There are over 520 native varietals of Georgian grapes, with around 40 of them approved for commercial wine use.
The landscape of the country makes it an ideal location for viticulture. Natural springs flow from the Caucasus Mountains, and seasons are relatively mild. Humidity blown in from the Black Sea also helps keep the air moist.
Below are some of the most common and important varietals of grapes used in Georgian wine. Like the French, Georgians tend to name their wine after the region or village (appellation) the grapes are grown in. The most important regions are Kakheti (largest and main region), Kartli, Imereti, and Racha-Lechkhumi.
Saperavi (Most Popular Red)
This is by far the most commonly used grape variety in Georgian wine and is the backbone of Georgia’s wine culture. It primarily grows in the eastern region of Kakheti and can be compared to a Cabernet Sauvignon. Saperavi means “dye” and appropriately refers to the liquid’s very dark, almost black color. The grape is unique in this way because it has both purple skin and purple pulp.
Saperavi grapes were almost wiped out by the Soviets who took all the small family vineyards under state control. They uprooted the vines in order to plant lower quality but higher-yielding grapes.
Luckily for us, a few plants survived and we are still able to enjoy this multi-faceted grape today. With an incredibly versatile flavor profile, you’ll find Saperavi made into an array of styles from semi-sweet to dry, rosé to red blends.
Rkatsiteli (Most Popular White)
Rkatsiteli is the most popular white grape used in Georgian wine, and is primarily grown in Kakheti. It is slowsly gaining international attention for its combination of versatility and excellence. It’s a grape that can withstand the cold well, and makes good table wines, sparkling wines, sweet wines, fortified wines and brandy.
Rkatsiteli has rather subdued aromatics on its own, so it’s often blended with other grapes such as Mtsvane. Recently it’s being used more to make amber wine which brings out a powerful tannic flavor from the grape.
This is a very flexible red grape mostly grown in Kartli. It makes light, refreshing, and easy-to-drink wines due to its naturally high acidity and light body. Because of this, it is often used to make sparkling wine and rosé.
Usakhelauri grapes grow on a tiny patch of land in the mountain slopes of Lechkhumi in western Georgia. The hilly terrain makes harvest difficult, and as a result, annual volumes are quite low (like 1000 bottles for the entire country in a good year!). The plants also don’t start producing fruit until 6 – 7 years later so many producers are dissuaded from growing the crop.
Because of low yields, the Soviets ripped out most of the vines across Georgia and the grape almost went extinct. It because known as “the grape with no name.”
Today, there is a small but dedicated group of winemakers bringing Usakhelauri back to the forefront. Wine made from Usakhelauri is semi-sweet and highly prized. Bottles start at upwards of $50.
Chinuri is a white wine grape primarily grown in the Kartli region. It has a reputation for producing excellent, complex wines, especially sparkling wine due to its high natural acidity. Chinuri grapes that are left on the vine a little longer are used to produce orange wine in qvevris.
Mtsvane is the second most planted white wine grape in the Kakheti region after Rkatsiteli. It ripens in the latter half of September and is often blended with Rkatsiteli to make aromatic, fruity white wines. The best expressions of the Mtsvane grape can be found in Tsinandali and Manavi wine.
Kisi grapes are indigenous to the Kakheti region but are also grown in Kartli. They are late-budding and can be tricky to grow since they are sensitive to frost. The varietal almost became extinct during Soviet occupation due to their preference for Rkatsiteli.
Kisi grapes are used to make wine in both the European and Georgian traditions. Some winemakers believe that Kisi grapes are able to produce a more refined and expressive wine than Rkatsiteli.