Five Very Successful Years
On my first visit to the Republic of Georgia, in 2017, luck put our group at a wine festival hosted at Mtatsinda Park in the country’s capital of Tblisi. We only had time to visit one winery when a few days later we would swing through Georgia’s best known wine region, Kakheti, and therefore decided that we would choose that winery based on the wines we liked most at the festival.
Ultimately we struck gold when several days later we found ourselves in the house of Gia and Lika Togonidze enjoying their wine over a traditional supra dinner that lasted well into the morning. Several years later, Peter Weygandt of Weygandt-Metzler Importing visited the Togonidzes. And now, Togonidze wines are available in the United States (more on this below).
Since then, I’ve witnessed the growth of Togonidze over social media. While remaining truly small and family (and friend) operated, the growth in foot traffic to Togonidze has been rapid and significant. Instagram after Facebook post show people from around the world having lunch and tasting the wine at the family’s house. Many also express admiration and appreciation for the artistic esthetic of the Togonidze property, which I describe in my original post, with pictures, at some length. It’s been a thrill to see the family and business flourish.
Back with Old Friends
Just over five years after that late night at Togonidze, I again found myself in the company of Gia, Lika, and their uniquely and authentically charming property. Unlike the first visit, this one was planned well ahead of time and the copious amounts of familiar warmth and good food and wine came as no surprise, though neither were any less meaningful or enjoyable that the first time-around.
In fact, they were more significant the second time because I was sharing them with my wife, Kayce, on her first visit to Georgia. As I put it to her, I was in my favorite place in the world with my favorite person for the first time – enjoying, with her, one of my favorite families in the wine business.
Gia doesn’t speak much English, but little gets lost in translation when you’re discussing wine or life with him, especially when the translator is Zaza Kvelidze of Experience Georgia Group. Lika, equally Gia’s partner in life and business, speaks more English, and although she spends less time focused on the wine, she adds just as much to both the experience of others and to the life they lead together through her presence, thoughtfulness, intelligence, cooking, and art. The beauty of their house and its décor is in large part due to her talent and eye.
When we arrived, Lika was busy at work in the kitchen as Gia greeted us, showing us to the room where we’d spend the night. After settling in and getting cleaned up, Gia showed me the latest updates to his winery, which were significant since my last time there. The dirt floors and walls had now been finished, several qvevri (the traditional clay pot for fermenting and aging wine) had been newly buried, and the entire cellar finished.
Gia couldn’t wait to begin pouring wine (nor was I interested in waiting any longer), and sat me down at a table in the cellar already arranged with glasses and cheese. He poured a sample from a tank of unfinished wine, a blend of 60% kisi and 20% each of mtsvane and rkasiteli, probably the most famous three native white grapes. Early in its journey to finished wine, it was big and round with gritty acid and a noticeable alcoholic kick. It featured big hits of pineapple, white pepper, and banana leaf, showing immense promise if not a need for some time to get there.
While I was tasting the wine, Gia was busy searching the cellar and pulling bottles he wanted to open, while telling me about the considerable work that the wine industry in Georgia, the first wine producing country in the world, has left to do in its effort to catch up with the “first world” of winemaking countries.
Although archeology and science date Georgia’s original winemaking efforts to roughly 8,000 years ago, “the experience [of winemaking in Georgia] during Soviet times meant that Georgia missed out on the modernization of winemaking that occurred in non-Soviet areas around the world [during the mid-to-late 20th Century].”
Because the Soviets made winemaking illegal in Georgia, except for the few state-owned wineries that produced mainly for the Russian market that functioned more like mass production factories than places where the art of winemaking was performed, only since Georgia’s independence in 1989 has the country been able to resurrect its own wine industry.
This means that upon their exit from the Soviet Union, not only was there an indeterminate need for winemakers, but also that those winemakers have had to establish a new foundation of knowledge and experience as the country dramatically scaled the planting of quality vineyards while resurrecting many that were left to themselves during the Soviet production ban.
While this dynamic is an incredible challenge in an industry where its participants only get to practice their craft once per year (and thus cannot accumulate knowledge quickly), it is also a rare opportunity for Georgia to take this relatively blank slate and create products unlike any other available on the modern market.
Simply offering wine from grapes not really grown anywhere else in the world, as Georgia does (kisi, mtsvane, rkasiteli, saperavi, etc.), is often enough to stand out, but add to that the “oldest winemaking country in the world” moniker and its unique approach to making wine in qveri and the product is definitionally unique.
What they are doing is working; Georgian wine is catching on. According to one report, exports nearly doubled between 2016 and 2019, going from 50 million bottles to 93 million in that four year span. Exports to America during that same period nearly tripled, and in 2021 the value of the country’s wine exports hit $250 million with 2022 on pace to beat that number. In fact, wine is Georgia’s fourth largest export by dollar amount.
Togonidze’s Hybrid Approach
Some producers, and count Togonidze among them, use an approach that combines Georgia’s unique grapes with a winemaking style that blends native and international methods. While much of Georgia’s wine gets the full qvevri treatment, many of Gia’s wines are a blend of wines made both in qveri and steel tank, and some entirely without qvevri. However, like the traditionalists, he believes that Georgia’s native grapes do not perform their best when aged in barrel, and thus avoids oak treatments.
The result, at least in my estimation, are wines that showcase the best of what Georgia’s native grapes can be; while I love Georgia’s amber wines (Georgia’s name for what we in the West call “orange” or “skin contact” wine), and Togo’s are ambers, I often find those made entirely in qveri to be so imbued by the native clay that they become over-saturated to the extent that the beautiful nuance of those native grapes get lost to the massive structure of the wine. Togonidze’s wines do not fall prey to this dynamic, which sets them apart from many of Georgian wines I’ve tried both in the country and in the United States.
A great example of why I prefer Gia’s approach is the 2014 rkasiteli that he poured us, which was made entirely in steel tank and thus showcases the grape rather than the aging vessel. Its extended skin contact produced beautifully pure acid and flavor. 2014 was a late harvest in the Kakheti region where Gia’s grapes are grown. Gia picked in late October, and those grapes required an unusually long fermentation period that produced a very golden wine despite the absence of qvevri aging.
The results, Gia told me, “are special” and produced one of his favorite wines to date. The acid is beautifully pure with bright and perfumed floral qualities that are nearly impossible to find in fully qvevried wines. The nuance is there in full force as well, showing preserved lemon, walnut, apricot, spearmint, and vanilla bean pod. This may be my favorite Togonidze tasted to date, and is among the most memorable wines I’ve tasted in quite some time.
Let the Wine Flow
From that we moved to the 2016 mtsvane, another wine that saw no qvevri. It spent time on its skins, however, producing a very dark amber. Plush and smooth, the grapes were harvested with a higher-than-normal level of sugar, and the steel tank aging has allowed the subtleties to show through. If I had to choose one word to describe this wine, that world would be “honeyed.” Though a dry wine, honey manages to feature in the structure, aromas, and flavors.
Next we tried the 2018 blend of rkasiteli and mtsvane. 2018 as a vintage produced “overwhelming” aromatics, Gia told me, so much so that he limited the amount of qvevri time this wine saw to keep those aromatics at bay. It’s another pure and honeyed wine and a slightly gritty acid. We’ve had a few at home in the US, and it’s a top notch wine (the full tasting note and score can be found here).
The development of the 2014 and 2016 wines, along with a 2013 we were sent home with and the NV Wein pictured above, shows what Gia’s wines can do with some age. The first vintage imported by Weygandt-Metlzer is the 2017, and although we’ve been drinking through the cases we’ve purchased of that vintage, we’re now going to pause on the remainder for a year or three to give them some extra time, as well as age the 2018s we have for another couple of years before consuming.
One wine that Gia told me isn’t for aging is a one-off blend of chardonnay and rkasiteli that Gia made from the 2019 vintage for export. Calling it an “experiment,” it went through the shortest fermentation Gia has ever done. The result is a particularly light white wine by Georgian standards and is meant to be drunk now. I took no notes on it, but enjoyed its refreshing qualities and versatility with dinner, and am looking forward to revisiting it with the bottle we brought home.
As Gia poured this wine, he pointed out that it was filtered, something he said was for the export market for which the wine is intended. Wine made for domestic production, he said, is not filtered. No wine he produces is fined.
By the time the Rkasiteli-Chardonnay was in our glasses, Kayce had joined and we were all seated at the dinner table. Lika was putting food in front of us and Gia, myself, and Zaza were already three or four glasses into our evening. As this wasn’t a media visit, but rather friends getting together to enjoy each other’s company (and Kayce to meet everyone for the first time), I wasn’t spitting the wine. So having the refreshing 2019 blend was a productive way to start the long meal.
More and More Wine
As we finish off the bottles Gia opened before dinner, he went back into the cellar and pulled more out. On my first visit, he gifted me a 2015 Saperavi, the lone red wine he produces. I’ve been aging it, so this was a phenomenal opportunity to experience its current developmental status without having to open, to my knowledge, the one bottle of this vintage physically in the United States. It was really, really good. It was kind of perfect. We’re likely to drink our bottle at home before the end of the year. Though not every vintage of each wine is the same, let the record show that seven years for a Togondize saperavi seems just right, or at least right enough.
Lika’s food, once again, was amazing. In addition to the traditional Georgian salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and walnut paste, and a few others, there was a lamb dish that blew my mind. I’m hoping to get the recipe, though I’m sure it includes native Georgian herbs and/or spices that aren’t available in the US and are impossible to replicate. Georgia’s food continues to be among my very top favorite national cuisines, and meals like this are the reason why.
Upon our leaving the next day, Gia gifted us a few wines, including two unlabeled wines that he wrote on with gold pen. One had its vintage noted, and we opened it, a 2013, just this last week. I didn’t take any notes on it, but like the 2014 rkatsiteli it showed the refinement these wines can achieve with age.
Passion for Place
As Gia is describing the Georgian experience, he weaved in references to, and anecdotes about, the country’s long and tortured relationship with its neighbor, Russia. Two major areas of Georgia, Abkhazia and Ossetia, have been occupied by Russia since 2008 when Putin cooked up and planted false physical evidence of Georgia “human rights violations” in those regions, “forcing” his hand to invade and take control to restore the perverse version of democracy most of us call autocracy.
That the approach of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine follows the same playbook used against Georgia is no coincidence. As Russia was invading Georgia some fourteen years ago, the Georgians were warning the world – and did up until this year – that this was how Russia would do it to more countries if the West did not intervene. Well, we didn’t, and now look at Ukraine is.
As we discuss Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia, the emotion clearly runs deep in Gia, Lika, and Zaza. They oscillate between a range of emotions, from anger to frustration, bewilderment to familiarity, optimism to resignation, they alway end, however, on some version of love and kindness. Georgians have much to mourn and bemoan if they are willing to really dwell, but few do for very long.
But whether it was those at this dinner, a friend whom Zaza and I later had dinner with who was been one of the highest ranking government officials with a wealth of international diplomatic postings under his belt, or others with whom we struck up conversations on this trip, they tend to get around to love and kindness. It’s just the Georgian way, and it’s a phenomenal thing to experience.
At the same time as we were discussing geopolitics, Gia was talking about the wine. You could see, hear, and feel how humbling it is for him to make wine, like his family has done for many generations, in a country for which he has so much pride – pride in its history; its people, their culture, traditions, and heritage; and their food and wine. But you don’t need to experience with the wine with him to know this, it comes through in the bottle.
There’s Nothing like Togonidze
Few experiences have inspired me like the time I’ve spent with the Togonidze family. Their love for each other, their community, their culture, their country, their heritage, their food, and their wine is infectious and enviable. I’m a firm believer that terroir is more than the connection with the land and environment, that in the best of wines it includes those grapes’ relationships with the people who love to turn those grapes into wine, as well as the culture and heritage in which the wine is conceived and produced. While I’m marked by my intimate experiences with the Togonidzes, I’d like to believe that one who has never met them can at least taste some of these amazing qualities in the wine they produce. If I had to put one winery forward as evidence of this expanded view of terroir, it would be Togondize.
Where to Find Togondize in the States
Weygandt-Metzler has increased the range of Togonidze it’s importing. The brick and mortar shop in Washington, DC, which can ship, is stocking six bottles:
Togonidze’s Wine Mtsvane Kakhuri Dry White 2018 – $24
Togonidze’s Wine Kakhetian Mtsvane Amber Wine 2019 – $26
Togonidze’s Wine Saperavi Red 2019 – $25
Togonidze’s Wine Chardonnay Rkatsiteli Dry White 2019 – $25
Togonidze’s Wine Rkatsiteli Kisi Amber Wine 2019 – $26
Togonidze’s Wine Mtsvane Rkatsiteli Dry White 2018 – $24
All are worth trying, and I encourage readers to stock up on their favorites and enjoy them over a period of at least five years. These wines represent incredible value as well, not only from the perspective of quality-to-price, but also based on the amount of love and attention they get from the production side. If you’re interested in placing an order, I suggest dropping Weygandt an email.