This episode is dedicated to the people of Ukraine.
We talk to two leading figures in the Georgian wine scene – John Wurdeman (Pheasant’s Tears) and Irakli Cholobargia (National Wine Agency) – to get a sense of what the feeling is in the region, and what wine people are doing and can do to help.
Georgia, like Ukraine, is a former Soviet nation on the Black Sea that has had part of its territory occupied by the Russian military. These people are uniquely qualified to comment on the horrific events unfolding in Ukraine.
There’s talk of tension, anger, fear, boycotts and suffering. Wurdeman dubs the conflict, ‘fratricide,’ but notes Georgians are forced to mute their opposition for fear of reprisals by Russia. Before the war broke out, 70% of Georgian wine exports went to Russia and Ukraine. That will have serious implications.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is talk of kindness, solidarity, peace and generosity. ‘You can see the flags of Ukraine all over Georgia,’ says Cholobargia. Winemakers in Georgia are sending wines to Ukrainian importers to help them fund humanitarian efforts.
What’s more, Wurdeman’s UK importer Les Caves de Pyrene is funding transportation for Ukrainian refugees to stay with winemaking families across Europe. ‘So hopefully we can have a little bit of love in an otherwise big nightmare,’ says Wurdeman.
We also find time to touch on how and why Georgian amber (or orange) wine is so well suited to food matching, and how Georgia’s ancient wine history is informing its present evolution. There’s even a bit of singing involved.
A final thought from John Wurdeman: ‘The Georgian format for feasting is where you have an elected toastmaster and different subjects are touched upon: love, parents, children, nature, God, neighbours and so forth. And everyone’s encouraged to expand upon it and have a dialogue. It’s a wonderful way to get to know people, and a wonderful way to solve problems as well. It certainly seems to be more effective than NATO or the UN today! So maybe these international organisations should adopt the Georgian feasting model and we would find peace more quickly.’
‘You can see the flags of Ukraine all over Georgia’
Here’s the trailer for the brand new wine and travel series The Wild Side of Wine.
In this programme we get down and dirty in Georgia.
To see more, check it out on WineMasters.TV! (NB: the singing featured in this podcast episode was recorded on location as part of this same shoot – and features in the final programme of the trilogy, coming soon.)
Peter Richards MW (PR): What are things like in Georgia right now?
Irakli Cholobargia: Uf. Well, of course the situation around us is really tense. It’s relatively peaceful in Georgia itself there is no war. But the situation is kind of tense.
Peter Richards: I hear there’ve been big demonstrations. And I imagine you’re sitting there in Georgia looking at the Ukraine thinking: this could easily be us.
Irakli Cholobargia: Of course, yeah. And not to forget that we have the Russian army parked here 45 kms away from Tbilisi. So we are very very cautious on that and we have the experience of this kind of war, which was 14 years ago. And we need to kind of balance the situation. And of course they were not demonstrations, it was kind of a rally for supporting Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, it was kind of a march and rally of solidarity for the people and also the country itself. It’s helping with humanitarian aid and receiving refugees. Our country is doing whatever we’re capable of. And just to keep the peace in this country is really important for us.
Peter Richards: It’s important what you say there. You mention caution and the need for peace, given the Russian army is parked only a few kilometres away from the capital. Could you give us a brief recap on what happened in 2008?
Irakli Cholobargia: It was the same scenario as we see now in Ukraine. In those times in these breakaway regions there were peacekeeping forces there. And before war broke out in 2008 for years there were provocations here and there, and in the regions and in the last period of time until the war broke out there was heavy shootings from the Russia side. So this war broke out. So this was the reason for them to recognise these breakaway territories as independent states and they took over again. The Russian army is now stationed in those territories. And that was exactly the same scenario as we observe now in Ukraine. So that’s like, when we see now the situation unfolding in Ukraine, it’s recapping what happened here 14 years ago. And it’s kind of a signature of Russia.
Peter Richards: You’re near Chechnya, this kind of thing has happened before. When I was in Georgia with you, we talked about the Soviet occupation. Those memories are still fresh. Are people in Georgia afraid history will repeat itself?
Irakli Cholobargia: Yes, it’s coming, there’s a lot of remembrance of those times when we were in Soviet Union. In my time there was relative peace in the Soviet Union, chilling out in the 70s 80s, but we remember all the lack of freedoms and freedom of speech and the values right now. At this moment, for our generation it was a first observance of what the war really is and what Russia was all about.
Peter Richards: Turning to wine, Russia is a vital market for Georgian wine. What’s happening on that front?
Irakli Cholobargia: Yeah, uh. As I said, the situation is really uncertain. Russia’s share in exports is about 60%. The second top market is the Ukraine. So both these countries together hold 70% of total [wine] exports. Last year we had record breaking volumes, more than 100m bottles exported. And imagine: 70% went to these two countries. Of course the markets are diversified right now – we exported to more than 60 countries last year. But in terms of volume, these countries are really essential for us. It will have a chain reaction in the whole supply chain. So I think we’ll have a tough year.
Peter Richards: So given the Russian market will reduce considerably, the Ukrainian market will probably collapse in the short term, what’s going to be the effect of that on Georgian wine?
Irakli Cholobargia: Yes we had this same situation in 2006. In this year when Russia imposed embargo our exports were over 90% [to Russia] in those years. It took time, to relaunch and recap.
Peter Richards: Since 2006 you’ve been diversifying your markets, move away from more bulk to added value wines. Where are you with that, and how is the current situation going to affect that?
Irakli Cholobargia: Before embargo, Russia was over 90% of export share. When reopened in 2013 until now, we maintained the share at around 60%. Down a third but the basic idea is diminish the dependence on this market, and diversify as much as we can. US very promising for us – it was the first time they hit 1m bottles in exports last year, 30% growth year on year in last 4 years. So it was a really good result. Seeing as our awareness is not too big in western markets, this result is promising. We’ll see.
Peter Richards: There are many close links and kinship between Ukraine and Georgia. What can wine people do to support Ukraine and Georgia too?
Irakli Cholobargia: There are some ideas now forming in the wine lover communities. As you know, in Kyiv there’s a really good chain of wine shops called Good Wine. And in one of their warehouses was attacked by bomb and demolished. We had this idea that all winemakers are sending their wines to support and help rebuild the warehouse. But in terms of…not talking about wine people, in general we have many humanitarian aid points here and people are gathering what they can for the kids, whatever the necessities are for the people in Ukraine. The solidarity here is on a really high level, you can see the flags of Ukraine all over Georgia. Right now the most important thing is that this war stops, innocent people are dying there, women children. We pray all together than this war ends as soon as possible.
Peter Richards: Cheers to that. Irakli thank you.
Irakli Cholobargia: Thank you Peter.
Peter Richards MW: How are you?
John Wurdeman: Right now we’re all a little bit stressed because of the situation in Ukraine. We have many brothers and sisters there that are being bombed at the moment. Our importer’s warehouse was bombed. The restaurants where wine was being sold have been destroyed. People we can’t reach out to and be in touch with, some people we’re able to find. And Georgia’s in a precarious situation because Georgia has a very strong spirit of brotherhood with Ukraine. At the same time, they can’t really voice their outrage too strongly because they don’t have the military that can hold back Russia. So they’re forced into a position of being quiet and that’s really hard for Georgians.
Peter Richards: Let’s start with – I know you have very close links to Ukraine. When I was over you were also hosting a delegation of importers from Ukraine. What’s your feelings about what’s going on Ukraine right now?
John Wurdeman: It’s horrible when two different ethnic groups fight each other. But right now it’s basically fratricide. Kyiv and Rus was the name for, a whole country that included modern day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. They have a common history, religion, blood, language that’s related. For one reason or another, Russia is trying to punish Ukraine for its western alliance ambitions. I understand if Russia was trying to set up military bases in Canada or Mexico the US would do something worse than what Russia is doing. But still, indiscriminate bombing of women and children and people trying to evacuate and apartment buildings and hospitals and kindergartens and maternity hospitals – this is outrageous. In the 21st century, this shouldn’t be happening. So I think that Russia’s protest to NATO expansion eastwards in some ways makes sense. I think the western alliances should take some accountability in provoking Ukraine and Georgia to accept these promises even though there wasn’t really a firm commitment behind them. So they were kind of testing the bathwater. But that’s sacrificing a nation of 40 million people that have a beautiful ancient wonderful culture. So personally I’m a bit angry on all sides. I’m angry that Georgia can’t do more; I’m angry that the west made promises that they can’t come through wine; and I’m angry that Russia couldn’t find a more civilised way to express its concern. Something that would earn it respect and moral dignity.
Peter Richards: You say you’re angry, which I quite understand. You’ve mentioned how Georgia is in a similar situation in many ways to Ukraine. What’s the general sentiment you’re noticing in Georgia at the moment? You’ve mentioned not being able to really express what they think.
John Wurdeman: A lot of Georgians…there was even a charter flight of volunteer soldiers that was going to fight and the Georgian government turned around the plane. During the 2008 war, there were a lot of volunteer Ukrainians fighting against Russia. But I think that since the 2008 war in Georgia, there hasn’t been a lot of emphasis on building up military or training in Georgia, I think the government felt Georgia trying to fight Russia is futile. So we find ourselves in a situation where Russia would like a reason to come in and show its dominance and power in the region. And the Georgian government is trying really hard not to give them that reason. And at the same time there’s huge protests in Tbslisi in support of Ukraine. People are angry the government’s not doing more. But I’m also sympathetic with the government.
I’m not a political person and I don’t have connections with this government but I also understand they don’t want to invite a fight that would destroy the nation. Georgia can continue to offer something to the world as long as it exists. And right now annihilation of Georgia by Russia is not going to help Ukraine or anyone else. The Georgian government right now finds itself between a rock and a hard place and it’s trying to become a Switzerland of the Caucasus. The only difference is our neighbours aren’t France, Italy and Germany. We have Chechnya, Dagestan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia – it’s a much more dodgy neighbourhood!
Peter Richards: Turning to wine – both Russia and Ukraine are vital markets for Georgian wine. Or maybe for a certain sector of Georgian wine. How has this been affected and what does the future hold?
John Wurdeman: There’s a lot of stuff on social media where Georgians are signing up to boycott exports to Russia. There’s a lot of people donating wine to Ukraine, giving wine to importers free of charge to help them rebuild, or sell the wine and offer to humanitarian aid. Right now, Georgia’s lucky that for what I would consider the better wine in the country there’s a bigger market than supply. So Georgians can re-route their wines different places. So Georgian winemakers aren’t gonna be the ones that suffer the most. But some people have the dilemma – for example we have an importer in Russia who’s a very nice man, a very kind man, is not pro-Putin, is incredibly embarrassed at what’s happening. So we have to make a critical decision: do we punish the thinkers and intellectuals in Russia who love our wine because of their government? Or do we try to separate and say: it’s not them creating the problem. It’s complicated.
Peter Richards: What are you gonna do? Sounds like you might still carry on.
John Wurdeman: I think we’ll probably at least, don’t know we’ll boycott Russia forever but for the duration of the conflict in Ukraine we won’t ship any wine to Russia and then we’ll see how things finish. And we’re gathering a bunch of bottles to send for our Ukrainian importers to sell in Poland to raise revenue for humanitarian aid agencies that are working with the refugees.
And our importers, Les Caves de Pyrene in London, have graciously set up a programme where they’re paying for the transportation of refugees that can make it to the Polish or Slovakian border, and sending them to families, vigneron families in France, Italy, Spain, western Europe, where the families who work with Les Caves de Pyrene will give home shelter and food, and Les Caves de pyrene is organising transportation. And then hopefully they’ll build bonds with the different vignerons across Europe and we can have a little bit of love in an otherwise big nightmare.
Peter Richards: Moving away from Ukraine. We’re doing a mini-series on the podcast about wine and food right now. When I was in Georgia with you, you talked very eloquently to me about the place of Georgian wine, particularly amber or orange wine, on the table. Talk to us about that: Georgian wine and food.
John Wurdeman: Orange wine is all-too-often seen as something hipster-ish in a cool wine bar with nuts and olives on the side. And actually it’s one of the most gastro friendly styles of wine. And the way Georgians eat with this mosaic of punchy flavours with garlic, herbs, chilli, umami. And all these small plates for sharing. Orange wine has the flexibility to go on a big range, to respond and dance with salinity and meatiness and herbaceousness and tanginess and so forth. To understand an orange wine, a wide range of flavours is the best way to engage it. And more than any other other conventional genre of wine, white rosé or red, its flexibility to be able to make a stretch and embrace a larger flavour profile is one of the reasons it’s very popular in this part of the world. It’s not because of its novelty, it’s because of how food friendly it is.
Peter Richards: And you also told me it’s the kind of wine that shouldn’t be overthought.
John Wurdeman: Yeah. Because it has that flexibility and possibility to be a presence throughout the meal, it doesn’t demand to be analysed and dissected. It doesn’t matter what technically how many metres above sea level or it smells like quince blossoms or tangerine blossoms. It’s just there. Much like a piano accompanist who stays in the shadows but allows the singer to shine.
Peter Richards: We also stood in the archaeological site in Georgia where the earliest evidence of what we’d now identify as wine, and winemaking has been found. Georgian wine has been going for at least 8,000 years. What does this mean for Georgian wine today?
John Wurdeman: It’s important we take into consideration the history, the genetic biodiversity this history gave us. It’s also important to understand how much diversity of terroir there is here. But we also have to remember that wine also has a functional part of society. It’s meant to give joy. It’s meant to make our meals more tasty – and the relationship with people more friendly and more open. Drinking patterns and the way people want to use wine in the 21st century, is something that this ancient bastion of antiquity needs to take into consideration.
In Soviet times, the heavier wines from eastern Georgia were always seen as superior. The nervous, bright, transparent, light, fragile wines of Western Georgia are becoming more and more exciting. Because people are gravitating more to lighter, more refreshing, vins de soif as the French would so.
So Georgian wine history is rich enough to call on different parts of it as we need and want. But we’re seeing a general movement towards fresher, lighter even in the orange wine category where we don’t have to be so dogmatic that it’s 6 months all skins or stems. It could be without stems or just 20% skins or for 2 days, or 2 weeks, 2 months. In the early days, myself included, we were trying to learn the old ways of doing it to ensure that knowledge, those traditions, weren’t lost.
But now Georgia also needs to be in dialogue with drinkers of the 21st century. And it’s not meant to be Neolithic wine. It should be something that’s relevant today. But maybe inspired by all of those millennia.
Peter Richards: Talking of relevance to today: how important is that capacity of wine to bring us joy and bring us together?
John Wurdeman: The Georgian format for feasting – they call it a supra – where you have an elected toastmaster and different subjects are touched upon: love, parents, children, nature, God, neighbours and so forth. And everyone’s encouraged to expand upon it and have a dialogue on this. It’s a wonderful way to get to know people, and a wonderful way to solve problems as well. It certainly seems to be more effective than NATO or the UN today! So maybe these international organisations should adopt the Georgian feasting model and we would find peace more quickly.
Peter Richards: John Wurdeman, thank you very much indeed.
John Wurdeman: All right Peter. Take care, my friend.