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Wine has been produced in what is now called the Republic of Georgia for thousands of years, making it one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world. It’s situated between the Caucus Mountains and the Black Sea, bordering Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Many native grape varieties existed in the countrysides, and were eventually used for wine. 9000 year-old archeological findings indicate wine production, and the Georgian word “ghvino” is said to be the root of “vin,” “vino,” and eventually, “wine.”
Wine production continued through the centuries as empires grew and nations claimed territories. In the 6th century, the Ikhalto monastery and academy was founded near Telavi. With wine production playing an important role in the newly-founded Christian religion, Ikhalto became an important center of viticulture and even established a wine academy. Georgia became a largely Christian nation and as a result, was mostly left alone during the Crusades. During the Ottoman occupation starting in the 11th century, most of this part of the world was sent into prohibition according according to Muslim law. But Georgia was able to continue most of its wine production because the rules made allowances for Christian sacramental wines.
Georgian wines abounded until the worldwide Phylloxera epidemic, after which it languished for a couple of decades. When it became part of the USSR, wine-making efforts were enforced to supply Russia and the other soviet nations. Though Georgia officially gained independence in 1991, relations with Russia have been contentious. In 2006, Russia enforced a lasting ban on Georgian wines, which has had a profound effect on the industry. New export markets are continuing to be explored, especially in the US and UK. Georgia already suffered from a poor economy, and commercial wine is often considered too pricey for local consumers, who often prefer to make their own wine. This “backyard wine” is produced by crushing every part of the grape, seeds, skins, and all, and placing this into large earthenware amphorae called “kevevri,” then buried up to the neck in soil and sealed with wax. Nothing else is added; the fermentation occurs between the wild grape yeasts and temperatures of the earth the kevevri are buried in. They are unsealed and consumed months later.
Despite marketing obstacles, wine is still produced in almost the entire republic, save the areas in the remote highlands. It is broken down into five main viticultural zones: Kakheti, Kartli, Imereti, Racha-Lechkumi, and the Black Sea Coast.
The leading grapes in Georgia are the white Rkatsiteli and red Saperavi. Other popular indigenous grapes are Kakhuri, Alexandrouli, Aladsturi, Keduretuli, Ojaleshi, and Usakhelouri for reds. Whites consist mainly of Chinuri, Mtsvani, Tetra, Tsitska, and Tsolikouri. Popular international varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc. are also cultivated in Georgia, often blended with local grapes.
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