International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
‘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. An energetic man in his 50s, he walks through the courtyard of the monastery, pausing briefly to bless kneeling supplicants. ‘That’s why we have 550 native species of grape. That’s why all our invaders tried to destroy our vines.’
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. The sound of scrubbing emerges from one of them. Deep inside, a man is brushing its walls clean in preparation for the latest vintage.
After a hiatus during Communist rule, wine is once more being produced at Alaverdi. Since 2006, the monastery has been making award-winning wines, some in qvevris, some using modern methods. Brother Gerasimi Otarashvili has a big chestnutcoloured beard, a black robe and a slightly incongruous mobile phone, which he puts to one side as he pours me a glass of the 2009 rkatsiteli. Rkatsiteli is one of the hundreds of grape varieties unique to Georgia. This is technically white wine, but its time in the qvevri, where it’s been in contact with grape skins, stems and pips, gives it a striking gold colour. It’s dry and citrussy, with a hint of raisins and dried fruit.
‘The Russians wanted to eradicate the tradition of qvevris,’ says Brother Gerasimi. Georgia’s winemaking offended the commissars as it smacked of nationalism and private enterprise. ‘They passed a strict law to abolish qvevri production. Thank God that families looked after them. It was the Lord’s wish to promote the rebirth of qvevri wines.’
Georgia is a proudly Christian country, and the significance of wine in religious worship is reinforced by superstition and custom. The mysterious process by which grape juice becomes wine is attributed by some to the work of the Holy Spirit. ‘The Bible says that God created man out of red clay,’ says Father David. ‘Red clay was blessed with the Holy Spirit. Then Adam made wine in pots of red clay.’
Although we’re supposed to be tasting the wines, Brother Gerasimi assumes the role of tamada, proposing toasts to the success of our work. He tells me that research into qvevri wine suggests that its effect is practically medicinal, with up to 10 times the level of antioxidants found in conventional wine. He pours the 2010 saperavi – a red. It’s a rich purple with a deep plum and blackberry flavour. We toast each other some more and swirl the wine around, watching the pectin leave trails on our glasses. This is the wine that the monks use in religious services. When we finish tasting, the sun has begun to set. The cathedral is bathed in golden light. A team of volunteers is using hand tools – scythes and pitchforks – to clear weeds from the monastery grounds.
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 8,000 years ago, giving the country a plausible claim to being the birthplace of wine.