Georgian wine on my mind
A wine adventure 8,000 years in the making threads a delicate path of old and new in this ancient land.
"Gaumarjos!” says Janice Kirkwood, raising her glass as she offers the traditional Georgian toast. Seated at a wooden table in a small restaurant in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, I’m about to taste my first glass of Georgian white wine. Only it’s not quite white. It’s a rich amber colour. My discovery of Georgian food and wine has only just begun and I’ve already discovered that not only will there be an abundance of food on this trip, but plenty of wine too.
Enjoying a glass of amber wine high in the hills of Georgia (Image credit: Getty Images).
Over the next ten days, Janice and her long-term friend and business partner, Sue Dempster, lead us on a food and wine journey of Georgia. A journey that means learning “a whole new wine vocabulary,” says Sue.
Janice and Sue know something of Georgia’s wine industry. The names of grape varieties and wine growing regions flow off their tongues, but they still have plenty to learn. Which is why we visit 8000 Vintages, a Tbilisi wine shop, so named because the winemaking tradition in Georgia started some 8,000 years ago. I settle into my seat at a long wooden table, surrounded by shelves laden with wine five or six bottles deep. Large cardboard tags with handwritten prices dangle from their necks. A quick conversion reveals that some will set me back a few hundred dollars.
“How nerdy do you want me to be?” asks Daria Kholodilina with a smile. The Wine International Association Ambassador for Georgia, Daria has our measure. Our small group of eight are ready for an afternoon of winetasting. We enjoy our wine and want to learn about Georgian wine, but don’t need anything too “nerdy”.
“Almost everyone in Georgia is a winemaker,” says Daria. She explains that families make their own wine and tend to drink what they grow. Being a mostly rural country without knowledge of “higher wine production cultures,” she says that there hasn’t been a big history of cellaring wine. Instead, there’s the “flourishing culture of supra”, where families gather to feast and drink.
Daria has prepared five wines for us to taste. Three were made with white grapes and two with red grapes, allowing us to compare wines produced in the traditional way and wines manufactured in “the factory way” which is how Georgians usually describe the international winemaking method. Commercial wine producers, realising the commercial potential of traditionally made wine, have increased traditional winemaking in Georgia from less than 2 per cent of wines produced in 2016 to “around 10-15 per cent today,” says Daria.
Kvevri (pronounced kuev-ri) is the first new word in our wine vocabulary. This egg-shaped terracotta pot is used in traditional winemaking and can have a capacity of anything from 20 litres to over 2,000 litres, are lined with beeswax, and buried in the ground for temperature control.
Whole grapes are put into kvevri together with the juice, seeds, stems and skins. This explains the oft-used term ‘skin contact’ wine. White grapes treated in this way create amber wine, not “amber white wine” as I mistakenly call it.
Sue relates a story about a woman who, when faced with an amber wine, complained that she’d ordered a white wine. The amber wine was made with white grapes. It just wasn’t the wine she was familiar with. Daria remarks that amber wine “would seem oxidised or spoiled to people who are used to Chardonnay.”
A splash of Georgian hospitality.
The kvevri cellar door of Andro Barvoni's Artisan Wines.
NEW WORDS... AND OLD GHOSTS
My wine vocabulary expands rapidly. Two of the whites are made from a blend of Chinuri and Goruli varieties from the Mtsvane region. One is skin contact wine, the other not. While I struggle to get my head around these unfamiliar words, I’m well-acquainted with the descriptors. One wine is “crisp and fun”, another has a “tropical nose” says Daria. The third wine, also skin contact, is made from Khikhvi grapes. Amber wines differ in the intensity of their colour due to tannin levels, length of time in kvevri and other factors “too technical to go into” says Daria.
The Asuretuli Shavi dry red began life in kvevri and was finished in oak while the Ojaleshi, also a dry red, went straight into stainless steel vats. I give up trying to remember these unfamiliar names.
Not unfamiliar is the venue where we sit down for supra a couple of nights later. Wine Factory No 1 had a big role to play in the bestseller Stalin’s Wine Cellar by John Baker and Nick Place, a book most of our group have read. At one point Janice invites us to follow her through the restaurant, Shushabandi, to a set of heavy wooden doors. She opens them to reveal a narrow spiral staircase.
Holding onto the metal railing we excitedly descend the narrow stairs which twist down the brick-lined stairwell. At the foot of the stairs, we’re faced with another set of large old wooden doors. They are padlocked. Layers of peeling dark green paint reveal bare wood and blue and white paint patches underneath.
We take turns to peer through a gap in the door. The room beyond is bare. Bright lights highlight clean brick walls. The dusty shelves and expensive bottles of aged wine have long gone. Stalin’s wine cellar is now an empty, cavernous room.
Janice Kirkwood outside the cellar doors of Stalin's wine cellar.
The garden of Zaza Kbilashvili, kvevri maker.
VESSELS OF CREATION
In the rural Kakheti region of Georgia, we find ourselves in a very different room, the workshop of kvevri maker Zaza Kbilashvili. Zaza welcomes us at the gate of his home and leads us down a path around the side of a double-storey house to the basement workshop.
The air inside is cool and damp. Stone walls, roughly finished with cement, line the gloomy room. We shuffle inside, carefully stepping between the eight or so fragile unfinished pots. These large teacup-shaped vessels, about a metre in diameter and hip height, take up most of the earthen floor space. Their smooth sides are damp and shiny. Clear plastic ‘tape’ seals the upper edges.
Zaza’s family is one of only five families of master kvevri makers. He is a fourth generation kvevri maker and his sons will be the fifth. Through an interpreter, he explains that he finds and digs up the clay himself to ensure good quality. Starting from the base, he uses the coil pottery method to build the pots by hand. Every two or three days, he adds about ten centimetres, taking care that the pots don’t collapse in on themselves.
He relies only on his hands and his eyes, resulting in each vessel being unique. It takes about three months to create a batch of eight 2,000-litre kvevris. They will be 2.4 metres high and weigh approximately 800 kilograms.
After air drying, seven or eight men carefully carry the heavy vessels one by one from the workshop and along an uneven stone path to the brick kiln. There have been times when someone tripped, dropping and breaking the handcrafted kvevri.
The pots are placed on the floor of the large walk-in kiln and the doorway bricked in. A wood fire, manned day and night, maintains the temperature at 1,300°C for a week until firing is complete. Then, the doorway is gradually demolished over a period of three days to reduce the temperature slowly.
Like many of his countrymen, Zaza is also a winemaker. He invites us to try his wine while he tells us about his business. Zaza has sold kvevris all over the world, including to Italy, France, Canada, Germany and China. The current batch, ordered a year in advance, will go to Spain at a cost of $2,000 USD each.
Our conversation moves on to wine. Zaza says that good wine needs a good grape and a good kvevri. He believes that bad wine doesn’t exist. “There’s just good wine and the best wine,” he says.
In search of more good wine, we spend an afternoon at Artisan Wines, a boutique winery in the Shida Kartli region, about seven kilometres from Gori. Andro Barnovi, an ex-politician turned winemaker, founded Artisan Wines. Previously the Deputy Minister of Defence, Barnovi has no desire to return to politics.
“I don’t miss it. But sometimes I just think that if I have to, maybe I will, but I don’t really want to.” For now, he’s happy to “complete the work I started here.”
He attributes much of his winemaking knowledge to his father, and continues to learn through “experience and books and peer winemakers.”
In the pleasantly cool kvevri cellar, brick rings protect the necks of 33 kvevri set into the crazy-paving floor. Glass ‘lids’ rest against a side wall. “I designed everything here,” Barnovi says. “Including the labels,” he adds with a chuckle.
“For many people winemaking is just fermenting grapes… but for me it’s… an art,” he says. Barnovi blends more than 20 varieties of grapes “to produce some new tastes, new aromas.” All his wines start off in kvevri, maturing in oak barrels and/or stainless-steel vats.
Each year he produces around 6,000 bottles, a mixture of amber, red and Rosé wines. This number is growing slowly. Moving through the cellar, I notice a white label stuck with clear tape onto a small steel tank. The Pinot Blanc blended from the Chinuri-Goruli grape varieties is called “Slava Ukraini 2022”.
Barnovi invites us to his purpose-built open shed for a traditional feast. The table is laden with Georgian salad, eggplant rolls, cheese-filled bread called kachapuri, a chicken dish, veal soup and more. We’ve tasted plenty of wine already, but Barnovi refills our glasses and toasts “Gaumarjos!”