Long Island Winemaker’s Taste of Georgian Wines

“I’m back in the USSR…you don’t know how lucky you are, boy….They Georgia’s always on my my my my my my my my my mind…”

I barrel-ferment my Chardonnay in Russian oak barrels – the same species as French oak, but an oak tree grown in different soils, climates and altitudes takes on subtle nuances (just like grapes do).

Russian oak (chêne de caucase) grows in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, along the Black Sea, south of Russia and north of Armenia, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Considered a place with unique ethnicity, culture, religion and history, this is where the art of winemaking was born, later spreading east to Mesopotamia and west to Europe. [expand]

The roots of Georgian viticulture date from 9,000 to 7,000 B.C. Large clay vessels with wooden lids were stored underground to keep the wine at perfect temperature – sometimes for 50 years. In Armenia, on the southern border of Georgia, the oldest complete winemaking facility was found 6,000 years old, with grape-stomping vats, storage jars, grape seeds, pressed grapes and remnants of vitis vinifera vines (the same kind grown today on Long Island).

Georgia, a land of hot summers and cold winters, still grows grapes on its mountainous slopes. Wine is aged in giant casks for decades until the wines evaporate to a concentrated liquid (similar to the way good balsamic vinegar is aged). Then, recent vintage wine is blended in and the wine is classified according to how much “new” wine is in the blend – 10%, 15%, etc.

The Russians are very different ethnically and culturally from the Georgians. In 1801, Russia annexed Georgia, which became part of the Russian Empire. Both Russia and Georgia later became part of the Soviet Union. In 1991, Georgia declared its independence. Russia, much colder than Georgia, doesn’t grow wine grapes, and is the biggest importer of Georgian wines.

So while my Chardonnay is aged in Russian oak barrels, they probably should be called Georgian oak barrels.

In the former Soviet Union, there was and is a big alcoholism problem. Prohibition was introduced in 1914, with hard liquor sales allowed only in restaurants. It extended through 1925 and was reintroduced in 1958 and 1972. Between 1960 and 1984, the Soviet production of alcohol was 10.5 liters of pure alcohol per capita, the equivalent of 22 liters of 100-proof vodka for every man, woman and child per year. In some cities, average consumption among working-age adults was one bottle of vodka per day. Women and children were also increasingly drinking; the average starting age dropping.

In 1985, President Mikhail Gorbachev enacted Prohibition laws again. Prices were raised on vodka, beer and wine. Alcohol was rationed, and liquor store sales severely curtailed. Sugar was rationed as well, since people were using it to make moonshine. Scenes involving alcoholic beverages were edited out of movies. Severe penalties were enforced for people caught drinking at work, in the streets or on trains.

Sadly, tens of thousands of acres of vineyards across Georgia and other areas, such as the Ukraine, were ripped out or burnt down. In Georgia, the cradle of wine civilization, about 80% of the vineyards and wineries were destroyed – many of which had existed for hundreds of years. Thousands of people lost their livelihoods.

Watermelons were planted instead.

These measures didn’t stop the Soviet population from drinking alcohol, though consumption is estimated to have dropped by 25%. The alcohol-related economy simply went to the black market. Hundreds of people died from drinking methyl alcohol or other dangerous homemade concoctions. Lines as long as 3,000 people each day formed at the official alcohol outlets. It is estimated that the Soviet economy lost 100 billions rubles, or about $1 billion, in alcohol tax revenue.

A few years after the alcohol reform laws were enacted, they were repealed.

The vineyards of Georgia still survive, but at only about 25% of the pre-1985 levels.

Theresa (Tree) Dilworth, a resident of Manhattan and Mattituck, is an international tax lawyer, winemaker and restaurateur. She is the owner of Comtesse Thérèse vineyard and Comtesse Thérèse Bistro, both in Aquebogue.

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