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The Origin of Wine: Exploring Georgian Wine History

Why has Georgian wine history captivated connoisseurs and historians alike? The answer lies in a history steeped in over 8000 years of viticulture. Georgian wine isn’t merely a beverage; it’s a living archive of human civilization, showcasing ancient techniques like the Qvevri method and thriving through a vast array of indigenous grapes.

Our journey through the history of Georgian wine will guide you through its ancient origins, celebrate its enduring traditional practices, and highlight the innovative spirit that marks its modern renaissance. Prepare to savor a narrative as complex and diverse as the wine itself.

Key Takeaways

  • Georgia’s winemaking tradition dates back 8,000 years, featuring the unique Qvevri method and cultural importance, symbolizing endurance and social cohesion through rituals and community life.
  • The Georgian wine industry boasts over 525 indigenous grape varieties (more wild varieties are still being discovered), reflecting the country’s commitment to preserving its viticultural heritage, with ongoing efforts to rediscover ancient grapes and adapt winemaking techniques for modern palates.
  • Wine tourism in Georgia offers immersive experiences such as the Rtveli Harvest Festival, highlighting the nation’s rich winemaking tradition and hospitable culture to a growing global audience.

Georgian Wine History: The Origin of Wine

Georgian Wine History- Qvevri's found in Dmanisi
Georgian Wine History- Qvevri’s uncovered in Dmanisi

Back in a time before the invention of writing, before the start of the Iron Age, a time when the very foundations of civilization were just beginning to take root. During this era the origin of wine and Georgian winemaking trace back to, predating even the ancient winemaking cultures of Egypt and Greece. For a wine enthusiast, venturing into this epic story is like unearthing the holy grail of viniculture.

For Georgia, the unearthing of ancient clay vessels (qvevris) dating back 8,000 years, filled with grape residues, stands as a captivating testament to its deeply rooted winemaking tradition. Cradling a bottle of wine from this region thus becomes akin to holding a piece of history in your hands, an opportunity to taste the oldest wine in the world.

The story begins with the discovery of eight jars (qvevris), but it extends far beyond that. As we delve deeper, we find that the history of Georgian winemaking is about:

  • The age of the tradition.
  • The richness of the technique.
  • The variety of the grapes.
  • The resilience of the culture that nurtured it.

The Qvevri Method: A Time-Honored Tradition

Qvevri Winemaking Technique
Qvevri Winemaking Technique – See inside an active qvevri at Twins Winery.

Georgian winemaking is defined by the ancient Qvevri method, a unique process that ferments grapes in oversized, egg-shaped, clay vessels often buried underground. This method imparts a unique texture and complexity to Georgian wines. The mixing of grape stems (sometimes), skins, and juice together in these qvevris, some of which are capable of holding up to 10,000 liters (2642 gallons) of wine, is an integral part of this ancient practice.

This tradition has been handed down through every generation for 8 thousand years and is still actively practiced today, proving its lasting significance. Opening a family qvevri full of wine is celebrated with feasting (supra), highlighting its continuing importance in social tradition. The demand for qvevri vessels, remains high even today, not just within Georgia but also internationally, especially among organic and biodynamic wine producers seeking to craft wines with minimal intervention.

Large Georgian Qvevri
Large Georgian Qvevri

Fossilized Grapes: Evidence of an Age-Old Craft

While digging through the layers of overlapping circular houses at the Gadachrili Gora site, archaeologists discovered fragments of pottery, including the rounded bases of large jars, embedded in the floors of the village houses. More pottery pieces were found at Shulaveri Gora, another Stone Age village site about a mile away from Gadachrili, which had been partially excavated back in the 1960s.

Upon analyzing these pottery samples, Patrick McGovern, an archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania, identified tartaric acid—a clear sign that these jars once held wine. While this wine discovery is not able to be drunk today, this finding, along with grape motifs on the jars, abundant grape pollen in the soil, and radiocarbon dating from around 5800 B.C. to 6000 B.C., strongly suggests that the ancient inhabitants of Gadachrili Gora were among the world’s first winemakers.

Bolnisi HIstorical Muesum
Bolnisi HIstorical Muesum

The Bolnisi Museum in Georgia is a must-visit for anyone interested in discovering more of the origin of wine and history of the region. It’s especially fascinating for those curious about Georgia’s ancient winemaking heritage. The award winning museum houses a wide array of exhibits, from ancient tools to medieval pottery, each piece telling a story of the area’s past. If you’re looking to deepen your understanding of how Georgian wine culture has evolved or simply want to explore the historical context of this picturesque area, the Bolnisi Historical Museum offers an enlightening experience packed with insights into the local traditions and history.

This evidence, much like the discovery of the oldest bottle of wine, the Speyer wine bottle (not Georgian – located in Germany), provides a tangible link to the past. It connects us to the earliest wine makers who first recognized the potential of the grape, setting the stage for a tradition that has endured through time.

Vineyard Chronicles: The Evolution of Georgian Winemaking

Positioned strategically at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Georgia’s suitable climate and terrain for viticulture allowed its wines and vines to be traded to ancient cities such as Babylon and Ur. This geographic advantage facilitated an exchange of knowledge and techniques, contributing to the growth and evolution of Georgian viticulture.

However, the journey has not been without its challenges. During the Soviet era, Georgia’s wine industry witnessed a significant shift due to industrialization, leading to state control over family vineyards and the neglect of many native grape varieties. Yet, like a vine reaching for the sun, Georgia’s winemaking tradition endured and adapted.

The post-Soviet period saw a revival of the winemaking tradition with a renewed focus on indigenous grape varieties and a return to ancestral winemaking techniques. This resurgence has breathed new life into the industry, drawing upon its prosperous past while embracing the potential of the future.

From Sacred Rituals to Thriving Economy: The Evolution of Georgian Wine

In Georgian culture, wine transcends its status as a mere beverage. It symbolizes endurance, rebirth, and prosperity, seamlessly woven into the tapestry of community life and rituals. From family gatherings to religious ceremonies, the pouring of wine is a sacred act that binds the community together, embodying social cohesion during important events.

Beyond its cultural significance, wine is a key economic asset for Georgia, with more than 2,000 commercial operations contributing to its economy. The Georgia wine industry has faced significant challenges, including geopolitical events like the Russian embargo. However, it has shown resilience and adaptability, revitalizing under-farmed grape-growing regions and expanding its exports to new markets.

This tapestry of tradition and innovation makes Georgian wine not just a product, but a testament to the country’s enduring spirit.

The Grape Bounty: Georgia’s Indigenous Varieties

Rkatsiteli - Georgia Grave Varieties
Rkatsiteli – Georgia Grave Varieties

Georgia boasts an impressive range of indigenous grape varieties, with over 525 types (more are being discovered and documented) thriving in its Georgia’s fertile soils are a cornerstone of its winemaking past, which has persevered despite challenges from the Soviet era’s focus on quantity over quality or variety. This period saw a decline in the diversity of grape varieties cultivated commercially.

Yet, the true treasure of Georgian viticulture isn’t just in the number of different grapes but in the distinct flavors and qualities each variety brings. These grapes are influenced by the unique terroir, the careful attention of local winemakers, and age-old winemaking traditions that turn them into distinctly Georgian wines.

Efforts to resurrect ancient grape varieties and boost genetic grape diversity are key to ensuring the continued success and growth of Georgia’s wine industry.

Flavors of the Land: Exploring Regional Terroirs

Georgia Wine History – Georgian Winery in Racha

Georgia’s diverse terroir, characterized by its unique soil types and climate conditions, significantly contributes to the distinctive flavor profiles of its wines. The country is broadly divided into East and West Georgia, each with their respective climate types, offering a richness of experiences to the palate.

The largest wine producing region of Kakheti is celebrated for its traditional winemaking and grapes like Rkatsiteli and Saperavi grown primarily in aluvial soils, while Kartli region produces classic European-style wines with Chinuri and Shavkapito. Imereti, with its climatic variability, offers diverse wines from Tsolikauri and Krakhuna, and Racha-Lechkhumi, with rarities like Aleksandrouli and Usakhelouri, is known for wines such as Khvanchkara.

Side note – At the Yalta Conference in 1945, Stalin is said to have served Khvanchkara to Churchill and Roosevelt

Also, the humid climate of the Black Sea Coastal Zone supports extensive vineyard cultivation, leading to yet more unique wine styles in Guria, Samagrelo and Adjara.

Georgia offers a journey of tastes that will take you from the sun-kissed vineyards of the east to the lush, green landscapes of the west, each sip revealing a new facet of Georgia’s fascinating terroir.

Revival of Ancient Grapes

Revival of ancient grape varieties in Georgia

Recent years have seen a dedicated effort to revive ancient grape varieties in Georgia that were on the brink of extinction. These efforts, spearheaded by both the Georgian government and private vineyards, have led to the establishment of more than 2,000 new vineyards featuring over 40 different wine varieties from ancient vines.

This resurgence in ancient grape cultivation is reflective of Georgia’s winemaking optimism and a broader commitment to its heritage.

Modern Mastery: Georgia’s Winemaking Renaissance

History of Georgian Wine - Ancient + Modern Winemaking Techniques

Over the past few decades, Georgian winemakers have navigated between tradition and innovation. Contemporary winemakers are utilizing a variety of techniques, including:

  • Exploring different grape presses
  • Managing stem inclusion
  • Varying fermentation lengths
  • Employing both stainless steel tanks and oak barrels alongside their Qvevri vessels

These techniques, combined with the use of indigenous grapes, allow Georgian winemakers to create unique and diverse wines.

These artisanal innovations have led to the production of new styles of wines, including dry variants of traditionally semi-sweet varieties, different types of red, amber, and white wine, as well as rosé and pet-nat sparkling wines.

This innovative approach has revitalized the winemaking tradition, creating a unique selection of Georgian wines that stand out in new markets.

Georgian winemaking, blending ancient methods with contemporary techniques, has sparked a global resurgence in the popularity of orange wine, known locally as amber wine. This renaissance is placing Georgia firmly on the international wine map.

Artisanal Innovations: Blending Tradition with Modernity

History of Georgian Wine - Ancient + Modern Winemaking Techniques
Georgian Wine History – Ancient + Modern Winemaking Techniques

Georgian winemakers are dedicated to preserving their ancient Qvevri winemaking methods while also adopting modern techniques to create new and exciting wine styles. This blend of tradition and innovation is sparking a wave of unique artisanal wines that are transforming the local wine scene.

The character and innovation of Georgian winemaking are fueled by both small-scale farmers and contemporary wineries. These producers skillfully merge time-honored methods with the latest technologies, producing a unique selection of wines that reflect Georgia’s rich winemaking heritage.

Moreover, this spirit of innovation is not confined to commercial vineyards; many Georgian families cultivate their own grapes and produce wine at home in a special wine cellar called a ‘marani.‘ This practice brings a deeply personal element to the tradition of Georgian winemaking, connecting families to their cultural roots and continuing a long history of home winemaking. For any traveler interested in wine, a visit to Georgia’s wine country offers an insightful glimpse into a world where ancient customs meet modern-day innovation.

The Global Stage: Exporting Georgian Wine Heritage

After the 2006 Russian embargo, Georgia strategically realigned its wine export focus towards new diverse markets, successfully extending its exports to 53 countries by 2019. This shift has not only allowed Georgian winemakers to reach a wider audience but also to showcase their unique winemaking heritage on the global stage.

Despite the wine industry around the world facing challenges, the Georgian wine industry has demonstrated significant resilience and adaptability. In 2023, although export volumes fell by 12%, revenue from Georgian wine actually increased, thanks to higher prices due to the higher quality of wines being produced in the country.

This highlights the strategic shift towards focusing on quality over quantity. This commitment to high quality is evident in the growing segment of premium Georgian wines, particularly those priced at $50 USD or more. This trend signifies a move towards more upscale Georgian winemaking and marketing strategies that emphasize the appeal of “expensive bottles” of Georgian wine.

Savoring the Experience: Wine Tourism in Georgia

Wine Tourim in Georgia
Wine Tourim in Georgia

Visiting wineries in Georgia offers a distinctive experience that sets it apart from other wine regions around the world.

Unlike the large, commercial vineyards you might find elsewhere, The majority of Georgian wineries are typically small, family-run operations that deliver a deeply personal touch. With all but a handful of mega-producers having annual production less than 300,000 bottles, and the vast majority of independent producers actually with less than 25,000 bottles per year. Here, visitors can engage directly with winemakers, walking through the vineyards, wine tasting in their home cellar natural amber wines, white wine or red wine – and of course Georgian chacha, and even participating in the winemaking process during harvest season.

While there are of larger corporate wineries you can visit – the family experience is second to none and a more authentic way to visit Georgia’s wine regions.

Wine tourism exists all year round in Georgia
Wine tourism exists all year round in Georgia

The settings of Georgian wineries also contribute to their unique charm. Nestled among scenic landscapes, from the rolling hills of Kakheti to the lush valleys of Imereti, the backdrop adds an element of natural beauty that enhances the wine-tasting experience. Moreover, Georgian wineries often combine wine tastings with traditional food pairings and if you’re lucky cultural performances (Georgian’s are insanely talented), offering a memorable insight into the local lifestyle and Georgian hospitality.

Georgian Food an Wine Pairings
Georgian Food an Wine Pairings

This approach to winery visits in Georgia provides a more intimate and immersive experience, where wine is just one part of the larger cultural tapestry, allowing visitors to not just taste the wine but to feel part of its creation story

–> Join us on an authentic Georgian winery tour all year round. Book Your spot today!

Wine Festivals

Bolnisi Wine Festival
Bolnisi Wine Festival

Georgia is renowned for its numerous wine festivals that take place throughout the year, offering travelers a delightful peek into the country’s deep-rooted wine culture. May, June, and October are the most popular months for festivals.

From the bustling New Wine Festival in Tbilisi to the traditional Rtveli Wine Harvest Festival these events are perfect for anyone looking to experience local flavors and traditions.

At these festivals, visitors can sample a wide range of Georgian wines, enjoy live folk music, and immerse themselves in the lively atmosphere. It’s an ideal way for any traveler to dive into the local scene and experience Georgian hospitality at its best.

The Rtveli experience is however a little bit different to your standard street festival……

Rtveli Wine Harvest

Rtveli Harvest - Tourists joining in the fun of grape picking
Rtveli Harvest – Tourists joining in the fun of grape picking

The Rtveli Wine Harvest Festival offers travelers a hands-on glimpse into Georgian winemaking. Held every autumn, usually between late September and early October, this traditional festival invites visitors to participate in picking and crushing grapes alongside locals in the lush vineyards of Georgia.

The event is more than just about winemaking; it’s a lively celebration featuring traditional music and sometimes dance, plus plenty of local food and chacha to try. It’s an authentic way to experience Georgian culture and learn about the wine production process. Whether you’re a wine aficionado or just looking for a unique cultural experience, Rtveli provides an engaging and memorable day out in the heart of Georgia’s wine country.

Beyond these events, Georgian vineyards provide other experiences year round that engage visitors in the country’s deep-rooted winemaking practices. From tasting wines directly from Qvevri clay amphorae to baking traditional Kakhetian shoti bread (puri), these activities provide a deep dive into Georgia’s extensive culinary and winemaking heritage.

–> Join us this year for our Real & Simulated Rtveli Harvest Tours

The Birthplace of Wine: Georgia’s Cultural Tapestry

In Georgia, wine is more than just a drink; it’s a vital part of the national culture and identity. At the heart of this tradition is the Georgian supra, a festive meal featuring a series of heartfelt toasts led by a tamada, or toastmaster. These gatherings are not just social events but a key part of community bonding and celebration.

Wine’s cultural significance in Georgia stretches into religious and historical spheres as well. It appears in religious art, plays a role in traditional ceremonies, and is intertwined with many aspects of Georgian life. The historical depth and cultural importance of wine underscore its place in Georgian society.

For any traveler exploring Georgia, experiencing its wine culture is witnessing the resilience, creativity, and passion of its people. From ancient winemaking techniques like the Qvevri method to the preservation of old grape varieties and the global appreciation of Georgian wines, this journey offers a deep dive into the spirit and heritage of Georgia.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long has Georgian winemaking tradition been around?

Georgian winemaking tradition has been around for 8000 years, making it one of the oldest in the world.

What is unique about Georgian winemaking methods?

The unique aspect of Georgian winemaking methods is that they have been practiced for up to 8000 years and are still considered best practice today.

What is the ancient art of Qvevri winemaking?

Qvevri winemaking is an ancient art that utilizes large clay vessels buried underground to naturally regulate fermentation, resulting in distinct texture and complexity in Georgian wines.

How many indigenous grape varieties are there in Georgia?

Georgia is home to over 525 indigenous grape varieties, making it a diverse and rich wine-producing region.

What kind of experiences can visitors have in Georgian vineyards?

Visitors to Georgian vineyards can enjoy immersive experiences like vineyard tours, cooking classes, and wine festivals, making it an exciting destination for wine lovers.

Rtveli: Wine Harvest Tours

Pick Grapes & Feast With Artisan Winemakers

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