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Our water glasses were filled to the brim with amber rkatsiteli. After the toast, Ramaz carefully lifted his glass to his nose, followed with a connoisseur’s affirmative head tilt and knocked it back, not coming up for air until the glass was dry. “Super wine!” he exclaimed, smacking his lips and exhibiting the most sophisticated appreciation I had yet witnessed in the birthplace of wine.

These were the years locals described wine as either “clean” or not. No one evaluated the nose or flavors because wine was what you washed a sagging table full of food down with, toast after toast, to the bottom, pitcher by pitcher. We judged wine by hangover intensity. The milder the headache, the cleaner – and better – the wine.

On one hand, there is an earthy charm to the proletarian approach to what in the rest of the world is often a snobbish affair laced with highfalutin adjectives and mind-boggling price tags. But Georgia is entering the global wine market. While it’s extraordinary to have an 8,000-year legacy, over 500 endemic grape varieties and kvevri buried in the ground, it means little if you don’t know wine.

November 22, 2003, was a milestone in Georgian history, being the day President Eduard Shevardnadze resigned and a new government introduced a period of radical reforms that transformed the country from a corrupt post-Soviet backwater to a Western-style democracy. It was also the day Shalva Khetsuriani established Georgia’s first wine school, Vinollege, and the Georgian Sommelier Association.

“It was a school for wine lovers,” Shalva explains. “No one needed sommeliers back then.”

Shalva became a winemaker in 1998 with his own Khetsuriani Winery, long before independent winemaking became a local trend. The small label produced around 1,500 bottles of usakhelauri, otskhanuri sapere and krakuna, rare Imeretian varieties unheard of in Tbilisi at the time. His passion led him to Bordeaux and Burgundy, where he deepened his wine knowledge and became a sommelier in 2003 before opening Vinollege.

The next milestone was the 2006 Russian wine embargo, which forced Georgian wineries to revamp and reach new markets. Meanwhile, more independent winemakers began to emerge pursuing a DIY, back-to-the-roots approach, and the world began to discover Georgian wine. An improved economy, freer travel to the West and an increasing flow of tourists helped sophisticate the domestic wine culture after decades of isolation, but it also revealed the country has a lot of catching up to do.

“It was a school for wine lovers,” Shalva explains. “No one needed sommeliers back then.”

In 2014, the Georgian Sommelier Association became a member of the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI), and Vinollege became the Tbilisi Wine School (renamed the Khetsuriani Sommelier School in 2020), which is recognized by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), one of the world’s leading wine education institutions. In addition to offering two-week WSET courses, Shalva’s school provides a five-month class so that locals can now become certified sommeliers without leaving the country, although to become a Master of Wine one must still go abroad. The courses, however, are currently on hold due to the pandemic.

“The first thing we do is address wine chauvinism,” Shalva explains. There is a local tendency to believe that Georgian wine is superior just because winemaking originated here. “If you want to be good and competitive, you have to understand the wine world,” he adds. Students must learn about wine styles from classic regions before exploring local varieties.

Instructors are mostly Western-taught Georgians but some modules are taught by Western professionals coming from organizations like the Associazione Sommellerie Professionale Italiana (ASPI). Most students are winemakers and aspiring winemakers, others are enthusiasts or curious, while a handful want to be professional sommeliers, even though there are very few restaurants in Georgia that are fancy enough to require one. However, there is a clear need for wine professionals in the rapidly growing hospitality and wine tourism sectors, while wineries are demanding trained professionals in their marketing departments.

To be “educated” is more than knowing eno-gastronomic pairing and the international standard of tasting and serving. Natia Lomidze was an economist between jobs when she got her WSET and sommelier certificates at Shalva’s school in 2017. The more she learned the more she realized the shortcomings of Georgia’s wine culture, which begins in the vineyard.

“The main issue is viticulture,” she remarks. Georgian universities offer viticulture classes and programs but Natia says none specialize in sustainable and bio farming, which she believes is the future. Together with Ana Khitarishvili, a former manager and instructor at the Khetsuriani School, she is working at Viticulture Academy, which currently offers classes for amateurs and industry professionals, to fill this niche.

“We have a lot of work to do if we want to make terroir [in Georgia],” Natia says. “Our wine industry has to diversify and experiment [more] on soils and wine styles.”

Shalva acknowledges that viticulture “knowledge is a huge problem” and to get a proper education one must study at UC Davis (California) or in Bordeaux. Few Georgians, he notes, don’t know about matching specific roots with the right soils and stalks. “We lost that knowledge,” he asserts.

There is a lot of recouping to do, but the growing movement of winemaking provides grounds for optimism. There are currently around 1,300 registered wineries in Georgia, a number that increased five-fold in the six years since Shalva created the Georgian Sommelier Association. Other wine courses have opened in the meantime, and more locals are appreciating wine without having to drink it out of a cow horn.

  • Wine Week 2020October 5, 2020 Wine Week 2020 (0)
    Editor’s note: Inspired by our Wine Clubs in Tbilisi, Lisbon and Athens and the grape […] Posted in Tbilisi
  • Notes on ReopeningMay 26, 2020 Notes on Reopening (0)
    This year was going to be a big one for Oda Family Winery. Since its humble beginning in […] Posted in Tbilisi
  • Wine Harvest 2019October 7, 2019 Wine Harvest 2019 (0)
    We used to spend a lot of time in western Georgia’s Samegrelo region when breakaway […] Posted in Tbilisi
Justyna Mielnikiewicz

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