“Georgians prefer white wine because you can drink a lot,” exclaimed Giorgi, my host at Khareba Winery, with a massive grin. “It’s not as strong as red so you can drink for a long time.”
In one brief, honest statement, he summed up the Georgians’ 8,000-year love affair with the grape.
With hundreds of indigenous grape varieties, tiny Georgia, squeezed between Russia to the north and Armenia and Turkey to the south in the Caucasus Mountains, is believed to be the earth’s oldest wine region. Passion for the vine runs extraordinarily deep here. Drinking wine is an integral part of the Georgian lifestyle. And they make wine their way, which is not only different than anywhere else on the planet, but virtually anathema to Western oenology. That difference, they say, is why they can drink as much wine as they want–without getting a hangover.
“Wine is at the center of our lives,” said Giorgi. “We all make our own. At our house, we make about 500 liters each year.”
It is estimated that more than 100,000 Georgian households – in a small country of some four million residents – make wine for their own personal consumption, as well as the drinking pleasure of their extended family and friends.
My introduction to Georgian wine happened fast and unexpectedly. I was in the thick of it literally within seconds. I had walked into the small, lone tavern in the tiny village of Vardzia, site of an historic cave city in the nearby cliffs, and before I’d even had a chance to take in the scene and setting, I was being offered a glass of wine. Suddenly I was surrounded by three Georgians and we were raising our glasses in a toast, to someone or something (I had no idea). It would be the first of scores of toasts, and countless glasses of wine, and plate after plate of food.
Perhaps the greatest expression of their love of the grape is the ‘Supra,’ Georgian feasts where vast quantities of wine are downed with a continuous stream of toasts. In Vardzia, I had stumbled into a Supra and instantly became an honored guest. And in Georgian culture it is truly an honor to be included in a Supra. Some are formal affairs, planned well in advance with a designated toastmaster, others just happen, and I was in the middle of such a happening.
The wine was served by the pitcher – large ones ‒ and each was drained within minutes. We raised our glasses seemingly every 30 seconds, and, at one point, interlocked arms to gulp full glasses. Plates of food were regularly plunked down on the table: tomato and cucumber salad, fried bread, roasted potatoes with onions and cilantro, beef vegetable soup. We drank and ate, and ate and drank.
Most toasts were accompanied by bursts of laughter, but hysteria erupted when they understood ‒ we shared no common language ‒ that I was from California. “Schwarzenegger!” they shouted in unison. “Schwarzenegger!” And we toasted repeatedly to Arnold and California.
A couple of hours into the Supra there was a lull and it seemed things were winding down, but they were only waiting for the pitcher of chacha, the potent (45-55% alcohol) Georgian brandy made from grape skins and seeds. And it began all over again – well, it actually never really stopped.
World-class Wines Too
Admittedly, the widespread family wine-making in Georgia results in a lot of very average wine.However, many top vintners are creating world-class wines that are starting to be noticed in international wine circles. Renowned wine expert Taylor Parsons recently noted, “Very little of what they’re doing is reasonable by Western standards, but the wines are so expressive.”
In Georgia, the grapes are fermented naturally ‒ with skins and seeds and often stems too ‒ in terra-cotta pots buried in the ground called qvevri. The process is organic with nothing added, with no metal fermentation tanks, and no aging in oak barrels. They’ve done it their way, according to archaeological evidence, since the 4th millennium B.C. The qvevri system produces reds and whites with unique characteristics. They’re generally dense and weighty with generous acidity and tannins. The reds can be so dark they’re almost black, are almost chewable, and often have notes of dried fruits. The whites are amber colored, often strong and complex, with mineral notes.
In the Kakheti region, the heart of Georgian wine country, natural properties also shape the wine, from the rust-colored soil infusing the fermenting fruit with dark earthiness to t exceptional water that is pure and fresh. There are many springs bubbling to the surface where, as I traveled about the area, I stopped to fill my water bottle.
Kakheti’s super verdant Duruji Valley is a patchwork of vineyards, tree-lined country lanes, and groves of fruit trees and flocks of sheep crossing the road. The valley is ringed by green-carpeted hills and snow-capped peaks beyond, and dotted with imposing citadels and cathedrals on promontories and high rocks, such as the impressive Gremi Fortress. In the marketplace in Telavi, the main town, peasant women peddle the bounty of the valley, from home-made honey, pickled vegetables and salty cheeses to ripe red tomatoes and ears of yellow corn.
This Garden of Eden is home to some of the best wineries – and the best wines ‒ in Georgia. At Khareba Winery, Georgia’s largest, we walked through underground tunnels ‒ there are several miles of them kept at about 52 degrees Fahrenheit year round housing 25,000 bottles of wine – to a tasting area. I sampled a delicious Krokhina, a popular white that was coppery in color, and a bold Superavi, one of the star reds of Georgia. At the tasting, palates were cleansed with small bites of bread dipped in grapeseed oil.
In Georgia, it’s all about the grape: Not only is wine the national drink and chacha the favorite spirit, but grapeseed oil is used almost exclusively for cooking and on salads, as well as a dipping sauce. Churchkhela, walnuts coated with a concoction of concentrated grape juice, flour and sugar, is the favorite, ubiquitous snack.
At Kindzmarauli Vineyard, I was immersed in the nitty gritty of the operation, from the grape crushing bins to sheds with rows of qvevri and the implements used to extract samples during fermentation to the bottling area with the latest Italian machines. I tasted a Kisi, among the most popular whites in Georgia, that was smoky and earthy, and a big-bodied Superavi as black as a starless night.
In the fetching hilltop town of Sighnaghi, Pheasant’s Tears Vineyard experiments with uncommon varietals, including a white Tsolikauri that is light, smooth and only semi-amber in color. They also make a one-of-kind Shavkapito red so dense light won’t penetrate. The one I drank was poured from a labelless bottle because it was not yet for sale.
A Supra Marathon
It was at Milorauli Vineyard that my Georgian wine education came full circle. Tamara and Sandro operate a boutique, home-based winery with qvevri buried in their backyard – where an 85-year-old vine planted by his grandfather still produces – and a cantina under the house. I was introduced to them by the proprietors of Nelly’s Hotel, where I was renting a room in the attic of their home, and Tamara and Sandro welcomed me with open arms.
“We dreamed of creating our own winery, every Georgian does, and we hope to build it up to 20,000 bottle per year, but only if we can maintain good quality,” said Tamara as we sampled their wines and chacha and nibbled on cheese, bread and churchkhela in the cool cantina.
I spent half an hour with them when the surprise came: They were holding a Supra that evening and I was invited. I couldn’t believe my luck. This would be a formal, very traditional, high-brow affair with an official toastmaster, and attended by two popular Georgian composers, a director of the music department at the University of Tbilisi (the capital), a noted Russian child psychologist and his concert-pianist brother, local winemakers and others.
Unlike at Vardzia, the toasts were lengthy, in-depth and well thought out, honoring everything from Georgian traditions to each guest at the table. (And I was not in the dark as several English-speakers translated for me.) But there was no less gusto. Pitchers of wine flowed endlessly, interspersed with blasts of fiery chacha. Glasses emptied almost as fast as they were filled. Dishes arrived every few minutes – dumplings stuffed with minced meat, lamb and chicken brochettes cooked over clippings from grape vines, stewed beef with tarragon, chacha soaked cake . All were finished off quickly. The guests remained unflinchingly thirsty and ravenous to the end.
As the Supra wore on, the hours passing, I began to cheat because I couldn’t keep up. I started taking tiny sips with each toast rather than a healthy chug. It had become an endurance challenge and I was losing. At one point, one of the composers fell asleep, chin-to-chest, snoring. When he was nudged by his fellow composer, he roared back to life, downing handfuls of cake, swigging a glass of wine, bursting into song and carrying on as if nothing had happened. How did he do that?
When the evening finally wound down, I thanked my hosts profusely. They insisted they were the thankful ones. “A guest is a gift from God, goes the saying in Georgia,” said Tamara, explaining the warm hospitality that I experienced throughout my travels there.
The Supra had endured for nearly seven hours, but the next morning was the real test. Would there really be no ill affects to the overindulging? Does wine made naturally in a qvevri allow you to drink as much as you want, as the Georgians’ claim?
It was a bright, sunny morning ‒ and I felt great, as if I had not even been to a Supra the night before. Not a hint of a hangover. And so I celebrated Georgian style–with a glass of wine at breakfast. — Story and photos by Edward Placidi, RFT Contributor