In one of the most ancient and diverse winemaking countries in the world, Georgia, a Georgian – Nino Gvantseladze – and a Frenchman – Bastien Warskotte – have laid down roots. By combining ancient and rare Georgian varieties and traditions with Champenois know-how, the two are creating groundbreaking wines, unlike anything the world has seen before.
LITTLEWINE spoke with Bastien via Skype.
Meet Nino and Bastien
Bastien grew up in a small family of grape growers in Champagne. Like so many in the region, they didn’t make wine themselves but rather sold grapes to the big Champagne houses. So, instead of spending time in the cellar as a kid, he was always in the vineyards. He remembers,
“As a kid, I’d never seen grapes being turned into wine. I was just in the vineyards, which is pretty tough work. So I wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a winemaker, but when I came back from travelling in my late teens, my dad told me, ‘you're not going to stay home, come with me. I’ll take you to the winery where I’m working.’ And so I did my first vintage, and that’s when the fascination began.”
He decided that the life of a winemaker could be worth pursuing, after all, so he took enology degrees – two years in Champagne, and three years in Burgundy. When he graduated, he decided to explore further afield than the French regions, moving to Nova Scotia in Canada. Before he went, he took a short travel stint through Europe. This was where he met Nino, who was studying in Bratislava at the time, and due to visa delays, the two got to spend more time together. While waiting for his visa to be approved, harvest time was fast approaching, so he did harvest in Georgia on a whim. And, well… the rest is history.
“When you love wine, often the ultimate goal is to make your own wine. I always wanted to start something, and then I met Nino, my wife. We thought about France, and Georgia; where she’s from. Georgia, as a country, is so fascinating. So, we decided to start looking there…”
Being from Champagne, Bastien felt a distinct tug to create sparkling wine. In addition, Georgia isn’t particularly known for sparkling wine, so the duo figured this could be a chance to take unexplored avenues. Bastien says,
“You are seeing more and more pét-nat, as the natural wine movement continues to grow, but in terms of traditional method—with a grower Champagne approach—there’s nobody really doing this. And people are very interested, so it’s great!”
They decided to take a totally different route to the one Bastien had been taught at school. They both felt compelled to make natural wine. Bastien explains,
“I studied enology. You basically learn how not to make natural wine, but rather how to make wine by using as many products as possible in order to fulfil the industry. That’s unfortunately the same with agriculture. There are big companies behind these products. So, they teach you that you need to add this enzyme… that yeast… every kind of product. And well, that’s not the way it should be. Because at the end of the day, you can make wine from just grapes.”
Feeling unfulfilled by these industry-fuelled studies, Bastien’s curiosity continued to pique. Disheartened by working at wineries which also followed the path of additions and techno winemaking, he explored wines that were made more naturally. He says,
“It's not like I woke up one day thinking I'm going to make natural wine… rather it was from doing internships and working in wineries—and seeing how they made wine (and what they used)—that I decided my own definition of wine should be wild yeast, no filtration, no fining; in order to keep the wine as pure as possible. Then, I wanted to have my own winery because you can do what you want that way. If there’s a problem with one wine, it’s my responsibility — my thing. Nobody can blame you.”
While there will always be hiccups along the way for anyone starting out, Bastien doesn’t accept faulty wine. He says,
“I want the wines to be clean. Just because it's natural does not mean it has to be faulty. I’m also kind of against the marketing of natural wine. Because what’s natural, and what’s not natural? People are trying to put everything in some form of category, and well it’s a little bit more complicated than this.”
As they’re still young, and without family vineyards, they started bit by bit; first by finding their cellar, and by building up relationships with organic growers. But a vineyard of their own is in their sights:
“We’re going to buy 1.2 hectares of land, very close to the winery, and we’ll plant little by little as it’s a pretty big investment. We still have a lot of renovation to do in the cellar, so we can store the wine in better conditions and have more space. We’re already running out of space, and we want to be able to age the sparkling wines for longer; for 24 months, as at the moment it’s just 15 months.”
As lovers of the environment and of the incredible diversity of Georgia, they also see an important benefit to the négociant model of buying grapes from other farmers, as it allows them to explore other terroirs and varieties than what they have in their local vicinity. Bastien explains,
“We make wine from three different regions: Shida Kartli, Kakheti and Imereti. There is no shame to say that you buy fruit, as long as the fruit is grown organically and with a lot of respect for the vineyard. So, I'm completely transparent with that. I will always keep making the two wines from the vineyards in Kakheti; it’s pretty far from us and so it makes more sense to buy the fruit. We also get some fruit from the Western part, where Nino is from. But the grapes that we source locally here in our region, near the winery, I’d love for that to be our own.”
The model allows them to work with many grape varieties; Rkatsiteli and Saperavi (from Kakheti), Chinuri, Goruli Mstvane and Tavkveri (from Shida Kartli) and from Imereti; Vani Chkhaveri, Dzelshavi, Tsitska and Aladasturi. When it comes to planting their own vineyard, Bastien’s eyes light up. He tells us they will plant at a density of around 6/7,000 vines per hectare, so they can avoid irrigation. The land they have purchased is at high elevation (800m) on a small slope, which should provide exciting conditions for viticulture. And the varieties? They plan on planting the likes of Shavkapito, Chkapa and Buza, and more… many of which are now found few and far between.
"When you read about Georgia, they’re always very proud to say they have over 500 grape varieties, but when it comes to buying grapes, there’s perhaps a max of 30 or so that you can find available to purchase. So, we’d love to plant some rare varieties that were almost completely forgotten during Soviet times. We believe in many of these varieties, and it makes sense to plant them. Meanwhile, we can continue buying the varieties that are easier to find."
The duo makes a selection of still and sparkling wines. Being in Georgia, the home of orange wine, naturally they decided to create some of their own. Bastien says,
“The first time I came here was also the first time I discovered this style of wine. I became fascinated by it; it’s just so interesting. Then we traveled to Italy, and met even more winemakers making these wines. So we knew we wanted to make skin contact wine. We make one ‘classic’ orange cuvée, which stays in contact with skins and stems for six months, and the rest is mostly light skin contact.”
He explains that to make orange wines with long periods of skin maceration also involves a lot of time; six months for the skin contact, and then a year in barrel. For a young winemaker, who needs a healthy cash flow to be able to continue their work, this is tricky. In addition, Bastien explains that many people are looking for an introduction to orange wine; something to dip their toes in before diving in at the deep end. We find ourselves nodding; there needs to be more ‘gateway’ orange wines, and this is exactly what the Ori Marani cuvées Exile on Caucasus and Mariam provide.
When it comes to the world of sparkling wine, from day one they decided to experiment. Bastien explains,
“I like pét-nat — it’s fun, but it’s always missing a tiny bit of something for me. I’m looking for complexity and I love ageing wine. In pét-nat, there’s no additional barrel or qvevri ageing because the wine has to go directly in bottle when it’s fermenting. Of course, you can age in the bottle, but I love the traditional method as you can age white or rosé for many months in the barrel before bottling. That gives you great identity and complexity, which you don’t always have in pét-nat.”
“So, I was thinking… ok, pét-nat is fun. It’s a party wine, but I want to make something complex and rich. So, I began thinking about what’s important, and one of those things is having a reserve. Since the start, we’ve kept wine in qvevri, and now we have a 450L qvevri which we empty a bit, and then add new wine on top. So, it’s kind of like a reserve, and the little bit of juice makes the reserve wine referment.”
When it comes to the traditional method (like how sparkling wine is produced in Champagne), Bastien was frustrated at the model of adding sugar and yeast to the bottle in order to create a second fermentation. So, he began dwelling on what he could do to create his own, more natural version, taking inspiration from Pascal Agrapart’s Experience cuvée. He says,
“I thought, why not use honey instead of sugar and yeast? So I did, and it worked! Then I froze some juice during fermentation and kept it in the freezer. Then, in January I put it in the bottles. That worked too. The problem is that you need around 10% of the juice to freeze, and that means you need loads of freezer space. So now, with the Areva cuvée, I let the wine go dry, and then add honey. So the bubbles created are from the honey, not from the sugar of the juice, as there isn’t any. But the yeasts are still alive as it’s only three weeks after the fermentation finished. So it’s its own unique style. It’s super juicy and drinkable.”
Being from France, working with qvevri was a whole new world. Bastien explains,
“I love qvevri for fementation because of the shape; it brings the lees in suspension, and it really works. When the juice is fermenting you see it bubbling like crazy. It also brings an identity; a kind of saltiness or earthiness, and you don’t need long ageing to get this. With barrels, you get more texture, maybe more complexity, as I feel that the micro-oxygenation is softer; the tannins become smoother. Whereas in clay, the wine stays quite drastic. So, I like to age some in barrels, some in qvevri; for Exile on Caucasus for example it’s aged around 70% in barrel, and 30% in qvevri.”
It’s been a ride, and they’re still learning something new with every vintage; how to adapt the winemaking to the specific climate of that year.
“We’re always playing around. It's so new for me to make wine with these grapes, and to understand them. And with wine, time is always the most important thing. When time passes, you begin to understand what was good, and what wasn’t good. When I first came to Georgia, I tasted so many wines. There is no secret, you know, you need to taste and drink, speak with winemakers, try to understand... and that takes time. But now, we’re happy with the cuvées. At one point you have to keep a style, as style is important in wine, to have a kind of signature. But you can always make experiments on smaller scales… ”
For such a young couple—and indeed young winery—their wines are already remarkably complex and reliable; each cuvée has a strong fingerprint; an essence of sorts. We can only hope that in a few years’ time there’ll be the chance to experience an Ori Marani vertical; we’ll start tucking bottles away now…