Georgian’s identify very strongly with their food. Like many other cultures, it provides an emotional reference point, but while khinkali, lobio and khachapuri provide a sense of belonging, no Georgian worth their salt would sit down to eat without a bottle of wine from the eastern region of Kakheti or, increasingly, the appellations from western Georgia. No meal would be complete without a shot (or three) of Georgian fire-water, chacha, known colloquially as grape vodka.
I knew little of Georgian wine, but what I did know was enough to convince me a visit to Kakheti would be a good idea. It’s not just that Georgia produces good wine, or that it has grape varieties that I’ve never heard of and which are largely unknown beyond its borders. Georgia can lay claim to be the ‘Cradle of Wine’ – and does in its tourism literature. A discovery of 8,000 year-old grape seeds and the remains of vines sealed inside ancient clay vessels gives Georgia bragging rights as the birthplace of wine.
To put that into some sort of context, humanity discovered the intoxicating joy of wine 3,000 years before it invented writing (thank you ancient Egypt). We were calling over the sommelier 5,000 years before we were using our first iron tools. As I’ve observed before, humanity’s desire to get high is one of the greatest drivers of innovation and creativity on earth. Georgian’s are rightly very proud of their contribution and, having sampled several wines, they have every reason to be.
I’m sure others around the world were trying something similar, but it was Georgian’s who first discovered that putting grape juice in clay pots and burying it underground for a few months produced wine through natural fermentation. The process may be a little more scientific these days, but the Georgian wine industry is using the same tools and processes as it did thousands of years ago to produce ‘natural’ wines. I know there is a natural wine movement, but in Georgia it’s just part of the culture.
Known as Qvevri wine-making, it made it onto UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2013. Fitting recognition given that wine cellars are considered holy places. Although wine makers often use both traditional and Western European methods, and I’d tried both in Tbilisi, I was keen to sample traditional wines during my time in Kakheti. I’ve always been skeptical but some of the reds I tried were delicious, white wines, or orange wines as they’re called, were more hit and miss.
I stayed at a vineyard in the heart of wine country which produced several traditional wines, and which came with a backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains, but there are lots of producers, large and small, across this region who offer tastings. It would definitely be worth trying several. Later in my trip I was in the lovely town of Sighnaghi, where several producers have places in town offering tastings. It allowed me to sample more grape varieties.
Wine in Georgia has been associated with monastic life for the last 1,500 years, and it is monks who have done much to develop the industry. They continue to do so today, but even in the Communist era Georgian wine was exalted across the Soviet Union, and not just because Stalin was a local boy. Georgia was known as the wine cellar of the USSR. Russia remains a key export market, but China consumes most Georgian wine, followed by the USA and Germany (I’ve never seen it on sale in Berlin).
One thing seems clear though, like tourism to the country, Georgian wine is on the map and will only grow in popularity. My extensive research indicates that that can only be a good thing.