“How do you feel about us planting international grapes?”
Sometimes it’s impossible to overlook the weight behind a question you are being asked, and that was the case when the second Georgian winemaker in succession raised this issue. The look of relief on both their faces when I said that I had no problem with them exploring beyond their own indigenous vines was equally unmistakable.
Other visitors, especially but not exclusively from Britain had, they said, been very clear in stressing that Georgia had over 500 varieties and 8,000 years of history of its own, and no need of any pesky intruders like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Pinot Noir, all of which I saw growing at Tsinandali, one of the country’s most respected estates.
Inconveniently for the proscriptive visitors, there was nothing new about these varieties’ presence. The winery and estate were founded 230 years ago – the first in the country – and developed by Prince Alexander Chavchavadze, poet, soldier and pioneering winemaker who decided to plant these French grapes. Just as his counterpart at another leading old estate, Chateau Mukhrani did, around a century later.
Acknowledging the potential contribution of Cabernet Sauvignon – as Marques de Riscal and Vega Sicilia did in Spain and the Super Tuscans subsequently did in Italy, failed to lead to either countries’ wines losing their identities. Far from it. Indeed, it was the efforts of those iconoclastic Italians in the 1970s and 1980s that subsequently helped transform the image and quality of modern Chianti.
Critics of the introduction of ‘foreign’ grapes into places like Italy, Greece, Turkey and Georgia often seem to imagine that it is driven by a desire to please foreign critics and palates. This may indeed be partly true today, but it may also be no more the main incentive than it was for Chachavadnaze in the days when shipping Georgian wine to North America was unimaginable. What these winemakers sought to do was produce good wine that pleased people in their own countries.
Innovative Georgian winemakers are not trying to copy wines that are being made in the Napa Valley or Bordeaux. They're conducting their own experiments, fermenting Syrah in amphora and adding a dash of Sauvignon Blanc to a vatful of Rkatsateli and Mtsvani. Some of these forays will be successful; others, like the disappointing attempts at new cocktails and dishes by mixologists and chefs, will fail. That's how progress happens.
But, along the way, yes, the Georgians will produce their own versions of 'western' styles, just as winemakers in other countries are planting Saperavi and investing in qvevris. And some of these will prove to be very popular.
Today, as another winemaker explained, young Georgians in the national capital, Tbilisi, buy every bottle of Chardonnay he can produce – just as his fans in Brooklyn, New York can’t get enough of his Mtsvane.
And there’s the rub.
For anyone, a wine critic or otherwise, to travel to another country and tell its inhabitants what they should do, based on their own tastes and beliefs is presumptuous and frankly paternalistic. As visitors, we may prefer not to be confronted by a McDonalds when we arrive in Tbilisi, and we would be justified in encouraging the city authorities to restrict the US giant’s impact on the aesthetics of the city, but to be blunt, Georgians have as much right to a Big Mac and a locally produced Cabernet as we have to enjoy dinner with a bottle of qvevri wine in London or Los Angeles.