12 December 2016

Can you say 'Saperavi'?

Can you say 'Saperavi'?
Fresh-milk cheeses and sweets made from grape must are popular snacks with wine in Georgia.

If you are an oenophile, the names of wines from the Caucasus land of Georgia may start coming to your lips more quickly as the country makes a big new push into China. Mike Peters reports from Tbilisi.

The "houses" were crude shelters shaped out of rammed earth. Life was pretty simple back in the 6th millennium BC, but in those days the tribes of what is now Georgia were making the first strides toward modern agriculture, growing cereals and grapes. The earliest evidence of winemaking has been found there, dried pips and wine "must" in 8,000-year-old jars made of sun-dried clay.

Since then, the fertile valleys of the South Caucasus mountains have been producing some of the world's most iconic wines-with names that are musical but a challenge to pronounce, like the popular white grape variety rkatsiteli (kat-sa-telly). Georgia not only claims the oldest winemaking but the largest number of indigenous wine grapes, more than 500. Many of the intriguing names are based on the various grapes' shapes and colors (mtsvane, another fabled white grape, is the word for "green").

The fact that you may have never heard of them is a reflection of regional politics: Few countries have been invaded and conquered by so many. The small country sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, hugging the eastern coast of the Black Sea, south of Russia and north of Turkey. Waves of conquerors included Arabs, Persians and Russians, and by Soviet times the region's acclaimed wines were mostly consumed in the USSR.

Lately, Georgia has been eager to diversify its market, reintroducing its wines to Europe, where they were once favored by the ruling houses of Europe in medieval times.

The country's winemakers also have their eyes on China in a big way. While the Middle Kingdom still loves its baijiu, the powerful white liquor, it's also the world's biggest consumer of red wine. A pending free-trade agreement will make Georgian wines much more available-and affordable thanks to waived import taxes-as soon as next year.

In the meantime, the country's entrepreneurial merchants have been busy in China, setting up dozens of Georgian wine shops around the country, from big cities to the far west, where Georgian food and wine have been known since Silk Road days.

"China, the Baltics and the US are all important markets now," says Irakli Cholobargia, head of marketing for the National Wine Agency in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. "These are countries that will accept something new if you can tell a good story about it."

Georgia's position as an East-West crossroads has shaped its food and wine for centuries.

"It's not fusion," insists Tekuna Gachechiladze, the chef/owner of Littera and Culinarium in Tbilisi. "Our native cuisine has been shaped for thousands of years, with influences from Persia and the Middle East."

Our visiting group savors a big spread of her colorful dishes. There are tasty morsels of nadugi, a fresh-milk cheese similar to ricotta, and adjiki, a savory spice mix made into a paste like North African harissa. On another plate, a green spice blend bursts with layers of flavor: green pepper, mint, tarragon, coriander and garlic.

Organic beetroot gives dips and sauces an incandescent red color, while strained Georgian yoghurt offers hints of pomegranate-a fine complement to roasted lamb chops.

"And don't forget walnuts," says the chef, whose TV programs have made her the country's version of Julia Child. "We use walnuts in everything!"

Georgians love their food and drink. At a Georgian supra (feast), a huge assortment of dishes is prepared-always with large amounts of wine.

"As a child, I was always happy when one of my grandmother's old neighbors died," Gachechiladze tells us with a sheepish grin, "because my grandma would make a lot of wonderful dishes for everyone to eat."

At most dinners, there will almost certainly be singing. The role of the tamada (toastmaster) is an honored one. He or she also decides what wine is next to be drunk.

That could be intimidating in a country with 525 documented grape varieties, hundreds of wineries and charming wine bars on every corner. Most of the market, however, is driven by a few known grapes-especially for export.

Saperavi is the most common red at home and abroad-a robust red that produces high-quality dry red wines that age well, plus sweet, semi-sweet and rose vintages. Other grape wines in the export market include takveri, which boasts aromas of wild roses and red fruit; the strong-bodied shavkapito; and otskhanuri sapere, which generally produces a raspberry-colored wine that's a bit rough in young vintages but ages into an elegant, rich beauty with a long finish.

The most famous white wines include rkatsiteli, which is used to make traditional wines in clay vessels called quervi as well as wines in the modern style. The grape is often blended with mtsvane Kakhuri, one of the country's most ancient varieties with hints of peach and mineral overtones. Rkatsiteli is widely exported-to Russia, the US and western China. In fact, Xinjiang winemakers embraced the grape so long ago that some produce their own rkatsiteli.

When you visit a Tbilisi wine bar, you may be surprised when someone asks mischievously, "Do you want a little kissy?" If that happens, there's no need to pucker up: You are simply being offered kisi, a white variety from the famed Kakheti region of eastern Georgia. Classically produced kisi offers floral notes of pear, citrus and green tea, while a regional Kakhetian style delivers characteristics of apricot, mango, orange and walnut.

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