The Cradle of Wine: Georgia’s Oldest Wine and Winemakers
Travel to Georgia, and you’ll find a barrage of clothing, tea towels, and more covered in the qvevri, a vessel used for storing wine. This design is more than a depiction of a vessel used to age wine; it’s a vital part of Georgia’s wine history and part of why the country has been nicknamed the “Cradle of Wine.”
A quick search online about wine and many inquiries pop up surrounding the question, “Who invented wine?” While there was much speculation throughout the years, a 2017 archaeological discovery cleared the air – Georgia is officially the birthplace of wine.
Vineyard View Image Photo by Alex Batonisashvili on Unsplash
The Oldest Winemakers
Georgian winemakers have been credited with a long history of wine production. Evidence suggests the original winemakers were crafting this alcoholic beverage as early as 6,000 BC. During this time, those in South Caucasus countries had discovered the secret to winemaking – that creating a pit and leaving juice would allow it to turn into wine.
This discovery occurred in 2017 when pottery bits were uncovered underneath ancient Georgian homes in multiple villages. These pottery pieces underwent a chemical analysis. They were found to contain tartaric acid, which indicates wine residue was present. Additionally, grape pollen was found in the area’s soil, prompting scientists to conclude that Georgian winemakers held the title of the first wine producers. 
When and Where Did Winemaking Begin?
Two areas in Georgia are credited with the initial Georgian wine production – Gadachrili Gora, a mud brick house-covered mound, and a village a stone’s throw away. It began with a love for grapes shared by those living in Gadachrili Gora, demonstrated through depictions of grapes on their handcrafted pottery pieces. It is thought that at one time, this area was covered in wine grapes and vines.
Due to a lack of evidence in the village’s soil, it is thought that the locals produced grape wine in the hills. Evidence suggests that the villagers would use some form of a wine press to create grape juice before pouring it into kveris for storage. It was then left in the ground during the wintertime to ferment. It was kept underground in the hills until it was ready to consume. At this point, the ancient wine was transported to the nearby village. In some cases, the wine produced via this method could be kept for up to 50 years without spoiling. 
Other Countries Reign Over Georgian Wines
The combination of the ideal climate and location for producing wine grapes is likely the reason for Georgia’s early wine production. However, this location, which was perfect for crafting wine, is not ideal for protection against invasion from other countries. Many adversaries, including Assyrians, Greeks, and even the Roman empire, have tried to rule Georgia through the years. Through it all, Georgian wine has remained at the forefront, with Assyrian kings demanding this liquid gold as a tribute instead of their typical gold tributes from other conquests.
Yet, through it all, Georgia’s wine production has greatly impacted these civilizations and many others. This country’s wine production has been mentioned in ancient texts written by the famed Homer and Apollonius of Rhodes, noting their grapevine growing and wine processing methods. 
Russia’s Involvement in Georgian Wine Production
The Russian involvement in the country drastically shifted Georgia’s wine industry, nearly wiping out Georgia’s native wine grapes. In 1799 Russian troops entered Georgia and continued ruling the country until 1991, when Georgia declared its independence. From 1922-1991, the Soviet Union helped establish Georgia as the wine cellar of the USSR.
Despite having ample native grape varieties (estimated to be around 500), Russia pushed specific wine types to create red wine and white wine. During this time, quality was not the priority. Instead, wine production shifted to mass quantities, with most falling under the category of sweet wine. Producing bulk quantities required different transportation methods, forcing the implementation of train tracks to move large bundles of grapes and wine in and out of each area. 
Dwindling Native Georgian Grapes
The name of the game in the 1900s was control, as the major vineyards were state-run. Because of the push for quantity over quality, the native Georgia grapes were dwindling in numbers. Luckily, due to the fear of a revolution by the state’s residents, smaller family-owned vineyards were allowed to continue creating wine. These small wine producers could drink wine in their homes and, occasionally, sell small portions of the wine they produced.
Unfortunately, other negative side effects came from Russia’s large wine production demands. The ancient winemaking techniques that had served Georgia well for many years were also nearly destroyed by industrialization. Producing wine in qvevris required a substantial amount of cleaning and other aspects which required time and patience, which the Russians deemed unnecessary. Instead of using the traditional methods of wine storage in wine trade, Russians stored wine in cement or steel tanks.
The steps taken to produce Russian-led wine also diminished the land for growing grapes. Additionally, steps were taken in 1985 to limit wine drinking due to wine abuse, as dictated by Mikhail Gorbachev. The wine-growing lands were massively reduced during this time. 
Did you know? In 1985, vineyard space was reduced to 1/4 of its original size, shifting from 395,000 to 111,000 acres.
Modern Georgian Winemaking
Unfortunately, the presence of Russians in Georgia had a lasting impact on wine production even after Georgia declared independence. For about 15 years, the Georgian wine industries focused on mass-producing the drink. As before, most of the wine crafted in Georgia was transported to Russia for consumption. Finally, in 2006, wine production shifted after Vladimir Putin placed an embargo on Georgian-made wine. Of course, this created a need for a new consumer for Georgian wine.
This need for a new consumer base led to the Western market, which preferred the drier taste of traditional Georgian wine over the sweet wine that had been mass-produced for years. After realizing the amount of money that could be made by producing wine with the Western market in mind, many locals and Westerners whose families grew up in Georgia once again turned to their roots to craft smaller-batch wines.
Many grape varietals that were almost wiped out are being planted again. Methods once common in Georgian wine production are now being used again to create high-quality wines for the US market. This return to Georgia’s winemaking roots has led to a rising number of small Georgia wine companies becoming commercially licensed to sell their products. Additionally, the number of wine companies authorized to export their products is also on the rise, reaching 350 in 2019. 
Georgia Vineyard Expansion
This country’s long and rich wine history began outside of Tbilisi, with Gadachrili Gora, which lies south of the country’s capital. Multiple discoveries in this area have provided evidence of early winemaking. While winemaking originated around the capital, it has since spread throughout the country.
Each region produces a unique wine with different aromas and flavor notes due to the varying terrior, grape varietals, weather, and methods used for wine production. Within these regions are microzones, which are associated with PDOs (Protected Designations of Origin). Currently, there are 25 microzones in Georgia.
Additionally, while some vintners use qvevris for wine production, it only makes up about 10% of overall wine creation in the country. The other bottles are produced by methods brought over by Europeans throughout the years. 
The Best Places to Discover Georgian Wine Culture
Kahketi Vineyard Image Photo by Alex Shu on Unsplash
It’s challenging to visit the country and not come across multiple vineyards and wine offerings, especially with their recent expansion into various regions. However, wine production is focused in specific areas, including Kahketi, Kartli, and Adjara. While the smaller wine companies have made a comeback in recent years, entering into the thousands, larger companies are also on the rise.
Each wine region in Georgia offers a unique experience for visitors. Some provide the option to explore the country’s history, while others are more convenient to travel to. Regardless of which vineyard is visited, you’ll surely enjoy tasting part of Georgia’s culture via a glass or two of vino.
While the wine production area has spread to other parts of the country, it’s important to note that the Kahketi region remains the top producer, creating about 70% of the wine in the country. 
Georgian Orange Wine
Aside from the production method of Georgian wines, they’re also famous for producing amber and orange wine. These wine varieties are named for their color, created by processing skin-on grapes. Even with a darker hue, they are considered white wines due to the grapes used. Orange and amber wine is believed to have their origin in Georgia, though there is yet to be sufficient evidence.