Discovering wine in Georgia
Today, in the Vatsadze house, Arto is the tamada. He’s a balding, thick-set man – like a more genial version of Tony Soprano. The first toast he proposes is, as always, to peace. The toasts that follow will vary and may honour guests, family, dead loved ones, the hosts, women and children. Georgians always include one to the ancestors who had the foresight to plant the grapevines.
After a few rounds, Murad brings out a drinking horn, which we take in turns to drain. Then his brother-in-law Levan leads the table in a song while two others improvise 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.
Murad’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.
It’s a jolting twenty-minute drive down an unsurfaced road and along the valley to a rickety wooden flour mill beside the Rioni River. The mill belongs to Nodar Ratiani. He wipes maize flour from a photo of Stalin that takes pride of place on the wall beside a print of the Mona Lisa. ‘He was magari,’ he says: ‘strong’. Magari is a favourite Georgian word and is applied approvingly to wine as well as people. ‘He fought the Germans and beat them. Millions of people died, but he was too smart for them.’
Nodar has a proud, hawklike face, and is wiry and whip-thin. The pulse of the engine that drives the millstone fills his shack. The place smells of ground corn. ‘I’m 74,’ he says. ‘I have no complaints. It’s because the air is so good.’ As tactfully as possible, I point out the tattoos on his hands. ‘I had them done in prison,’ he says. ‘When I was young, I wasn’t very calm. I used to fight a lot.’ He sweeps a few loose kernels from the grain bin. ‘Young men today hardly fight at all,’ he adds, with a trace of disappointment. ‘But sometimes you have to.’
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 USS R 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. It’s only 120 miles as the crow flies from the Vatsadzes’ house, but it’s a full day’s driving to get there, across twisting mountain roads and the rich agricultural flatlands of central Georgia. 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 1,500 years.