Issue 4, 2011. August-September



The ancient - and dying - technique of making wine in clay vessels could be Georgia's key to bolstering wine tourism and wine exports, industry specialists believe. Now the country has to work on getting the word out.

Nino Patsuria

A growing trend for wine aficionados to travel abroad to experience new vintages with unique flavors, in exotic locations could also provide a powerful boost for Georgian wineries and traditions.

In particular, Kvevri Georgian wine made using the ancient method could help catapult wine tourism - and eventually wine exports, sector analysts believe.

8000-year Vintage

The ancient technique of fermenting wine in enormous hand crafted clay vessels led the Travel Channel's Isabelle Legeron - host and creator of the ‘That Crazy Frenchwoman' wine travel program - to film a show about the process.

Legeron is fascinated by the Kvevri and its story - a history and tradition, she said, that makes Georgian wine unique and attractive for wine lovers around the globe.

"There is an extraordinary story to tell [in Georgia]... It is not only a very beautiful country but it is has a unique wine-making tradition, the Kvevri," she said in an email interview.

Kvevri is the Georgian name for large - some as big as 500 kilograms - handmade vessels that have been used for thousands of years to ferment Georgian grapes into wine.

The vessels are made with Georgian clay, moulded into the form of a giant spinning top - a fat middle and two tapered ends. The jugs are treated with a lime wash and buried deep in the ground, where the grapes ferment into wine.

In May the government hosted a wine tasting event in Tsinandali.

The process is completely natural, creating pure, organic wine. In her show, Legeron noted that the clay gives the beverage a unique taste.

"A good wine is one with character," she said during the program. "I think the tradition is what really makes the wine unique."

Some wineries in Georgia are making Kvevri wine, although the craft is on the decline since it is labor intensive and produces less wine than modern techniques.

But returning to Georgia's wine roots makes good business sense, noted Giorgi Margvelashvili, general director of Tbilvino Winery.

Tbilvino started producing and exporting Kvevri wine this year.

"The Georgian wine industry should try to present unique Georgian wines on the international market and minimize copying western wines," he said.

"We have a bigger chance to take a niche through local wines; lately wine buffs are seeking new, different wines and tastes - and Georgia has the chance to promote its wines which are based on an ancient methodology but are new to the West."

The Georgian method of using Kvevri to make wine dates back eight thousand years, noted Tina Kezeli, executive director of the Georgian Wine Association.

"Nobody has such an uninterrupted wine-making practice," she said, "for us wine is not a product made for profit; it is intertwined with culture and religion... Foreign marketing specialists tell me that they make legends out of nothing while we have plenty of ready-made legends and we have to use them."

From Vine to Tourist

Kezeli and other wine specialists are hoping to capture a growing interest among wine lovers: traveling in pursuit of new vintages and unique tastes.

A USAID Economic Prosperity Initiative (EPI) report on tourism development noted that wine tourism is "expanding in most major wine growing regions" - a trend that has made billions of dollars for the wine industry across the globe, from the United States to New Zealand.

The Wine Institute, a California-based organization dedicated to the state's wine industry, reported that 20.7 million tourists visited vineyards and wineries in California last year, spending $2.1 billion.

New Zealand has experienced a similar boom: the number of international tourists traveling to vineyards increased from 126.9 thousand in 2003 to 177.7 thousand in 2008.

Working with EPI, the Georgian Wine Association together with Georgian wine producers and tourism agencies has created a strategy to duplicate that success in Georgia. In June a group traveled to wineries in the United States to experience the industry first hand; they returned with an action plan to make wine tourism a reality at home. The trip was funded by the US Department of Commerce and USAID, and organized by AmCham Georgia. A wine tasting for Georgian wines in New York to showcase local vintages was sponsored by American Friends of Georgia and AmCham.

Topping the list is the need to educate foreigners (and Georgians) about the country's "hidden treasure" of wine.

Ia Tabagari, president of the Association of Georgian Incoming Tour Operators, is working with the Georgian National Tourism Agency to create a database of Kvevri wineries as well as universal standards for wine producers who use the technique.

Kezeli said a Kvevri Symposium is planned for September - an event that will bring elite wine connoisseurs and writers to Georgia. There are also plans to support (and promote) Georgia's unique tradition of producing wine in monasteries.

"Some famous wine experts and writers discover absolutely unbelievable things when they come here," she said, adding they are "astounded" by the country's rich wine history and art.

"We have to make this Kvevri Symposium an annual event to raise awareness of our country and make it a wine tourism destination."

Legeron's show has already made an impact, noted Tabagari, who is also the head of Caucasus Travel. She said 60 British wine experts are planning to visit Georgia in September - a trip planned after they watched the Travel Channel show.

Legeron said Georgia has "untapped potential" to develop wine tourism at home, especially if infrastructure to promote Kvevri wine is developed.

"I know foreigners will be very interested to discover this tradition. I have had great feedback from people who watched the show and their response was unanimous. Everyone who has seen the show wants to come and visit Georgia," she said.

"Once people have been to Georgia, they will then seek to buy the wine in their home countries. This opens up markets for wine growers. Developing wine tourism is a sure way to build a customer base outside of Georgia."