Kakheti is Georgia’s most famous wine producing region, with a wine making heritage that dates back 8,000 years, but for at least the last millennium wine in this region has been strongly bound to Georgian monasticism. The monks of Alaverdi Monastery may have sworn off worldly pursuits, but they’ve maintained a wine making tradition since the founding of the monastery in the 6th century. The countryside of the surrounding Alazani valley is dotted with vineyards, providing the raw product for the monastery.
I arrived at Alaverdi Monastery after a long and nerve jangling drive along a virtually deserted mountain road. I’d expected it to be largely unpaved, but was happy to find parts of it were newly paved. Other parts were terrifyingly rough, and there was rarely much indication of when one section would end and another begin. On more than one occasion I found myself going from wonderful paved road to something that would be best described as ‘donkey track’.
The route though was absolutely beautiful, whether forested mountainside or open pasture decorated with multitudes of wild flowers. I passed through sleepy villages, but for large stretches I saw little evidence of civilisation, could barely get a phone signal and began to worry about how long it would take to be found if the car broke down. It was a relief to find myself driving through the sizeable town of Akhmeta and to be surrounded by vineyards. Where there’s wine, you’ll find people.
Still, after days in the mountains and a lonely drive, it was a bit of a shock to find myself confronted by tour groups embarking and disembarking from coaches outside Alaverdi Monastery. Rather than competing for space with a large group, I went to the nearby cafe for a drink, which had the advantage of being air conditioned. The temperature in this lowland area was ferocious. I made a plan to visit a few other nearby sights before heading into the monastery complex.
The oldest parts of the monastery date from the 6th century, when it was founded by a monk named Joseph Alaverdeli, who arrived here from Antioch in southern Turkey, at the time a major centre of Christianity. Today, the majority of what you see dates from the 11th century when King Kvirike the Great ordered a cathedral built in the place of the small church of St. George. Over the entrance to the church is a colourful 16th century fresco of St. George doing something unpleasant to a dragon.
For nine centuries, until the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi was consecrated in 2004 in fact, Alaverdi had the distinction of being Georgia’s tallest religious building. I’m not sure that will have a decisive influence on the decision, but the monastery has been on the Tentative List of World Heritage Sites since 2007. Coincidentally, wine production began again in 2006 after a prolonged period when wine wasn’t made here. Today, they use both the traditional qvevri method as well as Western European methods.
Medieval architecture combines perfectly with ancient wine making traditions, and the whole complex is framed by the dramatic backdrop of the Greater Caucasus Mountain range. It’s a remarkable setting. I wandered through the grounds into the church and, not for the first time, found myself disappointed by the interior. Most of the frescoes were in poor condition, but shafts of light strikingly illuminated the interior. There’s not much else to see, so I set off in search of other historic sights.