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Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Vine Guy: Georgia on My Mind

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about sparkling wines to enjoy during the holidays. One of the wines I recommended was a very interesting sparkler from Georgia -- the country, not the state. Since then, I have received more than a few e-mails from readers who tried (and liked) the wine, as well as from consumers who thought I must be pulling their proverbial cork.

One reader, Lawrence S., of Arlington, wrote, "It was with great skepticism that I read about your recent wine recommendation from Georgia. I thought you must have certainly been mistaken about the place of origin. After all, Georgia is known for either peaches or proletariats, but not fine wine." The reader, of course, was referring to the lovely Bagrationi 1882 Non-Vintage Classic Extra Dry sparkling wine that I suggested readers pop open for New Year's Eve. And no, it was not a mistake. Georgia makes wine.

As a matter of fact, Georgia is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world. According to Nicholas Krivoruchko, the importer for the Bagrationi brand, "The word 'wine' itself comes from the Georgian word 'gvino,' which the Romans shorten to 'vino' and the French shortened to 'vin.' " He is also convinced that the Roman invaders learned their winemaking techniques from the Georgians and took the methods back to Italy.

There is some evidence to back up some of Nicholas' claims. Ancient winemaking objects, including clay amphorae that date back to around 5000 B.C., have been discovered in the area that is now Georgia. In addition, the area now boasts more than 500 grape varietals -- many of which are only found in Georgia. These grapes thrive in the rich, alluvial, soil-laden valleys nestled in the shadows of the Caucasus Mountain range. The area also shares the same "viticultural latitude" as other well-known wine-growing regions, such as the Piedmont appellation in Italy, the Rhone Valley in France and the Rioja region in Spain. The temperate climate provides warm, sunny days and cool nights that allow the grapes to develop firm tannins and great acidity.

Fortunately, a young military officer, Ivane Bagrationi, saw the potential of his homeland. Following the Napoleonic Wars, Ivane retired from the army in 1881 and devoted his time to learning how to make sparkling wines in France. He brought his newfound skills back home where he married the Methode Champenoise -- a method of producing sparkling wine in the bottle -- with the indigenous grape varietals of his homeland, and the result was the Bagrationi 1882 brand.

Today, Bagrationi 1882 makes four sparkling wines for the export marketplace. These wines offer a completely new -- and delicious -- opportunity to discover unique grape varietals from one of the oldest wine regions at a reasonable price. When I sat down with Krivoruchko to taste through the Bagrationi 1882 portfolio, I also learned the Georgians prided themselves on hospitality and toasts (Krivoruchko is convinced that the custom of toasting also began in Georgia, but that, without carbon dating, cannot be substantiated). However, I will toast to the health of the Georgian wine industry. Retail prices are approximate.

Bagrationi 1882 Non-Vintage Classic Extra Dry, Tbilisi, Georgia ($14)

This is the wine I originally mentioned. It is made from indigenous varietals of chinebuli, tsitska and mtsvane using the Charmat Methode -- by which the secondary fermentation occurs in large tanks instead of in the bottle. This wine is full of bright citrus, golden melon and ripe pear flavors. It is completely dry on the palate with medium-size bubbles. It would be an excellent choice for grilled seafood dishes.

Bagrationi 1882 Non-Vintage Classic Brut, Tbilisi, Georgia ($14)

The fruit, from the Kartli, Imereti and Kakheti wine districts, was handpicked, hand-sorted and whole-cluster pressed, then fermented on the lees in stainless steel tanks at cool temperatures and carbonated via the Charmat Methode. Scents of melon and citrus are found on the nose, while flavors of green apple, nectarine and honeydew melon are carried across the palate on medium-size bubbles. Just a touch of ever-so-slight sweetness gives the wine good depth.

2007 Bagrationi 1882 Reserve Cuvee, Tbilisi, Georgia ($26)

Made from a blend of chinebuli, mtsvane and tsitska grapes that were hand-harvested, -sorted and -fermented in the classic Methode Champenoise to produce an elegant sparkling wine at an affordable price point. The nose produces scents of ripe apricot and white nectarine. The wine is well-balanced with flavors of apple, pear, peach and apricot that are delivered across the palate by delicate bubbles.

2007 Bagrationi 1882 Royal Cuvee, Tbilisi, Georgia ($38)

The flagship of the sparkling lineup is also made with the Methode Champenoise. Aromas of lemon-lime, melon and apple fill the bouquet. Flavors of apple, nectarine and orange blossom are prominent throughout the palate, while the crisp, refreshing finish features additional citrus notes.