For the first time in a while, things are looking up for Georgian wine. Exports from the former Soviet state increased last year by 37.7 per cent, to 16.9 million litres. The dollar value wasn't much by big-country standards, at $54.1-million (U.S.), but it pointed to a recovery of sorts, the highest figure since Russia imposed a crippling trade embargo in 2006. Before the ban, Russians drank a lot more Georgian wine than did tiny Georgia.
Vladimir Putin's government said the wines (and mineral waters) were contaminated, but many people cried foul, interpreting the move as a snub against the country's pro-NATO stance.
Truth be told, Russia seized on a dark stain that lent a grain of plausibility to its accusation. Counterfeit wine flourished in post-Soviet Georgia, and some contained no grapes at all. In an admission worthy of The Daily Show, an official from the Georgian National Wine Agency recently told CNN that crooks in the past dared to pawn off radish or carrot juice spiked with alcohol.
Then again, the Soviet era wasn't exactly the golden age. Kremlin policies pushed growers to uproot old vines in favour of high-yielding varieties and goose the juice with added sugar to lift the alcohol content. The results were thin and harsh, a sorry predicament for a country that was producing wine thousands of years before Europe. Some call it the cradle of wine making.
Blessed with relatively moderate temperatures, it boasts more than 500 grape varieties, virtually all little-known to Western consumers. Saperavi may be the best, a dark-skinned berry that also has the distinction of containing pink-coloured juice (most red grapes contain only white pulp, imparting colour by way of pigments in the skins). It yields an astringent wine due to high tannin content and can often be bracing with acidity. Smooth merlot it's not, but the best have been known to cellar favourably for up to 50 years.
Ironically, Moscow's ban inspired discipline among some estates, which have been stepping up quality to court new and more demanding export markets. Two were released recently in Ontario Vintages stores, both from a company called Schuchmann Wines, taken over by German investor Burkhard Schuchmann in 2008. The Saperavi fuses old and new traditions. It's fermented in large earthenware amphorae known as qvevri, which are buried in the ground to maintain a cool temperature, then transferred to French oak barrels for cellaring. I doubt you'll mistake it for radish juice.
Schuchmann Wines Vinoterra Saperavi 2008 (Georgia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $14.95
There is a funky bit of barnyard on the nose, which carries through subtly on the palate, but it's mostly fresh and lively, with juicy-sour red fruit, herbs and a hint of mineral. Think of a southern French red from the Languedoc crossed with earthy Chianti. Try it with braised beef.
Schuchmann Wines Vinoterra Rkatsiteli 2008 (Georgia)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $13.95
An ancient white grape from Georgia, rkatsiteli was by far the most widely grown in the Soviet Union, though its vineyard area was cut drastically by a vine-pull scheme under former president Mikhail Gorbachev. Here it yields a light, clean and fresh wine, with stone-fruit nuances and a tight, chewy texture. Perfect for lightly prepared fish.
Poplar Grove The Legacy 2007 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $50 in B.C.
The flagship red from a great estate on the Naramata Bench, it's a blend of merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon that saw 24 months in French oak and an additional 24 months developing in bottle. It's a powerhouse of rich fruit, yet it's layered with complexity and woven together with balance. A core of creamy cassis and chocolate mingles with cedar, tobacco, leather, vanilla and spice. It should cellar well for a decade or more and would pair handsomely now with juicy beef. Available through www.poplargrove.ca.
Château de Nages JT Costières de Nîmes 2009 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $21.95
A voluptuous red blend of mostly syrah with mourvèdre from the Rhône Valley, this wine is smooth and creamy, with notes of dark berry, bitter chocolate and pepper. It is ideal for big cuts of red meat and stews.
Joie Farm Riesling 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $22.90 in B.C.
This is a gloriously balanced riesling, virtually dry and packed with plump peach, white table grape and lime lifted by zesty acidity, finishing with a slightly chalky texture. Freshwater fish on the grill, in the pan or smoked would be splendid. Available in British Columbia and Alberta.
Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Chile)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
Here's a fine red for the summer's grilled steaks. Classic cabernet flavours of cassis, mint and tobacco work together in fine balance, and the structure's as solid as a beef-fed weightlifter.
Cantine de Falco Salore Salice Salentino 2008 (Italy)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $16.95
From Italy's southern Puglia region, where ripe, sunny fruit meets moderate prices, this is a red blend of negroamaro and malvasia nera. Full-bodied and soft, with rich dark fruit, it delivers good complexity for the money, with herbs, pepper and mineral, finishing with dry tannins. Good for roast lamb.
Quails' Gate Rosé 2011 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
Round and dry, with raspberry and rhubarb flavours, it develops intrigue with hints of herbs, mineral and a whiff of smoke. It's lovely on its own and would suit grilled shrimp, salmon or pork. $14.99 in B.C.
Alta Vista Premium Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Argentina)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $14.95
One might call this a crowd-pleaser, showing a creamy texture and plenty of mocha and vanilla. And the price is right. To be picky, I find the ripeness exaggerated and raisin-like, and the 15-per-cent alcohol peeks through with medicinal heat. But it's good for grilled ribs.