Georgian Wines & Spirits currently account for only a small percentage of Pernod-Ricard’s portfolio, but increased investment and technological know-how are raising the stakes, says Nicholas Faith
JUST occasionally good deeds bring their own reward and not, as New Yorkers prefer to put it, their own punishment. So it has been with the casual partnership arranged 10 years ago between Pernod-Ricard and the Georgians. Well, no, that’s not strictly true.
The partnership which created Georgian Wines & Spirits was between a bright young Georgian, Levan Gachechiladze, who was attending a Belgian business school, and Theodore Jansen, who was then in charge of a Dutch subsidiary of Pernod-Ricard.
Although head office knew nothing about the deal at the time, Jansen ensured that the infant GWS was backed by US$150,000 of Pernod’s money.
Levan promptly teamed up with Georgia’s leading winemaker, the veteran Tamaz Kandelaki, who knew the exact sites of the best vineyards in a country which had been making wine for over 6,000 years.
The timing, however, was not propitious, with political conditions, shall we say, unsettled – at one point the winemakers were held up at gunpoint in their own tasting room.
But at least the venture proved that the leading local black grape, Saperavi, could become a competitor for Sangiovese, another variety with enough acidity combined with abundant fruit to accompany pasta – or rich Georgian food for that matter.
Fast forward to 1998, a year when everything started to change. On the positive side Hugh Johnson’s earlier description of Georgia as "the Cradle of Wine" had been exploited by Sophia Gilliatt when helping to design Vinopolis, which featured Georgia’s gorgeous vinerelated gold ornaments dating back well into the pre-Christian era.
At the same time Saperavi made its first appearance in British supermarkets with Safeway taking several hundred cases. Moreover, GWS avoided the trap into which every wine producer from the former Soviet bloc had fallen, that of selling wines at a basic commodity level. The price was firmly set at £4-£5.
Unfortunately for GWS, the year was dominated by the Russian financial and economic crisis which virtually bankrupted the company. For, historically, the Russian market had absorbed all Georgia’s best wines, and at premium prices, with payment guaranteed by what one can only describe as the Georgian mafia.
But Russia’s troubles meant that Pernod- Ricard had to step in. Bravely. Pierre Pringuet, then the group’s European director, now joint managing director, decided to transform what had been purely a trading business into a proper wine producer.
The decision involved an investment of several million dollars – the total amount is not clear but it is certainly over US$5m – in its struggling subsidiary.
The decision was largely down to Pringuet, and the most fascinating element in the whole story is the improbably successful partnership between the slim, neat, composed, French technocrat and Gachechiladze, the classic, ebullient Georgian bear.
Today, although still the very active and loquacious chairman of GWS, he is also the rising star on the liberal wing of the Georgian political spectrum, which is now firmly in the ascendant following the coup which removed President Shevardnadze.
The money went into improving and enlarging the company’s winemaking facilities in Kaheti, the prime region for the precious Saperavi, and its slightly less outstanding companion the herbal-quincy Tamassa, originally a native of Azerbaijan.
The red wine section of the winery is now up to date. Just as important, the winemaker, Shota Khobelia, formerly swamped by the task of updating the winery and making the wines, has been reinforced by a new winery director, Lado Ludohashvili, whose cv includes education at Moscow’s wine institute ("first class theory" he says, "but never properly applied") to some years making wine in Australia.
By contrast the massive concrete vats, inherited from communist days, for making white wine still need updating – and above all better grapes – to be capable of making wine fit for the finicky British market from the leading white grapes, the basic Rkatsitelli, usually blended with the fruitier Mtsvane.
But – and the same applied in Bulgaria – the most fundamental problem was in the vineyards where a young French winemaker, Benoit Fis, was already at work. Georgia’s vineyards, which covered 150,000 hectares at their communist peak, had been reduced by two-thirds by the Gorbachev reforms and general neglect.
Fortunately they had been privatised in the last years of the millennium but the growers’ skills required more discipline. So GWS is now tackling the problem with the usual carrot – of higher prices for ripe, healthy grapes – and an educational stick. It has now also planted 200ha of vines, not a trouble-free process by any means.
To the usual problems of the wrong clones, and sometimes the wrong varieties, was added the peculiarly Georgian problem of the young vines being stolen – and they still have to be guarded night and day.
But today GWS can offer wines able to compete on the international front. The producers are helped by the AOC system inherited from Soviet days. Above table wines come six regions, including Kaheti with two superior categories, 18 "districts", and a number of individual sites within them.
GWS is now offering two wines: the 2001Tamada Saperavi from Kaheti, priced at about £5.49 and the Special Reserve Saperavi from Mukuzani, a district within Kaheti, priced at about £6.99.
Both wines have a very special feel about them, providing an exciting mix of fruit and acidic/tannic structure, enough for the Special Reserve to need at least a couple of years to age after its few months in oak.
And, of course, the AOC system allows GWS to move even further up-market in future with a wine from a "distinguished Georgian site". The Mtsvane, though not up to the level of the Saperavi, is far cleaner, fresher and fruitier than it was only a few years ago.
But GWS’s current healthy position – reflected in joyously Georgian celebrations of the company’s 10th birthday in August last year – is not principally due to improved grapes and wines. Pernod- Ricard’s takeover of Martell and the Scotch brands, including Chivas and The Glenlivet, formerly belonging to the hapless Seagram Group, coincided with the rather vast expansion of the Russian market for premium and imported spirits, which has been democratised.
It is no longer confined to just members of the mafia. Ownership of GWS provided Pernod-Ricard with a uniquely strong distribution network, selling over 2m litres of wine in Russia and a further 500,000 in the Ukraine, as well as 70,000 litres of chacha, the Georgians’ ferocious native version of grappa, although it, like the Mtsvane, is now much improved, cleaner and fruitier.
Of course, GWS’s wines are still a very minor element in Pernod-Ricard’s portfolio. But that could change. After all, when the French group acquired Orlando Wyndham 15 years ago it was purely to get distribution for Pernod in the Australian market.
With it came a brand called Jacob’s Creek. So no jokes, please about Tamada Creek.