Wine holds a central place in every Georgian’s life and in Georgian culture in general. It is widely believed that winemaking began in the Neolithic Period (8500-4000 BC). Although there is no definitive proof for Georgia to the location of the first viticulture, the concentration of archaeological evidence and written references incline many scholars to favor the idea that winemaking started in southern Caucasia, then spread to Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and the rest of the world. The modern English word wine itself is etymologically traced to Latin vinum and Greek oinos, which, some scholars argue, were derived from the Georgian gh-vino. Recent archeological excavations produced evidence of viticulture in Georgia dating back as far as 5,000 BCE.

 The importance of wine in Georgian culture is evident in the Christian tradition of St. Nino baptizing Georgia with a cross made from a vine. Thus, the Christian cross of vine and its final product, wine, became inextricably linked in the Georgian psyche and culture. The elements of vine can be seen incorporated in the architecture of many Christian churches and cathedrals throughout Georgia. Over hundreds of years, an intricate culture developed surrounding wine production and consumption. Georgian families usually owned (and some still are) a consecrated place, or marani, beside their main house, where large clay vessels (kvevri) were buried and the wine was matured thanks to the cooling properties of underground streams. When filled with the fermented grape juice, the kvevri were then topped with a wooden lid and covered and sealed with earth. Winemaking is also closely connected with the Georgian tradition of feasts led by tamadas or men respected for their eloquence, expressive toasts and ability to drink deeply. Aided by their assistants (merikipes), the tamadas propose numerous toasts that lead their guests on a journey through the history and tradition of Georgia.

During the Soviet period, the Georgian wineries dominated the Soviet market and their products were exported for sale to other countries. However, following the declaration of independence in 1991 and the subsequent years of conflicts, the wine industry collapsed and production hit rock bottom. The Georgian wine industry was weighed down by outdated machinery and highly competitive export wine markets. Politics also play an important role for the industry since its largest export market remains Russia, which frequently adopted unfriendly policies towards Georgia. The greatest problem, however, is the widespread wine counterfeiting of Georgian wines in the markets of Russia, Commonwealth of Independent States and Europe. According to Georgian Ministry of Agriculture estimates, international markets contain some 17 million bottles of the two top Georgian red wines – Kakheti’s Kindzmarauli and Racha’s Kvanchkara – even though Georgian wineries can produce some 2.5-3 million bottles of the two wines annually. The Russian wine market alone contains some 120 million to 150 million bottles of wine branded as Georgian and as little as 15 to 16 percent of that total is actually produced in Georgia. The reputation of Georgian wines had therefore been significantly undermined. In recent years, American and French companies have made investments in the Georgian wine industry, which showed signs of reviving.

There are about 500 local vine sorts maintained in Georgia today and some 60 sorts of wines are commercially produced. Some of the best Georgian wines are Rkatsiteli, Saperavi, Manavis Mtsvane, Tsolikauri, Tsitska, Khvanchkara, Pino, Khikhva, Krakhuna, Chkhaveri, Ojaleshi etc.

There are five major zones for viticulture:

Kakheti is a major winemaking region in Georgia, producing about two thirds of all Georgian grapes and wines. Located in southeastern part of the country, Kakheti's lowlands of the Alazani and Iori Rivers and the slopes of the Caucasus, with a mild climate, provide ideal conditions for winemaking. The Kakhetian wines are known for the richness of their palette and vary from high quality dry to naturally semi sweet and sweet wines. Remarkably, Kakheti, a small region by itself, is divided into more than two dozen micro-zones that produce specific wines, i.e. Tsinandali, Kindzmarauli, Napareuli, Kvareli, Mukuzani, Akhasheni, Manavi, etc.

Located in the central part of Georgia, Kartli produces many European style wines, including sparkling wines. The region has a continental climate, with hot and dry summers, The most notable wines produced in Kartli are Goruli mstvane, Budeshuri and Kisi.

Imereti (with Samegrelo):
Located in the western Georgia, Imereti enjoys a moderately humid climate due to the proximity of the Black Sea. The region is known for its traditional methods of winemaking and grape varieties cultivated include Tsolikauri, Tsitska, Krakhuna, Saperavi, Aladasturi, Shavkapito, Dzelshavi, black Pint, Aligote, and Chardonnay. A neighboring region of Samegrelo (Mingrelia) is know for its Ojaleshi grape variety that produces a wine of intensive color and semi-sweet taste.

Located in the northern part of Georgia, on the slopes of the picturesque Caucasus Mountains, Racha-Lechkhumi is known for its peculiar soil and humid climate. The region boasts one of the oldest viticultures in the world, with traces of winemaking dating back to the end of the 4th millenia B.C.E. The region is famous for its Khvanchkara, Usakhelouri and Tvishi wines.

The Subtropical or Black Sea Coast zone:
The black Sea Coast Zone includes the regions of Ajara (Achara), Guria, Semgrelo and Abkhazia. Located along the Black Sea coast, this region has one of the oldest centers of viticulture. The region can be divided into main subgroups, Ajara-Gurian (main grape varieties Tsolikauri, Chkhaveri, Aladasturi, Aligote) and Samegrelo-Abkhazian (main grape varieties Ojaleshi, Avasirkhva, Kachichi, Tskhenisdzudzu abkhazuri, etc).

Since the 1950s, Georgian vineries have been awarded over 270 medals, including some 140 gold.

Alexander Mikaberidze