We recently spoke to Lisa Granik MW about her book, The Wines of Georgia (Infinite Ideas, November 2019). Granik became a Master of Wine in 2006, and was a Professor of Wine at the New York Institute of Technology from 2013-15. Currently she advises wine companies and regions seeking to improve their sales in the United States.
Granik, who has written for publications such as The New York Times, The World of Fine Wine and Sommelier Journal, dives into Georgian wine culture in this title, explaining not only grape varieties, terroirs, winemaking methods and viticulture but also the centrality of wine to Georgian culture generally. Below is a condensed and lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How did the book come about?
I first started going to Georgia back in the early 1990s. And then went back when I was a lawyer, and then went back again once I was an MW [Master of Wine] in 2011, and I was involved with a number of the senior people in the wine industry, advising them on how to negotiate Western markets.
In the course of my visits there, I began to see that there were lots of stories about Georgia, but very little of it was based on clear evidence. And I also could see that the Westerners who were coming were asking lots of questions for which they did not get answers.
I also realized that every other major wine-growing country in the world has a wine book, and Georgia didn’t have one in English. And I felt that there was nobody better positioned than me to do it because I wasn’t just a journalist going and getting a superficial overview, but rather I had the ability to do comprehensive research into the source material. I could see that there were interesting grape varieties, obviously a distinctive winemaking tradition and terroirs that weren’t well understood.
I started to try to investigate this. And then when I had a Fulbright, I guess two years ago already, that gave me the opportunity to go back and forth and spend much longer periods of time [in Georgia] to pursue the inquiry as well as do some archival research into what had been written about Georgia in the Imperial period, and then again in the Soviet period. The longer I was there, the deeper I was able to dig to get what I thought were substantive answers to many of the questions that I had.
Who did you imagine you were writing for?
As an English publication, the book is foremost for wine professionals outside of Georgia who are working with Georgian wine and selling Georgian wine. But for anyone who’s interested in Georgian wine, even consumers, it’s a reference. It’s for people who are wondering, what is this grape variety? Where does it come from? What should I know about it? What should I expect from these wines? On the Internet, there’s so much misinformation about what these wines are about and how the wines are made, how things are spelled, and I tried to set that straight.
The geology section is very prominent in the book. Why is that?
I would ask people about terroir and didn’t get many satisfying answers. So when I started to look into the country’s geology and I saw how active of an area it was and how complex the terroirs are, I felt like, okay, that means I have to start here to explain why.
For the average person reading the book, it is a short course in geology to show what has influenced the development of these terroirs and why it’s a complex terroir, or series of terroirs, to think about. It’s a tiny area, but very complex.
The other real message is what’s important about Georgia, what’s distinguishing about Georgia. Yes, there are distinguished grape varieties, and some of them are very, very interesting. Some of them, I would argue, are noble grape varieties. By the same token, these grape varieties can be grown anywhere. And they’re increasingly being grown elsewhere because they’re warm climate varieties, and with climate change, they’re being recommended [to winemakers]. For instance, saperavi is currently being grown in New York State and Australia.
I hope Georgians come away from the book with the desire to take their terroir seriously and to ask questions like, what is the soil type and how does it influences their grapes? What rootstocks they should use? I want to encourage these winemakers – you know, you can take your tradition seriously, but you don’t have to be governed by it.
The winemaking tradition in Georgia stretches back millennia. How do you think this has influenced the identity and the marketing of Georgian wine today?
Certainly the history is a selling point. I would say it’s a feature. You know, you’re drinking history. The Georgians have a tremendous amount of pride – pride in having survived, pride in having one of the 14 original alphabets, and pride in their various traditions and holding to them. And I think there’s a lot of respect that can be given to that, that should be given to that.
But history doesn’t have a flavor. It’s a story. In the end, we drink wine, and it has to be delicious. And many of these wines are. But I’ve tasted lots of wines, and sometimes I will say it has X, Y, or Z flaw – the fruit was moldy or it has excessive levels of acetone. And they’ll say, but it’s natural. Well, it can be natural, but does it taste good? There are plenty of other natural wines out there that taste good. It gets back to the question, if these flaws obscure the singularity of your place, what are you doing?
Again, I’m a believer that the wine industry is always about the long run. Yes, there are fashions and fads, but in the long run, quality will win out. I’m looking for wines that are an expression of terroir, and the grapevine is an expression of that terroir, and I’m looking for the purity of the place and the purity of that wine.
And if I were a winemaker, I wouldn’t want to mess it up with chemicals, but I also would want to protect the wines so that I got the cleanest and purest expression of that vineyard, and I would not want my vineyard mucked up with any number of different flaws.
What do you see as the direction of Georgian wine in the next decade?
Well, I have no crystal ball. But there’s no question that there are going to be more young Georgians traveling and then coming home to make better wine. They don’t want to live abroad. They want to come home, and they are aware of the world of wine and they’re abroad, tasting great wines, and they want Georgia to compete on that level. So I actually think that there will be some home winemakers that are finally going to start to take their terroirs seriously and learn more about winemaking to produce better wine.
They have singular terroirs, singular grape varieties, and they’re the ones who have carried these traditions for 8,000 years. I think they owe it to their tradition and their country, their terroirs, to make the best wines possible.
Click here to purchase your copy of “Wines of Georgia” (Infinite Ideas, November 2019), out now.
Editor’s note: If you’re interested in reading more about Georgian wine, we have a deep archive on the subject, including wine harvest dispatches from Samegrelo and Kakheti, reviews of wine bars and wine shops in Tbilisi, including a wine cellar in the sky, and a deep dive into the Georgian art of toasting.
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