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Georgia on My Mind

An unlikely but familiar sight in Caucasian wine country
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I tried to get away from baijiu.

For just a few days I was going to travel far away to the Caucasus, succumb to the majestic scenery and dig into a couple good books. Just relax and forget about the world. The largest expenditure of energy I had planned to make was to be on digestion. I would eat and drink my way through Georgia, from the heights of Kazbegi to the wine country of Kakheti.

Then bam! I saw it.

Kvevri, large clay wine vessels, relatives of Greek amphorae, buried underground for about a month and used in the fermentation and aging of traditional Georgian wines. And not just any wines, but delightfully rich and complex ones.

Georgia is home to more than five hundred unique indigenous grapes, thirty of which are cultivated for wine. Some of the best I tasted included saperavi, mtsvane and kisi, which are either aged in oak barrels (the European style) or in kvevri (the local style). Aging in clay (discussed here) does not fundamentally change the character of a drink so much as it smooths a drink’s raw edges, further develops esters and lets the ingredients shine. For someone who prefers a little character in his drink, as I do, this is what really distinguishes Georgian wine.

There are large-scale operations that work with kvevri, but it is largely a folk tradition—our tour guide at a winery told us her family keeps eight kvevri at the home. Most of her neighbors, and the people in villages throughout the country, also make wine with kvevri.

I knew at once I’d seen this before, but where?

The Fenyang Connection

Then it dawned on me. Many years ago in Xinghuacun Town, Fenyang County, Shanxi Province. China. What I was looking at was a fermentation method remarkably similar to that employed by the makers of the light-aroma baijiu known as Fenjiu (after “Fenzhou,” the ancient appellation for the region around the Fen River).

Just as in Georgia, the “vintners” of north central China use a technique that depends on fermenting in buried jars for periods of several weeks. The only real difference are the ingredients: sorghum instead of grapes, qu instead of yeast. Yes, baijiu is a distilled spirit and kvevri make wines, but baijiu evolved from grain wines, and in Georgia they distill kvevri-fermented pomace into a grappa-like drink called chacha that tastes not entirely dissimilar from fenjiu.

Fermentation tanks in Xinghuacun

So how did this happen? Two “wine” regions separated by many thousands of miles using the same novel fermentation and aging technique. Where is the connection? It could be coincidence, but there’s another possibility: The Silk Road.

Consider this scenario: Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago a trader brought Georgia’s wines and winemaking techniques to Northern China. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Though one would hardly guess it today, Qingxu County—located just south of modern Shanxi capital Taiyuan—was dubbed “The Homeland of Grapes and Wine” in ancient China. More peculiar still is a 3,000-year-old legend that suggests that the people of Qingxu met and exchanged technology with tribes from the distant West, possibly from Persia. By the late Han and early Tang dynasties, Shanxi was well established as one of the empire’s leading producers of high-quality grape wine.*

Qingxu County is less than forty miles away from Xinghuacun Town. It is not much of a leap to suggest that when the taste for grape wine dried up in China during the late Tang, a kvevri-like technique was adapted to the more popular grain-based wines.

So I am left to wonder whether my conjecture—based on two visits to regions very far apart, largely ignoring what’s in between—has any basis in fact. I imagine someone better versed in the history of the Silk Road could make a compelling argument on the topic, for or against. I hope one day an aspiring bai-ologist will pick up the thread.

Whether what I saw constituted the transmission of ideas over time and geography, or was just a simple coincidence, I remain fascinated by the question. Too often in the study of regional liquors like baijiu one hones in on the place that consumes the drink without much thought for how that place fits into larger global narratives.

What distinguishes one libation from the next are the techniques used to induce fermentation and alter the resulting alcohol. But how much of this was derived independently and how much is borrowed from a faraway land? How did the technology spread, and why?

East, West and all points in between, nothing exists in isolation. And I suppose this kind of musing is exactly what I hoped to find in my travels. Thank you, baijiu.

*For this last bit of information I owe a great debt to the German scholar of ancient Chinese grape wines, Peter Kupfer, who discusses this in his forthcoming book.


Derek Sandhaus

The Bai-ologist

Derek Sandhaus is the educational director of Ming River Baijiu. He is the author of several books about China, including Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits and a forthcoming book on Chinese drinking culture, Drunk in China (Potomac, Fall 2019). He currently lives with his wife and dog in Jerusalem, where he is developing a fondness for arak.