Discovering Georgia’s 8,000-Year-Old Winemaking Tradition

Wine is often referred to as the blood of Georgia and is an integral part of the national identity.  
During harvest season or Rtveli in autumn, winemakers invite family, friends and neighbours to the vineyeard to participate. Folk music accompanies the celebratory feasts and it is customary for guests to wish the host a bountiful harvest. Photo by: Vano Shlamov/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
During harvest season or Rtveli in autumn, winemakers invite family, friends and neighbours to the vineyeard to participate. Folk music accompanies the celebratory feasts and it is customary for guests to wish the host a bountiful harvest. Photo by: Vano Shlamov/Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

On a hill high  above Tbilisi, the capital of  Georgia, stands a giant statue of Mother Georgia. In one hand, she holds a sword and in the other, a bowl of wine. The message couldn’t be clearer—if you are a friend, you will share our wine; if you come as an enemy, you will face our wrath.

About 90 minutes from the capital city is the Kakheti region. I drive to this eastern Georgian province with a group of travellers from around the world, on bumpy roads passing by lush plains and mighty mountains in the distance. Located in the valleys of the Alzani and Lori Rivers in the foothills of the Caucases, this is the ‘Tuscany’ of Georgia. With warm dry summers, moderate rainfall and temperate winters Kakheti is perfect for grape cultivation, and two-thirds of the wine produced in the country comes from here.

Wine is often referred to as the blood of Georgia, and is an integral part of the national identity. Most Georgian homes have a trellis of vines, and there are songs, poems and folk tales dedicated to wine. Legend has it that soldiers used to carry a cutting of vine under their armour so that if they died on the battlefield, at least the vine could take root in that place.

Qvevris are often passed down the family. Photo by: Alessandro Vallainc/istock

Qvevris are often passed down the family. Photo by: Alessandro Vallainc/istock

There is conclusive evidence to prove that the world’s first vintners were from Georgia. Archaeological evidence from excavation sites in the southeastern Kvemo Kartli region trace the history of winemaking in Georgia to as early as 6,000 B.C. Wine is also part of Orthodox Christian rites, giving it an elevated status in the monas-teries that have been making wine since ancient times. The UNESCO-listed Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta has images of vines and grapes carved into its facade and at one time, every monk was allowed 500 millilitres of red wine per day, which was drunk in clay vessels or horns or poured from special clay carafes.

Even today, monks make wine in monasteries in different parts of the country. The 11th-century Alaverdi Monastery reopened in 2005 and the wine made by the resident monks is now exported. At Alaverdi, large, old qvevris (egg-shaped earthernware vessels) were found in the basement of the monastery indicated that wine had been made in Georgia since the eighth century. The Georgian tradition of making wine in these gargantuan, bulbous vessels which are buried underground is what distinguishes the drink from this region from the wine of the world. It can take up to three months to build a large qvevri. The vessels are fired in a kiln and while they are still warm, they are coated with beeswax on the inside, which sterilises them and makes them waterproof. They are usually coated with powdered lime or sand on the outside to strengthen them, and then they are buried up to the neck in sand and gravel. This winemaking method was included in UNESCO’S Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2013.

The process of making wine begins with crushing grapes by foot in a wine press called a satsnakheli, which looks like a canoe. Then it flows or is pumped into the qvevri buried deep in the ground. The wine ferments inside the clay vessel naturally, without adding yeast, helped by the natural temperature control and minimal oxygen exposure. A stick with wooden spokes is used to stir the fermenting grapes. The wine ages for at least three months before being bottled. Unlike most other wines, these are skin-contact wines as the stems, seeds and skin remain in the qvevri. I am told that the post-fermentation opening of a qvevri is almost a sacred ritual. When the cover is removed, the wild amber or golden wine that appears is greeted with applause.

Georgian white wines allowed to ferment longer are amber coloured. Photo by: Kalpana Sunder

Georgian white wines allowed to ferment longer are amber coloured. Photo by: Kalpana Sunder

In Sighnaghi, a charming town overlooking the Alazani Valley, I meet American expat, John Wurdemen of Pheasant’s Tears winery and restaurant. Wurdemen is a man of many talents: He studied art in Russia, then came to Georgia to study and collect polyphonic songs and later he and a friend excavated old qvevris from abandoned villages, sterilised them and started making wine in them. “It’s a totally natural process. There’s no added yeast, no preservatives—winemaking at its best,” he explains as he shows us the winery’s cellars and qvevris.

“A qvevri can last for decades if it is properly cared for,” added John. After fermentation, the wine collects in the qvevri’s pointed bottom. Red wines are removed sooner while white wines are allowed to sit, giving them an orange hue.e. Once the wine is collected, the sediments of skin, seed and pips are distilled into chacha, Georgia’s potent grape brandy.

Since most Georgian wines are not mass produced, they have unique characteristics imparted by the variety of grape used to make the wine. The varietals I taste on my travels are Mtsvane, a deep orange, floral aromatic wine; Saperavi, a dark red with tannins that tastes of prunes; and the cloudy golden Rkatsiteli, which reminds me of dried fruits. I pair these wines with a supra or feast of khachapuri (bread filled with stringy cheese), vegetables, meats, and cheeses.

In the wine culture of Georgia, feasts are incomplete without flamboyant toasts that are raised to health, peace and prosperity, ancestors, the future, and almost every feel-good concept imaginable. The tamada or toastmaster plays an interesting part in this ritual. Usually chosen by the oldest person at the table, the tamada is articulate and witty and often has something unique to say about every person at the table. To our group of Russians, Ukrainians, Iranians and Indians was dedicated a toast on the beauty, inspiration and strength of cultural diversity. “The idea of toasting to good things originated when we were ruled by Russia,” explains Nino Turashvilli, who works for the Georgian Tourism Board. “Georgians wanted to carve out an identity for themselves. They wanted to celebrate being Georgian and this dining culture was one way to do that.”

Iago Bitarishvili is Georgia's first winemaker to own organic vineyards. Photo by: Kalpana Sunder

Iago Bitarishvili is Georgia’s first winemaker to own organic vineyards. Photo by: Kalpana Sunder

Georgian wine is finally having its moment in the sun. In recent years, big winemakers stopped mass production and boutique makers cultivated export markets. Artisanal winemakers still constitute a very small percentage of Georgia’s wine output, but their wines are being served in Michelin-starred restaurants in France and Copenhagen, and have won international wine awards. An added honour, Bordeaux declared 2017 ‘The Year of Georgia’ because of its ancient winemaking culture.

Wine has always been one of the top three exports of the country, and Georgia once had as many as 525 indigenous varieties of grapes. But the vines of Georgia have been victims of its tumultuous history and through multiple invasions, villages and their vineyards were destroyed and many varieties have disappeared. Due to Soviet repression and policies, only about four grape varietals were grown and 80 per cent of the wine was mediocre and mass-produced for Russian consumption. In 1985, as part of Gorbachev’s campaign to end alcohol abuse, many vineyards were razed to the ground and Georgia lost a quarter of its vineyards. In 2006, Putin banned the import of Georgian wine, and this put the country’s economy in a tumult. However, today, as many as 40 grapes varieties have been revived. Every sip of these wines is a connection to Georgia’s ancient past, and chronicles the triumph of the Georgian people, who have held their wine traditions sacred for millennia in the face of war, adversity, embargoes, and invasions.

  • Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer, blogger, and a Japanese language specialist from Chennai. In her search for a good travel story, she has snowmobiled in Lapland, walked with the lions in Zimbabwe, and flown in a microlight over the Victoria Falls.

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