We recently spoke with the wine writer Miquel Hudin about his new Vinologue guidebook, Georgia: A Guide to the Cradle of Wine, which he co-authored with travel writer Daria Kholodilina, Hudin was the 2016 recipient of the Geoffrey Roberts Award, an international wine prize, and was named the Best Drink Writer of 2017 by Fortnum & Mason Awards. He has also published a number of guidebooks on other wine regions.
Your most extensive previous wine coverage has been about Spain. How come you decided to write a book about Georgia and its wine?
I happen to live in Catalonia, Spain, so in addition to the wines being quite good, they’re also nearby. I’ve written a great deal about other places including Southern France, South Africa, and as a dual national of Croatia, I’ve covered the wines there a great deal as well as in Bosnia. Israel pops up from time to time as well. As to why Georgia? It’s simply been a point of fascination for years. But it was frustrating to see the same handful of wines pop up time and again so I made the trip over and dived in deep, aided a great deal by winning the Geoffrey Roberts Award. I was rewarded with a cultural and history of wine that I’ve not found replicated anywhere else. I hope the book shows this and gives anyone interested in going [to Georgia] a solid reference to the region’s wines in addition to a bit about the food, as they’re very intertwined and wonderful because of it.
How does Georgia wine culture compare to some of the “old world” European wine spots you’ve previously written about?
While the “international”-style producers, who dominate about 98-99% of the total production, are going to be more typical in style to what people know from European wines, it’s the kvevri wines that are the most fascinating as the flavor profile is completely different than what people may be used to. These wines require a massive rethink of what you define as wine. There are both white wines with the soul of reds and reds thick as blood or then whites that are ethereal and reds delicate as a rose. There’s a great deal of rediscovery that’s reactionary to the more industrial wines produced throughout the 20th century, and it’s an interesting moment to see these wines and the effect they’ve had upon the European winemakers as well.
You call your book “a guide to the cradle of wine,” a term some people dismiss as a Georgian marketing ploy. What do you think of the term based on your experience in Georgia?
Indeed, that’s a very just accusation. We don’t know and will probably never know exactly at what point some ancient human realized that rotten grape juice could be so delicious. If you look at the geography of Georgia, with two main long valleys that arch across it, moderated by mountains to the north and the south as well as large bodies of water, it’s easy to understand why winemaking could have started there and why they have the most unbroken tradition in the region. There could be some point in the future where we discover a location older than 8,000 years in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey or even Northern Iran where they were making wine. It’s for this that it was a wise decision for Georgia to ditch “the birthplace of wine” slogan they had been using and replace it with one a touch less specific. But given the archaeological evidence, I can’t see that we’ll find somewhere else in the world that was this “cradle of wine” outside of the Caucasus.
In all honesty, I think that the general “terroir” of Armenia, given modern viticulture practices that we now have, could potentially eclipse Georgia. But with less than 60 wineries in the country the Armenian wine industry is still very, very nascent, and their brandy will overshadow their wine for some time going forward.
Looking ahead, what kind of future do you see for Georgia’s wine industry?
The Georgians have done a very good job getting out their “8,000 years of history” message but they have to move beyond this because the story has been told everywhere. There also needs to be more of a “fine wine” category developing if the Georgians want their wines to be seen as more than just a novelty of history. There are some producers who are striving for this, but there need to be more – it’s pretty easy for someone with a basic knowledge of wine to set up a kvevri and start producing wine. There are a lot of “micro cellars” that have popped as the interest in the wine has increased. Thankfully the education side of wine production is being taken seriously and they’re working to develop it, which will be of the utmost importance.
The kvevri producers will also have to stop being so cozy with the natural wine crowd as they’re putting unfortunate ideas into the producers’ heads like not adding sulfur dioxide to wine as a preservative. This naturally occurs in wine already – it’s been used since Roman times – and is crucial to stop spoilage in transport. Not adding this gives the wines a high propensity to be “off” when someone tastes them. Knowing how it is for casual wine drinkers like my mother, if you’re turned off by something on the first taste, you usually never buy it again. This is why it’s crucial that Georgian kvevri producers ensure that their wines on the international market are in good shape.
Likewise, the international-style producers need to wean themselves off the production of semi-dry and semi-sweet wines. An unholy remnant of the Soviet Era, these wines generally sell easily to former USSR countries and China so they keep producing them even though they in no way represent what Georgia is actually capable of.
It’s hard to play favorites, but after your travels, any particular region and winemaker that stood out for you? If so, why?
I always admire curiosity in life and in wine even more so – those who try things and take chances really excite me. Eko Glonti is one of these people as well as Simon Chkheidze. Ramaz Nikoladze is great because he’s such a character and his wines are good. There’s also Giorgi Yipiani, who is one of the few people making dry wines up in Racha, which is much more known for its semi-sweet Khvanchkara.
In terms of regions, Kakheti dominates in volume and the climate is very good but they have vineyard work to do in terms of reducing Soviet-era yields and planting in areas that can produce finer grapes. But the other regions running from Tbilisi west out to the Black Sea have oodles of largely untapped potential. There are wonderful native grapes in these regions like Tavkveri and Chkhaveri, which may be unpronounceable to an English speaker but have the potential to make fine wines. And then there’s the Racha region: Anyone who wants to invest in the future of winemaking would do well to plant on the south-facing slopes of the Rioni River Valley using the local Aleksandrouli and Mujuretuli grapes.