Our car sped down a straight stretch of country road between rows of vines and carefully arranged cypresses. The Caucasus loomed up to our right, a high wall separating Kakheti from the vast Eurasian Steppe beyond. The occasional monastery, square in shape with a characteristic conical dome, crowned the tops of the lower foothills. A little higher up, the mountainside held up a Hollywood-inspired “I ♥️ Kakheti” sign written in the elegant Georgian alphabet. Between every gap in the hills, the road spanned a braided, pebble-strewn river valley, temporarily dry due to irrigation and lack of snowmelt so late in the season. The empty riverbeds passed under the road and out across the flat expanse of the Kakheti valley, bounded on the other side by a smaller range of foothills hidden in the haze.
Suddenly, as if protesting the purpose of the road trip, a voice burst out on the radio with a raucous love song to vodka in a thick accent. Georgians may rightly be concerned about political meddling in their country by the neighbors to the north, but when it comes to quenching their thirst, this ridiculous song would do nothing to change the Georgians’ love of ღვინო “ghvino” – wine. And for good reason, too.
Wine is a hugely important part of life in the Caucasus, and particularly in Georgia. All of the countries in the Transcaucasus region have unearthed evidence of winemaking dating back nearly eight millennia. At that time, agrarian civilization was just developing in the nearby Fertile Crescent region, which is about as far back in time as you would expect wine production to go. Countries like Georgia and Armenia, then, have a pretty good claim to being the cradle of viniculture.
My experience with Caucasian wine began at the border crossing between Azerbaijan and Georgia. The stern conductor had just come banging down the carriage waking everyone up – much too early – from as good a sleep as you can get in the second class compartment of a Soviet sleeper train. The customs officials soon followed, and I presented my passport first to the Azerbaijani officer, who stamped me out, then to the Georgian officer for an entry stamp. The price of a Georgian entry stamp for tourists, I found out, is a cursory bag check and a brief indoctrination. The two Azeri passengers in my compartment watched, amused, as the young customs officer quizzed me and the other Japanese tourist on the highlights of Georgia. Almost satisfied with our responses, she grinned and added one last item – “and we have the best wine”– before returning our passports and moving on down the train.
Over five hundred different grape varieties, including some of the world’s oldest, are indigenous to the Caucasus region, which means you often won’t see your typical Cabernet or Chardonnay on the menu. Rather, in Georgia, you’re most likely to find the red Saperavi (or its myriad sub-varieties like Kindzmarauli or Mukuzani), or the white Rkatsiteli or Tsinandali. Wine is made nearly everywhere in Georgia and vines are ubiquitous, but it’s particularly important in the Kakheti region in the east of the country. In Armenia, varieties like the red Areni and the white Voskehat are prominent, with regions such as Vayots Dzor and Voskehat being the major wine regions. The wine industry in Armenia, more so than in Georgia, was devastated by policies of the Soviet government, but has been making a comeback in recent years.
I made a trip out to Kakheti to have a look (and taste) around. Pulling in to the hilltop village of Sighnaghi, the region’s tourist hotspot, and locating the guesthouse I had booked, a cheerful family sprang up from their conversation to welcome me enthusiastically. Without any ado at all, the woman whose name the guesthouse bore led me to the stairs – “you will go up and enjoy my terrace, and you will drink my wine.” So I made my way up to the top floor with the owner’s mother close behind carrying a tray of sweetbread and glasses of each of her homemade wines. A little while later, after the sun had set behind the hills and I had dug my jacket out of my bag, the father came up to offer a shot of his moonshine chacha, Georgian jet fuel distilled from the dregs at the bottom of the wine barrel.
It was on a private tour of the Kakheti region the next day, with two other German tourists, that the song about vodka came on the radio. However, that was merely a distraction as we tasted our way through wineries of all shapes and sizes in Georgia’s most famous region. The first stop was the Khareba Winery, a nearly eight-kilometer network of tunnels dug into the foothills for the sole purpose of storing over 25,000 bottles of wine produced at local vineyards. Next, we visited the Kindzmarauli Corporation, a large-scale winery that produces a highly-regarded Saperavi grown in the Kindzmarauli micro-zone of Kakheti. The winery uses both modern and traditional methods to create two very distinct wines.
You can see the modern method of winemaking anywhere in the world, but only in the Caucasus will you find the qvevri method. A qvevri is essentially a large clay jar with a pointed bottom that is buried in the ground. Into this pot, the pressed grapes – including their skins and stems – are placed, covered, and allowed to ferment and mature for several months. The temperature is maintained naturally by the ground, so the winemaker has no way of controlling the fermentation process. As a result, the fermentation goes to completion, using up all of the sugars in the juice to produce a dry wine. Even if you don’t like dry wine, you may still be pleasantly surprised by the qvevri wine; due to the extensive contact between the liquid and the skins/stems, qvevri wine has a very distinct richness. You can even see the difference, particularly in the white wine, which takes on the color of honey when made in a qvevri.
After touring Kindzmarauli’s modern fermentation tank farm and vast qvevri hall, and tasting their offerings, our guide drove us to a very different winery, called the Numisi Cellar. This family-run business is set in a sixteenth-century wine cellar that was recently rediscovered and renovated into an operational winery producing around 15,000 bottles of qvevri wine per year. In between pouring us full-size glasses of each of his wines, “for tasting,” the host entertained us with interesting factoids about the artifacts on display in his cellar, along with outrageous claims about his own personal endeavors – perhaps he had also been “tasting” his wine before we arrived! When we asked what all he did at the winery, he assured us that he does nearly everything – presses the grapes, cleans the qvevris, bottles the wine, leads the tour, pours the tastings, mans the grill, and distills the chacha. He didn’t seem all that busy that day, but the grape harvest was still a few weeks away.
While wine is a part of all three Caucasian nations, Georgia is the one that has maintained the strongest continuity in its traditions. So naturally, you can’t visit Georgia and miss out on experiencing its wine culture. Whether from a fresh bottle in the vintner’s tasting room, from a former water bottle in a private home, or from a tap in a remote mountain village, the wine flows liberally. I even heard reports of a public fountain that occasionally flows with wine, though I have yet to confirm this.
Georgian wine culture culminates at the dinner table in one of their most celebrated traditions, the supra – a dinner party presided over by a tamada, or toastmaster. Upon returning from Kakheti to the capital, I was invited to lunch by a Georgian acquaintance at his home in a nearby city. While it was no supra in the full sense, my host laid out quite a spread of food and was quick to break open the cellar. He emerged with plastic bottles of the wine his grandfather had made from the lattice of vines that shades their backyard.
My host took on the role of tamada, and intermittently throughout the meal, he would refill our glasses and raise a long-winded toast to anything that crossed his mind. I had to learn the etiquette, though – for serious subjects, like family or country, the glass must be empty when it leaves your lips, lest the toast become a curse. Drinking an entire glass of wine in one go is a totally foreign concept to me, and I’m not much of a fan of shots. So perhaps it was fortunate for my family and friends reading this that I had a train to catch that afternoon – had this been a proper supra, you’d be doomed!