Straddling Europe and Asia, Georgia was one of the first places where the grapevine was domesticated. A historic wine-producing country, it is home not only to dozens of native varieties, but also a fascinating way of preserving wine.
In the village of Nakhshirgele, Ramaz Nikoladze, driven by hope and passion, makes a very special wine from the grapes of his small vineyard. Like his father before him, he produces wine in amphorae, using a vinification technique typical of the country. On his hectare and a half of land, Ramaz, now in his forties, grows two native grape varieties, tsiska and tsolikauri.
“Making wine in amphorae has always fascinated me, but it’s a technique that is slowly disappearing,” he explained. “The big winemaking cooperatives founded during the time of the Soviet Union, when Georgia was the wine reservoir for the Russian republics, built large, modern facilities, prioritizing the use of more productive international varieties. And, as well as the difficulty of cultivating the native vines, there is now also the problem of sourcing the amphorae.” These large terracotta jars are made by local artisans whose numbers are rapidly dwindling. “There’s a lack of young people willing to take on the tough apprenticeship and accept the low earnings,” he laments.
Despite the challenging situation, Ramaz has chosen to follow his dream of continuing to work his father’s vineyard. “I wanted to find a way to convince the few remaining independent producers that this type of vinification wasn’t madness, but I didn’t know how to do it. Until, thanks to some Japanese friends, I came across Slow Food and decided to join the association.” That’s how I met Ramaz, in 2007 at the International Congress in Puebla. He had brought some of his bottles all the way to Mexico so that we could taste them. That marked the start of the process to create a Slow Food Presidium to protect Georgian wine made in amphora.
“It was essential to try to promote the wine, which the international market saw as a marginal product, looking at it like some kind of magic trick. In reality, it’s the tangible result of an ancient winemaking culture, which archeological finds have shown dates back to 7,000 BC.”
Watching him work with his amphorae, called kvevri in the local language, is indeed like watching a kind of magic. The large jars, over a hundred years old, are almost completely buried in the shade of trees, which helps keep the wine’s temperature always around 14°C in the summer, and prevents them from freezing during the winter. For the first month the wine ferments on its lees without the addition of yeasts, and then remains in the amphorae for aging. Having seen how all this takes place so naturally, outdoors, with minimal human intervention, it seems incredible that the end result is so excellent.
“Since I decided that this type of production would be my life, I’ve constantly seen how you can’t win on your own, and that to promote something typical and often remote, you have to be in dialog with the world. Without Slow Food’s support, perhaps we would not have had such success in explaining our product, and for the same reason I like hosting other food communities in my winery, as well as journalists and enthusiasts from all over the world.”
Undoubtedly it is also thanks to Ramaz’s commitment and passion that Georgian wine has started to travel the world, appearing at international wine fairs. The unique product is now being tasted and appreciated by an increasingly wide public.
“I’ve found great friends in Italy as well,” says Ramaz. “In 2013, with the help of a group of enthusiasts from Romagna, Italy, we even brought some amphorae to Faenza to experiment with using them there, and increase awareness among consumers about natural wines. Now I’ll have a chance to come to Milan and continue along this path that I’ve chosen. It’s not just a case of producing a special wine, but also being open to a world full of incredible people and products.”
Article first published in La Repubblica Milano, April 16, 2015.
Ramaz will participate in Terra Madre Youth – We Feed The Planet, which, from October 3 to 6 in Milan, will bring together all young people involved in the food chain: thousands of farmers, fishers, students, chefs, cheesemakers and activists from around the world.
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