Discovering wine in Georgia
The tower of Alaverdi Cathedral stands sentinel over the monastery where wine has been made for 1,500 years. (Andrew Montgomery)
It’s midday in the vineyards above the Rioni River. There’s a sleepy hum of insects in the warm air. Murad Vatsadze is negotiating the steep mountain path in a pair of blue flip-flops. Above him, the cultivated slope thins out into alpine meadows, where the tinkling of cowbells can be heard on the freshening wind. We are high up in the foothills of Georgia’s Caucasus mountains. Beneath us lies the curling valley and mile upon mile of vineyards.
Murad is showing me the vines that his greatgrandfather planted here 100 years ago. This south-facing slope gets day-long sunshine, and even at 1,700 metres up, grapes still thrive. Vines strung out along wires are heavy with two local varieties: alexandrouli and mujuretuli. He then leads me into the cool darkness of the family’s marani, or wine cellar, which abuts their sprawling house. Murad’s family have been making wine for as long as anyone can remember. The wine press is a hollowed-out tree trunk. The grapes are trodden within it and the juice that flows out is channelled down wooden pipes into holes in the cellar floor.
Beneath these openings are qvevri – enormous wine vessels unique to Georgia. Made of red clay, they can be three metres deep and hold as many as 1,300 bottles’ worth of wine. They are shaped like vases, with wide shoulders tapering down towards a pointed bottom, and are buried beneath the ground with only their necks protruding. The floor is covered with slate lids where they have been sealed to let the wines age. Murad opens the lid of an empty qvevri. It echoes like the opening of a well. There’s a glint of liquid in the bottom and the faint smell of sour wine.
The Vatsadze family make wine in a way their most distant ancestors would recognise. Each year their seven qvevris are scraped clean by hand with a tool made of folded cherry bark. Neither chemicals nor yeast are added to the pressed grape juice. Murad scoops wine from them using a dipper made out of a pumpkin shell. The family lives a life of rural self-sufficiency that makes the River Cottage look like a microprocessor plant, raising pigs, keeping bees and growing tomatoes, corn, figs, beans, apples, medlars and pears.
As dusk falls, a dozen family members and friends assemble around a long table that’s been laid with a feast. There’s chicken in garlic sauce, salty white cheese, tomatoes, bread stuffed with cheese and beans, and a stew of what Murad tells me is braised bear meat. When I suggest that he’s pulling my leg, he swears on the health of his children and explains that the bear was shot a week earlier by a next-door neighbour. He serves homemade red and white wines. 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. 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.