In December 2020, the wine world buzzes about the de-facto recognition of the amber wine category. The International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) accepted the 2017 proposal of Georgia to add white wine with prolonged skin maceration into the list of official wine categories. With that said, all Alapiani wines now officially count as “at least one month macerated” amber.
Serving in the military in Azerbaijan, three Georgians established friendship with unforeseen outcomes. It flourished into the establishment of the Alapiani marani and the “Baza” natural wine bar in Tbilisi. The winery was founded ten years ago, yet Merab Mirtskhulava, the cellar master, had twenty years of prior experience of vinifying homemade wine. Qvevri size ranges from 250 to 2000 liters, so the winery has a 10-ton annual capacity with an aspirational plan to double it in coming years.
This friendship is genuinely fateful. While Merab is instrumental in vinification, Soso specializes in clay and ceramics. He laments that modern qvevri are underburned a couple of hundred degrees under the ideal 1100C bearing crack formation risk. But the Alapiani red clay qvevris are sound and made properly according to the technology. The last of the trio, Avto is responsible for financial matters. The Alapiani winemaking philosophy is based on the owners' beliefs. As Eko from Lagvinari, Alapiani does not favour any particular viticulture regime, but goes back to the roots with minimal interventions applied.
Alapiani owns several plots in Central and Eastern Georgia. The EU certified organic vineyard of 1.5ha is located in Vazisubani, Kakheti with Saperavi, Rkatsiteli and Buera planted. The last rare white variety is blended with Rkatsiteli to soften its edges. The neighboring Mukhebi lieu-dit is certified as well and consists of 40-year-old vines. The vines are pruned to six to eight buds, which is half of that of conventional production and allows for concentrated flavours in the final wine. 2019 Rkatsiteli, the blend from the both plots, gives out aromas of dry green spices and herbs. With a notable level of 0.8 VA, even international wine critics are unable to detect a possible flaw, this is how balanced the wine is. But the pinnacle among the Kakhetian whites is 2017 Rkatsiteli with 20% Mtsvane blend. Sufficiently developed, the wine opens up with intense layers of dried stone fruits and apricot pits.
“We put everything in qvevri for primary fermentation, without any additives or vitamins, at the mercy of fate”, Merab shows his winery. After further maturation on skins for six months, wine is racked to rest before bottling: “Like puppies which are taken out of their mother, when wine is disturbed, natural stabilization in ambient conditions is essential.”
Aside from experiments, all the wines are fermented on the skins with part of stems. Organoleptic tasting of stalks helps to define the wine style. “Though it prevents volatile acidity in wines, Saperavi and Cabernet Sauvignon stems are rough and add up to rusticity, which I don’t favour,” says Merab. Alapiani wines are slowly fermented to build delicate wine profiles: “Aggressive fermentation creates big and tannic but simple wines, besides risking developing off-odours”.
From the very first vintage, Merab added minimal sulphites prior bottling: “I started it in 2011, just before the first export batch left the cellar. We had to keep wines stable during substandard transportation, though in my personal practice I never add any.” No filtration is carried out and the level of total sulphites is always less than 30 ppm, which agrees with the latest regulations of the French association “Vin Methode Nature” about the natural wine term.
Apart from Kakhetian wines, Alapiani produces a range of refreshing white wines from the Chinuri grape. It hails from a one hectare alluvial-carbonate vineyard in the Tserovani village near Mtskheta. To create a veritable wine in a relatively humid region, Merab has to follow the path of the famous Iago Bitarishvili. His Chinuri is made in the Kakhuri style, with five months maceration with full skins and part of stems, which is rare for this variety. Although Simon J Woolf, a natural wine critic, downgraded the wine for “the fruit quality being questionable”, the 2018 vintage reveals the correct flavour profile of chopped green apples and tart oranges. In 2020 no stalks were added though, as they were green. Every harvest is unique and presents new challenges.
In the little village of Khatisopeli in Bolnisi, Alapiani holds a 0.6ha lime-carbonate plot. The vineyard is at 550 meters altitude, and only 2000 bottles are annually produced. The Soviets sought to establish a sparkling production in Bolnisi, as the climatic conditions allowed for lighter ephemeral white wine production. Matured for more than eight months in qvevri, Rkatsiteli Bolnuri 2018 expresses a rich flavour profile of yellow apple, pear and roasted Brazil nuts.
The last tiny parcel is in the far west of the Shida Kartli region, in the Khashuri village. Here Alapiani sustain the so-called “Ateni appellation scheme” and tend a third of Goruli Mtsvane vines with the rest of Chinuri. Such a blend is usually used for sparklings, but Merab creates vibrant still whites. Lucky French have an incredible opportunity to taste this wine as it is imported to France by Thierry Puzelat from Clos du Tue Bœuf.
Even if Merab loves to work with white grapes, with reds he holds a special affair: “They are capricious, it is not pas-à-pas as I thought.” Tavkveri possesses the soft and delicate profile of a charming woman. “This is a feminine variety, you need to co-plant it with other grapes for pollination,” he says, “But to lend it some power, I leave stems in pomace.” Tavkveri 2019 is an aromatic light body fragrant wine with white pepper, barberry and candied cherry flavours.
Left after the Soviet Union fell, old Cabernet Sauvignon plantings are still cultivated today. Alapiani Cabernet 2018 resembles a New World red, with a floral aromas of rose, violet and wild flowers backboned with bramble and fresh black plum. Crème de la crème among the reds is tempting semi-dry Saperavi 2017. Unfiltered, concentrated, with substantial tannins, Mukuzani micro-zone exhibits itself with pleasant liquorice and French plums. A must-try, indeed!
Right now Alapiani produces about 10 thousand bottles annually; With the new qvevris installed and the roof of the cellar expanded, Merab hopes to double the production, keeping the quality hurdle at the same high level they maintain these days.
Locally: Tbilisi’s wine bars and restaurants (G.Vino, Ghvino Underground, Vineria, Azarpesha, Alubali).
Abroad: Germany (Naturwein-Georgien), Israel (Asis wines), the US (Corus LLC), France (Thierry Puzelat - Clos du Tue Bœuf), Sweden and Japan.
At fairs: RAW WINE (Worldwide), Amerimeri (Georgia, Kutaisi), Zero Compromise (Georgia, Tbilisi).
Call Merab at: +995-555-272-017.