Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Sampling wine and its history in the Republic of Georgia

 

It is not every day you walk into the grounds of an ancient castle to sample wines at a winery set up on the order of a king, but today I was doing just that as part of a one day winery tour of Kakheti region in western Georgia.

The Republic of Georgia that is, the country that sits on the eastern shore of the Black Sea and has Russia looming over it both geographically and geopolitically. Not the USA state where people talk funny.

While much is written about wine and wine history, everything from the Romans love of wine and how the Greeks thought it was pretty good as well, to recent historical tomes that cover Italian and French wines, they all pale into insignificance compared to Georgia’s wine history.

But I get ahead of myself – back to the present. My guide for the day was Giorgi, a mountain of a man with a great knowledge of, and a love for his homeland who was to spend the day introducing me to Georgian wine and the insane thing that are Georgia’s roads and traffic.

Our destination was the Kakheti region, 150km NW from the nation’s capital Tbilisi. The area is Georgia’s main wine growing region, accounting for 80% of production and just over 70% of the wineries.

Countryside of Republic Georgia

Pleasing country views of NW Georgia –  an overcast day limited the grandeur of the scene

The tour was to cover three wineries and on the way travel through a diverse range of landscapes influenced by the Caucus Mountains to the north that help shape a series of micro-climates that needs over 500 grape varieties to fully exploit.

Our first stop was at Kindzmarauli Corporation cellars. By way of appreciating the ‘modern’ history of wine production in Georgia, it should be noted that this winery dates back to 1533 and was established by order of the local king and is located within the ancient castle walls.

The visit includes a free and informative tour where the guide explains the two types of wine making processes used.

Kindzmarauli Corporation cellars

The tour guide explains the tops of the Qvevri sit flush with the ground

One is the style we are all more or less familiar with – crush the grapes, put the juice into stainless steel vats, allow to ferment and then transfer to oak or other wooden casks for final maturing.

Then there is the Georgian method, a process that has been in use for almost 8,000 years according to archeologically that has dated traces of wine on pottery shards back to the neolithic period.

The traditional Georgian method sees whole grapes, including skins and stalks placed in large clay pots called Qvevri. These Qvevri sit in the ground with their tops flush with the soil thus maintaining an even temperature and the grapes ferment for 3-6 months.

Georgian wine making Qvevri

Old Georgian wine making Qvevri can be two metres in height when standing

The result is a wine that is generally of the dry style and one where the white wine has a pleasant golden hue owing to the skins and stems remaining with the wine as it fermented.

Wine is to Georgians like apple pie is to Americans, a BBQ is to Australians and cooking is to the French. But even more so.

Wine forms part of Georgia’s history, from the support of wine as a drink during the Christian expansion in the 4th century to the traditional Georgian Christian cross being made from grape vines to the important place wine still plays in daily Georgian life.

It is not uncommon for households to produce their own wine in Qvevri that sit nestled in the soil in villages and indeed urban areas across the country. This is just as well as Georgians are renowned for their toasts and my own experience later in my Georgian trip where we toasted everything from friendship to the weather!

The second stop was at Winery Graneli. In addition to another round of tasting reds where glasses are filled rather more generously than at western wineries, I was able to taste Georgia’s national drink, Cha Cha. This is a Georgian version of vodka, made using grape pomace (the leftover solids after wine production) that is distilled to produce a clear fluid of around 42% alcohol.

Never having tasted vodka before I was perhaps a little unprepared for the impact of this powerful brew as it slid down my throat! I should also mention that at every wine tasting there is plenty of local bread and cheese on hand…”Pass the cheese please!”

It is timely to pause here and mention that the cost of living in Georgia is cheap compared to just about every other western country (it has to be as the average wage in Georgia is around US$350/month) – so allowing for perhaps slightly inflated local cellar door prices, I was able to pick up a bottle of Cha Cha for GEL10 (AU$6.10) and a top shelf red for GEL15 (AU$9.20).

After depositing the purchases in the tour vehicle it was a pleasant stroll through maintained grounds to the final cellar – the unique of Winery Khareba.

Tunnels of Winery Khareba

The tunnels of Winery Khareba are lined with 25,000 bottles of wine – and CCTV

Consisting of 15 linked tunnels originally built for military purposes by the Russians, the complex consists of two parallel tunnels reaching 800 metres and connect to other tunnels that are 500 meters long. The walls of the tunnels are lined with 25,0000 bottles of Khareba wines.

Winery Khareba wines

Winery Khareba wines – neatly stacked

While the tour covers only one short section of the tunnel visitors can only be amazed at the thousands of bottles shelved along the walls as we passed by and to think that only a few hundred metres are covered in this tour and how many more lay deeper within the mountain.

The winery offers several packages depending on the number of wines to be tasted that are produced from grapes from the 1000 hectares of vineyards owned by the winery and cover 16 different varieties.

This was the only winery where there is an admittance charge of GEL3 for the tour only up to GEL12 for tour and wine tasting. Higher priced packages are available that includes more culinary inclusions.

As the tunnels remain at a consistent 12-14c and 70% humidity, during summer tour participants are provided with bright blue blankets to wrap themselves in for the duration of the tour.

Winery Khareba tasting of wine

Blankets were welcome in the 14c temperatures

As with the other winery an explanation of the wine-making process was provided – this time in less heavily accented English so it was good to be able to fill in the gaps from the previous winery tour.

After the tour a great way to wrap up is take the lift to the expansive deck where it is pleasant to enjoy a coffee with admiring the view over the valley and vineyards.

My guide Giorgi took me back to Tbilisi a different route, proving a nice circular path that allowed me to see many of the other sights along the way, and more of the crazy road antics of humans and the seemingly oblivious nature of cows and other farm animals that either sit or wander happily on roads and highways.

Depending on your other tour activities the are are several sites of significance that can provide interesting stops. One of these is the Gremi Monastery and castle featuring the old royal citadel and the later Church of the Archangels that dates from 1565.

There are also opportunities for some great scenery photos as well.

View of Georgia

The scenery is always interesting, if not downright stunning – click to enlarge

 

About Georgia

Georgia remains one of the world’s best kept secrets as a tourist destination. The country offers a great range of options to interest a wide range of visitor interests:

Culture – totally unique and the people are for the most part warm and friendly.

Religious history – no matter your religious views you cannot help but appreciate the  deep and rich religious history dating back to the 4th century.

Wine – see above. Drinking wine is a national pastime.

Food – The unique food is another topic as well!

Buildings – an odd aspect to mention but most people like places subconsciously due to buildings. Georgia has a wealth of ancient churches, villages, abandoned soviet era factories and some of the best adventurous modern architecture on building ranging from hotels to just about every government building construction within the last 10 years. It is a delight to wander the main areas and the back streets of Old Tbilisi, around Kutaisi and the seaside city of Batumi.

Landscape – It has been said of other countries but it especially applies to Georgia. There is a LOT of country in a small space. There are so many geographic variables allowing for a mountain top-lunch followed by a seaside dinner. From lush greenery of the west coast to the drier interior and the treeless mountain tops that soar to over 5,000m.  It is without a doubt a photographers dream.

Getting  and staying there

Georgia is well-serviced by a number of international air carriers who fly from a range of European and Middle-Eastern cities. You can also travel overland from Turkey, Russia, Armenia or Azerbaijan

My tour was hosted by Info-Tblisi.com, an inbound tourist agency offering a wide range of tourist services. They can arrange a tour with Giorgi for wine and any other aspect or place in Georgia.

Accommodation was provided by Hotel Tbilisi Apart conveniently located just 2km from Tbilisi Old Town and opposite a Metro station, with a bus stop at the door and convenience stores and a currency exchange close handy. The city is well-serviced by over 900 other hotels, guest houses and home stays

Language may be an issue, so having a guide is a good idea, especially for out of the way places. Most young people speak English.

Note on money

US$ and EUR prefered

US$ and EUR preferred -click to enlarge

You cannot pre-purchase currency (Georgian Lari) outside the country. The most accepted and easily changed currencies at any of the many hole-in-the-wall currency exchanges are EUROs and US$. They may look questionable, but offer competitive rates.Outside the cities be prepared to pay cash for everything.

Questions?

Happy to answer what I can in comments.

Update

I am arranging a 7 day photographer’s tour of Georgia in May or June 2016. Please let me know if interested in comments or see this Facebook page

 

 

 

 

 

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