The Ultimate Underground Wine

“The country, not the state.”

I apply this phrase every time I tell anyone I’m going to Los Angeles to sample wines from Georgia. The addendum may have been for my own edification. I could hardly believe it myself. A month ago, I would have assumed any wine emblazoned with the word Georgia on its label would have come from The Peach State, probably 50 miles or so outside of Savannah. That was before I receive an invitation to drive up to Republique in L.A’s. Mid-Wilshire district to attend a seminar and try a few bona fide Georgian selections. Disbelief soon gives way to intrigue. I must check them out.

It takes me two trips around the block to find Republique’s valet. Los Angeles parking is weird. As I get out of my car, excited to explore a new-to-me wine scene, a memory shakes from my brain, one that’s either been forgotten or repressed. I’m not quite sure.

A few years ago, my wife and I are at an independent grocery store, picking up provisions for an evening with friends. It takes us one aisle stroll to realize we’re in a store specializing in Eastern European food and beverage, interspersed between typical American fare. We play it safe with the snacks and head to the alcohol aisle. Below the expected wall of vodka stands a row of wines we’d never seen before. A closer look reveals why: they’re all from Lithuania. We’re not playing it safe a second time.

Well, sort of. We revert to newbie wine buying status and pick up the bottle with the prettiest label. It’s a $5 bottle of red. We’re not expecting Bordeaux brilliance, naturally, but we’re hoping for mere drinkability. We bring it over to our friends and crack it open. It’s awful. We proceed to get the kitchen sink drunk.

Granted, we’re talking about a cheapo bottle of wine. Still, its ghost decides to haunt me at the most inopportune time. It makes me nervous. These wines of Georgia will be infinitely better than that woebegone dud, right?

They are better, and in a massive way. In fact, their whites are some of the most unique wines I’ve ever tasted.

The first thing you need to know about Georgian wines is they come from one of the oldest wine regions in the world; one that’s been producing juice for some 8,000 years. It’s intertwined with the fabric of their nationality. It’s also probably the most beleaguered region in the world. Every time the Muslims conquered the land – and there were several instances of conquering – they’d rip out vineyards. When they became part of the U.S.S.R, the region was charged to make glorious wine in glorious large industrial buildings that showed the glorious power of the Soviet Union. Only problem was, the wines weren’t glorious – they were mass-produced bottles of insipidness.

Georgian wine should have died because of these constant intrusions, and with it, an important part of their cultural heritage. Yet it survived because people took the country’s winemaking traditions underground – literally. Every time the country’s vines were under siege, families would secretly make wines in the basements of their homes using classic methods handed down from generation to generations. Without their brave pioneering efforts, the slate of Georgian wines being poured at the tasting probably wouldn’t exist.

That leads to the second thing you need to know. The Georgians are coming. At least, they’re trickling into the American market at a deliberate pace. It’s a movement born from a relatively organic shift in the country’s winemaking trade. There were only two types of Georgian winemakers in the first few years of the post-Soviet era; the big industrial bulwarks pumping out millions of bottles every year, and little projects only capable of pumping out a few hundred bottles per vintage. Neither type made it outside the country. For the longest time, there was nothing in-between. In the past several years, however, a middle ground populated by wineries capable of producing a few thousand bottles has emerged as a natural by-product of a maturing industry. These are the bottles matriculating stateside. You may get used to seeing them in your liquor store of choice in the next decade.

A few of the Georgian wines sampled.

But how are they? Before that question is answered, a few things to consider. Geographically speaking, Georgia is roughly on the same plane as the California/Oregon border, so they’re positioned for winemaking rather well. Also, while Georgia was dubbed “Russia’s Napa” by some, this doesn’t mean they’re beholden to the same techniques and tactics other big-league regions utilize. For instance, the grapes’ skins and stalks are used more prevalently in the fermentation process, which is often executed in underground clay pots. Finally, if you have no knowledge of Georgian wines, you won’t know anything about their grapes. They don’t grow Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel here – red fruit like Saperavi and Tavkveri or white fruit such as Rkatsiteli or Goruli Mtsvane is more their speed.

I take my seat with about two-dozen people in one of Republique’s second-floor semi-private rooms and settle in for a quartet of flights. Whites dominate each round, which is consistent with the culture – Georgia is a nation of white wine drinkers. But these aren’t ordinary whites. Some rock vibrant orange hues that make a tawny port look pale by comparison – a by-product of the unique winemaking process, we’re told. As I start making my way through the first flight’s trio of whites, I consistently detect a prevalence of crisp, dry fruit notes, particularly apple and pear. I’ve picked out these notes in other whites before, but they’ve rarely if ever been this strong. At the same time, they spark a familiarity on my palate that I can’t place.

We lead the second flight with a glass of 2015 Archil Guniava white; a blend of indigenous Georgian tsolikouri, tsitska, and krakhuna varietals. A dominant note of ground mustard runs roughshod over my palate. The surprising, if not shocking, flavor makes my mind click. I’ve had this note before, and its presence immediately reminds me why the dried fruit notes in the first round seemed so familiar. They weren’t from wine – they were from cider.

It’s a revelation – a thrilling, exciting, holy-crap-that-just-happened revelation. One I wouldn’t have guessed in a million years – certainly not in the 8,000 or so years Georgia has been producing wine. In that instant, Georgian wines go from curious to cool. It’s wine I can’t wait to share with the fellow cider fans in my life one day. I’ve never experienced this cross-libation thru-line with Napa or Bordeaux labels. I doubt I could.

The reds offer a more classical flavor profile. My favorite, the 2014 Orgo Saperavi, boasts serious black fruit, dark chocolate, and a touch of cedar. Even as I enjoy these, I can’t shake the thought of the whites’ cider-centric vibe. I can’t wait to talk about it, either. As the event shifts to Republique’s first-floor dining room for some self-guided tastings, I walk up to one of the event’s main speakers and share my eureka with the enthusiasm of a 1980s teenager that just heard Duran Duran for the first time. He calmly informs me those characteristics come from the skins and stems being present in fermentation. It’s a bit odd compared to the rest of the world, but at the same time, it’s just the way Georgia’s done it for centuries – above and below ground. I’m thankful that, judging by the wines poured, they have no intention of selling out this tradition.

Before I scurry off for a few more tastes, he says, “By the way, if you haven’t been, you’ve got to go to Georgia.”

I assume he is talking about the country, not the state.