We were as eager to discover Georgia, one of the oldest wine regions in the world, as children watching the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. A country whose viticultural history, as rich as it is tormented, has been home to wine production for at least 8000 years, in the fertile valleys of Transcaucasia. From west to east, join us for a visit of an emotionally charged vineyard, which counts about 55,000 hectares of vines for 500 wineries (1).
After three days of crossing the Black Sea from the Ukraine, on a boat filled with truckers and their trucks with all kinds of goods – during which we met some dolphins and sympathized with a Norwegian biker – we finally landed in the province of Imereti, west of Georgia.
A viticultural region in full mutation which seduced us ; although it is still less known than its sisters from the center and the east (2). The cause, undoubtedly, a production still too heterogeneous.
We stopped in Baghdati, the wine and cultural capital of the region, to meet Gaioz Sopromadze, a winemaker reflecting the legendary generosity and joviality of the Georgians.
"The stranger who knocks at your door is your guest ; it's a gift from God!", this young 66-year-old, who passionately produces delicious wines, natural and without filtration, from the autochthonous varieties Tsolikouri (white) and Otskhanuri sapere (red) summarized.
An epic evening, during which we devoured traditional khatchapouri (a delicious cheese bread), skewers of lamb and some local cheeses.
"Gaumarjos!“, exclaimed our host, clinking with us, arm in arm. Thus setting the tone for this Georgian baptism of the utmost success.
Few wine-growing countries can boast of a wine culture as strong as that of Georgia. Here, since the dawn of time, every village, every family, every house, produces and consumes its own wine. A craft production, of course, but which shows all the dimensions including the spiritual (almost sacred) dimension of wine among the Georgians.
Some have a real passion for it, which they convert into a profession. Like Baia Abuladze, a talented and friendly oenologist who created Baia's Wine in 2015; becoming, at the age of 22, the first woman winemaker in Georgia.
By taking over the 1.5 hectare family estate in the village of Obcha, Baia has made a significant contribution to bringing the wine-making potential of the Imereti region to light, notably by distributing their production to upscale restaurants and fine wine merchants.
Voted "Georgian woman of the year" in 2017, Baia opened the way for many vocations.
"The reason we love our job so much, my family and I, is because we really like to drink a glass of our wine," this exceptional young winemaker, who has recently become one of the essential figures of the Georgian wine scene, shared with a smile and with a lot of modesty.
A few streets further, in the lower part of Obcha, we met with the Gachechiladze brothers : Zurab, Zaza and Aleksandre. This trio, who’s family has been involved in winemaking for generations, is at the head of a vineyard of three hectares.
That day they were in the process of grafting
Tsolikouri, an indigenous white grape from the region.
The rootstock thus created will help to protect the vine against phylloxera. It constitutes the buried part of the vine and serves as a support for the graft, here of Tsolikouri.
A unique dexterity in the gesture and a task performed masterfully ; which reminded us that in Georgia, the great majority of the vineyard’s work is still manual.
It was 10 am : time for a break. Zaza invited us to the cellar, a bottle in his hand. He put glasses on a can, popped the cork and served us all a good swig. "Gaumarjos!".
Georgia has just over 500 species of grapes, which is more diverse than anywhere else in the world. About 40 of these varieties are used in the production of commercial wine.
And sometimes, it happens that grape varieties, that we thought had disappeared, resurface! Obene Winery is the beautiful story of Misha Tsirdava, in the village of Mukhuri (Samegrelo region, in the center of Georgia).
A few years ago, Misha left his bureaucratic job to live his dream: to become a winemaker and to update the forgotten grape varieties of his region.
In an old book of ampelography (3), he noted that two varieties that seemed very famous a long time ago, seemed to have completely disappeared : Chvitiluri (white) and Koloshi (red).
Curious by nature and having given himself the mission to save this lost heritage, Misha wandered the region relentlessly for months, going from village to village, knocking on the doors of houses, his book under his arm, in search of these grape varieties.
"The villagers all have vines in their gardens and I have always been hoping to find this lost heritage", Misha explained. One day he succeeded. He bought the small quantity of grapes which grew in the gradens of three villagers, to see what results he could obtain by vinification.
The outcome: deep and captivating wines, with notes of spring flowers (for white as for red) and the realization of a dream for this young winemaker.
This year, Misha plans to plant 0.5 hectares of each in his home. Sufficient for the moment. The world of wine never ceases to amaze us!
In Georgia, from 4,000 years BC, grape juice was stored in buried clay pots – the famous quevri, now listed as UNESCO heritage – to ferment during the winter months and to give birth to wine in the spring time.
These containers have contributed greatly to the reputation of Georgian oenology. The manufacturing process requires ancestral know-how, passed on verbally by master craftsmen from one generation to the next.
We had the great privilege of meeting some craftsmen, in the village of Tkemlovana, the temple of the manufacturing of qvevri.
"We make terracotta jars with a capacity of 100 to 3500 liters, depending on market demand", we were told.
This process requires meticulous, difficult and seasonal work. The qvevri are shaped by hand, in successive layers, which are then cooked only in August (the hottest period of the year – to dry properly), in a giant ovens sealed by a brick wall.
Finally, the interior of the qvevri is lined with a layer of beeswax, ensuring its tightness and its antiseptic properties.
And what can be better than to have an aperitif from the bottom of a qvevri?!
Did you know that Georgia, as surprising as it may seem, produced mainly industrial wines until 2006 ; prior to the Russian embargo (4)? Until then, most of the wine was shipped in bulk to Russia, it’s main customer.
This contradictorily lead to a prodigious qualitative leap for the local wine industry, then forced to adapt to export elsewhere.
Thus, and to our delight, it is now possible to drink delicious Georgian wines all over the world.
A good example is amber wines (sometimes erroneously referred to as "orange wines"). These wines have a unique character, style and color, due to a long period of maturation on skins and seeds in qvevri.
All these componants contribute to the color and tannin structure of the wine resulting in a superb velvet mouthfeel. When tasting this wine blind, one could even believe that it is a red wine!
A tip: do not miss the wines of the Marani Milorauli (5), in Telavi, in the province of Kakheti! Sandro Milorava and his family will welcome you for a memorable tasting of their wines, all made in qvevri.
Nectars full of charm, especially in white, like the cuvée Trio, a blend of three white grape varieties (Kisi, Khikhvi and Mtsvané); a delectable wine, racy and tannic, with a perfume of flowers and citrus.
The family has even opened a very cozy Bed and Breakfast, where you can spend the night and taste some local specialties. Notice to the amateurs!
Another talented producer is Giorgi Aladashvili. Devoted to biodynamic practices, he was the Georgian’s pioneer of this discipline.
A method of agricultural production still not fully understood in this country. "People often think I'm crazy", Giorgi said laughingly. After working for a few biodynamic figures (like Marie-Thérèse Chappaz in Switzerland), he created Ruispiri Biodynamic Vineyard in 2016.
A small paradise lost at the foot of the Caucasus, in the village of Ruispiry (Kakhetie region). A beautiful love story with nature, which marked the end of our stay in Georgia.
Not only were the wines delicious, but the man was quite a character. He didn’t use any metal or concrete for the construction of his cellar, only quicklime and reclaimed wood.
"No cell phone turned on in my marani", Giorgi said.
And adding with humor: "I do not know if we can feel the energies from the wine in tasting (though) ; but if after a third glass, I still want a fourth, then it's a good sign!".
His 4-hectare vineyard is planted with autochthonous varietals: Rkatsiteli, Kakhuri mtsvané, Kisi and Khikhvi in white; Saperavi, Simonaseuli and Iraltos in red; producing subtle and emotionally charged wines, to be meditated.
With its legendary generosity, the diversity of its wine heritage, its ancestral know-how and its wines with thousands of flavors, Georgia has undoubtedly bewitched us!
Thank you to Baia Abuladze, Gaioz Sopromadze, to Chkheidze, Gachechiladze, Obene, Dadiani Wine Cellar, Marani Milorauli and Ruispiri Biodynamic wineries, as well as to all the craftsmen of the village of Tkemlovana who have opened their doors to us, for their warm welcome. Thanks to Gotcha Xorava, from the Tourism Development Department of Baghdati, for his precious help. Thanks also to Mr Irakli Cholobargia, Marketing Director of the National Wine Agency of Georgia, for his expertise on the Geogian vineyard. Finally, a big thank you to our friend and guide Salomé Khardzeishvili, for the fabulous organization of this trip and for being with us during our stay.
(1) Source : National Wine Agency of Georgia, 2018 figures.
(2) The wines of Georgia are divided into several zones: Kakheti, Kartli and Imereti in the east, Samegrelo, Guria, Ajaria and Abkhazia in the west. The main wine region is Kakheti, with 70% of all Georgian wine production.
(3) Ampelography, a common discipline in botany and oenology, is mainly concerned with the morphological description of grape varieties by budding (apex), herbaceous twigs, adult leaves, bunches, vines, etc.
(4) In 2006, Moscow officially imposed an embargo on mineral water and Georgian wines for official health reasons, thus affecting Georgia's main export products to Russia.
(5) The marani is the name given to the Georgian cellar.