Flashing a Ministry of the Interior pass every time the police checked our Georgian Wines & Spirits company van proved eloquently persuasive. I never did find out why our bullet-headed bodyguard also needed to carry a gun on the three-hour trip from the capital, Tbilisi, to the winery, but as we passed a roadblock three kilometres from the Chechen border, I felt we were better off safe than sorry. Mind you, given the parlous state of the roads, with cavernous potholes and farm animals seemingly intent on joining the roadkill statistics, safety is only relative when you're bumping up and down next to a man with a gun in his pocket.
This is Georgia, east of the Black Sea, west of Azerbaijan, south of Russia and north of Turkey. And Georgia, as you may know if you visited Sophia Gilliatt's display of Georgian artefacts at Vinopolis in London or seen Hugh Johnson on TV, is the cradle of wine. At the Georgian State Museum in Tbilisi, clay pots and jewel-encrusted golden drinking vessels adorned with grape motifs testify to a legacy of wine production extending way back to the sixth century BC. As many as 500 grape varieties formed the basis from which wine was once made in this wild and beautiful country. It's a pity then that so much promise was snuffed out so early on, but at least Georgia remains the only chardonnay-free zone in the world.
At least, it used to be. Georgian Wines & Spirits (GWS), Georgia's largest, and in truth, the only company apart from the smaller Telavi with any realistic agenda for modernisation, is planning to introduce chardonnay as one of the new varieties that will help it to compete on overseas markets. Until recently, overseas in Georgian eyes has meant the neighbouring trading countries – in other words, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. But as production in the post-Soviet era has slowed to a trickle following the mass uprooting of vines (150,000 hectares have been cut back to 60,000 in a decade), it has now turned its eye to the West.
Before independence in 1990, Georgia was one of the main suppliers of wine (along with Moldova and Ukraine) to Soviet Russia. Apart from kvanchkara, the distinctive semi-sweet red beloved of Russians in general and Stalin in particular, it was plonk – shedloads of it.
I got a taste of the sort of plonk it was at an instructive comparative tasting of wines bought off a local supermarket shelf. After classic examples of cork mould, cabbagy smells and oxidation, best of all was the thoroughly distasteful mousy smell and taste of one company's wines, apparently derived from fermentation in old Russian metal tanks. Yuk, pass the spittoon.
GWS aims to make wines that will appeal to Western tastes. With oceans of Australian wine, and the rest, washing our way, what's to recommend a country with no recent track record of decent wines? But everyone has their unique selling point. Georgia's is saperavi, the widely planted red grape variety once held in great esteem by the Russians. Saperavi isn't Georgia's only grape variety. There's a cast list of something like 25 even more unpronounceable grapes still in use (try saying rkatsiteli or tsolikauri). But saperavi, with its deep colour, rich plummy flavours and crisp natural acidity, has potential.
So Pernod-Ricard, which owns Jacob's Creek, believes. It joined forces with Levan Gachechiladze, an opposition politician, and a group of his business colleagues to set up GWS in 1993. Initially the investment was in the necessary hardware, such as a bottling line and adapting the old-fashioned metal-lined tanks to stainless steel and temperature control. Recently the company has installed a French viticulturalist, Benoît Fil, and an Australian winemaker, David Nelson, who works with the redoubtable Tamaz Kandelaki, one of Georgia's most experienced oenologists, taken on for his extensive knowledge of Georgia's vineyards. The vineyards are more or less organic by default, because chemicals are expensive and little used.
Sadly, huge quantities of saperavi vines were uprooted when the Russians departed because the variety ceased to be profitable. So the main work of reconstituting the vineyards is with saperavi, although there will be some cabernet sauvignon planted too. The company buys most of its grapes from the thousands of small independent growers who were given 1.2 hectares of land each under the privatisation scheme. But quality control remains difficult, so GWS has planted about 500 hectares of vineyards, mostly with saperavi, in Khaketi, Georgia's principal wine region, which is close to the Caucasus mountains in the east.
Much anodyne white wine is made from the rkatsiteli and mtsvane grapes, while most of the red wine production is still in the traditional style aimed at the Russian sweet tooth. The rest is dry red, including Matrassa, a rustic dry red made from grapes grown in Azerbaijan and – best of the lot – the Tamada saperavi. Safeway has done well with GWS's 1998 Tamada saperavi (£4.99) since adding it to the range. Deep-hued and fresh, it's a gluggy red which, with its robust acidity and damson-plummy fruit, is reminiscent of a thirst-quenching Italian barbera.
In Georgia, Tamada is drunk in copious quantities, often from drinking horns. I tried it that way once myself and, thanks to the excellent natural spring water of Borjomi, ended up none the worse for wear.Reuse content