Thursday, November 19, 2009

COMING TO AMERICA: Sparkling Wine from (the country of) Georgia

A new sparkling wine from the world’s oldest (but perhaps least-known) wine-growing region is being introduced in the United States.

The region’s claim to fame surprised me: “The very place where wine making was born.” Call me pedestrian if you will, but I’d have guessed Italy or France.

Nope. Georgia. As in “Republic of Georgia.”

“In the wine industry, people know more about the area’s historical significance,” says Irakli Tsereteli, marketing manager for sparkling wines that are produced under the label Bagrationi 1882. Tsereteli acknowledges that, to the general public, “It’s very confusing, and not many people here in the U.S. really know where the Republic of Georgia is.”

Its latitude (from roughly 41°30'N to 43°N - about the same as Rome, Italy) and climate make it great for grape growing. “The Greater Caucasus mountains prevent the cold air from the north” from moving into the valley in which the country sits, says Tsereteli. Warm air comes from the Black Sea and “penetrates the whole country, creating a special climate which is, I think, perfect for wine-growing.”

Bagrationi 1882 has a history dating to the era of Georgian prince Ivane Bagrationi-Mukhranelim, who began producing sparkling wine in 1882 using the classic bottle fermentation method, or methode champenoise.

Today, the label enjoys an 85% market share in its home country. From a business perspective, the down side of that success is that any significant growth will have to happen outside Georgia’s borders, so the winemakers heeded Horace Greeley’s advice to “Go west, young man.” Currently, the label is being introduced in California, New York, the Washington D.C. metro area and Alabama (of all places...). Bagrationi 1882 intends to roll out its sparkling wines nationally over the next year.

But what about the wine?


The winery uses only indigenous Georgia grapes to make Bagrationi 1882 – but with 500 such varieties to choose from, that provides quite a selection. The wines that result differ from other sparking wines available in the U.S. “People know the taste of champagne; they know the taste of cavas and proseccos. They’re going to find something different, more lively and fruity in Bagrationi 1882,“ says Tsereteli.

Fruitier doesn’t necessarily mean sweeter; sweetness is the result of the residual sugar in the wine. Most of the sparkling wine products in the U.S., such as Brut, have residual sugar of less than 10 grams per liter; Bagrationi 1882’s Brut has 9 grams per liter, so will have a level of sweetness very similar to what Americans already know.

Interestingly, the wine maker is focusing on younger potential customers, targeting the Millennials and Gen-Xers as its key demographics. “The older generation is more or less conservative and they have been drinking either champagnes (or have another favorite) and it’s quite difficult to make them try something new.” As an adventuresome Boomer, I strongly disagree but Tsereteli says the younger generations “like to experiment more and are open to trying new things.“ To those of us in North America – whether Millennials, Gen-Xers or Boomers – wines from the Republic of Georgia certainly qualify as "new things".

And the wines are reportedly being received favorably. “In general, the reception is quite good,” according to Tsereteli. “Most of the people who try (Bagrationi 1882) say the product is very good…and that the pricing ($13 for Classic Brut and Classic Extra Dry) is good for a product of that quality.” Suggested retail price for Reserve is $25, and Royal Cuvee $35.

This adventuresome Boomer is eagerly anticipating his first glass of Bagrationi 1882, as "new things" are not only for the young.

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