Updated: Mar 31, 2019
Heading to the Georgian Tuscany
Georgia's wine region in the south east of the country has been trumpeted as a secret gem in the European viticulrural scene now for some time. I decided to head there on the way to the Tusheti mountains to find out if it was worth all the fuss, having had to come back to the transport hub that is Tbilisi once again from Vardzia. The journey from Tbilisi in the dreaded marshrutka was actually quite pleasant – through green countryside and with low mountains on either side. Signaghi, when we arrived after a bit over two hours, a little sooner than expected, was approached from above. It revealed itself to us gradually as the minibus lurched down the serpentine road to meet it. A pretty red-tiled town with eye-catching spires, it has an Italianate feel – and it straggles around a hillside; looking down loftily on the surrounding plains – Georgia’s wine region.
Wine is the lifeblood of Georgia, and some claim that it was even invented here – the Georgian word for wine ‘gvino’ being the etymological root of the name. Regardless, it certainly has claims to be amongst the oldest wine regions in the world. Sighnaghi feels – and looks – like a town which has been plucked straight out of Tuscany; and it shares that more famous region's warm climate and gently rolling hills, so pleasing on the eye. Built originally in the 17th century, three-quarters of its houses today date from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and a large part of its 4km defensive wall still stands. Sakashvilli has decided to ambitiously redevelop the town and has spent millions on renovating its cobbled streets and traditional stone and wood buildings to make it a tourist hub for the region. For this reason, it feels completely apart from the rest of the country, a little bit surreal, if not artificial. I chose to enjoy this little slice of Italy in Georgia though, and spent the next two nights just strolling round and relaxing. There wasn’t a great deal to do other than that, but it made me very happy to go from restaurant to café to wine cellar, soaking up the ambiance. I spent most of the time there in a kind of alcoholic fug – wine is proffered at every opportunity, and comes in large 1 litre jugs in restaurants for about a pound. I spent my first evening with a group of Georgians who invited me to their table at about 4pm, down by the city walls and with a fantastic view over the surrounding hillsides.
I had agreed to join them for a toast originally, but one drink led to another, and large amounts of food were brought to the table – barbecued meats, goats’ cheese, pickles, roasted potatoes, khachapuri, chinkali – and the jugs of sweet white wine just kept coming. By 8pm as the sun was going down I counted 6 empty one litre jugs from when I had arrived; there were only 3 of us drinking. The quality of it, from what I remember, was pretty good. By this time, Georgian hospitality was no surprise to me of course, but it was a great evening, punctuated by lengthy toasts and bouts of tearful singing and reciting of poetry. The Georgians truly embrace the good life, and welcome foreigners with open arms – literally. I was hugged as we parted a couple of hours later, and felt like a close friend to these guys I had just met.
Around Telavi in a Volga Slightly regretfully, I left Sighnaghi and my very friendly guesthouse after two nights to explore the wine region further. Getting around the region without your own transport is problematic – and I was given a hand by a random Dutch Jehova’s Witness who had befriended me on my first day there (bizarrely he was setting up a restaurant business there) – he took me down to Tsnori, just below the town, where I cadged a lift in a shared taxi to the next village where I could get an onwards bus to Telavi – the main town in Kakheti. The whole journey was about 60km, yet it took me perhaps three hours. Frustrating, and the major downside to travel in these parts. Televi was so-so, more a hub than an attraction in its own right. I found a great homestay there though, run by a quirky old couple who lived in a massive old wooden building with about ten bedrooms and a wide verandah and shambling garden.
It had a great old stone bathtub and antique furniture, and vines creeping around the verandah. I was the only one staying there, and our only common language was Russian, but we got along ok. I used it as a base to explore the wine region – next day I hired a taxi (about 15 pounds for the day) to take me around a few places which are pretty much inaccessible by public transport, unless you have several hours to spare hanging around. My driver was a physics teacher at a university, making a bit of summer money. He told me that times were extremely hard now in Georgia, that a lot of people worked two jobs, if not three. Teachers of course have it rough, like anywhere (why won’t governments value education more highly?) and he was paid something like two hundred dollars a month. Hardly enough for yourself, never mind a family - even in a country as inexpensive as Georgia.
He took me in his battered old Volga – a 1975 model which he claimed had 1 million kilometers under its bonnet – to the villages of Gremi, Kvareli, Nekresi and Tsinandali. Gremi contained a picturesque citadel which dominated the surrounding plains, commanding great views from its tower. Nekresi was a more typical Georgian monastery, atop a steep hill which had to be walked in the 30+ degree heat – and though I’d begun to tire of this trend, the views were worthwhile at the top.
Sampling the Grape
Additionally, I was treated to another impromptu feast with some labourers and a priest in a forest nearby, and was again quaffing (home made) wine before the sun had come anywhere near the yard-arm. Not that this was the end of the festivities for the day; at lunchtime, I had barely sat down quietly to my khinkali with a bottle of Nakhtaktari lemonade in a café before I was beckoned over by some middle aged guys who seemed a little bit worse for wear already, and before I knew it I had a big tumbler of vodka before me and more toasts were being proffered. An hour later, I stumbled out of the darkened café, blinking in the light, and proceeded to spend my afternoon tasting various red dries and sweet whites, including, but not confined to, some deep, rich and satisfying dry reds like Kindzmarauli, Saperavi and Mukuzani, and one or two decent white dessert wines - Qvevris and Tsinandali stood out from what I remembered and noted down. Of course, this was no easy task as I was fast getting inebriated once again - even wine tasting becomes a full-on excuse for drunken abandon in Georgia, where bourgeois refinement is a stranger - happily.
Traditionally, Georgian wines carry the name of the source region, district, or village, much like French regional wines such as Bordeaux or Burgundy. As with these French wines, Georgian wines are usually a blend of two or more grapes. Georgian wines are classified as sweet, semi-sweet, semi-dry, dry, fortified and sparkling. The semi-sweet varieties are the most popular. Sipping wines in cool cellars on a hot day and purchasing plastic bottles of it for pence cannot but make a man happy. We followed an open-top lorry piled high with red grapes back to Telavi having visited Tsinandali, a huge wine estate with an impressive country residence as its centerpiece and being given a guided tour in English by a charming young girl. I felt as if I could hang around Kakheti for several weeks doing this, and I’d certainly recommend it as a place for wine connisseurs – sufficiently off the beaten track to boast to your snobby friends, yet respectable enough to make them jealous; Georgian wine is very much on its way up in the market, judging by what I tasted, and this, perversely, is mainly to do with the Russian embargo on Georgian wines since 2006. This has forced Georgian wine makers to look for new markets in Europe, and therefore up their game a bit (Russians not being noted for the care they take in the taste of alcoholic beverages) – and in the meantime, several very high quality cottage industries have emerged in the region, able to do business in the new economic climate. All in all, it seems, the glass is at least half full. And if it’s not, someone is bound to top it up soon.
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This blog is part of a series. See the previous/next parts here: