Cradle of wine-making, Georgia looks to foreign markets

Sipping ruby-red Saperavi wine at his factory in eastern Georgia, Donato Lanati launched into a fervent ode to the ex-Soviet republic's ancient wine-making traditions.

"Georgia is the birthplace of wine. It has millennia-long tradition of wine-making, but its excellent wines are an absolutely new discovery," outside the former Soviet Union, Lanati, an Italian who is chief wine-maker at the Badagoni Wine Company, told wine experts gathered from around the world.

A mountainous republic on the Black Sea, Georgia is considered by many experts as the cradle of wine-making. Archaeological finds suggest viniculture may have begun here as early as 8,000 years ago, long before it reached western Europe.

Though its wine is largely unknown in the West, Georgia is keen to conquer world markets and last month played host to experts from 44 countries at the prestigious annual World Vine and Wine Congress.

It is also anxious to make up for the loss of its once-dominant market, Russia, which imposed a ban on Georgian wine imports in 2006 amid spiralling tensions that eventually erupted into the 2008 Georgia-Russia war.

Wine production dropped 80 percent immediately after the loss of the Russian market, which was soaking up 87 percent of Georgian exports, according to the agriculture ministry.

In Georgia for the wine congress, the president of the International Vine and Wine Organisation (OIV), Yves Benard, said that, ironically, the embargo had a positive impact on the quality of Georgian wine and may have boosted its chances on international markets.

When Russia was its dominant market, Georgia focused on sweet wines preferred there instead of the dry wines more to the liking of Western palates.

While the embargo was a "huge problem in the short-term, in the long-term it enabled strategic thinking that the future of Georgian wines is not in volume, but in quality," Benard said.

"Ultimately, Georgia got very good results, both in white and red wines."

The Georgian government has sought to help exporters by registering 18 appellations of origin with the World Intellectual Property Organisation and is introducing a marketing strategy allowing Georgian producers to export wines under a common, unified label.

The efforts appear to be having some effect and in 2009 Georgia exported wine to 45 countries, up from only 22 the year before, according to government figures.

But with fierce competition on the international market, experts said little-known Georgia is facing an uphill battle.

"The major problem is that Georgian wines lack awareness abroad," Benard said, though he added that it would be a "strategic miscalculation" if Georgia moved away from its own grape varieties towards planting well-known varieties like Chardonnay, Merlot, or Cabernet Sauvignon.

"It is essential that Georgia keeps its native varieties," he said.

Badagoni's general director Giorgi Salakaia said Badagoni has already scored some success abroad with wines from two local varieties, amber-coloured Rkatsiteli wine with a hint of citrus flavour and robust red Saperavi, rich with tannin.

Salakaia said that after "encouraging success" in eastern markets like the Baltics, Kazakhstan, Poland and Ukraine, the company is looking to expand into Italy, Britain and Germany.

"Our qvevri wines created a furore in Italy, especially in restaurant chains," he said, referring to Georgia's tradition of making wine in cone-shaped ceramic vases called qvevri.

Salakaia said Georgia's ancient wine-making traditions - and its continuing use of millennia-old techniques - could give the country an edge on international markets by appealing to consumers looking for a unique experience.

Georgia's practice of fermenting wine in qvevri, with seeds and skins left in juice after pressing, has no analogue in the world and produces wines with unique tastes.

Lanati, a passionate advocate of Georgian wine, said the country's long wine-making heritage has shaped its grapes, creating unique flavours that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

"A single grape berry contains information about soil, climate, history, traditions, human knowledge, intelligence, and even intuition," he said. "To me, the whole universe is in one single Georgian grape."