Fruits of a “Not so Different” Vine

clay vessels Georgia
If I were to say….Georgia(country not state) invented wine…what would you think?  In our “here and now” thoughts you’d probably jump to France…or possibly Italy.  If you really thought about it…didn’t the Romans have wine?  Oh, and don’t forget about Jesus changing the water into wine at that wedding.  With that in mind, it might not come as too much of a surprise to realize that wine has been around for a long time.

Actually the fertile valleys of the South Caucasus is where many archaeologists believe the world’s first cultivated grapevines and neolithic wine production began over 8,000 years ago!   As a side note – this very area is on the same latitude as Southern France and Central Italy home to many world-class vineyards.

georgian clay wine vessels

It began with locals storing wild grapes in pits in the ground. Over the cold winter the juice would ferment into wine.(Happy juice!)  Consider this…if indeed this was in neolithic times …would “cavemen” come home from a hard day of hunting and settle down by the fire to enjoy a cup of wine? Well not quite…actually this would be the timeframe when hunters turned to farming and domesticating animals.

So, as this custom evolved, the farmers devised ways of fermenting the juice by storing it in large clay jugs that were buried in the ground.  The wine was conveniently stored underground and ready to serve at a cool temperature whenever needed(hence the first wine cellars).  Georgian artisans were able to produce unique and useful clay vessels to store and serve their wine and beverages. The Qvevris (or kvevris), were large earthenware vessels with an inside coating of beeswax.

DrinkingHorns from blog taitcommFor centuries, Georgians have been drinking (specially for the tourists) their wine from animal horns (called kantsi in Georgian). The horns were cleaned, boiled and polished, creating a unique and durable drinking vessel.

Fast forward to more modern times and apparently the Russians have always favored Georgian wines but after the war in 2006 there was an embargo placed on exporting wine to Russia. This was devastating to the Georgian wine industry.  But it seems Russians have missed their wine, and Georgians have missed the rubles from the exports…. so talks are now underway to lift the embargo. Current reports indicate the shipments to Russia will resume this summer.  In the meantime, Georgia has been active in promoting and exporting their wine to an expanding list of countries…including the USA.  Much of the wine is produced by thousands of small farmers (using primarily traditional techniques of wine-making).

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There are a few modern wineries, such as Badagoni, Kindzmaraulkis Mariani, Telavis Marani, Mukhrani, Mildiani, and the slightly older Teliani Valley producing their wine similar to western European methods.  They too are marketing their wines aggressively in western Europe and the United States.  The main wine grapes favored for Georgian wines are the Saperavi(red) grape and the Rkatsiteli(white) grape.  The Rkatsiteli yields a lovely bright amber wine that pairs well with Georgian foods. These are only 2 of the 38 varieties used for commercial purposes…out of more than 400 varietals available.

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During my recent trip to Georgia I spent two fun-filled days in the wine region of Kakheti to the east of the capital city of Tbilisi in the prominent Georgian appellations of  Telavi, Tsinandali and Kindzmarauli. You can read more about the region on my previous post “Too Much of a Good Thing”.   Suffice to say that I did sample a multitude of different Georgian wines during the short visit.  Based upon my brief exposure I would have to say that I enjoyed most of the wines presented.  I did not find the depth and complexity one would find in the Tuscan hills or the sandy hillsides along the Gironde.  But then those regions have been cultivating and expanding wine production by more modern adaptations.

DSCN4640Pheasants tears bottlesA few of the local farmers are still cultivating their wines in clay pots(qvevris) where you won’t find the tell-tale “oaky” finish so prevalent in western Europe and other countries.  Locals say this gives the wine a chance to display it’s own unique taste and bouquet.   Watch for wines produced by “Pheasants Tears” to experience wine fermented in the qvevris.

For me the most daunting challenge was just trying to pronounce the wine names.  I must admit that I would need more time to truly “learn” the different types of wine and appreciate their distinct tastes.

Here are just a few of the types of wine produced in Georgia –

RED-

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Saperivi – table red wine

Khvanchkara – semi-sweet red

Mukuzani – rich flavorful velvety red

WHITE –

Tsinandali – dry white wine

Mtsvane – light fruity white

Rkatsiteli – rich amber white

Needless to say these are just a few of the different wines. Now you must blend in the vintner and each vineyard’s unique terroir to derive the multitude of flavors and bouquets possible.

yes we drank with wine too

As the Georgian wine industry “matures” and more investors find their way to the storied hillsides of the Caucasus, you’ll see Georgian wines finding their way to the more expanded wine lists here in the States.

By all means be sure and give them a whirl and a twirl.  They may surprise and delight your tastebuds!

Georgian Saints and Royalty

 Sighnagi and the Alazany Valley

our view from the chateau in the wine country Chateau MerePossibly the most exciting thing this morning was to look out the window to see the  clouds and rain had lifted out and there were the snow capped Caucasus Mountains towering over the valley.

It was a glorious sight. I had imagined that the mountains would be stunning…but the for real sight was simply spectacular  There were still plenty of clouds and fog swirling around….but at least for a short time we had quite a view.

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Breakfast at the chateau was a family affair and having been fortified with coffee and various breads and cheeses…we were loaded up and on our way to the Tisinaldi Museum which as it turned out was a palace for the royalty of Georgia.

DSCN1642The Prince Alexander Chavchavadze was the son of Georgia’s first ambassador to Russia and godson of Catherine the Great. The life of the estate is colorful with stories of ransomed women and children, lost fortunes and finally Russian nobility enjoying the home and beautiful park-like surroundings.  The Romanoffs would spend summers here away from St. Petersburg and Moscow. The home is now a delightful museum, art gallery and wine tasting in the Tsinandali winery. The rain has been hounding us since our departure from the chateau and with the stunning plastic raincoats we appear to be invaders from a foreign planet…nonetheless we managed to stay relatively dry in our dash between house and van.

DSCN1670DSCN1659Our next visit is to the delightful town of SIGHNAGHI which has recently undergone a government sponsored reconstruction and is quite charming. One of the most noted and revered sights in Georgia is the Bodbe Monastery, a place of pilgrimage because of its association with St. Nino, the 4th c. apostle of Georgia. We found ourselves in the midst of our first true crowd…all on a pilgrimage to the small chapel containing the tomb of the saint.

What is amazing about this city is the defensive wall that is quite extensive and we were able to view it and the stunning Alazani Valley from a Vantage point overlooking the hillside town.

DSCN1648After visiting the Monastery and the defensive wall we headed into the charming town for a wine tasting at the “Pheasant Tears” winery…this small restaurant/winery is quite attractive and could easily pass as a boutique winery in Sonoma…or other hip wine area. DSCN1711As we wandered in we noticed a handsome young man with those dark Georgian eyes wearing a Yankees sweatshirt. Low and behold here is a native American who came over to Georgia to explore the  country, fell in love with the area, started learning about the wine industry and now plans to start up his own winery and make wines according to the ancient ways of the Georgians.  BTW he does has Georgian blood and is connected with the Romanoffs.  It appears he has found his “roots” and is enjoying his new life! In his early twenties with quite an adventure ahead of him.  He conducted our wine tasting and it was great fun to share his new life and passion. The wine was great and we had quite an afternoon of wine, foods and chacha!  Chacha is the local schnapps! It was really hard to leave such a great place with such ambiance…

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A short stroll through the streets was in order to let our legs under us before the drive back to Tbilisi.  We paid our personal respects to the statue of Don Quixote..a small herd of chickens…their chicks and a very mellow kitty…

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unique encounters for a somewhat mellow group of tourists!


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Too much of a good thing!

DSCN1536Wow…this was quite a day and at the moment it is quite a blur.  Just how many churches and wineries can you do in one day?  Well if you leave out lunch and start both the church visit and winery in the first stop…that really helps with the total coverage.  But I must not slight the visits as they were all quite interesting and each a little unique.

We headed east from Tbilisi into the wine region..oh did I mention that the rainy weather was still with us?  The wine region is also known as the Kakheti region and we wanted to try some of the best. Our first stop was the Alaverdi Monastery and here we had to dress in a skirt and use a scarf for the visit. The monastery has a simple church but the monks wine is one of the best in the region.  It is a small winery producing only about 3000 bottles. They took one of their wines to an international wine show and returned with a gold medal.  It’s a bit odd have a wine tasting conducted by a Georgian Orthodox monk…and I in my lovely scarf and wrap around skirt…hopefully there are no photos to make it to the internet…not a pretty sight, but hey, after a few tastes of wine, who cares!

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ODSCN1578ur next stop was at the Gremi castle with it’s lovely little church and museum. But the most interesting stop of the day was at the Khareba winery housed in a huge tunnel dug into the side of the mountain.  If you didn’t know any better you could have been in Sonoma….maybe a little chilly…but definitely first class.  More good wines to enjoy and it was tough to keep track of all the different kinds of grapes and ways of making the wines.  In each place we tasted between 3 and 4 wines.  Usually it was two whites and two reds. Each was unique in its own right.

We are fast approaching dinnertime…so we double back to our hotel which is a wine chateau…Château Mere.  There’s a party going on….an anniversary party and they were having so much fun that we couldn’t help but join in with the celebration.  They were kind enough to share their lovely cake and then outside for fireworks!  All in all it was a great day.

The art of ancient wine making in Georgia is quite interesting and I will share that with you in a later post.

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What day is it really….

There is no substitute for a few hours of horizontal snoozing. Although I must admit the delayed reaction factor is quite pronounced. I’m trying to rev up the body and it is slow to respond. The hotel provides an outstanding selection of local dishes as well as a mixture of Euro/Western favorites.  From the looks of this buffet we will not go hungry.

It’s still a bit drippy and downright chilly so already the cold weather clothes are feeling pretty good.
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We’re off to drive around the new town to get our bearings and then we’ll stop for a walk-through the Open Air Museum of Ethnography where about 70 different buildings and homes from around Georgia have been reconstructed.  Some of the houses have been reconstructed to present a living example of the local culture of each region. The local guide gave us a complete description and demonstration of how life would have been in the house. The young woman had a beautiful smile and a great command of the english language.  It was most entertaining and enlightening.

The Georgian people are very proud of their heritage and many skills…but my astute senses have picked upon the fact that one of their premier accomplishments is the production of wine.   Even the outdoor museum displays the tools of ancient wine making.  Not just at the wine makers house…but at several other houses displayed on the hillside.   Hummmm…this bears further investigation.

The concept of time is lost on my body and mind at the moment…but the guide has kindly suggested that we should stop for some lunch.  Ok, here’s where confusion steps in…if we left for the tour around 2pm…and you figure we have been exploring the city for a couple of hours…what time is it really?  I have never been one to turn down an invitation to dine so we head to the restaurant for lunch.

Georgian Milestones…..Did you know?

In this world of “Guinness World Records”  it seems that everyone, everyplace and everything must be a historical milestone.  History measured in firsts, biggest, highest, oldest….etc.  Well, Georgia has it’s fair share of amazing historical “Firsts, highest, oldest and foremosts” to joint the ranks of important “facts” of our world.   Let me name a few –

  • A 1.7-million-year-old skull(really, really old) found during Dmanisi archaeological excavations is the oldest evidence of human habitation in Europe. It proves that there is almost one-million-year gap between Dmanisi and any European early-human site, making Georgia the homeland of the FIRST European.

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  • Legendary Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece – an ancient Greek myth based in Georgia. Numerous gold artifacts have been found in the area and Tim Severin’s recreated voyage of 1984 proved that the story of

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    the Golden Fleece could easily be true, especially considering Georgia’s centuries-old tradition of getting gold particles from

    flowing mountain rivers with the help of the fleece.

  • Grapevines have been cultivated in the fertile valleys of Georgia for about  8000 years. With over 500 varieties of endemic grapes and the world’s first cultivated grapevines, the traditions of viticulture are entwined with the country’s national identity. It is also believed that the word “wine” is of Georgian origin (“gvino” in Georgian).  Gives new meaning to “aged” wines.

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    Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

    UNESCO World Heritage Sites – Georgia boast multiple sites

Ancient Capital of Georgia – Mtskheta Svetitskhoveli Cathedral – 11th century
Jvari Church – 6th century
The Town of Kutaisi – Gelati Monastery – 12th century
Bagrati Cathedral – 11th century
Upper Svaneti – Medieval Watchtowers
Ancient Christian Country

  • The Caucasus Mountains stretch for about 1200km between the Black and the Caspian seas – a natural boundary between Europe and Asia with summits over 5000m, including Mt. Elbrus (5642m) – the highest in Europe.
  • At 2200m Ushguli is the highest settlement in Europe. The medieval Svanetian watchtowers of Ushguli is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
  • The Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park is one of the largest in Europe and the first national park in the Caucasus.

So many notable sites encourages a traveler to spend considerable time just on the historical highlights…yet there is much more to discover in this small country.

New Country New Rules

Experiencing new destinations involves a little homework when it comes to rules of the road.  Oft times we inadvertently find ourselves trying to remove the proverbial foot from the  mouth by saying the wrong thing….or backing quietly out of a room or church realizing we are inappropriately dressed.  “Geez, if I had only read the “Etiquette Guide” for Georgia before leaving home I wouldn’t feel like such an idiot in this awkward mess I have just created”.  Fortunately I did manage to find a page on Georgian customs and etiquette to read.  It almost reads like “Miss Manners”….simple social graces go along way no matter where you are in the world.

Georgian wine and food

When visiting a host’s home for dinner feel free to bring a small gift such as flowers, chocolates or sugary treats. If you plan to bring flowers give an odd number of flowers. Even numbers are given for funerals.  Georgian hosts love to give toasts during a meal and sometimes they are lengthy so be prepared for multiple toasts.  If you are inspired or asked to give a toast be sure to use wine and not beer…beer is only used to toast the enemy!  For more specifics on different points of cultural etiquette note the link listed here for “Culture Crossing”.  You host country will appreciate you being aware of proper etiquette.    http://www.culturecrossing.net/about_this_guide.php

I am planning on carrying a few chocolate bars and candies to give to my hosts during the trip.  It is a small gift but I hope they enjoy the treats and remember my visit.