Grafting the Grape: The Rich History of Georgian Winemaking

Grafting the Grape: American Grapevine Rootstock in Missouri and the World is currently installed in the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum, which is open for visitors Tuesday-Sunday, 11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.; please review current health and safety regulations for visitors. The exhibition content is available online through the Garden YouTube channel and the Museum Twitter account. Please check the Museum website for updates and future online events.

A look at the country of Georgia

Georgia—the country, not the US state—has one of the longest and most continuous grape growing and winemaking cultures in the world, recently found to begin 8,000 years ago. Here we take a look into the country’s relationship with the vine, its diversity, and history of grafting. Georgia, like most grape growing regions today, is a beneficiary of the American grapevine, research, and innovation Missouri scientists conducted in the 19th century.

Regional map of Georgia located south of the Caucasus Mountain range between the Black and Caspian Seas.

Georgia | საქართველო | Sakartvelo 

The country of Georgia is located at the south-eastern corner of Europe on an isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas. The rugged, mountainous terrain of Georgia, situated at the crossroads of continents and cultures, has been the source of the region’s rich diversity. The landscape harbors biological (natural) and cultural (human-made) systems that have co-evolved over millennia resulting in highbiocultural diversity, which includes our domesticated crops, their wild relatives (genetic resources), associated biota, and human use knowledge. Georgia is home to ancient agricultural systems and was the centre of domestication for multiple food crops such as wheat, legumes, and fruits, including Vitis vinifera L., the grape species that gives us one of the world’s most sought after cultural commodities – wine. Georgia’s relationship with grape growing and wine making is believed to be one of the oldest in the world, with current research dating it to around 8,000 years old. The Georgians’ love of grapes is so foundational that it is commonly believed that their alphabet is styled after grape’s curling tendrils. 

It is this rich history, and my aim to study a cultural food and beverage plant in its biocultural origin, that drew me to Georgia for a masters degree in ethnobotany, completed in 2019. I researched V. vinifera through local knowledge documenting diversity as people engaged with it over time, as well as cultural knowledge, values, and practices related to the grapevine and cultural diversity, and the work to conserve these plants. My fieldwork, consisting chiefly of interviews and surveys, was done during the growing season in the capital of Tbilisi, as well as the city of Telavi in the heart of wine production in the eastern region of Kakheti, which produces an estimated 70% of the country’s wine. As I arrived in the spring of 2019, grapevine buds were breaking, winter temperatures were lingering, and growers were adamantly watching the weather. 

Research participant’s Rkatsiteli grape vineyard outside Telavi, Georgia looking north across the Alazani River Valley to the Caucasus Mountain Range and Russia. 

Ethnobotanical Uses of the Grapevine in Georgia 

The grapevine is the cultural keystone species for many Georgians. Over millennia the people residing south of the Greater Caucasus mountain range have engaged with the grapevine, developing a deeply rooted and complex relationship, seen today as inseparable from Georgian cultural traditions and identity. To many I spoke with, a house is not a home without a vine growing on the property or nearby. Vines were seen growing out of foundations, across façades of apartment buildings, seemingly abandoned along the roadside, in front of a shop, or curated and carefully nurtured around dwelling areas, and in vineyards. With good care, vines can live for generations often becoming members of the family and providing: food, drink, medicine, shade, aesthetics, kindling, connection to God, and I was told, even citizenship. 

The grapevine holds such meaning that historically and today cuttings travel with people as they move and start a new home. I saw this in the old town neighborhood in the capital of Tbilisi where many 50 to 100-year-old vines were brought from remote regions by the senior generation, or one or two generations past. This was also encountered while I was researching in Telavi, where again the most obscure varieties, oldest vines of a century or more, which were often ungrafted, were found in living areas.

Held at such high value, the only part of the plant that is not used with any regularity is the root and vine trunk, which are burned as fuel only once the vine has died. Vines and vineyards are seen as living entities in the Georgian perspective to where the clear sap released by the vine when cut is culturally interpreted by some as vazis tsremlebi (ვაზის წამები), or grape tears. Vine trimmings, a byproduct of cultivation, are dried and used for fuel, most favored for barbequing meat, or Mtsvadi (მწვადი). Further, leaves picked when green are preserved and used culinarily, commonly for the beloved tolma (ტოლმა), or grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice. In one form or another the grape harvest is preserved and nothing goes to waste. The byproducts of winemaking are used for livestock fodder or fertilizer, and the must (the seeds and skins at the bottom of wine fermentation tanks) is often distilled to make a clear spirit called chacha (ჭაჭა), sometimes consumed during the long haul of winemaking. Days into the 2019 vintage, on one cold fall morning at the breakfast table, a winemaker told me, with filled glass in our hands, “no chacha, no future!”. 

The grape clusters are the most sought after part of the vine—chiefly used for wine production—a process many Georgian families practice at home. However, grapes are also consumed fresh, juiced, and dried in a variety of culinary uses with deep cultural, religious and social meanings. As part of my research, I was able to observe and participate in these wonderful cultural events. The supra (სუფრა), or Georgian feast is a way of understanding the cultural association, circulation, and consumption practices of wine in Georgian culture. Supras are often anticipated gatherings of friends and family surrounded by a tamada (თამადა), or toast master, savory food, Georgian wine, and music. The Georgian wine making method, traditional folk polyphonic singing (two or more voices singing independent melodies but in harmony), and three alphabets have all been individually recognized by UNESCO as examples of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  

Table laid for a Supra celebrating Georgian Orthodox Easter April 28th, 2019. Qantis (ყანწი), traditional animal horn drinking vessels and doqi (დოქი), clay pitchers are seen with classic Easter culinary dishes.
Century old grapevine trained to grow like a tree in the center of a family’s courtyard in Telavi, Kakheti, Georgia 2019.

Georgia’s Ancient Winemaking Tradition

Georgia has long been considered by many as the birthplace of wine and vine”, a claim that has been supported by a 2017 study providing archeological evidence from southern Georgia dating the origin of viticulture and domestication to around 6,000 BCE. More material evidence is expected as archeological work continues in the southern Kartli region at the neolithic Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora sites part of the Gadachrili Gora Regional Archaeological Project Expedition (GRAPE). Grapevine culture was fully established in the region by the arrival of Christianity to Georgia in the 4th century CE, when the veneration of wine was assimilated into what would become the Orthodox Christian denomination. Coupled with religion, grape culture in Georgia has survived till the present day, 8,000 years later.    

One of the most identifiable tools and symbols of the Georgian winemaking tradition is the vessel used to make, store and age wine, the kvevri or qvevri (ქვევრი), which is made of clay and buried up to its neck underground. Qvevri are unglazed ceramic containers formed by coiling into the unique egg shape, and they range in size from 5 to 3,500 liters, with the most common size being 1,000 liters for its practicality. The clay material and distinct egg shape that tapers at the bottom has changed very little from the early Neolithic times, circa 8,000 years ago. While similar to the other European historic ceramic vessel forms of the Spanish tinaja, Roman amphora, and the French dolia, the qvevri is distinct. The shape and width of the opening at the top is designed to facilitate fermentation and is often altered to fit the environment it is meant to be buried in. The rim is at or just below ground level to allow for a seal that may or may not be covered to make a level surface. While aging wine, the pointed bottom collects seeds and skins into a small area with low surface area allowing for a natural separation and clarification in the qvevri; this results in different segments or densities of wine that can be kept separate, or blended.   

Qvevris in any quantity are found in a marani (მარანი), or cellar, used for wine production and storage, but also social gatherings, supras, and as place for worship. Large maranis are designed with qvevris descending in size and elevation, to create a filtration system when decanting from one vessel to the next in production, and as consumption occurs. Many households are built on top of the family’s marani, which occupy ground level. Qvevris are only in use when buried underground, which allows for a cool, relatively constant temperature when fermenting and aging wine. This environment and the earthenware material is believed to impart a particular taste that is enjoyed and amplified when imbibing with a traditional clay pitcher, doqi (დოქი), and bowl, phiala (ფიალა). Plant-based tools used to maintain qvevri yearound and for wine production are still used today, however are slowly being replaced by industrial materials and machinery.  

There are two main approaches to winemaking in Georgia, whose namesakes are taken from the regions where they are practiced, Kakhetian found in the east, and Imeretian in the west. Though the methods are very similar, there are slight differences corresponding to the regions’ distinct climates caused by a north-south longitudinal mountain range that divides Georgia in the middle, creating humid conditions in the west and more dry in the east. Additional differences include: type of clay used to make qvevri, grape variet(ies) and their ratios of blending different varietals, amount of skins and stems used, length of fermentation and maceration, and how the qvevri is sealed. The harvest begins in northern regions and latitudes, and travels south and down as the season progresses. Grapes are crushed, often destemmed, and fermented as a single variety or as a blend. After filtration, qvevris are sealed and the wine is aged from a minimum of six months, to be considered qvevri wine, to multiple years when they are opened, traditionally in religious celebration.  

In the European method, it is commonly understood that grape skins are used in red wine and removed for white wine, yielding a pale yellow white wine. The significant difference in the Georgian tradition is the use of grape skins during maceration for all types of wine. This includes white grape skins yielding a color gradient from yellow, to orange and amber. The namesake for these wines in the West. Both methods are employed in Georgia today, with the European method dominating the industry by volume. A common, literal, solution to distinguish between the white wines seen in Georgia today is whether they were made with or without grape skins, or “skin contact”. It was unanimous among those I spoke with that white wine made with grape skins is the preferred wine of most Georgians. This is a contributing reason as to why I found more people growing white over red grapes in my study.

With the introduction of European methods and equipment in the nineteenth century, coupled with Soviet-era industrialization, the Georgian method using qvevri experienced a significant decline. This method is growing, but today represents a small fraction of the export market and only slightly higher volumes domestically. The qvevri tradition, including white wines made with grape skins, survived through sustained practice underground (literally and figuratively) in homes, within families and small community networks. The rediscovery, resurgence, and growth (in quantity and quality) of the qvevri method and skin-contact white wines in and outside of Georgia is due to this tenacity, coupled with passionate wine makers and consumers outside the country largely over the last ten years. This post-Soviet rebirth of their method and industry has many considering Georgia as one of the youngest wine regions in the world today. Adapting to a dynamic global, free-market economy, Georgia’s qvevri tradition and industry is currently being reborn with each vintage, into the twenty-first century.

Phylloxera & Georgia

Grape phylloxera arrived in Georgia via the Black Sea in the early 1880s wreaking havoc for the first ten years. Word of the troubles across vineyards in Europe arrived just prior to the insect’s arrival, and by the time human traffic introduced infected vines, the answer, being grafting with American rootstock, was understood by a few individuals. As the infestation spread, devastating the western region (particularly Imereti), Phylloxera Committees were created and a series of techniques (such as fumigation and pesticides) were used to no avail. It wasn’t until the 1890s, when Georgian agronomist Vladimir Staroselsky, informed by colleagues in the sciences, was successful in persuading the government to utilize American grapevines rootstock, which were then being used for grafting in Europe. At this point, due to the restriction on imported vines to control the spread, seeds from American vines were tried and subsequently failed in experimental plots. In 1893, Staroselsky traveled to France and returned with American phylloxera-resistant vines to establish a mother nursery for rootstock, later named the Viticulture Experimental Station in Sakara, in western Georgia. By 1895 additional nurseries were built to distribute rootstocks to growers, who were being trained by 1897 about the insect, grape botany, as well as how to graft and its necessity. Nurseries and education programs developed in the 1890s spread east across the country along with phylloxera until it came under control. 

By the early 20th century, total vineyard acreage fell dramatically from 176,000 to 30,000 acres, with many varieties not replanted. Use of local grape varieties continued as remediation techniques and laws became implemented and enforced heading into the Soviet era. While part of the Soviet Union, Georgian laws mandating grafting onto American rootstock continued as part of the wider Soviet mission for agrarian and economic growth. Grafting continues to be a federal mandate across Georgia as stipulated in the Georgian Law on Grape and Wine, updated for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1998. The law includes approved grape varieties for cultivation and phylloxera resistant rootstock varieties, which include American V. berlandieri, V. riparia, and V. rupestris. Diversity instills resilience, however even in a landscape rich with grape genetic resources, like many countries around the world, Georgia has the native American grapevine and science done in Missouri and at the Missouri Botanical Garden to thank for contributing to the longevity of its ancient viticultural tradition. 

1889 Russian language map of phylloxera infection in Georgia and the Caucasus Region as noted with red dots.
1892 Missouri Botanical Garden herbarium specimen of V. rupestris. One ofa few phylloxera resistant varieties exported from Missouri to Europe then to Georgia in 1893. V. rupestris is still in use in Georgia today.

Grapevine Diversity & Conservation

Georgia is rich in grape genetic resources, with approximately 414-525 indigenous grape varieties. However, only a small fraction are cultivated and there are about 50 grown commercially today. Though grapes are grown from the Black Sea coast to Georgia’s eastern border, the largest region for grape growing and winemaking is Kakheti, which today produces an estimated 70% of the country’s wine. Production was centralized here in the mid-20th century with two principal grape varieties both native Kakhetian grapes, which were chosen in breeding trials for hardiness, yield, and taste. For white and amber wine, it is Rkatsiteli, named for its ‘red stem,’ is a buttery yellow grape with red freckles. For red wine it is Saperavi, or ‘giver of the color’ due to its dark purple skin and uncommon bright red flesh delivering more pigment to the glass. Another teinturier grape with red flesh is the American Chambourcin grape commonly grown in Missouri. 

While grape seeds are often not saved generally, Georgian grape seeds are not often saved ex-situ in seed banks, but in living collections or in-situ. In my research, I worked with a comprehensive, yet growing list of 14 collections, six of which I visited, and two were run by the research participants I interviewed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many centralized state run research stations and collections were abandoned leaving only four to remain today. A shift that began in the early 2000s led to many collections being created privately by wineries, universities and monasteries, often with material sourced from state collections. This demonstrates a growing collaboration between state, industry, research and consumer stakeholders in contributing to regional grapevine diversity and conservation through use in vineyards across Georgia.

I chose Kakheti as my research site for being the center of both grape and wine production today, but also for its reputation of growing only a few grape varieties. Often with help from a translator, I interviewed 57 grape growers in and around the main town of Telavi. These growers grew anywhere from one vine to hundreds of acres. By the end I recorded the names of 59 varieties being grown, originating from in and outside Georgia. The average varieties grown was 4.45 and the highest number for a participant recorded was 18 with the total varieties grown correlating to volume produced a year. The top four most grown varieties encountered were: Rkatsiteli (41/57), Saperavi (35/57), Mtsvane Kakhuri (20/57) and Kisi (19/57). All four are used for wine, and though the first three are not a surprise given the location, the fourth is one of a few Georgian varieties encountered being revived. Despite the inherent difficulty linking cultural interpretation and knowledge to grape varietal taxonomy without the use of genetic testing, diversity encountered was higher than expected and told the story of the past century or more, recent past, and the ongoing chapter of Georgia’s present.

Row of ‘Rkatsiteli Vardispheri’ grapevines in the ampelographical germplasm collection run by the Ministry of Agriculture of Georgia located in Saguramo north of the capital of Tbilisi, spring 2019.
Kisi grape cluster during harvest 2019, Alazani River Valley.

The Future of Grapes & Wine in Georgia

Georgians, the grape, and wine share a common life cycle, where the present is a nexus between living and dying, and together they all show a pattern of biocultural resilience that has overcome many challenges throughout history. Grape varieties, wine makers, and their methods will all evolve as will the “taste of Georgian wine” and associated cultural expression. Georgia’s post-Soviet transition experienced noticeable growth in research and conservation efforts, governmental support, and in the wine industry starting in the early 2000s. Today, these changes can be seen in vineyards, maranis, export figures, and the increasing attention and recognition towards Georgia and its wine globally.

Any threat to a vital hotspot of biocultural diversity rich in agricultural plants like Georgia is a concern on a global level. Efforts to preserve Georgia—and the region’s—biocultural diversity and agrobiodiversity, including the grape, is underway with growing activity in science, conservation and international collaboration most recently between: the National Botanical Garden of Georgia, Department of Ethnobotany at the Institute of Botany of Ilia State University, Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CEEN), Georgian Agency of Protected Areas, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and the Millenium Seed Bank Partnership, Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), United Nations, and others.  

The prevailing sentiment gathered from growers was a nearly unanimous desire to plant more varieties and the willingness to innovate. Many were content on growing only Saperavi and Rkatsiteli, while others made plans to diversify, often starting with the Kisi variety that is growing in popularity. Conversations also included: revival of Georgian varieties fallen out of use during the Soviet era or with phylloxera, consideration of new hybrids or more foreign varieties, and experimentation with varieties from other regions of Georgia. An option that is becoming more possible and perhaps necessary with a noticeably changing climate. Conservation of this diversity was seen in individuals’ grafted vineyards and glasses across Georgia, and in distinct living collections demonstrating how present human involvement is in grape’s use, diversity and conservation today. Despite the unknown trajectory the Covid-19 pandemic has caused, the outlook on Georgia’s grapevine diversity is increasingly diverse. 

Aurora Prehn
Ethnobotany Collections & Data | William L. Brown Center

For a full list of references, questions, or comments, please contact Aurora by visiting her website, or via email.

Further Reading:

Untamed: 8,000 Vintages of Georgian Wine, by Anna Saldadze

Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus, by Carla Capalbo

Amber Wine: How the World Learned to Love Orange Wine, by Simon J. Woolf   

Acknowledgments:

~MSc Supervisors, Dr. Rajindra Puri at the University of Kent & Dr. Mark Nesbitt at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

~David Maghradze & daughter Tamar for their unwavering support from day one and for their research and translation of two early texts on phylloxera exposing a wider need for translated sources from Georgian, German and Russian into English regarding this chapter of phylloxera’s history. 

~Irakli Cholobargia and numerous individuals at the: National Wine Agency, Georgian Wine Association, Georgian Association of Women Winemakers, Caucasus International University, Tbilisi State University, Agricultural University, Botanical Institute of Ilia State University, National Botanical Garden of Georgia, and the Georgian National Museum.

~Dr. Stephen Batiuk, staff & students from the University of Toronto who took part in the 2019 archeological season of the Gadachrili Gora Regional Archaeological Project Expedition (GRAPE).

~Vino Underground, the network it draws, and for Enek & Natia. 

~All the passionate grape growers and wine artisans who welcomed me and my questions in particular, Lado, Sandro Milorava & family, Eko & Mariam.

~Gizo Ujarmeli & family for planting the seed & their support throughout.

Dedicated to all those who call Georgia their home 

and continue the ancient tradition of building culture out of nature, cheers!

__

ეძღვნება ქართველ ერს, რომელმაც ბუნებასთან უშუალო კავშირში მსოფლიოს უძველესი კულტურა და ტრადიცია შესძინა, გაუმარჯოს!

Leave a Reply