthquake-prone area (US Geological Service 2019).

SOIL

This great amount of earth activity has bestowed on Georgia a diverse, heavily studied soil cover. The father of soil science, V.V. Dokuchaev, called Georgia an ‘open-air museum of soils’ (Lortkipanidze 2018). Ten major parent materials – from granitic complexes, quartzites, metamorphic shales, clay shales, carbonate rocks, lavas and alluvial sediments, have given rise to forty-nine different soil associations, including Terra Rossa, chernozem and cinnamonic.

Georgian soil types are set forth according to the Soil Classification and Diagnostics of the Former Soviet Union. Most materials, and the Georgian growers’ understanding of their soils, are still based on this classification system, which classifies soils differently than in the US and Europe. (The World Reference Base – WRB – for Soil Resources is an ongoing project and correlation to Georgian soils is not yet complete.)

Briefly, the soils are first classified according to their genesis. They are also classified according to bioclimatic areas, so, for example, high mountain soils will be different from valley soils in a subtropical zone. The terminology was often based on folk terms (chernozem = black earth; podzol = with ash underneath); the soil types were never given scientific names. At the same time, these soil types might be modified by certain terms based on where they were found, such as ‘forest’, ‘desert’ or ‘meadow’.

As a full correlation is years away, I adhere to the system currently used in Georgia, with definitions to aid the reader. When possible (if known), the implications for viticulture are also provided. Readers seeking further detail should review Urushadze and Blum, Soils of Georgia (2014) and Krasilnikov, et al., A Handbook of Soil Terminology, Correlation and Classification (2009).

All of this begs the question of how the geology, the soils and subsoils, affect the wines. Many who study wine think that understanding a region’s soil – the slates of the Mosel, the Kimmeridgian chalk of Chablis, the Terra Rossa of Coonawarra, the volcanic rock of Priorat – will give them a key to understanding the wines, specifically, what makes this grape variety from here taste this way. Georgia, like other places, presents a tremendous challenge in this regard.

As noted, Georgia’s geology has been intense, complex, variegated and active. Limestone and other calcareous rock underlies a great deal of Georgia’s vineyards and influences rootstock selection (see Viticulture, p. 44). But, in addition, there’s a lot going on in different places, and, more to the point, there’s a lot going on in a single place. Further, many growers are country folk with little interest in soil types and textures. But even more educated and sophisticated growers haven’t dug deep soil pits to understand what is below the surface; they may not realize that this is considered important. Third, as will be repeated in these pages, ripping growers from their land during the Stalinist Terror severed a vital link as the oral history of Georgian winelands – the knowledge of family plots that had accumulated over time – never had an opportunity to be recorded. A fourth reason, another consequence of Soviet power, was the ‘industrialization of agriculture’, which included regular application of fertilizers and other treatments, leaving the vineyards unbalanced. Many farmers now have neither the interest nor the means to test and take measures to rehabilitate their farms. Fifth, many small growers today are still conditioned to grow grapes for quantity as was valued in the Soviet period; it is challenging to persuade them to pursue other quality standards. Sixth, the long-standing tradition of blending – which accelerated during the twentieth century – did not value individual site expression; such expression became even more attenuated once ‘branded’ wines were made according to a specification regardless of grape sourcing. And, seventh, the intense parcellation after the collapse of the Soviet Union makes it extremely difficult for individual producers to accumulate enough property in a given area to make a wine that reflects it. If a producer is buying grapes, long-term contracts that might allow that producer to study the wine from one plot over an extended period do not exist. Smaller producers have to co-ferment grapes from different parcels, or they blend wines from different qvevri. Even those who bottle each qvevri or tank separately do not retain detailed notes of the growing season and the resulting wines so they can compare the technical parameters and subjective impressions of the wine to have a reference archive. Growers and producers do not compile detailed, daily journals of the growing season and the stages of wine production as is common in the West. Many do not have the laboratory equipment – or even the basic equipment – to conduct rudimentary technical analyses of their own, and the main laboratory that tests the vast majority of wines produced does not even provide pH readings as part of its protocol. Nor do producers hold analytical tastings of their own wines across vintages to collect subjective data. They may not have sufficient bottles reserved for this, or are still too young a winery, and tradition didn’t suggest the value of such enquiry. For all of these reasons, as of the time of writing, it is well-nigh impossible to render conclusions that might suggest causal links from geology and soil to wine characters and style. Hopefully, with time, this will change.

1 See the Glossary (p. 297) for definitions of specific geological terms and soils discussed in this book.

2

HISTORY: A ROMP THROUGH 8,000 YEARS

PREHISTORY

There can be no doubt that Georgia’s history, even its prehistory, is ancient. Georgians are proud to assert their country and culture as the origin of wine civilization. Georgia’s sense of identity and pride is entwined within this ancient history, national customs and, perhaps most important, the nation’s perseverance, all of which is reinforced through myths and legends. Central to all of Georgian history is the consistent presence of wine. It should come as no surprise, then, that recent scholarship and scientific research have now confirmed the long-standing claim of Georgia as the cradle of wine.

Transcaucasia refers to all the land extending from south-eastern Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and west across Armenia.² Our locus of inquiry here is on the narrow strip of land incorporating Georgia and Azerbaijan all the way to the Zagros Mountains of north-western Iran. Early in the twentieth century, N. Vavilov, a Russian botanist, first posited that Transcaucasia was ground zero for the domesticated Eurasian grape as well as wine culture.³ Subsequent archaeological research has sought to validate or refute his theories.⁴

Neolithic Transcaucasia (circa 10000 to 4500 BCE) witnessed its human population engage in a long transition from a primarily nomadic existence to a more sedentary one. Along the way this resulted in the construction of year-round settlements. Before they understood the need for crop rotation, people would remain in these settlements until the ground was exhausted, then move to a new place, leaving some things behind. The expression of human ingenuity and adaptability is reflected not only in the built environment, but in the ability to extract more from local resources. Plants were domesticated, cultivated, enjoyed and stored; innovations in craftwork such as weaving, woodworking and ceramics ultimately revolutionized human life in this region. One of the most significant Georgian finds was the ‘Khramis Didi Gora’⁵ clay jar with bas-relief grape bunch ornamentations dated to 6000–5000 BCE.

Nothing appears out of thin air. In the 1960s, discovery of the ‘Shulaveri-Shomu Tepe’ culture across current-day southern Georgia, northern Armenia and western Azerbaijan served as a catalyst for serious study of modern grapevine history. This culture is generally identified by small settlements populated with a variety of circular, mud-brick buildings. The evidence from material culture reveals specific technologies related to stone and bone tools, agriculture and ceramics. It is on the pottery itself that the earliest motifs suggesting grape bunches (as seen on the Khramis Didi Gora jar) begin. Three distinct sites associated with this culture are located in a relatively tight cluster 50 kilometres south of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, near the town of Marneuli (literally, the town of wine cellars). Shulaveri Gora, Gadachrili Gora and Imiri Gora are all within a 5-kilometre area and are thought to have been small villages with domestic residences and pits, the latter for storage and/or refuse.

In the 1990s, a proverbial gauntlet was thrown down with the discovery of the oldest chemically attested wine jar, when Dr Patrick McGovern uncovered the earliest (5400–5000 BCE) evidence of grape wine in Hajji Firuz Tepe, a Neolithic village in the Zagros Mountains, in north-western Iran. McGovern’s Iranian wine jars, however, showed simply the presence of tartaric acid or tartrate – the primary acid in grapes and wine – and tree resin (presumably added as a preservative, much in the style of today’s retsina). The jars were large enough to suggest that they were for a community rather than for a single family.

Georgians had known of the Shulaveri cluster when the McGovern find was published, but dedicated and precise work was not possible until the country had attained political independence, stability and an ability to acquire well-preserved samples with verifiable provenance. It was thus not until 2006 that scientific archaeological efforts into the origins of wine in Georgia began in earnest. By that time, archaeological research had become increasingly sophisticated and multifaceted. Radiocarbon dating, DNA analysis, high-resolution microscopy, more precise and sensitive excavation and archaeobotanical techniques, and the über-specialization of academic scholarship now demand that research into the past includes biomolecular archaeologists, archaeobotanists, linguists, grape geneticists, geologists and chemists, each of whom teases out details, adding layers of evidence and analysis that together provide a working hypothesis for the origins of wine.

In 2014, Georgia and its National Wine Agency launched a ‘Research Project for the Study of Georgian Grapes and Wine Culture’. A multi-disciplinary collaborative project among Georgian and international institutions and scholars was designed to develop a comprehensive and holistic understanding of grape domestication, viticulture, winemaking and wine culture, and their development over time. A critical component to this project’s success was the archaeological efforts dedicated to re-establishing excavations at both Gadachrili and Shulaveri Gora. Preliminary excavations began in 2012–13 and were followed by the founding of the GRAPE project (Gadachrili Gora Regional Archaeological Project Expedition) in 2015, continuing through 2019 and beyond.

Ancient evidence

What was left behind at the Gadachrili and Shulaveri sites? There are several circular mud-brick structures that appear to be a series of rooms, providing circumstantial evidence of wine production. No actual vessels containing ancient wine have been discovered; nor have archaeologists found grape seeds or grapevine wood at either Shulaveri Gora or Gadachrili Gora that date to the Neolithic period. There is evidence suggesting the presence of grapevines, however, and wine production may be fairly inferred by other evidence that, considered together, provides a window into the earliest grape-wine-growing culture throughout the Georgian lands, beginning at least in the middle of the sixth millennium BCE and continuing through modern times.

The archaeological evidence includes chemical findings: archaeobotanical evidence of grape pollen, starch and grape skin remains. Archaeologists have also uncovered pieces of pottery including large-capacity jars whose purpose is thought to have been some combination of fermentation, ageing, storing and wine-serving vessels.

McGovern asserts that pottery has been regarded as ‘the essential starting point of many biomolecular archaeological investigations’ because it has the ability both to absorb liquids and to preserve them for millennia (McGovern, et al. 2017). Five clay sherds from Gadachrili and three from Shulaveri tested positively not just for tartaric acid (as found in Iran), but the other organic acids (malic, succinic and citric) found in grape wine. Radiocarbon-dating samples from the layers associated with these sherds places them – and the beginning of viniculture – back in the first century of the sixth millennium BCE (Maghradze 2019), thus predating the Hajji Firuz Tepe jars by several centuries, if not a millennium. The excavated sherds allowed the reconstruction of some of the jars, at least one of which was very large, capable of holding 300 litres.

In addition, palynological (the study of pollen and dust) studies offered supportive evidence for the position of Georgia as the ‘cradle of wine’. In 2014, archaeologists working in Gadachrili Gora excavated layers of earth, finding two clay pots buried below in the ancient rooms. Both the walls and bottoms of these pots contained well-preserved grains of Vitis vinifera pollen. While grapes do grow several kilometres away from Gadachrili, it is too far away to be wind-blown, and there was no pollen in the soil surrounding where these pots were found.

Further evidence from the sherds includes agglomerations of grape pollen (interpreted as grape flower remains), and evidence of grape starch and grape skins. Some of the preserved pollen grains had the taxonomic diversity that results from alcohol’s preservative properties (Maghradze, et al. 2019). Additionally, in the crater-like pits of the Gadachrili settlement, palynologists found not just grape pollen, but also the pollen of weeds that commonly grow in vineyard environments, further suggesting a society that had domesticated the grapevine.⁷ At a minimum, the settlement evidence of grape skins along with grape and weed pollen suggests that grapevines grew in the vicinity of these sites, the grapes likely consumed as a food. This evidence, combined with the pottery sherds – whether they were used as fermentation vessels or storage jars – in the context of the vast wine culture that developed subsequently across much of Georgia is plausibly taken as evident of wine’s nascent beginnings. This research continues: in 2019 archaeologists dug deeper into the Shulaveri and Gadachrili sites and collected additional materials that potentially can push back the beginnings of viniculture even further.

LATER EVIDENCE OF GEORGIAN WINE CULTURE

It’s not exactly a straight and continuous line to follow the development of wine culture throughout the South Caucasus, Middle East and Europe. There are different time frames and evolving cultures, but each of them testifies to the ongoing centrality of viniculture and wine as a theme, symbol and economic activity in the region.

The Early Transcaucasian Culture (ETC; also called the Mtkvari-Araxes culture or the Kura-Araxes culture) emerged in the southern Caucasus of what is now modern Georgia in about 4000 to 2000 BCE before spreading across the Near East (Batiuk 2013). Settlement patterns, ceramic evidence and textural records combine to suggest that the ETC developed an economic niche in viti- and viniculture. By bringing valuable goods with them – wine and food stuffs – they could migrate freely, integrate within new communities and yet retain their social identity. Their migration resulted in the spread of wine production and consumption across the

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