In these times, and reaching back hundreds of years into the past, we take for granted that wine is made with a certain pat set of techniques – that the fruit is pressed and the skins are exposed to the must (juice) for about ten or twelve days to extract color in the case of red wines, and for just a couple of days if at all for white wines. Or that after fermentation, aging takes place in either stainless steel tanks, or in wooden barrels of varying size for varying amounts of time depending on the style desired by the winemaker.
But in Georgia, which if you didn’t know, is the place to which the vitis vinifera (the wine grape) vine is native, and where it was first domesticated, and where the first documented wines were produced over 5,000 years ago, at least traditionally, these Western standards do not apply. To be clear, because this Western European style of winemaking has become the unquestioned world standard, a large quantity of the wine currently produced in Georgia is also made in this “modern” style with the intention to deliver to the market what it expects, but the world’s first wines were, and by some, thankfully still are, made in the traditional Georgian style.
So just what is this style? Well, first of all, fermentation takes place “spontaneously” by just letting it happen naturally with yeasts that simply blow on the breeze. Second, the skins are only separated from the musts only upon drinking or bottling, even for white wines, which makes for inky-dark reds, and light tawny-colored whites like the one we had the great pleasure to drink tonight. But the most important and distinctively Georgian element in this country’s winemaking tradition is something called the qvevri (roughly pronounced “kwevri”). A Qvevri is nothing less than a huge clay vessel with a pointed bottom that is buried up to its neck in the ground inside a small building called a marani in which the fermentation takes place. The qvevri are then covered with a clay lid, sealed with pine tar, and then the lid is covered over with earth and left to age, often over long periods of time. This ancient and ingenious technique provides a natural system of temperature control, the clay material has a radically different biochemical effect on the final product, and the long fermentations and maceration times ultimately produces earthy, complex wines of great power and character.
This particular wine hails from what is perhaps Georgia’s premier wine region, Kakheti, in the country’s far east, and is made from a Georgian white grape variety called Rkatsiteli, which shockingly is very widely planted in New Jersey and in New York’s Finger Lakes region not only because it produces rich, exotically scented wines, but also because it is highly resistant to cold weather. Exactly how it got here, I have no idea. And though this wine couldn’t be any more Georgian, it has an Italianate name, and happens to be made by an expatriate German who fell in love with Georgian food and wine, its breathtaking pristine scenery, and the famously effusive Georgian hospitality. The Georgians have a saying that “A guest is a gift from God” and I’ll say that this wine is gift for the jaded modern wine palate.
To make anything other than Georgian food with this oh-so-Georgian wine would be a crime (not that I’d normally do anything else, but the regional thing goes double here) so I began the meal with stewed green beans in a cinnamon and saffron yogurt sauce with savory, tarragon, dill, and mint, served at room temperature, and then tevzis bughlama (“tevzis” just means “fish” in Georgian, but since Georgia has no seacoast, river or lake fish is typical, so I used salmon, but not just any salmon – I splurged for some wild Copper River Sockeye salmon. Killer.) which consists of oil poached fish with lots of cilantro, onions, tomatoes, lemon, and bay leaf, with some rice studded with little chunks of potatoes flavored with caraway seed on the side.
Vinoterra Kakheti Rkatsiteli 2011
Deep golden/amber color. Imposing nose of apricot, quince, and applesauce supported by earthy notes of dried flowers, wet stones, iodine, vanilla bean, and fire-roasted almonds. In the mouth the wine shows a powerful full body with a dry, acidic, and yet unctuous mouthfeel with exotic flavors of peach preserves, bitter orange, dried white currants, tea, walnut paste, and ground white spices. Long and intense bitterish finish. A completely singular wine that could come from no other place than Georgia.