“Raise a glass to Georgia, which could now be the birthplace of wine,” wrote Nicholas St. Fleur, a New York Times reporter, for the Trilobites column in late 2017. That sentence marked the second time in less than a year that I read about Georgian wine.
Last summer, I tried a white wine from Horton Vineyards in northern Virginia made from Rkatsiteli grapes, one of the oldest wine grape varietals whose origins lie in Georgia. Up until that fateful day, I had never heard of Rkatsiteli, simply referred by aficionados as “R-kats,” a relative newcomer to the Virginian viticulture scene. So that summer afternoon found not only my fiance and I enjoying a glass of the crisp yet refreshing white wine, but me mentally adding the country, that is slightly smaller than South Carolina, to my must-visit list.
So imagine my surprise when I got my chance nearly three months later. Work called me to Asia unexpectedly, and knowing I would be at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, I made it my mission to get to Georgia en route back to the U.S. Despite a severe lack of pre-planning, I found myself in the capital of Tbilisi after a 12-hour layover in Dubai.
GETTING THERE: While there currently are no nonstops from the U.S. to Tbilisi, direct flights are offered from several cities in Europe as well as Dubai. Most people arrive via Tbilisi International Airport (TBS), which is located 11 miles southeast of the city center.
LODGING: I stayed at the No 12 Boutique Hotel located just a short walk from the heart of old Tbilisi. It’s quiet, yet central location was the perfect base for my two-night stay. My sparse yet cozy room on the ground floor was located just off the 24-hour front desk. While the bed was rather firm, the complimentary bedside bottled water and heated towel rack were nice amenities.
SIGHTS: With limited time, I opted to hire a tour guide. I come across Makho Tours, rated #1 on TripAdvisor for cultural tours which comes as no surprise. He was quick to respond and made it easy to book two tours with him all via email. Despite the short notice, the owner arranged for a colleague to be my tour guide on the first day since he was already committed to touring that day.
BOTTOM LINE: $619, plus winery visits and snacks
Traveling to Georgia was a side trip during work so I only had to pay for my flight to Georgia from India via Dubai on budget airline, flydubai. Snacking all day at the wineries meant I wasn’t hungry for dinner, sadly, my first night in Tbilisi.
Flight ($288 USD) | Lodging ($131 USD) | Day Tour, excluding winery visits ($200 USD)
I landed in the early predawn hours with no plans other than to drink wine, and to make a day trip to neighboring Armenia. I made reservations for two nights at the No 12 Boutique Hotel three days prior to my arrival. Because I landed at 3 am, the hotel offered to arrange a driver to pick me up and bring me to the hotel for a small fee. After zigzagging through the narrow cobblestone streets, we arrived at the hotel where my taxi driver dropped me off before kissing me on both cheeks and zooming off into the sunrise.
Thankfully, my room was not occupied the night before my early morning arrival, so the front desk graciously let me check in early. The minimalist accommodations were a welcome retreat after seeing the opulence of Dubai. With a hot shower and a nap behind me, I enjoyed the hotel breakfast before venturing out for a mid-morning stroll to meet my tour guide/driver.
THE GEORGIAN WINE CIRCUIT
In 10 hours, my tour guide and I covered 200 miles in a circuit east of Tbilisi in the heart of the Kahketi wine region.
Giorgi Jangirashvili is a 28-year old renaissance man of sorts. A former amateur boxer turned MMA fighter turned professional tour guide, he collects me from the main road near my hotel promptly at 10 am. The plan for the day was to drive to the heart of Georgia’s Kakheti wine region where we visited the Bodbe Monastery in the town of Sighnaghi along with a few wineries in the area before driving back to Tbilisi via the Gombori Pass.
As we left the city center heading east, Gio told me about the transition from training to be a boxer since his youth in his uncle’s gym to becoming a full-time tour guide for the past three years. He is a member of the Georgian Association of Guides (SAGA), which the closest thing the country has to a licensed, regulatory body for tour guides. In order to become a SAGA Certified Guide, a tour guide has to successfully pass three exams that demonstrate his competency in the areas of Georgian History and Culture, Guiding Skills and Communication, and Tour Planning through a practical walking tour, written exam, and transportation tour exam. This certification, recognized by the Georgian Tourism Administration, represents the highest level of certification a guide can obtain.
The further we drove into the valley, the overcast skies gave way to dreamy fog. At certain points I was able to see the fertile green landscapes and the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains in the distance. Gio told me February is not the best time to visit and that I must come back in the spring or fall. I told myself the exact same thing.
Our first stop is the Patardzeuli Winery located 25 miles outside of Tbilisi. It’s a factory for the massive Kakhetian Traditional Winemaking (KTW), a leading producer and exporter of Georgian wine and brandy. It’s also a nice introduction to Georgian wine. Georgia is home to over 500 different grapes. Yet, only 38 types are commercially used in winemaking. In lieu of chardonnay or merlot, you hear challenging names like Saperavi, Alexandreuli, Mujuretuli and Rkasiteli.
A tourist center/wine shop and two large buildings are visible from the main road. After checking in at the tourist center, Gio and I walked to Building II, where KTW processes grapes from nearly 1,000 farms. As part of the private tour, I also had the opportunity to taste several Georgian wines directly from the stainless steel fermentation tanks.
According to their 2013-2014 annual report, KTW’s 250+ employees can produce up to 100,000 bottles per day. KTW currently exports their wine to 20 countries, including the U.S. Georgia’s largest importer is Russia, but this has not always been the case.
The Georgian Wine Blockade
In 2006, relations between Russia and Georgia were at an all-time low. Georgia’s then-President Mikheil Saakashvili was vying for NATO membership and Russian President Vladimir Putin was growing increasingly disconcerted with the leader’s pro-Western policies. At the time nearly 80% of Georgian wine was exported to one country–Russia. So the Kremlin responded by banning all imports of Georgian wine (along with mineral water and fresh produce). Officially, the Russian government officially blamed impurities and a lack of quality standards for the sanctions. After Saakashvili lost the parliamentary vote in late 2013, the Kremlin quickly ended the embargo.
Georgian wine exports have skyrocketed since then. According to the National Wine Agency of Georgia, Russia imported 47.7 million bottles of wine last year, more than double the combined total of the other four countries in the top five: Ukraine, China, Kazakhstan and Poland.
As we drove from the KTW factory to our next stop, I saw scores of small homegrown family vineyards. Gio explained that nearly every family in Georgia, including his own, grows and often sells their own wine. Ask a Georgian how long their family has been making wine and you won’t get a straight answer. The real answer is they don’t know, but they do know they’ve always made wine. Wine is a way of life in Georgia. As we drove further into the heart of Kakheti, Gio acknowledged the ban forced the government to oust producers of counterfeit Georgian wines and put in place stronger quality and safety standards, thus leading to the resurgence of Georgia’s viticulture heritage that’s drawn tourists like myself to the small country.
The Ancient Art of Breadmaking
Before reaching our next destination, we stopped along the side of the road for shoti, fresh Georgian bread, made in a toné, a large circular-shaped hearth at the heart of every Georgian community. We arrived just as another group of tourists were leaving, so I received a private baking demonstration. Molded into long diamond shapes and placed along the hearth walls, it takes just a few minutes for perfect roasting. While the bread is baking, Gio and I taste and purchase the famous salty and sour suluguni cheese to go along with our bread. I tried cheese made from pasteurized cow’s and goat’s milk, and decided rather quickly that I prefer the less tangy suluguni produced from cow’s milk. Gio said this family makes the best shoti so he purchases several to take home.
Back in the car with our mid-morning snack, we drove an hour further east to the magnificent Bodbe Monastery, located on the edge of the town of Sighnaghi. Timing continued to be in my favor as we arrived when a large tour bus was departing. Before paying the small fee to enter the grounds, Gio and I grabbed hot coffees from the onsite cafe because the temperature started to drop.
Nestled among tall cyrus trees on a steep hill overlooking the Alazani Valley lies the Bodbe Monastery. A dense fog lended an ethereal quality to the grounds the day I visited. Now a nunnery, the monastery was dedicated to Saint Nino, who brought Christianity to Georgia. Candles and religious souvenirs can be purchased inside the church. On the right side of the complex a new church in the classic Georgian style is being built. Some 600-plus steps down the hillside lies a natural spring, according to Gio, though I couldn’t see past the first set of steps due to the fog.
The Great Wall of Georgia
After walking around the grounds for a bit, Gio and I continued on to Sighnaghi, the city of love. It’s home to the the Sighnaghi Wedding House, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week for lovers looking to seal the deal. But that’s not what makes the small town of 3,000 special.
A 2.5 mile defensive wall, originally built by King Ereke II in the 18th century surrounds Sighnaghi. Gio guided me to one of the starting points and agreed to meet me with the car at the very end. Despite the fog, I could see into the Alazani valley as I walked along the mini great wall.
The Tunnels of Khareba
With a bit of exercise complete for the day, it was time for more wine. Gio and I headed 25 miles northwest to Winery Khareba, where five miles of tunnel have stored and aged Georgian wine since the 1960s. Today, these tunnels store over 25,000 bottles of the company’s European and qvevri wines (more on this in a bit). After parking, Gio and I walked to the entrance to check out the various tour options. I decided a tour and tasting in the tunnel was a must, so off we went.
After a short walk and tour of old winemaking equipment, I tasted six Georgian wines. Served with bread, cheese and olive oil, it was a unique experience to taste wine in the tunnel. With over 2,500 acres of vineyards across Georgia, Khareba can produce over 6 million bottles per year. I ended up purchasing a mere three on our way out.
The Kindzmarauli Corporation
From Khareba, it was a 30-minute drive to the grounds of the Kindzmarauli Corporation. Gio and I arrived just as a wine tasting with a group of tourists from China was about to begin. I had the opportunity to taste several qvevri wines in a small room with long picnic tables just off the wine shop entrance.
After our wine tasting, our guide led the small group of tourists on a tour of the grounds. In addition to traditional Georgian qvevri wine, the Kindzmarauli Corporation also uses modern techniques for its winemaking, so I got to see large stainless steel fermentation tanks, oak barrels, and top-of-the-line bottling equipment. I purchase two bottles of wine for myself after exploring the gift shop.
Qvevri, the Art of Traditional Georgian Winemaking
Qvevri are large, cone-shaped vessels used in traditional Georgian wine. Buried in the ground or floor of a marani, or wine cellar, qvevri-produced wine has the advantage of darkness, consistent temperature, and proper humidity, the holy trinity of stellar wine. Most marani have holes of different sizes. A human body can fit upright in the largest vessels.
The traditional method involves pressing the grapes and pouring the juice, skins and pulp into the qvevri. Depending upon the region and winemaker’s style, the grape stems may or may not be included. Qvevri wine ferments for at least five to six months in the ground before moving to a clean qvevri for aging.
The large vessels are then washed, sanitized with a mixture of crushed limestone and water and re-coated with beeswax (a natural sealant) for reuse. The frequency of the recoating varies by winemaker. Some reseal after every vintage, while others reseal every few years. This has occurred for centuries in Georgia, with the process for making the vessels and producing the wine passed down from generation to generation.
As I tasted qvevri wine from multiple wineries, it’s clear how connected traditional winemakers are with the land. I learn that most protest the term “winemaker” because they don’t believe they are responsible for the end result. It is the uncultivated, raw, pesticide-free land that does all the work. Because of the organic production and extended skin-on-contact period, qvevri wine is full of tannins that produce what I find to be full yet mellow, dry but smooth, highly drinkable wine. An added bonus is the aging potential, although given how good these qvevri wines are, it’s hard to hold on to them for an extended period.
The Living Vine Museum of Shumi
Our last stop of the day was to Shumi Corporation, home of the country’s first “living” vine museum, which features 294 indigenous Georgian varietals and 92 European varietals, in addition to a wide variety of ancient winemaking artifacts. After a tour of the museum, Gio and I sit down so I can taste four different Georgian wines–Tsinandali (dry white), Saperavi (dry red), Mukuzani (dry red) and Kindzmarauli (semi-sweet red). Unfortunately, Shumi recently sold out of my favorite, the Saperavi. However, the two brothers working the wine shop assured me the 2014 Mukuzani is right up my alley, so I bought a bottle to carry home.
After a successful day of wine tasting, we make two more photo stops–1) in front of this metal wine sculpture of sorts and 2) the famous plane tree in Telavi. Reported to be more than 900 years old, this deciduous planatus orientalis is 150 feet high and nearly 40 feet wide. We made the nearly two-hour journey back to Tbilisi via the Gombori Pass as night began to fall. The closer we get to Tbilisi, the thicker the evening fog grew until Gio could barely see two feet in front of him. With hands of steel, Gio drove down the pass around the various switchbacks as bright lights periodically flashed by from oncoming traffic. We made our way down the pass in 45 minutes, and were back to Tbilisi right around 8 pm.
While the weather was not the greatest, visiting in February meant most stops were devoid of hoards of tourists, which made for a pleasant day. Most of all, I can’t wait to return to Georgia to explore more of this beautiful country, and taste even more wine from grapes I’ve never heard of. However until that day, I am thankful Total Wine keeps Georgian wine, namely Saperavi, Mukuzani and Rkatsiteli in stock.