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Jonathan Nelms first tried to visit Georgia - the Caucasian country, not the American state - while he was in the Soviet Union as an exchange student in the late 1980s. “My host family would talk about vacations they had taken to Georgia and how it was like the happy, colourful, good-weather, good-food part of the country,” he says. “It sort of piqued my interest. I tried to go down there that year on a train, but there were shootings on the trains because the Soviet Union was kind of falling apart.”
More than 20 years on, he finally made it to Georgia - and now he has brought that country to the United States, in the form of Supra, a restaurant in Washington DC. A lawyer by profession, he lived in Moscow between 2010 and 201 and got acquainted with Georgian food, but his passion for Georgian wine is more recent.
“When I lived in Moscow, there was an embargo [on Georgian wine] so they weren't getting Georgian wine in the Georgian restaurants or anywhere else,” he says.
“So that's partly what led to this kind of wine renaissance - the Georgian government back then recognizing that they were going to have to find different markets for their wine. They couldn't rely on Russia so much. In order to break into western markets, in particular, they were going to have to up their game a little bit. That's what led my becoming aware of it, but I didn't really get to know Georgian wine very well until we started the restaurant project.”
He knows it as well as pretty much anyone in the US now; as wine director as well as owner, he’s responsible for the wine list. Putting together a Georgian list is no easy task, he says.
“With Georgian wine, we're all learning,” he says. “Really! If you talk to our Georgian chef, a guy who's been cooking for 30 years, who cooks great authentic Georgian food, he doesn't know these wines, because that wasn't the thing ten years ago. People drank the wine that their village made, and there might be a few different varieties, and maybe everyone would know [the grape varieties] Saperavi and Rkatsiteli, but under the Soviet Union, they were really pumping out five grapes, down from 537 or whatever the number is.
“So people don't know these grapes. I mean, educated, wine-loving Georgians don't know most of these grapes. And the ones that live here, especially anyone who's been here for more than five or ten years, they will be looking for the Saperavis, maybe the Kindzmarauli, which was Stalin's favourite wine, and all that kind of thing.”
Customers, though, are embracing this novelty. It clearly helps that Supra has put Georgian wine at the centre of its offer: there’s a wall of wine racks as you enter the restaurant and a huge map in the bar area showing the country’s wine regions. “If they're sitting at the bar, or if they're at a wine tasting, they can say, "Where's this grape come from?" and we kind of point to it, and that sort of leads to a conversation,” says Nelms.
“I thought that there'd be some miserable percentage of the crowd that would complain that we didn't have California [wine], French [wine], etc, then not know what to do, and then be unhappy, and so on. We really haven't seen that. Every once in a while it happens where someone just won't like what they're trying, and they won't like it enough to ask us to bring them out something else. But it very rarely happens.”
Georgian wine is made in a really distinctive way, he says. There’s Qvevri fermentation, whereby the wines are fermented in large earthenware vessels buried in the ground, for example. “The Qvevri itself doesn't really impart flavour, but the way Georgians make wine, and Qvevri is a critical part of that, that's what really gives it its unique flavour,” says Nelms.
“For example, the amber wine; they will take white-skin grapes, crush them, and then throw them into the Qvevri with the skins, sometimes with stems ... it makes it a lot more tannic and can add very strong flavours, piney flavours, things like that.
“You have these white wines that have a lot of tannins, that feels like a red wine, where fresh fruit flavours, broadly speaking, tend to kind of become dried fruit flavours. But then that sort of, broadly speaking, describes Kakhetian - or eastern Georgian - winemaking, which is by far the biggest wine-making region in Georgia. It's where the Soviets put all of the wine-making. But out west, winemaking is kind of having a renaissance.”
This makes for unusual flavours that are perfect for enjoying with food. “There's a chicken and blackberry sauce dish I really like, that we added to our menu a couple months ago. This blackberry sauce is a tiny bit sweet, a little bit sour, a little bit savoury, and that really goes great with Georgian wine.
“Out in the country and a lot of places, you wouldn't be drinking bottles of this or that wine, you would have pitchers on the table. Those pitchers would be of one wine. It would probably be, in most cases, amber Rkatsiteli. That kind of wine goes with everything. It’s a white-skinned grape, but it's made like a red, so the wines really are made to go with food and made to go with a wide range of food. I would say I'd have that chicken dish with an Orgo Kisi, or maybe an Orgo Rkatsiteli.”