Most people, when they’re on holiday, like to mix it up a bit with their activities. I admit that I do like my relaxing beach holidays where I don’t do much except move from the recliner on the beach, to the beach-side bistro, and back again. However, if I’m on a wine tour of a region, as much as I want to maximize my tasting time my palate (and brain) can only take so much. Last fall when I travelled in France, I would spend part of each day exploring towns, historic monuments and countryside, and stopping at wineries in between those other activities.
On my recent trip to the International Wine Tourism Conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, the people who organized our media tour did an excellent job of ensuring that each day was a great mix of historical monuments (even though they were quite intrinsically linked to the long winemaking history of the country), wineries, museums and feasts. Whenever we had longer stretches of road to cover, our guides would also fill the time by telling us the rich history of Georgia – very interesting.
During our whirlwind trip, 2 full days were taken up by the conference itself, leaving 3 full days and two part days to be shown Tbilisi and its surroundings, as well as the Kakheti wine region to the north and east of Tbilisi (to be featured in part two of this blog post).
The day we arrived in Tbilisi, at the crack of 4am, after travelling for approximately 32 hours, we were pretty much left to our own devices. However, one of our group had asked about touring a particular market in the town and a guide was provided to assist with that. The invitation was extended to anybody else who was interested, and not catching up on sleep. I decided to join the tour and was rewarded with a beautifully colourful array of herbs, dried fruit, nuts, pickled veggies, honey, candies, cheese, fish and meat; not to mention the friendliest of people!
That evening we had our first introduction to Georgian wines at a local wine bar/ cooperative shop for some small producers of natural wine – Vino Underground. Here we were able to start learning the names of some of the varietals (Tsitska, Tsolikouri, Chinuri, Goruli Mstvane, Aladasturi, Rkatsiteli, Tavkveri, Saperavi) that sounded quite foreign but became familiar over the coming days, as well as some of the winegrowing regions (Imereti, Kartli, Kakheti). Following the wine bar we walked a few blocks to the Azarpesha Restaurant for our first official supra or Georgian feast. These feasts last for hours, with course after course of food arriving on the table, covering it – the word supra literally means tablecloth and it’s because all the plates cover the surface, to the point that new plates get piled on top of the earlier ones; plates will only be taken away if they’re empty. The supra is led by a tamada, or toastmaster, who will toast several subjects throughout the evening, including God, the event itself, Georgia, peace, women, the dead and children, and then will speak at length about that subject. The toast then continues to anybody who would like to say a few words on the subject and raise and drain their glass. At Azarpesha we were also treated to some traditional Georgian polyphonic singing by the owner, Luarsab Togonidze and several of his friends – the Zedashe Ensemble. We were also able to try drinking wine from a couple of traditional vessels – the azarpesha, which is a long-handle silver bowl and a horn that was intricately carved.
For our first full day of touring, we were taken to the north side of Tbilisi in the morning to visit a sparkling wine producer – Bagrationi 1882 and its neighbour, brandy producer Sarajishvili. Bagrationi 1882 is Georgia’s first sparkling wine producer. They were established in 1937, but their first vintage was not until after World War II, in 1945. The building had a distinctly Soviet feel to it, particularly beyond the grand entrance foyer. They have wines made both by the Traditional method, with the 2nd fermentation occurring in the bottle, and the Charmat Method, with the 2nd fermentation occurring in large pressurized tanks. Sadly, the riddling racks were all bare in the cellar, following a large order from Russia that pretty much cleared out their inventory. The primary grapes used in these sparkling wines are Chinuri, Tsitska and Mtsvane. We were able to sample three wines: Bagrationi Finest Brut, Bagrationi Rosé Brut (both Traditional Method) and Bagrationi Rosé (Charmat Method). I quite enjoyed both of the traditional method wines and brought a couple of bottles back to Canada.At Sarajishvili we were greeted by the most highly animated man – David Abzianidze, the Chief Technologist. With the help of our guide Mariam for translation (although I could understand much of what he said with the help of his gestures and enthusiasm), he toured us through his facility. Sarajishvili was established in 1884, with its first brandy being released in 1887. The founder, David Sarajishvili figured that with 525 indigenous grape varietals in Georgia, at least one should be able to compare with the Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano) that is used to make Cognac in France. By dividing the country into three regions they found the best-suited varietal in each region. From Imereti, Tsitska and Tsolikouri are used. From Kakheti, Chinuri and Goruli Mtsvane are used, and from Eastern Georgia, Rkatsiteli is used. The facility that we toured is used to age the spirit after it has been distilled off-site, closer to the origins of the grapes. There are 70 halls full of barrels containing spirits anywhere from 3 years old to 120 years old. The barrels that are used are primarily (80%) Georgian oak, with some Bulgarian and French as well. We tasted two brandies, the first being a 7-year-old VS from Imereti, using Tsitska and Tsolikouri. The second was a 10-year-old VSOP from Kakheti, using Chinuri and Goruli Mtsvane – this was my favourite of the two.
For lunch, we headed northwest to the ancient town of Mtskheta. This town dates back to 1000 BC and was the capital of the early Georgian Kingdom of Iberia between the 3rd century BC and 5th century AD, as well as being the site where Christianity was declared to be the state religion of Kartli in 337. Due to its historical significance and numerous monuments it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. We ate at the Gujari Restaurant, which treated us to yet another feast with multiple courses of salads, breads, khachapuri, grilled and fried veggies and cheese, grilled fish and meats.
After lunch we drove up onto a hilltop which overlooks the confluence of two rivers – Mtkvari and Aragvi, and the holy town of Mtskheta, to where the Jvari Monastery is located, one of the holiest sites in Georgia. The existing church was built in the 7th century and sits on ruin of a 6th century church. Its location is where King Mirian erected a sacred wooden cross after his conversion by St Nino in the 4th century. The church is very simple monastic architecture, sitting demurely among the stunning landscapes.
After admiring the views, playing with the on-site stray dog and taking many photos, we left for our next stop of the day, further northwest – Chateau Mukhrani. A wonderful mix of history and modernity, Chateau Mukhrani sits in lush grounds, a total contrast from the somewhat run-down surrounding village. This is a historical site dating back to 1512, when it was the estate of the prince of the governing royal family, Bagrationi. The Mukhrani region was the centre of several important trade routes and so became an important bastion, both economically and strategically. In 1876, Prince Ivane Mukhranbatoni, a great military and political figure, returned to Georgia after spending some time learning the art of winemaking in France and set about establishing a winery on the family estate, aiming to show that Georgian wines could compete with any great wines of the world. In 1898, after years of winning accolades, a Chateau Mukhrani wine took the top honour at the Paris Wine Exhibition. During the Soviet time Chateau Mukhrani was abandoned and fell into disrepair, becoming almost completely destroyed. Over the past 7 years, huge investment has been made by the current owners to build a new state-of-the-art winery facility and to restore and rebuild the underground cellar network and the castle itself. Following a tour of the renovated cellars we were walked through a tasting of some of the wines, including a 2012 Mtsvane, 2012 Tavkveri Rosé, a 2010 Saperavi and a 2011 Kindzmarauli Semi-Sweet Red (also Saperavi).
We hopped back on the bus to be driven back to Tbilisi for dinner at Restaurant Kopala. This has to be one of the most stunning vantage points overlooking old town Tbilisi, perched high up on a cliff. There were even sections of the floor that were made of structural glass, letting us see just how high up we really were – a bit unnerving for those of us who are not fans of heights. We enjoyed yet another feast with seemingly endless plates of food, although by this point we were beginning to sense an order in which dished were being brought out, so we knew that when the grilled meats were brought out, it would then be followed by fried potato wedges, and that would be the final dish. Unless there was dessert, of course. We waddled back to the bus, full of delicious wine and food, to get a bit of sleep before the start of the Conference the following day.