Central Georgia is a mere 260 miles south of Sochi, along the Black Sea. That’s slightly longer than the distance from New York to Boston – a stone’s throw, especially by Russian standards. Despite the proximity, Olympians and Sochi tourists are unlikely to be drinking much Georgian wine this winter. Until last year, they couldn’t even buy it, under a seven-year Russian ban on Georgian wines.
Georgia’s wine industry has taken some rough blows. Phylloxera struck in the late 19th century, and in the 20th century, Soviet winemaking mandates encouraged quantity above quality. Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign in the late 1980s obliterated a great deal of vineyard area (though, as Jancis Robinson notes in The Oxford Companion to Wine, mainly state vineyards suffered as “no Georgian farmer would be willing to pull out his own vines”). In 2006, Russia imposed an embargo on Georgian agricultural products, including wine. Russia’s chief health inspector, Gennady Onishchenko, claimed they were contaminated with heavy metals and pesticides. Until the embargo, Russia purchased roughly more than 80% of Georgia’s wine production.
The embargo may have proved a blessing in disguise. Georgia cultivated export markets in Belarus, Azerbaijan, the Ukraine, China, the United States, and even France, educating consumers and wine-makers about Georgian wines, grapes, and practices. Now the wine cognoscenti are beginning to take notice of what’s coming out of Georgia. Wine critic Alice Feiring, a fervent advocate for Georgian wines and wine culture, is now writing a book called Skin Contact about the country’s vinous history and traditions. In June 2013, Russia lifted the embargo and Georgia resumed wine exports to Russia for the first time since 2006.