Steve Prati | Special to The Tennessean
Life is full of surprises—or as our granddaughter was fond of saying when she just a wee thing, “Sometimes, when you least expect it. . . .” I surely did not expect to be sampling wines from the country of Georgia and Uruguay at the end of last year. After years of tasting wines including the usual suspects from around the world, it was a treat to sample wines from places I had only heard of—and grapes I had never heard of.
Georgia is tucked away at the far end of the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, while Uruguay is like a little doorstop on the Atlantic coast, separating Brazil and Argentina. Georgian wines belong to what the wine industry refers to as the Old World. In this case really old—going back about 8,000 years—the earliest known wines ever produced. Uruguayan wines are upstarts by comparison and belong to the New World.
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What Georgian and Uruguayan wines have in common is how their history and geography define them. With names such as Saperavi, Rkatsiteli, Tsolikouri, and Chinuri, Georgian grapes are ancient and native. I can imagine early indigenous people putting wild grapes into clay pots (archeologists have since unearthed) only to discover that one day the fruit had fermented. That must have been a party.
Uruguayan grapes were transplanted from Old World vines by Italian and Basque settlers in the late 19th century. Not all the vines were suited to their new environment but some European varietals such as Tannat, Sauvignon Blanc, and Albarino thrived and evolved handsomely. European Tannat grapes are hugely tannic and mostly used in red blends to provide backbone. In Uruguay, Tannat has morphed into a more refined, stand-alone wine and reigns as the country’s signature red.
Georgian and Uruguayan wines are gaining traction in the American market, just as they have on the global scene. It may take a bit of searching or a special request to your local wine shop to find these gems, but you won’t need a passport to be transported to a world far away. And they don’t cost an arm and a leg. Here’s a list of recently sampled Georgian and Uruguayan wines:
2021 Guardians dry white—100% Rkatsiteli grapes from the Kakheti region in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountain range and source of 70% of Georgia’s wine production. Crisp citrus with hints of apricot/honey. $15
2020 Teliani Valley Amber Blend—a blend of four native white grapes (Rkatsitelli, Kakhuri Mtsvane, Khikhivi, and Kisi). Aged with skins in stainless steel for six months. Bone-dry, good match for aged cheese. $18
Mtsvane Estate PET-NAT Rose—PET-NAT is a traditional style of wine making in which the wine is bottled before primary fermentation is finished meaning part of it ferments in the bottle. Soft, but citrusy and clean. $29
2020 Teliani Valley Saperavi—made with Saperavi, Georgia’s signature red varietal, this robust vintage is full of body and red fruit flavors from the famous Kakheti wine region in eastern Georgia. $18
2022 Bodega Marichal Sauvignon Blanc—subtle/nuanced, medium-bodied with hints of Meyer lemon. Nicely balanced with surprisingly long finish. A delight. $14
2018 Alto de la Ballena Tannat/Viognier—a unique blend of tenant and viognier combines the bold/dry tannat with rich, fruit-driven viognier (white). Intense, complex. $24
2018 Pisano RPF Tannat—Bold and dry, layered with dark fruit, chocolate, and smoke aromas/flavors. Powerful but smooth tannins. $22
2020 Bodegones del Sur Limited Edition Cabernet Franc—a major blending wine in Europe, this Uruguayan incarnation stands on its own with medium body, plum/cherry character. $17
Orange wine gains following
Orange wines are a quirky category since they are not made from oranges, and they are not necessarily orange in color. Also known as skin-contact wines or amber wines, orange wines are made from white grapes. What gives them their unique color is the skin contact of crushed grapes with the juice during fermentation—something we take for granted with reds.
The resulting wine can be yellow, amber, tangerine, even pink in color depending on varietal and handling. Orange wines are essentially rustic and natural and very traditional in ancient wine regions such as far-eastern Europe and Georgia. Now the rest of the wine world is joining the party with sales surging.
Orange wines are not your book club chardonnay or pinot grigio. Skin-contact during fermentation also imparts color, texture, depth, and flavor to the finished wine. The flavor profile of orange wines can vary as widely as their varietal and location, but you can expect them to be robust and laden with ripe fruit.
Try 2020 Teliani Valley Amber Blend, which is a marriage of four indigenous white grapes. $22.