Uncovering Georgia's secret world of wine

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In Georgia, where wine has been made for 8000 years, the grape has sacred significance. In this extract from a longer feature in Lonely Planet Traveller magazine, Marcel Theroux explores ancient vineyards and meets the traditional wine-makers of Georgia. Photographs by Andrew Montgomery.

Wine-making traditions in Georgia go back millenia. Image by Andrew Montgomery

High up in the foothills of Georgia’s Caucasus mountains, The Vatsadze family make wine in a way their most distant ancestors would recognise. Each year, their seven qvevris, enormous wine vessels unique to Georgia, are scraped clean by hand with a tool made of folded cherry bark. Neither chemicals nor yeast are added to the pressed grape juice. Wine is scooped from them using a dipper made out of a pumpkin shell. I’m eager to raise my glass and taste, but it’s not quite that simple.

The importance of wine to this nation of four million is hard to exaggerate. Above the capital, Tbilisi, a giant statue of Mother Georgia holds a sword to ward off enemies and a bowl of wine to welcome friends. Every house has a trellis of vines outside it, with grapes ripening for the yearly pressing. Wine is a badge of pride here, and a symbol of hospitality; it’s central to religious worship and family life. Wine production is a link to the past and an expression of national identity. Virtually every Georgian I meet here makes their own wine – albeit on a more modest scale than the Vatsadze family. If they can’t grow their own vines, city-dwellers buy grapes from seasonal bazaars.

The tower of Alaverdi Cathedral stands sentinel over the monastery. Image by Andrew Montgomery

Serving your own homemade wine to guests is a matter of pride, and the act of drinking it has been refined to an art form. Drinking wine in Georgia is always a celebration, and whenever it takes place, a tamada, or toastmaster, will be selected to officiate. Not everyone has the skills to be a tamada: you have to be eloquent, funny and able to hold your drink. It’s quite normal for a Georgian man to sink two or three litres of wine at a sitting. Georgians always include one toast to the ancestors who had the foresight to plant the grapevines.

After a few rounds, my hosts bring out a drinking horn, which we take in turns to drain. The family begins to sing, with two members improvising harmonies. This polyphonic style of singing is a Georgian tradition too. It’s a melancholy sound, but the message is upbeat, celebrating the glory of wine and long life. The family's year-old red wine is ruby-coloured, cool, light and fresh, with a sweetness that is particular to this combination of grapes and the region, Racha, located in Georgia’s northwest. When this wine is bottled and sold, it’s known as khvanchkara. The name is meaningless and unpronounceable to most Europeans, but for 70 years, it was the drink of choice for the Soviet elite and, as Georgians will assure you, the favourite of their most notorious son: Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin.

A vineyard in the Racha province of northwest Georgia, where red khvanchkara wines are produced. Image by Andrew Montgomery

The Georgian nation has seen its fair share of fighting over the years. It is an ancient place – Kolkheti on the Black Sea is the successor to legendary Colchis, where, in Greek mythology, Jason and the Argonauts went in search of the Golden Fleece – and it has been invaded many times, by Greeks, Romans, Persians and others. Its recent history has been dominated by relations with its enormous northern neighbour: Georgia was colonised first by the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union. In Communist times, mountainous Georgia with its traditions of wine and good food was seen as a land of mythic abundance. Throughout the Soviet Union, the best restaurants were Georgian ones, and the most desirable wines were from Georgia. Each year, the quantity of Georgian wines sold in the USSR exceeded the amount produced: unscrupulous traders simply slapped Georgian labels on less desirable Moldavian and Russian wines.

The heart of Georgian wine-making lies in the eastern province of Kakheti. Here, the Alazani River waters a fertile valley between two dramatic ranges of the Caucasus. At the northern end, a distinctive turret-shaped spire soars 50 metres above the valley floor. It belongs to 11th-century Alaverdi Cathedral, part of a monastery complex where wine has been made for 1500 years. ‘Wine-making is a sacred duty given to the Georgian people by God,’ says Father David Chrvitidze, the leader of the small community of monks at Alaverdi.

Alaverdi Cathedral in the Kakheti province of Georgia. Image by Andrew Montgomery

Archaeological evidence suggests that by the 12th century, Alaverdi was producing 70 tonnes of wine a year. The monks have recently restored one of the monastery’s ancient wine cellars, and the openings of qvevri are dotted around the floor like craters. After a hiatus during Communist rule, wine is once more being produced at Alaverdi.

Wine consumption may or may not have divine sanction in Georgia, but its production here goes back much earlier than the birth of Christ. There’s evidence to show that grapes were cultivated in the Shulaveri hills here 8000 years ago, giving the country a plausible claim to being the birthplace of wine. Georgian wine-makers say that their rightful place is among the great wine-producing nations. And in the ancient technology of the qvevri, they feel they have a secret weapon.