Wed, Oct 11, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Boozy nights in post-Soviet Georgia

Georgians are proud of their viniculture history and believe the country was the place where man first conquered the grape

By C.J. Chivers  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Wineries there are prone to cite references to the region's wines in the works of Homer and Apollonius, and Kakheti, the province in eastern Georgia where the Alazani Valley (pronounced al-ah-ZAH-nee) lies, calls itself the world's cradle of wine, a claim it guards tenaciously. Whatever its precise date of origin, Georgian winemaking is without dispute an ancient tradition, and ever since local wines were first fermented in this region's distinctive clay pots, they have been made with intense devotion.

One dark interlude provides an exception: Soviet agricultural policies played havoc on both the vineyards and the craft, requiring growers to tear up ancient varieties to make way for higher-yield vines, and then encouraging the use of juice additives (especially sugar) to spike alcohol content and wine diluters (especially water) to increase production volume.

The result was predictable. By the time the Kremlin loosened its hold over its southern republics, many Georgian wines had become, in a word, bad. They tended to be sweet (Stalin favored some of the sweetest of all, and party bureaucrats imitated his tastes, skewing production toward sweetened wines). They also tended to be thin, which took some doing, given how robust the Georgian varietals usually are.

SOVIET SOUR GRAPES

Moreover, as recently as even a few years ago, as smugglers and counterfeiters proliferated in the post-Soviet wine trade, the Georgian wines sold in shops and kiosks often were not wines at all, but spiked cocktails, sold under faked Georgian labels. They tasted something like carburetor cleaner with a whiff of fruit.

All of these abominations were best left on the shelf.

Travelers making their way to Kakheti will find that much has changed in the last few years. Several investors have reclaimed many of the vineyards and updated the old wineries, often with European help. Many old, marginal vineyards have been replanted with traditional Georgian varieties (the country claims to have more than 500 varieties in all), reversing much of the Soviet mismanagement and poor taste.

The Kremlin is still proving a nuisance, however, and the provider of subplots.

The Russian government announced this spring that Georgian wines and spirits could not be imported or sold in Russia. These products, it said, were contaminated. Georgia immediately claimed that the announcement was a political retaliation for the nation's westward orientation and its efforts to enter NATO, another example of Russia's use of trade levers to exact revenge.

TBILISI VS. MOSCOW

Several months on, there seems reason to trust Tbilisi over Moscow. Russia has never made its supposed testing public, and no other country has followed Russia's example. Further, a spokesman for the US State Department said analyses this year of Georgian wine and spirits by the US Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau “did not raise any health issues.”

Georgia, outraged by Russia's announcement, has embarked on an effort to open new markets. The timing is fortuitous for travelers. In the land of the Russian wine ban, the wine industry is recovering its old skills, and outsiders are welcome, even cherished, as they experiment with the results.

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