Friday, 18 March 2011

4,100 B.C. - A Fine Vintage?

A starter for ten: what's the highest mountain in Europe?  Easy, Mont Blanc right?  Wrong!  Actually it's the Russian Mount Elbrus, which is the highest peak of the Greater Caucasus, the lofty range running between the Black and Caspian Seas.  Towering at 5,642m, Elbrus is a full 800m higher than its Western European rival - so why does everyone think Mont Blanc is the highest European peak then?  Good question.  To answer it I need the help of one of my rather attractive hand drawn maps...

[caption id="attachment_976" align="alignleft" width="640" caption="From the Balkans to the Causasus"][/caption]

The border of Europe and Asia has always been a bit of a blur; the Ancient Greeks considered the Greater Caucasus range to mark the border, which would put Elbrus on the frontier, but then in the eighteenth century various European Countries decided to consider the border as the lowlands just above the Caucasus, thus putting the mountain range and Mount Elbrus in Asia.  However, more recent definitions now consider the Southern part of the range (the Lesser Caucasus) as the border, with the higher northern part of the range (including Mount Elbrus) being fully in Europe.  This definition makes much more geographical sense and is increasingly accepted.  It's still blurry however.  Two of the Caucasus Countries, Georgia and Armenia, are more culturally European (both having openly stated long term aims of joining the EU) and indeed European culture is often said to have all started in the region (it's where the word Caucasian comes from after all), whereas the third Caucasus Country, Azerbaijan, is a Turkic Country more culturally aligned with Asia.  So basically it's a bit complicated and Eastern for many Western Europeans to bother thinking about, so they just say Mont Blanc's the highest and forget about the Eastern complications.  So there we have it.

But hang on a minute, what's all this mountain business got to do with wine?  Well, I grant you that knowing the location of the highest peak in Europe is trivia, but the Caucasus as a region has an awful lot to do with wine.  We need to go back about 8,000 years to when it all started ...

The species of vine that is responsible for all of the European varieties we drink (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, ...) is a Eurasian species of vine, Vitis Vinifera, whose first wild home before domestication was the borderlands of South-East Europe and the Middle East.  Although it's very common and understandable for people to think of wine as originating with the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, this actually followed a much earlier period of vinous inebriation that took place in the Caucasus, with Georgia normally cited as the cradle of wine.

Over the years, archaeologists have to found odd artifacts of wine culture in the Caucasus going back to 6,000 BC, but until recently no wine press had been found anywhere near that old.  However,  the discovery in 2007 of what seemed to be grape pips in Armenia resulted in the excavation of a complex of caves subsequently named Areni-1.  Amongst a raft of other important archaeological discoveries at the site, researchers from UCLA confirmed last month that they found a wine press from 4,100 BC, the oldest by quite some way (the next oldest press to be found is a mere youngster of 1,600 BC or so, unearthed in the West Bank of Israel in 1963).  Surrounding the press at Areni-1 they also found grape pips, pulp and dessicated vines, all of the same species still used today, Vitis Vinifera.  What's compelling in this particular find is the degree of evidence; in the past tartaric acid has been used as proof of grapes, but this is found in all sorts of other plants too, so it can never be really conclusive.  But now modern technology allows them to check for malvidin, which is a pigment found in grapes and not much else.  In the Middle East the only other thing it occurs in is pomegranates!  Consequently in a context where there are other artifacts that are highly likely to be wine related (like a press) then the occurrence of malvidin is considered fairly categoric corroborating evidence.  So the same species of vine that makes first growth claret and grand cru Burgundy made a tipple in the Caucasus back in 4,100 B.C.  I wonder what it was like?  By modern standards it must have been pretty rough to say the least.  However, it was probably no worse than the some of the stuff they've been selling to the Russians in recent years...

[caption id="attachment_984" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Russian Poster: "Don't Drink Georgian Wine""][/caption]

Fast-forwarding six millenia to the late twentieth century, Georgian wine was considered the most prestigious of the Soviet Union and with an inability to get hold of Western wine, it probably was the best wine most people could get.  This preference survived the transition to Georgian independence in 1991 and by the year 2005 we find Georgia as the second largest wine producer of the ex-Soviet States (after Moldova) , knocking out 50 million bottles a year, 90% of which going to Russia.  However, in 2006 Russia imposed an import ban on Georgian and Moldovan wine, citing wines with high levels of pesticides and fake provenance as their reasons.  No doubt this wasn't helped by the statement in 2005 by the Georgian Defense Minister that "many wine producers exported falsified wine to Russia because Russia is such a market where you can sell even faecal masses".  Nice.  Following this it was revealed that seven Georgian wineries had produced falsified wine for Russian exports and were closed down.  On the other hand, Russia weren't happy with Georgia's pro EU stance and trade and border disputes had been going on between the two Countries for several years, which was surely related to the Russian decision.  Whatever the truth behind the ban it leaves a serious problem; all of a sudden 90% of the output of their previously buoyant wine industry is lying unsold.  Even though last week the Moscow News online newspaper suggested that Georgian wines may be coming back to Russia soon (the ban on Moldovan wine has been lifted), Georgia still has a huge lake of wine to try to get rid of and it can no longer rely on Russia as its key export market.

The only real solution for Georgia is to concentrate on much lower volumes of better wine and to try to appeal to the international market with quality wines with local character, breaking their reliance on Russia.  They have the potential to do this - it has ancient history on its side, a suitable range of micro-climates, topography and soils, and over 400 native grape varieties about 40 of which are grown commercially - so it could surely make wine of real interest and a sense of place.  Fortunately they are rapidly realising this and are starting to court help and feedback from Western wine professionals.  According to recent tastings they still have a way to go, which isn't surprising given the years of volume production for the Russia market.  However, there are apparently good signs of improvement and as long as the desire remains, there is no reason at all why they couldn't produce really good wine given time.

All wine romantics must wish them the best of luck in this transition, which would restore some prestige to the cradle of wine.  I know I do.

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