TELAVI, Republic of Georgia — I’m standing in a room with six holes dug deep in the ground like time capsules, places you put deep secrets and store for thousands of years. In a way they are.
About 8,000 years ago, not far from where I’m standing, these same types of holes were scattered around this blessed land, this intoxicating bridge between Europe and Asia. The holes back then weren’t time capsules but they did contain secrets. They were secrets to producing a gift to mankind that I hope keeps giving until man’s extinction.
Yes, wine’s birthplace was 8,000 years ago, right here. Not in Italy. Not in France. Not in Ancient Greece. But here in this former Soviet republic, the birthplace of Joseph Stalin who had a few sips of Saperavi red while killing 20 million people. Last year, archaeologists discovered clay fragments about 30 miles south of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital and about 50 miles from where I’m standing with a glass in my hand. The fragments, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were dated to 6,000 BC and parts of large vases where inhabitants stored wine, underground, in the same type of holes where Giogi Dakishvili is showing me where he stores his.
Keep in mind, 8,000 years ago man was just recovering from the last Ice Age and agricultural techniques were spreading throughout what is now Europe. Thanks to receding ice leading to warmer temperatures, the conditions for growing grapes and making wine were similar to what they are today.
During a recent two-week trip to Georgia, I saw those conditions and understand why this country of 3.7 million people the size of West Virginia has one of the trendiest wine scenes in the world. With a latitude similar to Tuscany and Bordeaux, it has mild winters and 2,300 hours of sun a year (Remember, nighttime hours are part of the cycle.). Natural springs come from the nearby Caucasus mountains which are covered in snow all year round. The humid air coming from the Black Sea to the west allows the growth of 530 unique grape varieties. Georgia is the top grape-producing region of the 15 former Soviet republics behind Moldova.
Combine 8,000 years of history with ideal conditions and Georgians’ fierce independence after centuries of oppression, and you have a wine culture as important to the population as the mountain air they breathe.
“Wine is not only a gastro product for me,” said Irakli Rostomashvili who runs a small family winery out of his home. “It is everything. It is our culture. It is our history. It is our religion.”
To pop the cork on Georgian wine [link], I took a marshutka, kind of a large Volkswagen bus and Georgia’s main mode of long-distance travel, an hour and 45 minutes east from Tbilisi to the town of Telavi. The bilingual street signs are handy as the Georgian alphabet, all swirls and lines, looks like spaghetti after being thrown on the floor. The four-lane highway has no lines, potentially problematic as we zigzagged our way into the highlands. Soon, dilapidated, rusted factories and buildings with aluminum roofs gave way to beautiful green meadows and fields lined with grape vines, all outlined with snow-covered mountains in the distance.
Telavi is the capital of Kakheti, the region that hugs Georgia’s southeast corner and has 60 percent of the country’s vineyards. It’s a pleasant, clean town where its 20,000 people wake up to see the Caucasus to the northeast and the Gombori mountains to the southwest. Rolling green hills and valleys provide the foreground. You constantly walk around with a curious urge for a glass of wine and a piece of cheese.
I organized my tour through the Kakheti Wine Guild which occupies a large corner office lined wall to wall and floor to ceiling with Kakheti wine bottles. Three young, energetic, knowledgeable Georgian women man the phones and greet visitors. They set me up with five winery tours over two days and even arranged for a taxi to shepherd me around for a reasonable fee.
The women are too young to have experienced communism which ended here in 1991. But they heard stories from their parents and studied Georgia’s wine history. It’s a fascinating tale intertwining politics and culture, told best with a glass of ruby red Georgian wine in hand.
Georgian families have been making wine for centuries. That all ended in 1921 when the communists took over and grabbed all the vines for themselves. They nationalized the wine industry, meaning when the Politburo sat around discussing new ways to oppress its population they drank the semi-sweet wine from Georgia.
The fall of communism in ‘91 kick started Georgia’s wine industry. It began modestly. Georgia’s handle as “The Tuscany of the Soviet Union” was met with more smirks than sales. In 2006, Russia, which made up 80 percent of Georgia’s exporting wine market, announced an embargo on Georgian wine, claiming they didn’t meet sanity requirements. Georgia defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, displaying unusual honesty and an insight into the, ahem, loving nature between the two countries, admitted that “many (Georgian) wine producers exported falsified wine to Russia because Russia is a market where you can sell even turds.”
Without its chief market, Georgian wine makers had to adjust or die on the vine. They upgraded their production methods. They improved the quality. They expanded the variety. And they looked for other markets. Then it exploded. Last year, according to Georgia’s National Wine Agency, 76.7 million Georgian wines were sold to 53 countries.
But to understand Georgian wine, one must understand Georgia culture. It’s a land that has been overrun by the Arabs, the Mongols, the Turks, the Seljuks, the Russians and the Russians again.
And that was just Friday.
Oh, and did I mention the Black Death? That came in the 14th century and wiped out about half of Europe’s population. Throughout their tumultuous history, Georgians turned to the one thing they always had in abundance. It was not soldiers. It was wine.
“Wine helped us survive ancient times,” said Giogi Dakishvili, who runs his family’s Vita Vinea Winery. “Persian invasion, the Turkish, Soviet occupation. Now we have freedom.”
They’d forget their troubles around the table, raise glasses and toast to what they did have. Family. Friends. And, of course, wine. Toasts have become so important to the Georgian wine culture that it has its own word: supra. The supra is even a profession. Georgia has professional toastmasters, known as tamadas, who attends parties or family gatherings and leads toasts.
Toasts in Georgia are art form. Some toasts are so moving, grown men cry. Some laugh. And everyone takes part. The toasts go around the table, and you’d better have something to toast or will be the subject of that night’s scorn.
Usually the first three toasts are to God, thanking Him for the food and wine which, despite Soviet times, always seemed in big supply here. Other toasts are more specific, ranging from the love of a woman to a new appliance. Under the Soviet Union, the supra was the one time Georgians could express themselves. And today at a table of 20 people, after 20 toasts, the Georgians don’t express themselves all that well.
“It’s a way of communicating,” said Zurab Ramazashvili, owner of Telavi Wine Cellar, one of Georgia’s biggest wine dealers. “You keep talking around the table. The subject could be love, betrayal, country, women. It’s for all people.”
How’d this become a cultural spectacle rather than a simple “clink” between two friends? The story goes that when God told the world’s people to gather when he gave away the land, the Georgians showed up late. He asked why. They said they were toasting him. God then said, “If that’s the case then I will give you the best piece of land, the one I was reserving for myself: Georgia.”
And this is where I spent two weeks drinking wine.
I spent two days in Telavi bouncing around five wineries like a thirsty sailor. The Telavi area has 20 commercial wineries, not counting the small family operations. Reservations aren’t needed. Visitors are welcome and tasting fees aren’t much. Mine ranged from 7 to 10 euros. Add in taxi fees that were 10 euros the first day and 27 the next and it amounts to a pretty cheap weekend.
The winemakers all spoke English but be careful. The tastings aren’t like they are in Italy, France and California where you get just a “taste.” Many poured about half a glass. This is where taking taxis is advantageous over renting a car.
Here’s a look at the five wineries I visited. Contact the Kakheti Wine Guild (www.kwg.ge, 350-279-090) for more information:
This is where Georgia’s communist past puts on its gray trenchcoat. Kakhuri’s winery is a big, gray stone block. If it had raised letters instead of small windows it would look like a tomb. Until 2000 it was a silk factory. Today, it houses one of the leading commercial wineries in Georgia.
The woman who gave me a private tour took me into a scruffy warehouse with dirty white walls but they were lined forever with French oak barrels. Here is where they store their wine for six months.
Georgia has three main types of wine: semi-sweet, still the favorite of their main Russian market; dry reds, which have grown in popularity and I’ll compare favorably with many of their Italian counterparts; and sparkling wines which have been around since the late 1800s but are now starting to win awards.
Another room is filled with five-liter plastic jugs filled with white wine. They look like giant bottles of honey. On the tasting room wall are nine mini bottles of different flavored chacha, the Georgian vodka they make from grape residue.
My favorite of the five wines I tasted was the Kindzmarauli, a semi-sweet red wine made with 100 percent Saperavi grapes, the most common red grape in Georgia.
This little family winery goes back to the 1920s. It all ended in 1921 when communism settled in for its long stay and the Soviets took over all wine production in major factories. Nicolas Rostomashvili had to give up the one thing he loved to do. Five years ago his great-grandson, Irakli, restarted the winery in the family home. The Rostomaant, named after his great grandfather, is just one of many small family wineries sprinkled around Kakheti.
With Georgian families, wine is more than a business. Rostomashvili sells about 1,000 bottles a year.
“Wine must be deep,” said Irakli, 38. “It must say something. It has so many vitamins, I don’t want to eat anything. When I have a headache, I drink two glasses of wine and it helps me.”
I walked along a path under a huge tree and past a pile of firewood to his modest, brick tasting room where a woman has laid out plates of Georgian cheese, bread and walnuts. Next door, he showed me a room with five holes that are the trademark of Georgian wineries. While modern wine-making methods are being used in all wineries, many winemakers, from the big commercial dealers to guys like Irakli, make wine the same way the inventors did 8,000 years ago.
When he makes wine, Irakli includes the skin, stems and everything else and places it in clay pots, known as qvevris, lined with beeswax. They’re placed in these holes for six months to two years, depending on the wine. After two months, he examines the qvevri. The end result is the most natural wine you’ll ever taste. He uses five times fewer sulfites than the full-sulfite wine you find in the U.S. His five qvevris produce 3,500 liters of wine.
This ancient method is now being used in some wineries in Italy, France and the U.S.
“I can’t say it’s better or worse,” he said. “It’s totally different. It’s hard. You need a lot of work, cleaning, patience.”
His wines are no worse than the large commercial wines I tried. My favorite was his Saperavi 2017, a rich, deep red to which he adds no sulfites. The best part? It retails for about $12;.
TELAVI WINE CELLAR
Ramazashvili looks tired. The owner of Telavi Wine Cellar and Georgia’s famous Merani wine is the antithesis of the wine people I’ve met over the years. They’re happy, bubbly, energetic. Ramazashvili looks like an overworked, underappreciated factory drone from the USSR, circa 1978.
“I’m never happy,” he said with a wry smile. “I’m always thinking of ways to get better.”
He’s done quite well so far. His winery has won more than 600 awards which cover an entire wall of his large, corporate-looking tasting room. Telavi makes 70 different wines, ranging from table wine to wines coming from a single vineyard. They sell 5 million bottles a year.
Telavi began in 1915 but also fell victim to Soviet nationalization. Ramazashvili took over in 1997 after a stint as a professor of medicine an d then a doctor, who under communism, received just slightly better pay than some of the better lab rats.
“I changed my life,” he said. “I go into business. If you’re a private doctor you get paid but people had no money.”
Ramazashvili rarely drinks and doesn’t do traditional toastings.
“I have so many opportunities to drink outside,” he said. “I’m too tired.”
The Telavi plant is huge. One warehouse is lined with hundreds of oak barrels. Another room has 40 qvevris, all lined up like miniature missile shelters. Here the reds ferment for six months and the whites 12-18 months.
My favorite was the semisweet Tvishi white made from 100 percent Tsolikouri grape from the west part of Georgia. It’s pleasant, soft with a mix of fruits.
VITA VINEA WINERY
Dakishvili’s tasting room looks like a dining room of a hunting lodge. Inside the big, beautiful brick room are three overstuffed black chairs and a moosehead over a fireplace. On a long tasting table made of stained wood, Dakishvili, 47, talked about being the son of one of the USSR’s top oenologist, which is basically a wine scientist.
“It’s a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s not only a business. Every family member is in wine production.”
It brought a good income, even under communism. The family compound is a large yet homey complex on the outskirts of Telavi. The snow-covered mountains can be seen from their front yard. He remembers under the USSR how the shops had so little. The meat and poultry were always frozen.
“But we had a lot of wine,” he said.
He started the business in 2008 and produces most of his wine in his eight qvervis. His white wines are so amber they almost look orange. The business is taking off. He produces 50,000 bottles a year and exports to the U.S., United Kingdom, France and Japan.
“Maybe in the past we didn’t promote,” he said. “We weren’t prepared to promote our wine in a good manner. Now it’s a totally different reality in Georgia. The wines are high quality and well promoted.”
My favorite was his First Vintage 2007, a gorgeous red from the family’s first batch of grapes.
Frankly, my notes from this winery are a bit blurry. My tasting room host, Tamara Meskhishvili, engaged me in an intense conversation about the pluses and minuses of Stalin while she poured me, not four, not five, but 12 tastings, each one about half a glass.
I do recall her pointing outside the tasting room to a huge baobab tree she claimed was 2,000 years old. She also gave me good looks at qvevri, explaining that each one weighs 2 ½ tons and men, specifically trained to make them, take six months to make one.
After the 12 tastings, Meskhishvili told me I had something in common with Stalin. My favorite wine was a Khvanchkara, a semi-sweet wine that’s the No. 2 seller in Russia today.
It was also Stalin’s favorite.