Vintages of Georgia sing with centuries of tradition

The wonder of this wine starts with the colour-a brilliant amber.

Then there's "the nose"-compelling, powerful fragrant. Not quite like anything I've encountered in a wine glass before.

"Eternity of sun living in the bottle," promises the label. I'm not sure what that should taste like, so I take a sip. On the tongue it's as powerful and intriguing as the aroma, but ...

"Cool, huh?" chuckles Fong Yee, watching the crowd of faces at the Georgian wine tasting she's conducting in Beijing. The British-born Chinese wine expert takes a big, succulent slurp from her glass, spits it out in a businesslike way and savours the flavor echoes on her palate.

"Like dried apricots, right?" she prompts. "It's nutty, too-I want to drink this with cheese, or some other big, salty, oily food.

"In the decanter," she sighs, giving the big glass beaker a twirl, "it just gets prettier and prettier."

Georgian wines are hard to get, she says later. "That's such a pity-I'd love to see more of it in China."

She may be about to get her wish.

The Georgia Wine (China) Promotion Center opened this month in China, during a visit by the country's minister of agriculture, Otar Danelia. The minister announced initiatives to enhance trade between the two countries, especially of agricultural products, such as wine.

"Georgia is the cradle of wine, and China is the cradle of tea," he says, commenting on a series of events promoting both beverages, and recent exchanges involving top government officials from both sides.

China's agriculture minister visited Georgia in May, signing off on an action plan that includes fairs, tastings and master classes for Georgian wine in China.

Cradle of wine? Almost certainly.

An archaeological dig near Imiri in Georgia uncovered grape pits that have been dated to around 6,000 BC, which makes them at least 8,000 years old.

Samples scrubbed from pottery found in the same area have yielded motes of "dust" that turned out to be crystallized wine particles, spurring confidence that additional artifacts will boost the notion that this Caucasus country is the birthplace of wine.

Georgia's vino pedigree also includes a richness of material, boasting 8,000 different vintages made from 525 indigenous grape varieties.

"Rkatsiteli," pronounces Fong Yee, flashing a PowerPoint image of a long, skinny grape cluster that produces orange wine. "It's so funky looking, like it has a tail."

The huge variety of "grapes even wine nerds never heard of", she says, is just one thing that makes Georgian wines interesting.

Another is the qvevri, a traditional clay vessel used for making, ageing and storing wine.

Artisanal families use traditional technology and centuries-old knowledge of the ion of appropriate clay in their respective regions. The immense clay jars are buried in the ground, guaranteeing an ideal temperature for the ageing and storage of wine.

The egglike shape of the vessel promotes the processes inside: the chacha (grape skins, stalks and pips) sinks to the bottom; the wine becomes enriched by its volatile and nonvolatile elements; later wine is separated and stabilizes.

Qvevri are cleaned each year before winemaking begins. In every village there are a few experienced cleaners, who wash out the clay with herbal cleansers and water before disinfecting with sulfur vapours.

The inside surface is often lined with beeswax, while the outside is traditionally covered with a lime-based mortar before burying.

Danelia, the agriculture minister, notes that Georgia's qvevri winemaking method is a legacy of an ancient, living culture and has changed little since its invention.

"We are sharing it with China, but don't tell anyone," he jokes.

The basic technological process consists of pressing grapes, then pouring the must and the chacha into a qvevri. As fermentation progresses, the mixture is stirred several times daily. After fermentation, the wine is aged for several months, sometimes as long as two years.

"Despite powerhouses like Italy and France, Georgian wines have a very good position in the European market," Danelia says.

"About 37 per cent of our trade is with Europe."

Georgia's traditional market for its wines, Russia, has shrunk dramatically in recent years, and the country's wine industry is reaching out to new markets. While Georgian wine is not yet easy to find in China's restaurants or wine shops, it's frequently presented in exhibitions and fairs around the country.

"They say wine consumption has increased in China by 700 per cent in recent years," says David Aptsiauri, Georgia's ambassador to China, joking that Georgia would be OK with growth like that.

He notes that last year saw trade double between China and Georgia, "and we've started discussions on a free-trade agreement".

Meanwhile, high-level exchanges continue-Georgia's prime minister will visit China in September, ready to ink more deals and exchanges, and Georgia will host a Silk Road business forum in October.

"Our countries have shared values," Danelia says. "Beyond politics and economics, we both respect the importance of history, culture and tradition."

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