WHETHER YOU'RE AN oenophile or a beer guzzler, raising a glass of intense red, semi-sweet Kindzmarauli in Kakheti, also known as the ‘Napa Valley’ of Georgia, ought to be on the itinerary.

Nourished by the Ivri and Alazani rivers, and nestling in Georgia east, Kakheti is blessed with dozens of microclimates, which provide the perfect terroir for cultivating high-quality grapes. Two hours by car from the capital city Tbilisi gets you to this unique natural landscape peppered with fairy tale fortresses and towers, monasteries, alpine lakes, and foamy waterfalls. Rolling hills, lush with orchards and vineyards, glisten in fifty shades of green. The air is so sweet one can almost taste it.

Boutique wineries, family-run maranis (cellars), large-scale operations and wine-producing monasteries thrive here, hewing to the time-honoured tradition of sustainable winemaking. Dozens of wine trails crisscross one’s path with open-cellar doors offering prized appellations such as the Tsinandali, Mukuzani, Tvishi and more. Crazy Pomegranate Vineyard and Tasting Room, Shumi Winery, Gurami Papa’s Winery, Pheasant’s Tears Winery…. take your pick!

Overall, 200 premium grape varietals, including Rkatsiteli, Kakhetian Mtsvane, Khikhvi, Kisi, and Saperavi, are found in Kakheti. However, this flourishing ecosystem didn’t spring up overnight. Archaeological evidence dates Georgia’s winemaking tradition to 6th millennium BC, predating the earliest wine production in France by over 5,000 years. Last year, archaeologists stumbled upon traces of winemaking on 8,000-year-old pottery shards, further strengthening the claims of the tiny country as the ‘world’s oldest wine producer’.

Vasili Tsereteli founder of Tsereteli Wines
Vasili Tsereteli founder of Tsereteli Wines
Image : Neeta Lal

Legend has it that Georgian soldiers wove a piece of grapevine into their armour to protect their chests before heading into battle, so if they died, a vine would sprout from their hearts! What makes Georgian wine unique, though, say local vintners, is that unlike modern production methods which involve using oak barrels or steel vats to age the wine, the former is fermented from the whole grape (grape juice, skin, stalks, pips, et al) in beeswax-lined terracotta urns called qvevri, a process listed by UNESCO under its Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Once harvested, the grapes are pressed and the juice poured into the qvevri, sealed and buried in ground for up to six months before being consumed.

“The technique of fermenting wine in large clay qvevri is now getting popular among some of the world’s big wine producers, but Georgians have been doing this for centuries,” says Vasili Tsereteli, 45, founder of Tsereteli Wines, a midsize local winery which produces a diverse portfolio of international award-winning wines, including the Mkhargrdzeli, Ghvinis Tetri, Khikhvi and Rkatsiteli Rose. The 19th century sprawling family winery — overlooking the Caucasian mountains — is strewn with qvevri urns, French oak barrels and stainless steel tanks.

Aleksandre Japaridze (maroon tshirt) second generation wine maker at Tsereteli Winery
Aleksandre Japaridze (maroon tshirt) second generation wine maker at Tsereteli Winery
Image : Neeta Lal

Aleksandre Japaridze, a second-generation local winemaker explains that Georgia has more than 400 endemic grape varieties, many of which grow (or once grew) in the fertile Kakheti region. “We cultivate around 70% of the country’s grape harvest. Essentially, it is the polyphenols (a molecule that forms in the plants from sugar) contained in the grape skin that gives the wine its beautiful taste and unique flavour.”

The wine’s colour may range from dark yellow to blood orange, adds Japaridze, while its heady fragrance emanates from qvevris. “Qvevri wines are highly tannic, due to contact with grape skins. They tend to have a nuttiness, with top notes of apricot and peach, and an earthy aroma,” he adds.

For Georgians, wine is not just a drink but culture, a part of their daily life. This explains why some wineries also host a gigantic family table for ‘supra’ or a Georgian feast where wine flows freely.

“In Georgian, ‘supra’ literally means table-cloth and, over centuries, it has become synonymous with feasts where a large table is set and wine is plentiful,” says a vintner at Shavnabada monastery cellar. The medieval Georgian Orthodox Monastery named in honour of St. George nestles on the Shavnabada mountain, in southeastern Georgia, some 30 km from Tbilisi. Its resident monks have been reviving the centuries-old cellar since 1998 to produce the popular Rkatsiteli, Kakhetian Green and Saperavi wines the traditional way. The vineyards are planted with grapes from parish members and friends after they’ve been vetted strictly by monks.

At Tsereteli Wines, the winery’s repertoire also includes the au courant orange wine derived from an endemic Georgian grape varietal. It pairs well with seafood, vegetables, spicy foods such as lamb curry as well as the unctuous, cheese-filled Georgian bread khachapuri. “Our orange wine is having a moment in the sun because of the industry’s fascination with low intervention/natural wines. Besides, consumers, too, are increasingly mindful of healthier tastes, new flavours as well as a return to more natural wines,” explains Tsereteli.

Intriguingly, religion and wine are inextricably intertwined in Georgia. Wine’s centrality to the Christian ritual (Communion) and narratives (the first miracle attributed to Jesus was turning water into wine) is well-documented. Missionaries planted vines wherever they travelled to have constant access to wine for ceremonies. This also helped them earn revenue for the monasteries’ upkeep by selling their creations to locals and tourists.

Similarly, monks at the 6th century Alaverdeli Monastery nestling in the Alazani river valley are passionately preserving their 1,000-year-old winemaking tradition. Founded by Assyrian monk Joseph Alaverdeli, the current cathedral — of Georgian Orthodox denomination — was built in the 11th century by King Kvirike, ruler of the Kakheti region. Inside the stony fortress-like monastery, gargantuan and nattily planted grounds roll out like jade carpets sprouting over a hundred grape varietals. At the monastery’s marani, monks make wine the way it’s been made in Georgia for over 8,000 years. “We’re very proud of our tradition,” explains a resident monk.

The fragrant wine, and the equally heady landscape of emerald vineyards silhouetted against Alpine hills, offer the perfect backdrop to raise a toast to Georgia and to the bountiful produce of the land.

(Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based journalist)

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