Georgia: exploring the cradle of wine
In the Caucasus, where Europe meets Asia, the world’s oldest winemaking culture is thrillingly alive.
The Georgian people may have suffered a long history of invasion and occupation, but their sense of national identity and their wine culture are as robust as ever. Indeed, a country that has a good claim to be the birthplace of wine—with a history of production dating back some 8,000 years—has arguably never been more in tune with contemporary tastes. The loss of 80 percent of its export market in 2006 due to a politically charged Russian embargo acted as a catalyst for change in the local wine industry. It forced producers to re-evaluate and re-establish their place in the global wine market, inspiring a new generation to return anew to ancient techniques and traditions, leading to distinctive wines that have drawn widespread critical acclaim.
Georgia’s uniqueness, from its singular language to its deliciously idiosyncratic food and its collection of 526 indigenous grape varieties (the vast majority of which are yet to be planted anywhere else), has made the country an increasingly popular destination for the more adventurous wine tourist. It’s certainly possible to come as an independent traveler, although companies such as Travelling Roots have emerged to organize personalized food and wine tours (www.travellivingroots.com).
However you arrange your itinerary, it’s likely you’ll enter through the capital, Tbilisi, which lies in the Kartli region, located in the heart of Georgia. Stood tall in this lively, atmospheric city is a statue of Mother Georgia, appropriately holding a sword in one hand and a goblet of wine in the other. The city is well suited to exploring on foot; it’s the best way of taking in the beautiful architecture, with its clusters of brightly painted houses with traditional wooden balconies, and visiting the cathedral, flea markets, and khachapuri (flatbread filled with cheese) bakeries. The city is also home to an abundance of wine bars and restaurants—often marked by the ubiquitous symbol of Georgian winemaking, the clay winemaking pot, or kvevri—and an attendance at a Georgian supra (banquet), with its multiple courses, toasts, wine, and (polyphonic) song, is a must for any visitor.
Also worth a stop in Tbilisi is the Scientific Research Center of Agriculture, which includes a 44ha (109 acre) vineyard, home to 437 native grape varieties, many of which have been brought back from near extinction. A visit to the center is one of many recommendations provided by Carla Capalbo in her evocative and encyclopedic guidebook, Tasting Georgia: A Wine and Food Journey in the Caucasus, which is recommended reading for anyone contemplating a gastronomic tour of Georgia. Companion volumes worth finding space for in your luggage include: Georgia: A Guide to the Cradle of Wine by Miquel Hudin and Daria Kholodilina, a pithy beginner’s guide to the country’s wines; and For The Love of Wine: My Odyssey Through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture, a lively, ruminative travelogue by the American natural wine enthusiast, Alice Fiering.
A highlight of any visit to Mtskheta, a city near Tbilisi, is the Eastern Orthodox Svetitskhoveli Cathedral. Constructed on the ruins of a 4th-century church in the 11th-century, the cathedral was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. Once you’ve taken in the ambience of Svetitskhoveli, you can arrange a visit to Giorgi Barisashvili, a respected producer of small-scale wines using the traditional kvevri method, but also an author and one of the leading wine historians in Georgia. A tasting-cum-history lesson can be booked via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) but do bring an interpreter.
Some 60km southwest of Tbilisi is Vardzia, the beautiful troglodyte city carved into the mountainside by monks more than 1,200 years ago. This is in the region of Meskheti— exceptionally dry and home to some of the oldest grape varieties in Georgia. The Vardzia monastery can be explored in a day but overnight trips are more worthwhile. The Vardzia Resort is nearby and they also offer wine tasting sessions (www. vardziaresort.com). Equally, a number of different tours of the city can be booked from the Lonely Planet website (www. lonelyplanet.com/georgia/samtskhe-javakheti/vardzia). If you are driving yourself, ensure you load up on petrol beforehand since it is difficult to buy fuel without highly specialized knowledge. If you prefer to take a taxi, it’s worth making a few stops along the way (most taxi drivers will be happy to do this for no extra cost). An itinerary might include the stunning Paravani Lake, the Rabati castle, or the Borjomi springs.
Traveling east of Tbilisi takes you to the Kakheti region, which, with around 70 percent of the country’s vineyards and 80 percent of its annual production, is by far the most important region for the Georgian wine industry. A tour of this winemaking hub may begin at the atmospheric Alaverdi monastery, which has been a site of winemaking since 1011. A handful of monks still live within the monastery’s walls, where a collection of ancient winemaking artefacts—including numerous kvevri—can be found alongside a graceful church. The winery is still active too, making wines in the same traditional way, with the kvevri buried in the ground for the fermentation process. A restaurant across the road from the entrance provides traditional food.
The total production of kvevri wine only accounts for around 1 percent of the 100 million liters produced annually in Georgia, but it has captured the global imagination, and many of the producers working with the vessel are either based in Kakheti or source their wines there. Among them is Pheasant’s Tears, which is run by American expat, John Wurdeman, and has a well-regarded traditional restaurant attached to its winery, with locally sourced food served alongside the estate’s numerous natural cuvées (www.pheasantstears.com).
The mingling of wine and history continues at Bodbe monastery. Here, you can find the tomb of Saint Nino, who is said to have brought Christianity to Georgia back in the 4th-century AD. Legend has it that she came bearing a cross made of her hair intertwined with grape vines, which illustrates just how intimately wine and the vine are entwined with Georgian culture. The monastery’s Pligrim Refectory serves delicious savory pies daily (+995 595 277107). In her book, Capalbo describes ascending the Tsiv-Gombori range as part of her journey to the fertile Alazani valley, from where the Dakishvili vineyard and Telavi Wine Cellars source grapes. It’s definitely worth taking a trip to Lagodekhi National Park while there—it is home to more than 150 species of bird (www.traveltramp.com).
From Tbilisi, you can head west by car (although the roads are not of fantastic quality), rail (www.railway.ge), or plane straight to Batumi (www.georgian-airways.com). Georgia’s second largest city is, like its capital, a bustling, culturally vibrant place, filled with museums, amusement parks, and festivals (one for jazz in July and a cinema d’auteur festival in September). Of the museums, the biggest draw for wine-lovers—and those with a special interest in the archaeology of wine—is the State Museum of Adjara, which contains a large, one-million-year-old vine fossil along with many clay vessels that collectively tell the history of Georgian wine.
Batumi is located on the coast of the Black Sea in an area known for its semi-sweet and dry wines, accounted for by the more subtropical climate and higher rainfall. In Ajara, Guria, and Samagrelo, vines are still traditionally trained up trees using a practice known as maglari. These areas are particularly attractive for tourists, since Mount Gomi can allow for snowboarding and skiing in winter and great hikes in summer.
Georgia is still in its infancy as a wine and (at least for visitors from The West) general tourist destination. But in many ways that only serves to make it more attractive. Certainly, those prepared to make their way off the beaten track will be rewarded with a country filled with beautiful sights, architecture, culture, and, of course, wine.
Set in the heart of Tbilisi Old Town, this wine bar offers friendly and personable service, specializes in eco-friendly natural wines, many of which are produced using kvevri, and serves delicious artisan cheese and cold cuts.
6 Erekle II Street, Tbilisi 0105 | +995 598 93 21 21 | www.gvinotbilisi.com
This is the perfect place to stay when exploring the Vardzia caves. The owners here also grow all kinds of vegetables and produce their own wine.
Vardzia, Aspindza 0500 | +995 595 64 23 46 | www.accommodationvardzia.ge
This restaurant has rave reviews and rightly so; it is constantly busy and bustling with locals and tourists alike and the gigantic menu offers such a huge range of dishes it's impossible to choose.
Konstantine Gamsakhurdia Street, Zugdidi 2100 | +995 415 22 11 22 | www.diaroni.ge
This is a hidden gem for Georgian tourists. With a restaurant and bar on site, the beautiful Rioni river a stone’s throw away and a stunning garden and outdoor swimming pool, it’s the perfect stop on a wine tour.
Gamsakhurdia Street 2, Ambrolauri 0400 | +995 596 22 12 21 | www.hotel-metekhara.business.site
This guesthouse is in a perfect location to explore the region and is only 68 miles from Tbilisi airport. The rooms are comfortable and the hotel offers free bike rentals to explore the area. Fishing is a popular local activity.
Village Sabue, Akhmeta 0900 | +995 599 96 71 79
Opened in 2012 by a handful of independent producers, this place prides itself on being Georgia’s first wine bar and sourcing the finest natural wines from across the country.
Galaktion Tabidze Street 15, Tbilisi 0105 | +995 322 30 96 10
For more restaurants with award-winning wine lists click here.
One of the oldest wine producers in Georgia, the monks here still use the kvevri technique. The Rkatsiteli, Kisi, and Saperavi cuvées produced here are tannic, concentrated, and age worthy.
Zemo Khodasheni-Alaverdi-Kvemo Alvani, Kakheti | www.since1011.com
Beautifully situated with an amphitheater above its subterranean cellar that can be used for concerts and other cultural events. The winemaker Lado Uzunashvili specializes in niche Georgian varieties and plans to return to using kvevri.
Mukhrani, Mtskheta 3309 | +995 595 99 13 15/16 | www.chateaumukhrani.com
Winemaker Nikoloz Natroshvili produces wine with a modern-traditional style, mostly sourced from Kakheti but also Mingrelia. The Tsinandali is layered and elegant and the Kindzmarauli, fresh, fruity, and crisp.
Tsinandali, Telavi 2217 | +995 322 23 81 13 7 | www.shumi.ge
These wineries produce an extensive array of wines, in particular from the Alazani Valley and have recently been experimenting with Qvevris. The Tsinandali and Kondoli vineyard range showcase vivid varietal character and mineral undertones.
Kurdgelauri Village, Telavi 2200 | +995 350 27 37 07 | www.marani.co
The largest Qvevri wine producer in Georgia, but it also has guest facilities, a restaurant and hotel, so that you can relax and enjoy the trip for longer.
Kisiskhevi, Telavi, 2200 | +995 790 55 70 45 | www.schuchmann-wines.com
The Dakishvili family offer wine and cheese tastings by appointment in their beautiful vineyard set in the Alazani valley. They still produce kvevri wines, too.
Village Shalauri, Telavi 2200 | +995 577 50 80 29 | www.vitavinea.ge