I’ve learned during my Alfa Fellowship in Russia that despite what you might think, one of the main attractions in Moscow is the food. Contrary to the stereotypes of Russian cuisine as gristly meat in a beetroot purple liquid, the Russian capital now offers world class food, including my favourite: Georgian restaurants.
I’m not talking about restaurants serving southern fried chicken, or dishes from 18th-century Britain, but the cuisine containing the pomegranates, walnuts, meats, aubergines, and spices typical of the southern Caucasian country of Georgia.
A month working in the Georgian capital Tbilisi in 2013 taught me that few things in life beat devouring its fresh produce and endless regional dishes in a picturesque setting. So I was thrilled when the Georgian National Tourism Administration invited me last autumn to fly a few hours south from Moscow. I got to spend a week gorging on the staple – and heart attack-inducing – khachapuri (melted cheese in soft doughy bread); plump, juicy dumplings (khinkali); and everything else that earned this country the nickname the “fruit bowl” of the Soviet Union.
Once you arrive in Georgia, you quickly learn that it’s not just the food that makes this country a hidden gem, but also the 425 grape varieties that are grown here. In fact it’s hard to escape the stuff. Wine and grapes are everywhere you look, whether in bunches of grapes depicted on reliefs on church facades or the vines spilling over balconies in the heart of Tbilisi.
Georgians are incredibly proud of their gastronomic history and many believe that their country is the birthplace of wine. Two years ago, archaeologists finally found evidence to support this when they unearthed fragments of a sixth-century BC clay pot which had been used to store wine. In 2013, the traditional winemaking method of fermenting grapes in egg-shaped clay pots, known as kvevri, was registered to UNESCO’s World’s Cultural Heritage List. While I was there in September 2016, the World Tourism Organization chose Georgia as the location for its inaugural wine tourism conference.
However, for most of these past 8,000 years, Georgians have been too busy enjoying their wine to get around to sharing it with the outside world. Even today, only about half the wine produced is sold; family and friends of the producer consume the rest.
The Soviets were the first to recognise the potential for exporting Georgian wine. Under their planned economy, Georgia was earmarked as the main supplier of wine to the Soviet world. However, they opted for quantity over quality by identifying the three varieties of grape that were easiest to grow.
Having pushed Georgian wine into an over-commercialised product, it took the Kremlin’s involvement to again change the history of Georgian wine. In August 2008, global news reported on the breakdown in relations between Georgia and Russia when the countries went to war for five days over South Ossetia. Yet, two years earlier, there a sign of their deteriorating relations when the Kremlin issued an embargo on imports of most Georgian agricultural products, including wine.
This was a blow to the Georgian economy, given that wine accounts for about 5 percent of Georgian GDP, and prior to the trade embargo over 80% of all wine exports went to Russia. But rather than lament the loss of over one hundred million USD in income per year, the seven-year trade embargo forced Georgia to rethink its market.
Price, quality, and originality are often the only ways to attract new consumers. Unfortunately, Georgia couldn’t produce the volume of the wine superpowers of France, Spain, or the New World to compete in price. Also, the quality of the product had been allowed to slide during the years that Russians were buying.
Georgian wines, however, have captivated international audiences with its originality. Not only is it the birthplace of wine, but Georgia also offers unusual grape varieties and fermentation methods. A growing international demand for organic and natural wines encouraged a resurgence in the ancient kvevri process, which sees grapes ferment without the inclusion of chemicals or sugars.
And what a success it’s been! Over the past few years, Georgian wine has won international awards and is cropping up in supermarkets and on menus of world-renowned restaurants. The vineyards I visited on my trip boasted of exporting to Canada and Scandinavia, as well as appearing on menus at the Ritz and the Michelin-starred Fat Duck.
Yet, despite embargos being lifted in 2013, none of the vineyards export to their northern neighbour. When I asked why [very much in an exasperated tone: I’ve come to Moscow, ready to drink copious amounts of Georgian wine, only to find the good quality stuff is more readily available in the UK] I got a different answer every time. From the derogatory “Russians don’t appreciate good wine”, to the practical “I can’t find a trading partner”.
I suspect on Georgia’s end, wine producers are concerned about the political environment souring again; whilst for Russians, Georgian wine is perceived as a more old-fashioned, Soviet choice, especially when Tempranillos, Merlots and Chiantis are widely available at a far lower price.
I have a few months left in Moscow on the Alfa programme, so I will continue my research into this topic, inevitably with a glass in hand of a rich red Saperavi brought back in my suitcase from a London Marks & Spencer.