Georgian Winemakers Are Paying the Price of Russia’s Invasion of UkrainePhoto by Andrea Cairone/Unsplash Drink Features wine
As war rages in Ukraine, alcohol sales have been halted in many cities as citizens have traded nights spent at cocktail bars with friends for nights spent huddling in crowded bomb shelters. Some Ukrainian wineries are now forgoing wine production and instead using their resources to bottle Molotov cocktails. And since war has not yet been stretched into NATO territory, some may assume that drastic changes to the wine industry stop at the Ukrainian border.
But, alas, we live in a global world, and the consequences of war stretch far beyond any national border. Another country victimized by Putin’s expansionist fantasies is seeing its wine industry shaken by the war, its winemakers undoubtedly wondering if they too will soon switch from Saperavi and Rkatsiteli to petrol bombs.
The country of Georgia is generally considered to be the oldest wine-producing region in the world: Experts have traced winemaking in the modern-day country all the way back to 6,000 B.C., long before the French started making the beverage. When Georgia was incorporated into the Soviet Union, many winemakers—who until that point practiced complex, nuanced, traditional winemaking—were forced to shift largely to mass-production, low-quality wines to ship to Russia. Many of the winemakers themselves refused to drink this industrialized wine, instead focusing on small, personal quantities of the wines they had been successfully making for thousands of years.
Georgian wine once again paid the price for Russian policies when Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 waged a campaign against alcohol, which dramatically slashed vineyard allotments—the land dedicated to wine production in Georgia decreased to just a quarter of its original size. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia’s producers continued to sell the majority of their wine to Russia until 2006, when Vladimir Putin placed a disastrous embargo on the product, something that Lasha Tsatava, DipWSET, Director of the Boston Sommelier Society and Georgian wine advocate, said was “1000%” an excuse to punish Georgia financially for its friendliness with the West.
He said, “This was a political decision… to financially hurt the Georgian wine industry. And back then, more than 90% was dependent on the Russian market.”
Since 2006, Georgia has sought to diversify its wine exports. Still, as of 2021, 57% of Georgian wines ended up in Russia, with another 12% going to Ukraine. That means that almost three-quarters of Georgia’s wine market has dried up almost overnight as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shocked world markets—but especially markets in Eastern Europe.
Tsatava told me, “The Georgian wine industry is in a shockwave…. Basically, most of the large and some medium-size producers focused on Russian and Ukrainian markets will face tremendous financial difficulty, and regrettably, some might go out of business.”
Clearly, this is an emergency for the wine industry in Georgia. But those who value the historical importance of wine and seek to better understand its roots, even outside of Georgia, should be worried about these developments as well. Not only is Georgia, to our knowledge, the birthplace of wine, but it’s also home to an ancient winemaking technique that involves fermenting grapes in handmade clay pots, called qvevri, buried underground.
Qvevri-fermented wines only represent a small portion of the wines made in Georgia, but they’re responsible for some of the most famous skin-contact, or orange, wines on the U.S. and European markets—a wine style that has taken the natural wine world by storm in the last several years. The method used to produce orange wine in a qvevri is special for many reasons, but it’s especially notable for its ability to filter these white wines naturally, resulting in a clear juice without the need for harsh additives common in modern-day winemaking processes. As winemakers seek to produce wines in a more sustainable fashion in response to the climate crisis and consumers start to demand more “natural” wines, it’s important that we as a global community protect this ancestral knowledge going forward.
Additionally, Georgia produces the vast majority of Rkatsiteli and Saperavi, the two most well-known grapes from the region. But it’s also home to around 470 other rare varieties of grape that make Georgia an incredibly unique winemaking landscape. All of this points to the importance of bolstering the Georgian wine industry as it enters a new age of hardship. Now is the time to buy Georgian wines, to discover all they have to offer and to ask your local wine shop or wine bar what kinds of Georgian wines they have in stock. Generally, you’re not going to find a slew of Georgian wines on grocery store shelves, but small local wine shops often have a decent selection.
And those who have cut Russian vodka out of their drinking routine as a form of protest should see the purchase and consumption of Georgian wine as a similarly political act: Russia invaded Georgia back in 2008 and annexed the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, just like Putin did to Crimea years before its push into the whole of Ukraine. Georgia’s winemakers and citizens are tense as its aggressive neighbor wages war on a country with a much larger military than its own. With Putin’s fantasy of re-establishing some fever dream of the Soviet Union shaping global politics by the minute, Georgia, unprotected by NATO or the European Union, is well aware that it could be next. Though buying a bottle of wine may seem like a miniscule and inconsequential act, bolstering Georgia’s economy in any way possible at this time is surely a step in the right direction.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its consequences, which are now being and will continue to be felt throughout the world, underscore the importance of learning from history. Deranged aggressors with no regard for human and animal life, climate or reality itself will always find ways to wreak chaos, and the world must push back with its full force to stop them. But lessons from history aren’t always so bleak. Sometimes, as is the case with Georgia’s history of winemaking, lessons from the past can teach us about better ways to build joy, pleasure and community.
Tsatava says, “Almost certainly, if you are someone that is interested in philosophy, sooner or later, you will learn about Greece, its philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle and Plato and their monumental contributions. Similarly, if you are a wine enthusiast or an industry professional, your journey in wine will lead you to Georgia, a land with ancient wine history, unique winemaking styles, distinctive wine drinking culture… and a dynamic modern wine industry.”
Samantha Maxwell is a food and wine writer, editor and occasional oyster slinger based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter.