If you reel off the great wine regions of the world, you think of France, Italy, and Spain, and possibly Australia, South Africa, and California. But real wine lovers should really be looking to the Caucasus, as it’s here that you’ll find 8,000 vintages, more than 400 varieties of grapes, and a culture which is inextricably entwined with viticulture. Wine making in Georgia has been recognised by UNESCO on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List, and this year UNWTO chose the country to host their first conference on wine tourism.
The Georgians invented wine making sometime in the 6th millennium BC, and so they’ve had plenty of time to perfect the art. The country’s medieval monasteries were veritable universities of viticulture, keeping meticulous records about grape varieties, terroir, and factors which affected production. Members of the church congregation were expected to tithe a certain amount of the wine they made for use as sacramental wine, and it was the most valuable asset that many of the churches possessed. Priests fortified the church wine sellers, and would defend them to the death!
Many of Georgia’s wine makers still produce wine using traditional techniques, and the resulting flavour is quite different from that of wines made using European methods. Firstly, every part of the grape — including the skin, seeds, and even stalk — is fermented along with the juice. This gives the white wines a much darker colour, and hence they are known as amber or orange wines. The wine is fermented in a qvevri, a pointed terracotta vessel similar to an amphora, which is buried in the floor of the wine cellar. The qvevri is lined with lime and beeswax, and as it is subterranean, the wine is at a constant temperature throughout the fermentation process. Due to its shape, the sediment naturally sinks to the bottom, so there’s no need for the wine maker to add sulphites to separate it from the wine.
It seems that every Georgian you meet has knowledge to impart about wine making! But as you travel around the country, there are definite spots of historical significance, and centres of expertise.
The earliest parts of the Uplistsikhe Archaeological Museum date from the 10th century BC. It’s a rock-cut monastery complex, similar in many ways to Cappadocia in Turkey, and amidst the vaulted caves is evidence of early wine production: 3m-long troughs in the rock where grapes were crushed under foot, and narrow channels through which the juice would flow into secondary troughs or pots.
The Ikalto Monastery, near Telavi, was an ancient academy, where priests were trained in theology, rhetoric, astronomy, philosophy, and wine making: the pillars of a good education. The recently restored complex of churches and ecclesiastical buildings is scattered with grape presses and wine cellars, and lines of discarded qvevris.
If you want watch wines being made, visit Twins Wine Cellar in Napareuli. This combined vineyard and winery is run by twins Gia and Gela Gamtkitsulashvili, and they’ve developed the site for agritourism: you can join in the grape picking and pressing, climb inside a two-storey-high qvevri, learn about the history of Georgian wine making in the museum, and meet the wine makers themselves. The twins use traditional techniques, and have 107 qvevris in their cellars, and also arrange tastings.
In Georgia, there are no shortage of places to stop and drink wine, but if you are looking for both quality and range, several options spring to mind.
In Tbilisi, Vinotheca has an excellent selection in their shop, and Barbarestan and Cafe Gabriadze both offer an extensive wine menu alongside mouthwatering Georgian dishes. Two wineries to particularly look out for (and drink whenever you can find them) are Lagvinari and Pheasant’s Tears, both of which are made in qvevris, and which are fine examples of the traditional Georgian style.