My Life in Wine – Part 14 – Behind the Iron Curtain

Today my blog comes right up to date as I am on a plane to Tbilisi, Georgia, and one the few wine countries I haven’t yet visited personally. It’s a long trip; six hours, all in and we couldn’t fly direct. This is a significant trip as this region was the birthplace of wine, just 8,000 years ago. Which must be about as long as our known western civilisation. Surely that cannot be a coincidence? Could it not mean our ancestors were only able to become civilised – or maybe only able to put up with having to become civilised – until after a little wine. Today’s young lycra-wearing doctors would do well to reflect on this. See things more holistically, chaps, just like the old doctors did. Wine has proved its usefulness to man since almost forever.

Looking down on the Black Sea, we are sipping the in-flight red and thinking “this looks promising”. This actual wine could be described as a dark fruit soup … with extra black; it has stained the inside of the cup. Yes, not glass … cup! Primitive maybe … but primitive with potential.

My companion – and minder – today is the UK’s current ‘Wine Buyer of the Year’ Beth Willard, who, amongst other parts, looks after Eastern Europe for us. Is Georgia even in Europe? Not sure. This is a very long flight east, and over on the right, that could be Iraq … or Iran! Gulp.

Don’t panic. We are here at the invitation of the Georgian Government eager to find new markets for their wines now that the traditional trade with their big northern neighbour has been blocked by battle tanks in the roads. They get in the way so, do tanks! Gulp again! But Beth speaks fluent Russian so we’ll be all right.

As a result of those army tanks the wine tanks of Georgia are currently full to overflowing. So word was got out to Hugh Johnson. Well, who else? To come and save the Georgian wine growers. But Hugh was busy, and he’s been before. “So off you go, lad” he said, (seeing me always as the Gromit to his Wallace). And here we are.

My mind cannot help travelling back what … 40 years to my first flight into the unknown East, travelling in a Balkan Airways slightly-converted bomber; it still had the perspex blisters where the guns had been. Their wine was pretty rich too, and safer than tea from the steaming iron kettle brought round by muscular soviet attendants. My then companion – one Patrick Carter, now Lord Carter – had, for some reason, been invited over to look at their tractors and, as a friend from college, I had tagged along to look at their wine. We were going to peer – nervously – behind the Iron Curtain.

The wine wasn’t going to be too hard to locate as Bulgarian wine was a state monopoly so there was only one sales office. I sat in reception at 5 Lavele Street (an address permanently engraved on my brain) for days until the Commissaire for Wines – or whatever – at Vinimpex agreed to see me. And say “Niet”.

Rather a useless trip, I thought. Until somehow, shortly after, word of my interest got round and a man from a well-known brand of cola asked to meet me in London. It seems he had just sold a lot of his cola to Bulgaria and, as was the tradition in those days, been paid by barter. He now owned rather a lot of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon, and didn’t know what to do with it. So I took it off his hands at an excellent price. We shipped a full container – about a thousand cases – of ‘Balkan Vine’ Cabernet Sauvignon. It took a while to arrive as the ship’s steering jammed and our wine spent several days going round in circles in the Black Sea.

However it was great success. And more containers followed. Then more. Then masses. The quality, amazingly, held up. I went back to see how they did it. The wine came from what to me looked like a co-operative in a place called Suhindol. It had been built on co-op lines by the French in the 1930’s. They had also planted mile after mile of Cabernet vineyard in suitable gravelly soil. I had seen nothing like wine production on this scale in Europe – only in California – and I started referring to Bulgaria as Europe’s California. In Europe – and this is still true – if you want to make a big mass market wine you have to buy many bits and pieces of wine from wherever you can and stick them together as best you can. Here was just one huge vineyard and one huge winery so it was not so surprising that they could do a proper, good solid job.

The guys in the winery were wine people just like wine people anywhere. They took pride in their work and loved opening their special bottles – secreted away from their bosses in Sofia – for Tim Bleach, who helped me with buying, and I, when we visited. We discovered more such wineries and expanded the range to include Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and great Bulgarian varietals like Mavrud.

My other memories are of empty shops, people sitting around in empty fields drinking hot plum brandy from thermos flasks, because centralised planning said that they should be there and stay there, even though there were no crops. Also there were military uniforms everywhere. Mostly, though, I remember good wine-producing friends who welcomed us into their world, which they somehow kept enjoyable and producing good stuff despite all the madness around.

What, I am wondering will I find in Georgia? For many years several well-travelled customers have told me I should come here, but somehow it never happened until now. We are landed. To be continued …

About Tony Laithwaite

Tony Laithwaite, founder of Laithwaite's, whose passion for wine is still going strong!