25-06-2019

Searching for sparkling in Georgia

In keeping up with the wines of Georgia, this week I’m in Tbilisi, tasting the current vintage. Things are definitively in motion here as while the recent protests have tapered off, a Russian ban on the country’s wines appears imminent, again.

Georgia has about 80% of its production tied up in white wine, but still holds a bit of everything in terms of winemaking styles. Ironically, despite this volume of white wines, it often seems that it’s the reds that are more well known, especially when talking about those made in kvevri.

There’s a scratch of dessert wine made, although there’s a great deal more of the “semi sweet” category which people either love or hate. I’m admittedly of the latter camp and decided not to profile it heavily for the Georgian wine book. If however you know Georgian wines due to being from a country in the former USSR, you’re quite possibly in the former camp where wines like Khvanchkara were and continue to be very popular as it was something overlaid upon the country during the 20th century in terms of mass production.

Comrade Sparkles

Similarly, this Soviet period dogged the sparkling wine production as well. Yes, there’s sparkling wine produced in Georgia although it’s a pretty small amount. Much like the Semi Sweet wines, most all of it is exported to either former USSR countries, China, or other former Communist states in Europe; Poland being a surprisingly strong market apparently. If there’s one thing that all of these markets have in common, it’s that there’s a tendency for their sparkling wine preferences to be inordinately sweet and again, the Semi-Sec level of Residual Sugar is readily found and I’ve not seen anything lower than Brut.

What producers exist for this segment of sparkling wine in Georgia work to make wines that are quite commercial in profile. I haven’t tasted every single one made, but the few I’ve had haven’t really set my world on fire. The production of these wines continues however as there’s definitely a market for it, so whatever “wine types” may decree as “not that great”, is probably not terribly relevant.

Dude, where’s my bubbles?

Then there’s the kvevri gang who, as they’re quite interlaced with the natural wine crowd, have taken to pétillant natural or, as always happens in English, the shortened version of, pét nat. In brief, it’s essentially a one pass, lazy man’s sparkling wine wherein there is no secondary fermentation in the bottle, just the first making the wines non-intervention-ish, loved by the natural wine crowd, and of course, insanely dangerous given that if you bottle it at any point too soon, the bottle can and often will explode in a rack, or worse, in your face.

I suppose it’s this edge of danger and the wine having a layer of funk in it due to not usually being disgorged (note, there are those who do in other places) that’s made it appealing to the Georgians. Jakelli, Iago, and Okro have all had a swing at it. Then there’s Frenchman, Vincent Julien who is credited with starting the style in Georgia. Pheasant’s Tears has been making a pét nat as well and the last time I was there, I tried it, which if memory serves was made from Kakhuri Mtsvane. I think 95% of the photos of Gotsa show him opening a pét nat bottle to have it explode everywhere to the valiant applause of grape-based chaos.

There’s nothing wrong with pét nat–unless of course it’s super dirty which often seems to get a pass these days. If clean, pét nat is a very quaffable, easygoing sparkling style. I take issue with some of the prices producers are wanting for it because honestly, anyone can make this stuff in a bathtub as long as you watch the sugar levels during fermentation. I even made one which has been charitably described as, “much better than I thought it was going to be.”

It is a bit lost on me as why people into “non-interventionist wine” have taken to pét nat however as it’s very, very much something that one intervenes in. Admittedly, the world doesn’t make sense these days as shown by avocado toast and it costing $10 in San Francisco.

The “Fine” Question

But the real issue with pét nat is that it can never match the complexity of Champagne, Cava, or Franciacorta as there is no extended, controlled lees contact. You just make it and drink it, which to sum up a fellow wine critic once said, “That’s just juice!” Some outside of Georgia are working to change this perception but it’s still a work in progress.

So that’s the problem with Georgia in that there’s essentially very commercial bubblies or then super funky pét nats. There is no sparkling producer striving to make a a high-quality, Traditional Method, Champagne-style sparkling until just recently with the birth of Ori Marani. Started by Champenois and trained enologist, Bastien Warskotte and his Georgian wife, Nino Gvantseladze, the premise was to make a more elegant, refined sparkling wine from Georgian grapes and I have to say, Bastien appears to be very much on the right path to doing it.

He makes a couple hundred bottles each of some experimental pét nats which are quite pleasant to drink and honestly, more defined than most others. But it’s a sample of his Nino NV, which I tried recently that illustrates his greater vision. A blend of Tsistka, Chinuri, and Goruli Mstvane, there is thought to this wine because until now, most just make sparkling wines with whatever they have at hand whether the grape is up to the task or not. This Nino isn’t just some juice tossed into a bottle to ferment with a crown cap. No, it’s passed through a secondary fermentation and sat on the lees which has, unsurprisingly, given it a great deal of depth to the point where if I didn’t know, I would have though it to be more like a blanc de noir due to the wealth of structure and backbone. It should also be noted that the grapes from three distinct regions: Imereti, Kartli, and Kakheti which all bring a different piece to the puzzle.

Bastien has been heavily playing around with blends and mixes. The name of the winery, “Ori” is the word for “two” in Georgian and so he works with both kvevri and oak barrels in his still wines which then become part of his sparkling wine. I’m curious to see how this redefines the sparkling wines in Georgia as it’s a major leap forward from what’s currently available and it will be interesting to see if people taste it and think, “Hmm, that’s maybe a good direction to take” or if it’s the standard, “Bah, doesn’t taste like my wine so it’s no good. What a stupid wine!” Clearly, I’m putting my hope for the first option, especially as I think people in the export market are going to really take to this.

WINES

Ori Marani - Nino NV
White pear, touch of green apple, rich toasted almond and brioche notes, lime blossom, light honeyed notes, delicate, floral. More astringent on the palate, slightly sweet key lime notes, woody aspect to it, medium acidity, toasted lemon peel, shorter finish. 60% used French oak, 40% Kvevri. Grapes cross-blended from Imereti and Kartli but made in Kartli.
Tsistka, Chinuri, Goruli Mtsvane · 12%
88+90 2 Stars