When you arrive at passport control in the Tbilisi airport, a border agent checks your documents, gives you a once-over, and hands you a bottle of wine.
I’m not actually sure if this is always the case, but it was when I landed in the world’s self-proclaimed “Cradle of Wine” this January. The region we call Georgia has seen a lot of change in its millennia-long history: an early move from Zoroastrianism to Christianity, golden ages of empire and military strength, foreign incursions from Mongols, Ottomans, Safavids, and Russians, contested borders, uprisings against the USSR, corruption, and periods of economic depression. One thing, though, has remained constant since the beginning – the traditional qvevri method of winemaking, so old and so Georgian as to be added to the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage in 2013. This wine is so much a part of their heritage that the wine bottle at the border is an official initiative by the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development. And the label of the wine bottle at the border contains facts about Georgian history. To be clear: it’s not a history pamphlet with a few words about wine – it’s wine, with a few words about history.
Georgia is an unassuming country, perhaps notable to U.S. observers mostly as the birthplace of Stalin and as the David against Russia’s Goliath in the South Ossetia conflict. But there is a lot more to it than that – Georgia contains no less than 22 microclimates that make it a mountainous, forested, sulfurous, snowy, beachy, vineyard-covered thumbprint of a nation.
Several of these microclimates are in the Kakheti region, an agricultural area and the epicenter of Georgian winemaking today. It was here, and in other areas across the southern region, where neolithic Georgians first tinkered with their now-legendary qvevri method. The qvevri is so distinct that, at most restaurants and bars in the capital, the wine list will be divided into “Georgian Technology” and “European Technology.” This is serious stuff.
The method is named after its crucial element, the tool that separates it from any other mass-production winemaking: the qvevri (also spelled “kvevri”), a large, oblong, earthenware vessel in which wine is stored and aged. Just as with wood barrels, the clay used in these qvevris affects the taste of the wine; the mineral content of a qvevri from one village might differ significantly from that of another. Qvevri quality is considered so essential that their production is now entrusted to a small number of villages, whose natural resources and ancestral knowledge are considered worthy of the task.
A few key elements unite the various techniques of traditional Georgian winemaking: grapes are placed in a wooden press and stomped by foot, the juice is decanted into an open qvevri, and the pomace is added on top so that the qvevri is around ¾ full. Fermentation occurs in an open qvevri using only wild yeast – this is the OG natural wine. After the first stage of fermentation, the qvevri is loosely capped with with a clay disc, and then fully sealed with wet clay when fermentation is complete. After 3-4 months of aging, the wine is ready for storage and bottling.
The specifics of the winemaking process vary from region to region; in Kakheti, for example, the must and pomace are left together for 6 months – whereas in Imereti, only some pomace is left in, and then removed before the second stage of fermentation. When filled, the vessels are buried underground for temperature stability, or inlaid into the floor of a home or farmhouse to allow easy access for testing and tasting. Entering a larger Georgian winery, you realize that there are tens of thousands of liters of wine under your feet. One winemaker I visited pointed down and mentioned, casually, that the massive qvevri below contained 5,000 of the best liters he had ever made.
The countryside is peppered with vineyards and winemaking operations, large and small. And it’s not just villa-style wineries – on the road through the Tsiv-Gombori mountains, you can pull over in any small town and get yourself some homebrew red. The old man at the ubiquitous roadside stand will hand you bread to distract you, while he runs to his shed and returns with a full 1L fanta bottle of Saperavi (the star local grape)for 2 USD.
Winemaking and drinking aren’t just business here – they’re good old fashioned family values. Not every family makes their own wine, but most every family has a horn, or kantsi. Plucked from the skulls of goats, rams, or oxen, drinking horns are a cherished part of traditional Georgian social and family life. And of course, ceremonial drinking vessels pair well with pomp and circumstance; the Georgian toast-making tradition is one of the most flamboyant and beloved examples of drinking ritual in the world. A toastmaster, or tamada, is a mainstay at weddings, feasts, and parties. The tamada draws upon a vast knowledge of codified toasts, folklore, and songs and poetry about winemaking.
It’s no wonder that people make so much time for these wines in their daily lives – Georgian wines are special. The taste is utterly distinct, the variety an exciting surprise. Reds are discernibly stony and often incredibly tannic, while whites are thin but refreshingly citric (and the ambers pleasantly supple). Wines are named either for microzone appellation or the grape used; there are around 525 distinct grape varieties indigenous to Georgia, 45 of which are in consistent commercial use today. Popular wines include the dry reds Saperavi and Mukuzani, semi-sweet red Kindzmarauli, and dry whites Rkatsiteli and Tsinandali.
If you’re lucky, you can also sample a personal favorite: “green” wine, a light, crisp, grassy white named for Mtsvane grapes (meaning “young and green” in Georgian). According to a Tbilisi wine bar owner, hipster winemakers have focused increasingly on various Mtsvane varietals in recent years – there are as many different types of Mtsvane grapes as there are microclimates, making them appealing to boutique natural wineries. Adventurous drinkers should also sample chacha, a grape moonshine that is blinding at first, but distinctly grape-y in the finish.
Finding Georgian wines in some parts of the U.S. can be tricky, though importers are increasingly interested – you can find if certain wines are available in your state here or here. A few notable brands are Schuchmann, operated by a German expat; Shumi, who export an excellent wine-brandy-chacha blend called Zigu; and Pheasant’s Tears, with an excellent amber Rkatsiteli. Old Tbilisi produce a range of all styles, both dry and sweet, and are particularly adept at a semi-sweet Alaverdi.
If you get your hands on some, whites pair well with dishes that feature walnut sauce, used liberally in Georgian cuisine. Both red and white are nicely complemented by any stinky, salty cheese – ideally the distinctly Georgian sulguni. Grab your horn, make a toast to this national treasure, and drink up!