The Impact of the Soviet Union’s Occupation on Georgian Winemaking

Little has changed regarding winemaking techniques in Georgia’s wine history, considered the oldest in the world. In this area they still use many old methods such as qvevri, or clay pots to ferment and age their wine.[1]

Russia’s takeover in 1921 pushed ancient winemaking traditions into the shadows, where it almost totally disappeared.[2] As a result of the civil war, Georgian winemakers were compelled to either surrender their land or forfeit the whole grape crop. Many of them were forced to leave their homes and land behind. Wild vines growing on hillsides, in forests, and even on the borders of town streets would have to be harvested if they wanted to make their wine.[3]

Before the Soviet Union Imposed the Rule of Georgia

Before the Soviet Union seized possession of Georgia and imposed its rule, more than 500 varieties of grapes flourished in the country’s temperate climate. Georgia’s closeness to the Black Sea has contributed to its mild climate. Natural circumstances make it possible to produce wine grapes with little human intervention. Most of the grapes were picked by hand and crushed by foot back then. This was followed by putting everything, including the juice, grapes and stems, into the qvevri, or large clay pot.[4]

A qvevri’s size mostly depends on where it is located, with pots in western Georgia being smaller than those in eastern Georgia. They are buried at least half a mile below the surface, where the temperature is stable.[5]

Georgia wine industry

Figure 1. It takes a village to bury this huge vessel.

Wine Fermentation and Production

The naturally existing yeasts will begin the fermentation process in the containers. Because the solid components of the grapes filter the liquid, the liquid naturally falls to the bottom of the container. After fermentation, the wine is either suctioned or scooped from the fermenting barrels and then bottled.

Did You Know: Georgia is one of the few places in the world that traditionally makes orange wines. An orange wine is made by leaving white grape skins in contact with the grape juice, similar to how red wine is made. These skins turn the wine an orange color and give a unique texture and aroma to the wine.

Alternatively, it may be stored in smaller containers. After everything is removed from the qvevri the cleaning procedure will begin. Now that technology has advanced, winemakers may use high-pressure water, ash, and citric acid to clean qvevri barrels and vats. They then use sulfur smoke to finish the cleaning process.

When winemakers decide where to bury their qvevri, they are locked into that spot until they either sell it or replace it with a new qvevri. Qvevri is an object that cannot be transferred from place to place.[6]

After the Soviet Union Imposed Rules on Georgia

For a long time, this technique remained unaltered. But everything changed in 1921 when the Soviet Union invaded Georgia. J.S. Stalin’s five-year economic plans were incompatible with the slow-moving Georgian way of life and the qvevri cycle. These plans laid out the economic goals, and several industries, notably the wine business, were pushed to be industrialized. It would be necessary to automate the production of wine in rural regions and keep the vines under control. Government authorities in the Kakheti area have eradicated more than 500 indigenous plant species. Steel tanks ultimately replaced the fabled underground qvevri.[7]

The Impact of Soviet Rules

The sites used for wine production were repurposed, and sterile buildings were erected in their place. The Soviet Union’s concrete constructions are sturdy but lacking in aesthetic appeal. To top it all off, the architecture of Georgia is genuinely unique, with hand-carved woodwork adorning the facades. Everywhere you go, you can sense the Soviet’s attempt to erase the culture and mood of Georgia. The Georgian aesthetic is primarily influenced by Georgian tradition.[8]

In contrast to the sprawling vineyards they had previously cared for near their homes, families were given only one acre of land during this period. The old vines were ripped up and replaced with rows of high-yielding varieties, including Saperavi and Rkatskeli. Even though they were plentiful and popular, Georgian vines lacked the depth the new vines possessed. The country’s produce was grown by a small number of state-owned facilities. With Stalin’s rule the production strategy became industrial, and neither the manufacturers nor the farmers cared about grape quality.[9]

Before the Soviet regime, people who produced their own wine usually did so by planting vines in their backyard and harvesting fruit from bushes and trees in the surrounding area. In the Soviet Era, making qvevri wine was not strictly forbidden, but it could only be done in the free time of the populace. Because qvevri wine was not profitable, there was little incentive to manufacture new qvevri containers.[10]

To Russia and other Georgian towns and cities, Georgia was exporting more than 440,000 tons of commercial wine annually by the 1980s. Almost no part of it was made in qvevri. On the other hand, many people in the countryside stored their qvevri in their houses’ basements.[11]

The Fall of the Soviet Union

Due to limited manufacturing techniques, it is difficult to assert that qvevri wine thrived during the Soviet Union. A significant change in the dynamics of the wine market began with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Civil unrest ensued in Georgia due to the country’s transition to an independent state. Alcoholic beverage production has decreased by a factor of ten, according to Al Jazeera’s report. Despite this, about 80% of Georgia’s wine was sent to Russia since there was no market for wine made in the Soviet-style anywhere else in the world. Another setback was dealt with by Georgian winemakers in 2006 when the Russian government, led by President Vladimir Putin, banned the import of Georgian wine. Even though it corresponded with Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration’s efforts to promote Western values, the ban’s enforcement coincided with this period.[12]

Georgian winemakers were compelled to concentrate their efforts on exports to countries outside of Russia as a result of losing access to the Russian market. Unfortunately, cheap commercial wine would not suffice. Qvevri wine, on the other hand, is a unique style not seen in many other regions of the world. And one that has potential to be exported to many different countries worldwide. Once the Soviet restrictions were lifted, some producers have started to resume their old methods.[13]

For the second time in 2013, UNESCO included the production of Georgian qvevri wine on its list of intangible cultural treasures. Soon after Russia lifted the prohibition on Georgian wine imports. Even though qvevri wine is just one percent of Georgia’s total export market, there has been an increase in demand from Western nations in recent years.[14]

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ON THIS DAY

February 20, 2018: On this day, ‘Our Blood is Wine,’ a documentary from Amazon’s Prime Video service, was aired. The documentary focused on the rebirth of Georgia’s 8,000 year-old winemaking culture. Jeremy Quinn, a sommelier, worked on the film with filmmaker Emily Railsback. This documentary focuses on the winemaking process in Georgia before, during, and after the Soviet Union’s demise.[15]

Want to read more? Try these books!

Georgia, The Impact of the Soviet Union’s Occupation on Georgian WinemakingGeorgia, The Impact of the Soviet Union’s Occupation on Georgian Winemaking

References:

[1] Kym Anderson, The World’s Wine Markets : Globalization at Work (Cheltenham, Uk ; Northampton, Ma: Edward Elgar Pub, 2004).

[2] Nickolaus Hines, “How Georgia’s Winemakers Went Underground to Survive Soviet Occupation,” Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura, June 15, 2018)

[3] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

[4] Nickolaus Hines, “How Georgia’s Winemakers Went Underground to Survive Soviet Occupation,” Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura, June 15, 2018)

[5] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

[6] Kym Anderson, The World’s Wine Markets : Globalization at Work (Cheltenham, Uk ; Northampton, Ma: Edward Elgar Pub, 2004).

[7] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

[8] Nickolaus Hines, “How Georgia’s Winemakers Went Underground to Survive Soviet Occupation,” Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura, June 15, 2018)

[9] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

[10] Nickolaus Hines, “How Georgia’s Winemakers Went Underground to Survive Soviet Occupation,” Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura, June 15, 2018)

[11] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

[12] Kym Anderson, The World’s Wine Markets : Globalization at Work (Cheltenham, Uk ; Northampton, Ma: Edward Elgar Pub, 2004).

[13] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

[14] Nickolaus Hines, “How Georgia’s Winemakers Went Underground to Survive Soviet Occupation,” Atlas Obscura (Atlas Obscura, June 15, 2018),

[15] Emily Railsback, “Watch Our Blood Is Wine | Prime Video,” Documentary, ed. Jeremy Quinn, Amazon.com, 2018

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