Georgia (as in Eastern Europe) Wine & Cuisine
Text & photos by Michèle Shah, CEO of Michèle Shah Travel & Michèle Shah.com
Georgia’s extensive wine history, culture, and gastronomy make it extremely attractive for international visitors. It can easily be described as a small country of high mountains and huge hearts. Strategically placed on the silk route between East and West, bordered by Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, and the Black Sea, Georgia’s history has been heavily shaped by its neighbors.
Georgia is often called an emerging wine region but it’s only emerging in our consciousness. It is in fact “the cradle of wine” and Georgian wine has flowed plentifully among Georgians, Russians, Ukrainians and the Baltic states for decades. Georgia can proudly proclaim that it’s the country with the oldest viticultural tradition in the world. It’s not surprising that some of the world’s oldest archeological findings of winemaking have been uncovered in Georgia – dating back to the 6th Century BC, proof of an unbroken wine making heritage of 8,000 years.
Dominated and protected by the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountain Range – a huge mountain system at the intersection of Europe and Asia, Georgia boasts a huge diversity in climate and microclimate, with areas near the moderating Black Sea, characterized by a milder continental climate. In essence Georgia is a fertile land, where you can grow almost anything, from tea to hazelnuts, apricots to aubergines, cereals to vines, and pastures for grazing. A bounty that made Georgia enviable to invaders, such as the Muslim, Persians and Ottoman empires, giving reason to be coveted by its neighbors, especially Soviet Russia.
Fast forwarding to the 18th century a time of ‘Romanticism’ when Georgia’s feudal landowners and nobility planted vineyards and made wine to fuel and inspire their creative, poetic, dynamic and exuberance, to a more somber time in 1921 when Georgia was invaded and annexed to Russia. Soviet rule homogenised the exuberant, individualistic native wine culture, levelling it to a production of consolidated and “industrialized” homogeneity in government owned Wine Factory Units for efficient, reliable supply to the Soviet Union.
More recently, since 1991, Georgia’s full independence, the country’s wine scene has experienced a renaissance bringing a whole new dimension to its ancient roots where all wines were made in the traditional Qvevri, a style that today represents a mere 10% of their production.
WINEMAKING & QVEVRI
Kvevri or Qvevri also known as Tchuri in Western Georgia is an amphora shaped earthenware vessel, in most part lined with bees wax which helps to waterproof and sterilize Qvevri, making winemaking a more hygienic process and the vessels easier to clean after each use, though some prefer the ‘raw’ product. Qvevri’s which are buried in the ground, can easily be considered the oldest technology of wine still used on the planet! Once they are installed underground, if cleaned and maintained correctly, Qvevri can be used for many hundreds of years.
This ancient form of refrigeration (temperatures are cooler underground) provides a longer maceration period for grapes on fermenting must, which would otherwise cause wine to spoil above ground. The extended maceration period develops an increase in aroma and flavor profiles in Qvevri wines. Wines are left to mature for around six months, during which time the lees and solids fall into a section at the base of the vessel where their contact (and impact) is minimal. At the end of the process, wine is transferred to a freshly cleaned Qvevri or another storage vessel until bottling.
The Qvevri is still today employed throughout the different stages of vinification from fermentation to maturation, where each winemaker decided on the length of fermentation, maceration and ageing, in order to bestow on the wine complexity and exceptional flavors. Traditional Georgian wine making has also been considered the precursor of ‘natural’ winemaking and often referred to as “Orange” or “Amber wines”, which is how those terms were born.
In 2013 UNESCO considered the Ancient Georgian Traditional Qvevri Wine-Making Method of such significance and importance to be protected and inscribed in the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, as proof of cultural significance and distinctiveness.
Though currently only 10% of Georgia’s total wine production is made in the traditional Qvevri style, there is a significant growing trend in many wineries to increase this style, accounting also for some of the ‘trendier’ styles of production. Most commercial and exported wines in Georgia are made in the classic, or conventional style, using stainless steel or cement tanks and wooden barrels of all sizes. In addition, a growing trend of small boutique wineries producing an interesting range of production from petnat wines to elegant well- crafted barrel fermented wines are visible on the market.
Each winemaking region has its own Qvevri maker, an art which is now in danger of becoming a dying artisanal trade, where the skill is a family trade passed on from generation to generation. Each vessel is hand-made with a waiting list of up to two years.
Georgia has 10 wine producing regions: Kartli, Imereti, Meskheti, Racha, Lechkhumi, Adjara, Guria, Samegrelo, Abkhazia and Kakheti producing 75% of Georgia’s total production. The 26 PDOs (Protected Designations of Origin) cover some 55,000 hectares of wines of which the majority of production is white wine. Georgia has over 500 unique indigenous wine grape varieties, with about 45 grape varieties currently used in commercial viticulture.:The three main varieties throughout the other Georgian wine regions are Rkatsiteli, Saperavi and Kakhuri Mtsvane.
Rkatsiteli – is characterized by its elegance and a high ability to adapt to the environment. Rkatsiteli is as diverse as the Kakheti wine region itself. You can taste dry white made with both ‘traditional’ white wine techniques as well as the ancient Qvevri method, but also fortified and sweet dessert wines made by this grape. Characterized by: green apple, whalnuts, quince, citrus, tropical fruit.
Saperavi – the intensity of the colors and fruity aromas gives us a strong, deep wine that lingers with its presence. The pulp of the Saperavi berry is itself red (a so-called teinturier grape, like Alicante Bouschet). Characterized by ripe dark fruits, cassis and spice, cherry, plumLiquorice, coffee. Harmonious taste with a pleasant astringency. It can be an age- worthy wine.
Kisi – Low-yielding variety is one of the most intriguing in the country for its floral, Viognier- like headiness. Kisi considered good for Qvevri style wines as they have more phenolics. Orange color comes from skin contact, not from oxydation.
Mtsvane (meaning ‘green’) also known as Kakhuri Mtsvane – Textured and aromatic – varies in quality and character with honeyed, peachy overtones.
Kakheti – A two-hour drive from Tbilisi (Telavi is the capital of the region) through the leafy, winding Gombori Pass. It is Georgia’s easternmost region shares a border with Russia in the north and Azerbaijan in the south and east. The region is just over 12,000 km2 covering about 18% of Georgian territory, but produces 75% of its wine production witvineyards cultivated at an altitude of 250-800 meters above sea level.
WINERIES TO VISIT IN THE KAKHETI REGION
(Note: Marani is the local term used for winery)
When visiting Tsinandali in Kakheti wine region, don’t miss the Tsinandali Estate, annexed to superb Radisson Tsinandali a luxury Spa hotel. This is where Georgian wine was bottled for the very first time. The cellar still boasts wine bottles from the 19th century! Apart from this historical background, the estate is full of other stories and activities for visitors.
The establishment of the Tsinandali estate is connected to Prince Alexander Chavchavadze. Going back to the 19th century, he was – in addition to being an excellent winemaker – a businessman, a military man, a poet, and one of the pioneers of Georgian romanticism. Tsinandali estate was turned into a cultural nexus and it can be said that they still maintain this image. Along with the historical artifacts of winemaking, you can see how the distinguished Georgians of the 19th century lived, take a walk in the beautiful garden.
Shilda Winery – A Modern winery designed with a modern Georgian twist is located in the Alazani River Valley with the impressive Caucasus Mountains to the north and the nation’s capital Tbilisi in the southeast. They have a an excellent range of wines mostly produced in the classic style, many of which have been given international awards.
Tiko Estate – 35,000 bottle estate of super sleek and well-made classic wines, including a sparkling and an excellent petnat wine, belongs to Levan Chychynadze and his family. i Chychynadze is also a partner to the Nekresi Estate, a small 28.000 bottle estate which exports most of its production. Be sure to visit Nekresi estate and plan a meal at thier super ‘shabby-chick’ style restaurant with excellent Georgian dishes, situated in Nekresi near the 6th century Nekresi monastery.
Marani Casreli represents one of the smaller wine producers in Georgia, almost a ‘garage wine’ with a very engaging story of a group of doctors whose love for wine led them in 2015 to plant a 1 ha vineyard in Vachadziani village in the Kakheti region. Today their 8 ha produce some 15.000 bottles of ‘natural’ wines made in Qvevri, fermented in the skins varying between 3-8 months, after which they are put into stainless steel tanks, a practice which often follows for ageing unless they wines are put back into Qvevri to age. All the wines at Casareli are produced with wild yeast and without the use of fining agents, producing some authentic, soul driven wines.
The Mildiani estate founded in 1990 is a mid-sized family run winery producing some 3M bottles, 50ha to additionally bought in grapes. Gorgi Dakishvili, one of Georgia’s most respected winameker gurus oversees production. Mildiani esate claim to be leaders in domestic sales with a ratio of 90% produced in the classic style and 7-10% produced in 2000 liter Qvevri, the latter from 30-year-old vines and older, using only wild yeast.
The Khareba Winery founded in 1995, Is one of Goergia’s oldest and one of the largest producers with 1500ha of vines with 300 grape varieties planted and some 6M bottles, of which only 3.5% is Qvevri wines for the domestic market. They are highly geared up for tourism, and in fact host some 100,000 visitors a year. Their main highlight is a visit to the amazing 7.7km underground tunnel, the Kvareli Wine Cave built on the edge of Alazani Valley. The cave, carved into the Caucasus rock massif, was opened in 1962 specifically for the World Congress of Vine and Wine. Throughout the year, the cave temperature ranges from 12-16°C, creating an ideal environment for wine storage and aging and holds up to 26,000 bottles of their top range wines which show an international influence in the use of oak.
Koncho & Co is one of the oldest wineries in Georgia founded under the Soviet rule in 1924, and was one of the first wineries to privatize and become independent. Their current 180ha produce some 2.5M bottles of which 90.000 litres (8% of production) produced form their older 25-year-old vines, make up their Qvevri production.
Their growth in the market is thanks to an in depth understanding of exports and a quality based commercial range of wines, many of which are attractive in price with approachable drinkability, today exporting to 22 global markets. Their top bottling, a full-bodied, elegant Saparevi is made in the classic conventional way aged 24 months in barrique and originates from a 75-year-old vineayrds where yields are as low as 4000kg per hectare and 20,000 bottles, each numbered and made only in top vintages.
Napareuli village is very small represented a handful of houses, home to Twins Wine House founded in 2005 by two brothers (identical twins) Gela and Gia Gamtkitsulashvili. Here the tradition of making wine has been passed down from generation to generation. In addition
to wine production, Twins Wine House also includes a hotel complex and a Qvevri and wine museum. This is one of the few wineries that out of its 15ha of vines has 4ha of organically certified wines and is looking to increase its organic capacity. Also, Twins Wine House were among the first Georgian producers in the history of modern winemaking in Georgia to bottle Qvevri wine and unlike most wineries their total production of 250,000 bottles comes from Qvevri production, using wild yeast only, producing a range of elegant and softly texture wines with a dynamic energy and distinct character of their own.
Georgia is famous for its distinctive, mouthwatering gastronomy and home to a delicious array of ingredients; these elements coupled with influences from the Mongols, Persians, Turkish and Russians, have meant Georgians consistently create some of the most interesting food in the world where each region boasts its own distinct style of food preparation.
Some of the most popular foods of the region include the ubiquitous Khachapuri – similar to an oven backed pizza filled with cheese – which you will find at most Georgian tables.
Khinkali are the famous Georgian soup dumplings whose pleats take years to master. Filled with broth and meat, or mushrooms and rigorously made by hand. Originating in the mountain region of Kazbegi, they can be found throughout the country, with restaurantswhich specialise in the dish. The dumplings are always eaten by hand by holding it at the top and taking a bite from the bottom, letting the tasty broth invade into your mouth. Georgia’s own style of polenta ‘Ghomi’ is made from cornmeal to accompany spicy meat stews and chicken cooked in spicy cream sauce. In the meats you will find an assortment of skewered grilled and bbq meats, a favorite among Georgians.
Having said that, it is also a real paradise for vegetarian and vegan preferences, offering a diversity of Pkhaleuli – different minced herbs and vegetables combined with walnut and fresh local herbs. Colorful fresh tomato and cucumber salads with added goat cheese are always popular. Nuts and dried fruits also play a big part in the cuisine and can be used in in salads, pastries and even meaty soups.
Desserts also have an eastern take, with superb puff pastry, nut cakes and crème brulé desserts, but one can always opt for the healthier fresh fruit platter. “Chacha” is drunk at the end of a meal – made with the left over skins, stalks, and pips and is like a ‘grappa’ or an ‘aquavit’.
I’d like to end this excursus on Georgia, its wine food and conviviality with a quote from John Steinbeck, on Georgia and Georgians, in ‘A Russian Journal’, 1948.
“They could out-eat us, out-drink us, out-dance us. They had the fierce gaiety of the Italians, and the physical energy of the Burgundians. Everything they did was done with flair…nothing can break the individuality of their spirit.”
TRAVEL INFORMATION & LINKS
The best time to visit Georgia is May, June or September. Gorgia is also great for those who love nature and the outdoors. The country has 20 nature reserves, including 14 “strict” nature reserves
Excellent freelance guide in Georgia: Maka Tarashvili – english-speaking guide with 15 years experiance, in addition to certificates from WFTGA and WSET
WhatsApp or Viber +995593907946
RESTAURANTS/WINE BARS IN TBLISI
- Nino Meris wine shop https://www.facebook.com/NinoMeris.ge
- Shavi Lomi Tblisi Cuisine – https://www.facebook.com/BlackLionRestaurant/
- Sulico Wine Bar – https://www.facebook.com/sulicowinebar/
Rooms Hotel Tbilisi – https://www.roomshotels.com
KAKHETI REGION PLACES TO STAY
Tsinandali Estate – Radisson Tsinindali –
- Marleta’s Farm – https://www.facebook.com/marletasfarm/
- Twins Wine House Winery – with hotel accommodation – https://twinswinehouse.com/en/home
- Savaneti Hotel in Telavi – https://savaneti.com/en/
- Lopota Lake Resortin Telavi –https://lopotaresort.com
- Chateau Mere in Telavi(good restaurant)- https://mere.ge
KAKHETI REGION WINERIES TO VISIT:
- Mosmieri – (https://www.georgianwine.uk/producer-focus-mosmieri/) andexcellent visitor facilities
- Schuchmann – https://www.georgianwine.uk/producer-focus-schuchmann-wines/ and excellent visitor facilities.
- Shilda Winery – https://winesgeorgia.com/domaine/shilda-winery/
- Nekresi Estate – with restaurant – guest house/hotel with 8 rooms
- Tiko Estate – https://www.facebook.com/tikoestate/
- Khareba Winery –https://winery-khareba.com/en/home
- Koncho and Co Winery – https://koncho.ge
- Twins Wine House Winery – with hotel accommodation – https://twinswinehouse.com/en/home
- Mildiani Winery – https://mildiani.ge/en
- Marani Casareli – https://winesgeorgia.com/domaine/marani-casreli/
- Best Georgian Wines –bgw.com.ge
For general information: www.georgianwine.uk
Michèle Shah is a marketing consultant, and a wine critic based in Italy for over 30 years, specialized in promoting Italian wines and food to export markets. Additionally, she is the originator of the innovative B2B formula registered under Speedtasting®. Since 2002 she has been consulting to the Italian wine trade, selecting international wine buyers and organising tasting events and workshops held at Italian trade events, such as Vinitaly Italy’s most important wine trade show; Winett in Venice, Maremmawineshire, Porto Cervo Wine Festival; Grandi Langhe Event, all aimed at presenting Italian wines and their producing regions to international wine importers and buyers.
For over ten years Michèle Shah has been organizing on behalf of Italy’s regional consorzio’s, wine tastings, seminars and educa