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In Georgia, wine's surprising birthplace, winemakers revive ancient grapes

Georgia’s 8,000 years of wine history
Georgian winemakers restoring country’s ancient grape varieties | 60 Minutes 22:13

If you asked most people where they think the birthplace of wine is, they'd probably get it wrong. The small former Soviet Republic of Georgia holds that distinction.

At one time, the country reportedly had more than 1,400 indigenous grape varieties. Most were wiped out during the Soviet era, when quantity replaced diversity — of around 525 varieties of grapes, only four or five were commercially available. 

With winemaking being such a crucial part of the country's identity, the Georgian government decided to open research centers and vast vineyards in efforts to recultivate hundreds of grape varietals that many thought had been lost.

Georgia invests in its wine revival

At the research centers, DNA of grape leaves is analyzed, juice is extracted in the field and then tested in labs for disease. Healthy vines are replanted. Today, there are more than 500 native grape varieties growing in Georgia.

American John Wurdeman became part of that mission to help bring back Georgia's rich history.  He came to Georgia 25 years ago as a student and fell in love with the culture and the wine. In 2006 he opened up Pheasant's Tears Winery, where he has been replanting rare grape varietals and making wine ever since.

Studying grapes in Georgia
Scientists at Georgian research centers study the DNA of grape leaves. 60 Minutes

"Luckily, Georgians were still growing them in their backyard. They were allowed to have small, private plots for their own personal use, and they kept the ancestral varieties going," Wurdeman said. "So when we, for instance, wanted to start to bring back these ancient varieties, together with our friends, that was where we were going. We were going to the individual back yards of farmers who kept growing the varieties that their grandfathers and great grandfathers had kept alive."

More than 2,000 new vineyards have taken root in Georgia over the past decade. The former Soviet bloc nation offers more than 40 varieties of wine, each with tongue twisting names from vines centuries old.

"For a country the size of West Virginia, the diversity of terroir is extraordinary," Wurdeman said, referring to the natural elements like soil and climate ideal to produce wine. "I think it's important that some of these regions that were farmed less for grapes in Soviet times are now going again, because all of a sudden, it's like watching a black and white picture of a rainbow come to color again. This diversity and expanse of color is coming back to the Georgian table after sleeping for almost a few centuries."

It's not just ancient grape varieties being preserved; it's also ancient techniques. 

The godly pursuit of wine

Scientists say wine residue found on pieces of pottery in Georgia dates back 8,000 years.

At Wurdeman's Pheasant's Tears Winery, ancient Georgian methods are used to make the wine. Stems, skins and juice are all mixed together, then poured into giant qveris — clay pots buried underground used to ferment, store and age the wine. The qveris are sealed with clay.

Many homes in Georgia have qveris in their cellars. But today, there are only a handful of qveri makers who carry on the tradition of hand building the gargantuan clay vessels. Some hold nearly 900 gallons of wine.

Monks have made wine at the Alaverdi Monastery since medieval times. The monastery, located at the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, dates back to the sixth century. Vines were planted on day one, Georgian Orthodox Bishop David said.

Georgian monk drinks wine
Monks in Georgia have a lengthy tradition of making wine. 60 Minutes

The monks living there still make traditional wine. Bishop David works with three monks at the medieval compound, where they are committed to both God and the godly pursuit of creating a perfect glass of wine.

"Whenever we are in the vineyard or the wine cellar, we always feel that God is close to us," Bishop David said.

Qveri are buried six feet underground at the monastery. The monks produce about 20,000 bottles of wine a year with the help of locals who work the land.

During the harvest, the monks make their way through the hallowed halls of the monastery each day to bless the wine cellar and the grapes. One hundred grape varieties, some dating back 900 years, are still growing on the monastery grounds, Bishop David said.

Increasing popularity of Georgia's wine

Georgian wine is gaining popularity beyond its borders. Last year, Georgia exported over 140 million bottles of wine to more than 65 countries, according to the National Wine Agency of Georgia. Nearly a million and a half bottles of it were shipped to the U.S. last year, an increase of nearly 30% from the previous year. 

Promoting Georgian wines hasn't been so easy, Wurdeman said. There are at least 40 varieties of Georgian wines produced for sale and even the most sophisticated sommelier might struggle to just pronounce their names: saperavi, rkhatsiteli and mtsvane don't exactly roll off of the tongue. 

John Wurdeman makes a toast
American John Wurdeman came to Georgia 25 years ago as a student. In 2006, he opened up Pheasant's Tears Winery. 60 Minutes

Wurdeman said Georgians have had to work hard to gain recognition for something the country has been doing for centuries.

"Georgians have their own language, their own wine culture, their own culinary culture and history that is very ancient'" Wurdeman said. "But it took a fair amount of effort to get people to give us the benefit of the doubt and even to try."

Enjoying Georgian wine 

Wine is a part of the fabric of Georgian society. Workers at Wurdeman's vineyard celebrate the harvest with a traditional Georgian feast called a supra. The celebratory meals have been the backbone of Georgian culture for thousands of years. 

While wine tells the story of Georgia's past, it also inspires the present, through chefs like Tekuna Gachechiladze, known as the godmother of Georgia's culinary evolution. She runs the popular Café Littera in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital. The restaurant is known for its adventuresome menu and wine pairings.

She's created new recipes based on traditional ones, serving them up with Georgian wine.

"We start with the lighter wines," the chef said. "And then we will go more like stronger and stronger, and more intense flavor."

Chef Gachechiladze is also focused on serving up hospitality. 

"It's like a Georgian saying that the guests are from the gods. You have to treat the guests like you treat the gods," she said. 

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