Off the beaten track in Georgia searching for an “Oh My God this is thrilling” taste experience.
Modern wine lovers have been lucky enough to inherit over 10,000 cultivars of grape from our ancestors.
If you have a spare week, there’s even a book about the best 1,368. Weighs almost 3kg.
But in recent years, modern retail has whittled that down (dumbed it down, even) to a point where most folks can only name around six. Supermarket shareholders love it: simplified inventory, economies of scale, fewer wineries to deal with.
Sure there’s Malbec, Cabernet, Shiraz, Merlot, Pinot Noir … but then we start to struggle. In whites, it’s Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and, er, Chardonnay, and then what?
“That’s your lot.”
Well … my whole family are wine people – four out of five grow grapes or make wine. The other makes beer, the rebel. And our customers have always, from day one, been more inquisitive than the ordinary.
You’ll laugh at me if I come over all Howard Beale in ‘Network’, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”. We’re talking about grapes here, Laithwaite.
I want much more variety, don’t you? So this year we are on a grape crusade. Actually I’ve been on one for 50 years, and most of our biggest wine successes have come from grapes no-one had really heard of …
It’s a fight worth fighting. Once whole wine regions start doing just the grapes the supermarkets want it’s very hard to come back. When we do fancy a fresh change, the cupboard will be bare.
Where to start such a crusade? At the beginning … the very beginning.
So here we are in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, where wine was born some 8,000 years ago, shrouded in the mists of prehistory. A lush landscape of pristine valleys and plant life not found anywhere else. Georgia.
We don’t know exactly how wine was ‘invented’, but you’d imagine someone hungry decided to eat the grapes left squashed at the bottom of an animal hide and found themselves enjoyably giddy – their dangerous prehistoric world feeling suddenly more, well, fun.
Imagine the excitement to understand how it happened. And make it happen again! It must’ve been thanks to a god.
Soon vines were being cultivated, earthenware vessels (qvevri, see photo) used for ageing wines and barrels developed for shipping.
As wine spread down the great rivers to ancient Ur and Babylon, we get the first records of harvests and winemaking, and soon after find thirsty pharaohs choosing favourite vintages for their tombs. The original ‘one for the road’.
“Saperavi … one of the most exciting red varieties I’ve ever tried in my career … it’s actually not that often I try something new and think ‘Oh My God this is thrilling’ …” Sarah Abbott MW, BBC Food Programme
But, back to Georgia! Thanks to its neighbours, Georgia has never had it easy. In fact one of our grapes today, Saperavi, was pushed close to extinction during the period of Soviet control (1921-1991). Vineyards under family ownership for centuries became state run and forced to grow varieties that yielded more grapes (and alcohol). No room for artisans in those Orwellian times. One family resisted, on a single plot of land, and in the last 30 years the hero grape of Georgia has come back from the brink of extinction. Hurrah!
Even recently, one winery I visited literally had Putin park tanks on their lawn. No wonder these days Georgia looks west – demanding attention with wines of serious quality using its ancient and inimitable grapes.
A toast, then, to the world’s oldest wine culture, two of its most delicious heirlooms … and to Laithwaites customers for encouraging us on this mission!
WORLD-CLASS WINES TO SAVOUR AND SHARE
Sapatio Mtsvane 2021
13.5% Vol. To 2023
Seriously enjoyable drinking, this dinner-party white is made from the acclaimed Mtsvane grape – first mentioned in the 5th century AD – in its ancient home of Kakheti. The label shows the winding streets and wooden balconies of the capital, famed for its friendliness, and Sapatio means ‘honoured guest’. This fresh, peachy white – juicy yet fresh – would be very welcome at any special occasion … quite the conversation starter too.
£13.99 a bottle or £12.49 when mixing 12 – Only 312 Cases
Tbilvino Qvevri Saperavi 2020
13% Vol. To 2024
Saperavi is Georgia’s hero grape … “deep and rich and soulful” (BBC), combining bold cherry and baked fruit aromas with longlasting flavours made for a feast of roast lamb, beef or winter stew. This standout was aged underground in traditional earthenware qvevris and is beautiful drinking after patiently gathering depth and polish. Saperavi of this quality should be on the bucket list of every red fan.
£19.99 a bottle £17.99 when mixing 12 – Only 354 Cases
Tony Laithwaite – Founder