Ghvino, the word for “wine” in the Republic of Georgia, is as much a part of their national heritage as Flamenco is to Spain, or spice to India. Unlike the colder temperatures of Russia (Georgia’s neighbor to the north) the comfortable climate here feels more like northern California.
Grape cultivation is performed across the country and winemaking is a family-based tradition that has been passed down over generations for 8,000 years. This ancient date was affirmed by the discovery of a single grape seed found in an ancient clay pot used to make wine carbon-dated to around 6,000 BC and now proudly displayed in the Georgian National Museum. Only the neighboring Armenians can possibly argue an older wine culture, a point of dispute between nations.
The Ottomans, Persians, and Soviets have all left their imprint on this land in some way. Yet the cultivation of the vine persisted. In fact, making wine (and singing their traditional songs) became the most important way to maintain national identity. Throughout Georgian history, making wine was subversive.
Most recently, the Soviets absorbed Georgia into their vast empire and greatly altered the diverse heritage of wine production. In true Soviet fashion valuing quantity over quality, in the 1950’s they ripped up the old vineyards containing a staggeringly diverse set of more than 500 unique grape varieties indigenous to Georgia. With one bureaucratic stroke the genetic diversity of Georgian grape growing and winemaking had essentially been deleted.
Nearly 70 years after the loss of those vines, Georgians are reclaiming their winemaking heritage by investing time and effort to revive the genetic diversity of their vines. Before visiting the country, the best examples I tasted were vivid, energetic, and alive. In some cases the wines may not have been technically correct, polished, nor refined. But what the wines lacked in finesse they more than made up for in character.
Taking in the surroundings in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, the cityscape eventually draws one’s attention to the statue of Kartlis Deda, a symbol of the Georgian national character. Both guardian and ambassador, “Mother Georgia” stands watchful above Tbilisi with a sword in one hand to fend off foes and a bowl of wine in the other hand to welcome friends. I had come for the wine.
After an educational but unmemorable visit with a large commercial winery I headed just outside of Tbilisi to the central wine region of Mtskheta. I was about to be treated to my first experience at a family run marani (winery), known simply as “Iago’s Wine”. Iago Bitarishvili, the winemaker, is a slim but sturdy figure, softly spoken with an effortless smile that reflects the tenor of his wine. He and his family have worked this piece of land for generations.
Iago’s Wine is unique for many reasons, but his dedication to growing a single variety of white grape, Chinuri, sets him apart from many other producers who make wine from multiple grape varieties. Iago makes two different Chinuri wines. The first is a pristine, fresh white that is light, elegant, gentle, and goes down a little too easily. He simply refers to it as “Chinuri Without Skins”. The second is a more sturdy “Amber wine” (a deeper colored orangish Wine) that is made by leaving the skins and juice together for a wine with more power, grip, and color. Though it’s made from a white grape the resulting wine has the attitude and soul of a red wine because the wine is left in contact with the grape skins for many months. Easily enough to remember, it is called “Chinuri With Skins”.
Both of Iago’s wines are made in his small but ample winemaking room where his terra cotta clay qvevri wine tanks are completely buried in the ground. Qvevri (KWEH-vree) is an ancient Georgian invention, handmade from clay, formed into large egg-shaped amphora, and is likely the world’s first winemaking vessel. To the untrained eye the only evidence that wine is made in Iago’s marani is a series of carefully aligned “potholes” in the ground that are the access points to each qvevri. Burying them in the ground keeps the wine inside moderated by the steady cool temperature of the earth while the wine bubbles and ferments.
In an adjoining room we talked about the history of his family as the table began to fill with plates of skewered roasted meats, fresh tomatoes & cucumbers, eggplant with pomegranate seeds, and homemade tkmali – a sour plum sauce that is worth pouring on everything.
Iago’s Wines are soulful, personal, and charming. They are light on their feet and balanced in such a way that puts the drinker at ease. His wines put me into a meditative state and I floated back to the hotel where I was content to slip into a peaceful slumber before his elixir wore off.
Heading west on the main highway from Tbilisi we travel a few hours before stopping at a building aside the main highway in the region of Imereti. There is a river running alongside the property with multiple structures surrounded by hundreds of finished clay pots, clay toné (cylindrical ovens similar to tandoor), and qvevri. We are at the house of Zaliko Bodjadze, one of the last Qvevri producers still making this ancient clay winemaking vessel.
Around the buildings there are finished qvevri waiting to be shipped to people who placed orders from around the world. It can take 1-to-3 months to complete each larger sized vessel which can hold upwards of 3,000 liters. In 2013 UNESCO recognized the production of qvevri on their list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Since then, Zaliko has been back-ordered for as long as he can continue to make them. Not just for Georgian wineries, but winemakers all over the world.
Prior to that, this was not the case. Zaliko might have made smaller ones for families to make their own wine and larger ones if someone planned to make wine commercially. But once a family home has their qvevri securely buried, they rarely reorder. As for large sized vessels, few people were making qvevri wine for sale, because it was hard work for minimal quantity.
He uses a coil-building method that is very unlike the wheel-thrown method of ceramics used to make pottery. Starting with the base he forms a small cup and slowly adds tier upon tier of clay. He snakes three-inch thick coils of clay around and around until the desired size is reached. The process is laborious and time consuming. As each layer is added he scores the edges of the inner wall of the qvevri, and then simultaneously uses his right shoulder to drive, and his forearm to twist, the clay into the scored area. All the while his left hand is gently pressing inwards on the outer wall to make sure the new clay maintains shape. This is an art.
Once the shape is complete, the qvevri is carefully maneuvered a short but precarious distance to the next building that houses the kiln. It can take up to 4 men to guide the largest ones across the gravel driveway so that the clay doesn’t lose its shape. Here it will sit in the kiln large enough to fit several other pieces for six to seven days. The qvevri is then removed and allowed to cool. The final step is adding a layer of beeswax to the interior wall. This seals the clay so wine cannot seep out.
The tradition of making wine in buried qvevri is as old as any ancient tradition of underground fermentation. Across Georgia using qvevri was the most common way to make wine in small quantities, historically for personal consumption. Their daily bread and the daily wine were equally important household staples.
As anywhere else in the world where growing grapes and making wine is done without heavy machinery, it is physical work to grow, harvest, crush, and deposit the grape juice and skins into the clay tanks. Once pressed and collected in the qvevri the winemaker laboriously stirs the juice every few hours for a period of days to help encourage fermentation. These wines will always be made in small quantities because a winemaker can only handle so many qvevri at a time.
Once the juice and skins are in the tank, the qvevri does the rest. It is sealed for the winter and the tank’s egg-shape form naturally creates a cyclical current that churns the wine during the fermentation period until the process is complete. After a period of months all the solids fall to the bottom of the tank and collect in the conical base, separated from the finished wine. When spring arrives the qvevri is opened and the wine removed.
People refer to Georgian wines made this way as “proto-Natural wine”. In today’s era of Natural Wine focusing on environmentally minded grape growing and non-interventionist winemaking (a “nothing added, nothing taken away” philosophy), many wine producers from around the world are making pilgrimages to Georgia. They want to see the land that is birthplace to the vine and in many cases has been spared from the environmental impact of the industrial age. The lack of chemical use in the vineyard, harvesting by hand, and the refusal to add little or any sulfites to the winemaking process are all tenets of Natural Wine. But here in Georgia they work this way instinctively. The global “what’s old is new” mentality and the winemaking industry’s “commercial versus environmental” debate makes Georgia the epicenter of a modern wine movement.
Heading east from Tbilisi we climb the steep twisting roads of the Gombori Mountain Range that eventually descend towards the easternmost part of Georgia and the wine region of Khakheti. This is one of the world’s oldest wine regions, nestled in the Alazani River Valley. It is a simple land of hard working people who are blessed to live in a naturally fertile environment. The bluish-grey Caucasus Mountains loom in the distance and provide snowmelt that brings fresh water to the river plain. It is hard not to feel transported back a thousand years watching shepherds guide their sheep to graze. This is a land where time seems to have stood still.
The Eastern Orthodox Church remains very influential in Georgia with a long history in the country, regardless of whatever occupying empire’s religion. Bordered by Muslim nations to the south, Georgia was the first nation in the region to choose Christianity as its religion. Near the town of Akhmeta, the Alaverdi Monastery is an ancient structure where Georgian kings are buried and where wine has been made since the year 1011. This date is proudly displayed across each of their wine labels (not to be confused with the current vintage) and is their website, since1011.com.
A visit with the Alaverdi winemaker, Bishop Davit, revealed the true purpose of their winemaking. Dressed in his humble black robes, with a full beard, Bishop Davit turned to a life dedicated to God. He found that his childhood love of helping make the family wine would come to be his calling in the church. When drinking the heady ghvino made at the monastery, it is hard to think of it in secular terms. I struggled to ask him a legitimate question about the wine in my glass – a deeply hued amber wine made from one of the most widely planted Georgian white grapes, Rkatsiteli. It is bold, powerful, warming, and it floods your body from tongue to toes. The fact that it was a 2011 (their 1,000th vintage!) wasn’t lost on me.
I uttered something about how it was unlike any wine I’d ever tasted and was curious why he chose to make such a potent wine. Once my question was translated Bishop Davit laughed and said the wine he made was his way of communicating with God. It was a trump card of answer that rendered all future questions insignificant. I’m not saying the wines are a religious experience, but they are certainly for more than just pairing with food.
From the monastery traveling southeast from Akhmeta, the main road takes you through the heart of Kakheti’s wine route, passing the villages of Kondoli, Tsinandali, Gurjaani, to the scenic town of Signaghi perched atop a hill overlooking the river plain. Just before reaching Signaghi the tiny village of Kardenakhi is worth a stop because this is where Nika Bakhia makes wine.
Nika is an artist first and winemaker second, so talking about the wine he makes is less important than understanding that he simply makes things.
Ducks and chickens dart back and forth across the yard out front of the house. He’s playfully nicknamed one of the ducks “Fricassee” because the bird is unruly and he jokes it’s taste would far outperform its companionship. He would have already turned it into dinner if one of his children hadn’t formed a strong bond with it.
After a quick tour of the grounds he asks if we want to see his TV. I can’t say this was at the top of my list of things to see when visiting Georgia, but the smirk on his face followed by a playful giggle draws us up the stairs to the second floor. Before continuing up to the third floor we pass a table covered with tools, cables, wires, and an array of random parts. It’s obvious he is a tinkerer at heart – both curious and reckless, no doubt.
Up a handmade ladder we go to the top level that is reminiscent of a tree house; it’s an open-air room with three walls and a roof. There, above the tree line, the fourth wall was intentionally left unconstructed because it allows an unfettered view of the imposing Upper Caucasus Mountains that soar over the river plain. This is his “TV”.
“What else would you want to watch?”, he asks. It’s hard to argue. The mountains here simultaneously stun and humble as we float above the trees.
At lunch we taste his recently bottled wines. He makes a heady, skin-contact amber wine from the white grape Rkatsiteli, a mouth filling red from the red grape Saperavi, and an intense “rosé” that is a blend of both grapes. His red wines are the great wines of the house. When first bottled, Nika’s Saperavi is nearly black in color with brooding dark berry fruit, raw power, rustic tannin, and a jaw-curling grip. This is because the grape’s skin is thick, deeply pigmented, and the flesh of the grape is red.
This recent vintage of Nika’s Saperavi (2015) dances, punches, and wrestles with your tongue in a way that’s both pleasing and challenging. But that’s pretty much the point. And it’s no slouch with the salt roasted pork covered in fresh pomegranate that he grilled for lunch. With the food (and these wines need food) the aggressive nature of the wine is tempered just enough to allow an herbal and floral character to emerge. If the wine is allowed to rest for a few years there is little doubt it will relax and show more nuance with time.
On my last night in Georgia I discovered The Ghvino Underground – Tbilisi’s proper natural wine bar. The Natural Wine Movement is a large part of the identity of the Georgian wine community. Iago’s Wine, Nika’s Wine, Ramaz Nikoladze, and Pheasant’s Tears maranis are all embedded in the ethos of the Natural Wine scene. These wineries make tiny quantities of wine, only in the thousands of bottles, but enough to export some to other countries. Even smaller producers are represented at Ghvino Underground, which focuses on a selection of micro-production Georgian qvevri wine, where, in extreme cases, perhaps only 40 bottles are made in a given vintage.
It was an interesting thought that these wines could be coming from someone’s backyard or stashed in a public park without anyone knowing. Theoretically these qvevri can be buried anywhere. Instead, to find these wines, the bar’s owners toured the country, traveling from house to house, using mostly word of mouth as their guide to taste with anyone they heard was making exceptional wine. Once they found a wine they felt was special, they would have to convince the people to sell it to them instead of gifting it to them, because most people felt it rude to charge for their family wine. To this day many of those humble people do not feel their wine is a commercial endeavor. It is something you drink at home, and offer to your guest when they walk through the door.
Ghvino Underground feels like a clubhouse and fills with equal amounts of people as curious about wine as those who just want to listen to live music on the weekends. It is a beacon of natural wine for people from around the world. Sitting at the tables are a mix of locals and visitors from Japan, Australia, France, USA, and elsewhere.
One night there I found myself sitting next to a New Yorker who told me he read about Georgian wine after encountering a bottle at a wine shop. Intrigued, he emailed the name on the back of the bottle and was told if he came to Georgia there would be a vineyard visit awaiting him. On a whim he flew to Tbilisi and found himself at Ghvino Underground at the designated time, and was sat amongst a group of journalists from Europe. They were also waiting. They waited and waited and drank wine until the wee hours until John Wurdeman, the establishment’s owner and co-owner at Pheasant’s Tears winery, arrived.
Wurdeman, an American ex-pat artist who has been in Georgia for over 20 years, is an ambassador for the natural wine community in Georgia. In true Georgian fashion instead of waiting until morning, he whisked the whole group away in the middle of the night. Most were still happily drunk from hours of “wine research” and they continued the party and conversation on the two-hour drive to the Kakhetian countryside where the winery is located. They spent the next days going around the region, meeting other winemakers and listening to Wurdeman and his colleagues preach the Georgian wine gospel. After a few days of improvised wine tourism and cultural immersion everyone was deposited back to Ghvino Underground, where they dispersed. It’s the kind of place that breeds those types of experiences if you stay late enough at the bar.