Around 50 million bottles of wine are produced annually in Georgia, 40 million of those traditionally being lapped up by Russian drinkers. Vineyards are mostly sited close to the Black Sea, composed of 500 indigenous grape varieties, making Georgia a fascinating repository of vine genealogy. Around 40 varieties are in commercial production. Reds from Saperavi have carved a reputation for making excellent wines, with white varieties like Mtsvane and Rkatsiteli also recognised for their quality. Some estates have invested in more modern technology, whereas others have suffered from a lack of investment in vineyards and wineries. There are also traditional methods of winemaking in many estates, where wine is fermented in clay amphora, buried underground.
The Russian ban
In April 2006 Russia's Ministry of Health announced a ban on Georgian wine, citing unhealthy levels of chemicals in the wines. The ban has been widely perceived as politically motivated, with claims that the analysis is false, and that this was Russia flexing its muscles: Moldovan wines were also banned, another ex-Soviet state that had embraced the west, and then Georgia's most popular mineral water was banned by the Russians on similar grounds.
Whatever the motivation, the ban is potentially devastating for Georgia. Some 40 million bottles of wine now need to be sold, but where? Wine is an essential part of the Georgian culture, where entertaining guests is a central philosophy of life: tables groan under the weight of food and drink, to be consumed to an endless series of toasts. But the domestic market is extremely difficult to grow: this is a country whose GDP ranks behind Afghanistan or Mozambique, and bottled wine is simply too expensive for most Georgians. Instead, they make their own wine from backyard vineyards, or buy cheap wines 'en vrac'.
The UK is seen as one potential life-saving market, and hence the prophetic nature of the Chamber of Commerce's decision to invite UK and other European judges to participate in a national wine competition.
The National Wine Competition
And so it was that one morning in May I set off on the long route to Tbilisi. I was to act as Chairman of Judges, with a responsibility for keeping my fellow judges - from England, Holland, the Ukraine, Russia and Georgia - in check, and with a casting vote in any split decisions. That was to prove useful.
The judges were cast into a Maelstrom of press interest. The Russian ban is a huge story throughout central Europe, with a dozen TV crews and 50 reporters scrambling for a story, from Russia, the Ukraine, Turkey, Reuters and the BBC, and huge local interest. As Chairman of Judges I endured my three days of 'celebrity', with a round of breakfast TV, news and other interviews. |The story, of course, was not so much the competition or even the wines, but the| |[pic] | |politics and what a panel of experienced international judges would make of | | | |these wines, so long revered by Russian drinkers, and now branded as unfit for | | | |human consumption. | | | | | | | |Right: part of the press pack covering the awards dinner in Tbilisi. Left to | | | |right: David Lordkipanidze, Director National Museum of Georgia; Arnold Ruutel, | | | |President of Estonia and his wife. | | |...