Well, this post has certainly taken me a lot longer than planned, but I finally managed to complete it, only 9 months after the wonderful time spent in Georgia (the country, not the state). Has it really only been 9 months? It almost seems like a lifetime ago; 2014 was certainly a busy year!
Nearing the end of our intensive immersion in Georgian culture following the International Wine Tourism Conference, we set out on our final full day of the post-conference media tour. On the bus trip from the Kvareli Eden Hotel & Spa to our first destination in Napareuli, we passed so many vineyards, all with the beautiful snow-capped Caucasus Mountains as a backdrop. We also saw some historical monuments including Gremi, a brick citadel dating back to the 16th century. It is an important Late Medieval archaeological site with ruins of churches, trading arcades, baths and dwellings that is on UNESCO’s tentative site list. Up on a hilltop are the best-preserved buildings of the complex – Church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel (16th century) and the Royal Tower (15th century).
Our first stop of the day was the Twins Wine Cellar & Qvevri Museum in Napareuli, owned by twin brothers Gia and Gela Gamtkitsulashvilis. This still-expanding facility offers the “full-meal deal” in Wine Tourism. Tours of both ancient and modern wine cellars are available, as well as the (at the time) not-yet-opened Qvevri Museum. This museum is the first of its kind and the brothers hoped that it would attain official museum status. In addition to the standard tours, the brothers offer hands-on experiences including picking grapes, making your own qvevri wine in the traditional method, making zavodi (vodka), baking Shoti bread, making churchkhelas (the much-loved “Georgian snickers”), and there is hotel accommodation on site as well. Upon our arrival we were greeted and shown into the ancient wine cellar that had been restored in 2002 and includes an ancient wine press, carved out of a single tree, which is still in operation today. Beside the ancient cellar is the still that is used to make chacha from the grape pomace. We were led through the more modern qvevri cellar en route to the museum, stopping for some shoti bread on the way. One must really watch their step around qvevris as it would be very easy to trip on one or, in the case of a larger empty one, actually fall in! Thankfully there were no qvevri casualties on this trip! The first interactive part of the museum involved actually stepping inside a massive qvevri. Once the door closed, a presentation demonstrated the fermentation process within a qvevri and the different levels achieved within the qvevri of wine and grapes from start to finish. The museum tour itself was very interesting and informative, setting out the reasons for the qvevri being the shape that it is, to the regions and grape varietals within Georgia, as well as the remaining regions still making qvevris (only 3 of 11 regions). The displays then demonstrate the life of a qvevri from start to finish, including the manufacturing, the placement in the ground, the preparation and cleaning, and finally the grapes into wine. Twins Wine Cellar has patented a new “demonstration qvevri” that cuts it in half vertically, to allow visitors to see the wine during the fermentation process. Each year, white and red wines will be made in these demonstration qvevris so that it is possible to watch exactly what happens inside. It was really amazing to see how clear the wine was and to see all the grape skins and lees at the bottom of the qvevri. Following the tour, we were led up to the top floor of the museum for some wine tasting. From this vantage point, we could also watch the construction of the new wine cellar taking place, with some massive qvevris ready to be lowered into the large excavated area. The wines that we tasted included a 2012 qvevri-made Rkatsiteli. It was medium amber in colour, had citrus aromas, was dry with medium-plus acidity, medium tannins, with lots of complexity on the palate. I couldn’t place all the flavours but I very much enjoyed it. We also tasted a 2012 qvevri-made Saperavi with a deep ruby-purple colour. It had a nose of dark berries, was dry with medium-plus acidity and tannins with flavours of dark berries and spice with a medium-plus finish. These wines had no chemical or enzyme interference during fermentation and had very little sulphur added. We all headed back downstairs and out to the cellar for the big excitement – the opening of a qvevri of Rkatsiteli that had been sealed 6 months previous by three of the members of our group, Terry and Kathy Sullivan of Wine Trail Traveler, along with Tamta Kvelaidze of the Georgian National Wine Agency. The wine was clear, fresh, fruity and delicious, straight from the qvevri. We were able to watch as they emptied the wine, followed by the skins, seeds and lees, ready for pressing and bottling.
Our next stop of the day was at Shumi Winery which, in addition to producing wines in a European method (tanks and oak barrels), has Georgia’s first vine and wine museum. As part of the museum, the winery has a demonstration vineyard that contains 294 indigenous Georgian varietals plus 92 European varietals. Inside the museum’s exhibition hall are many wine-related artifacts dating back hundreds and thousands of years, including many wine vessels and a clay jug dating back to the 12th century BC! We noticed smoke billowing from a fire beside one of the outbuildings and could smell the most amazing aromas of grilled meat. We were led to the outbuilding, which houses the winery’s still. We were served shots of freshly-distilled chacha straight from the spout and still warm, paired with pickles and cheese. Not being a huge fan of spirits, this one was just a bit too young and fire-water-like for me. Passing the large skewers of pork being roasted over the grill by several men, we made our way up to the tasting room where, as per usual Georgian custom, a large table of food was prepared to go along with the wine tasting. On the table were assorted local cheeses, nuts, churchkhelas and soon the deliciously tender grilled pork. We sampled five wines, beginning with a 2012 Tsinandali appellation wine, a blend of 85% Rkatsiteli and 15% Mtsvane. This is a wine that I had tasted during the Grand Tasting at the IWINETC a few days earlier and still enjoyed it just as much. The second wine was a Mukuzani appellation 2012 Saperavi with dark ruby-purple colour and a rich ripe berry nose. It was dry, with medium-plus acidity and chewy medium-plus tannins with ripe red fruit and dark berries on the palate. Beginning in 2005, Shumi was the first company to make certified organic wines. The next wine was a 2008 organic ‘Bio’ Saperavi. It was medium ruby in colour with cherry and berries on the nose. It was dry, with medium acidity, medium-plus tannins and flavours of dark berries and savoury spice with a medium-plus finish. It was a nicely balanced wine – quite delicious! The 2013 Kindzmarauli appellation natural semi-sweet Saperavi was deep purple in colour with a bit of a closed nose (the wine was a bit cold) of dark ripe fruit. It was medium-sweet and the flavour profile reminded me more of a port-style wine, although the alcohol was only 11%. To finish our tasting we were treated to something a bit special, called “Zigu”. This was a very tasty dessert-style wine that used all 386 grape varietals in the demonstration vineyard and was then fortified to 19% alc/vol with a mix of chacha and brandy.
We got back on our bus to make our way to our lunchtime visit to Schuchmann Winery, which produces both European style wines (still and sparkling) as well as qvevri wines, under the Vinoterra label, which makes up about 30-40% of their total production of approximately 33,000 cases. We opted against a tour of the modern winemaking facilities as we have all seen innumerable steel tanks and oak barrels before, so instead we were shown through the qvevri cellar and the sparkling wine cave. Schuchmann produces around 12,000 bottles of sparkling wine annually, split between a Rosé Brut made of 70% Merlot and 30% Malbec, and a Blanc de Blancs that is 100% Chardonnay. During lunch, with the most amazing views of the Caucasus Mountains across the valley, we sampled six of the wines. The 2013 Rkatsiteli made in stainless steel tanks with no skin contact was a pale straw colour with a fresh floral nose. It was bright and fresh with flavours of citrus. In contrast, the 2011 Vinoterra Rkatsiteli made in qvevri with 6 months of skin contact was a medium-plus gold colour with aromas and flavours of citrus and dried apricot. It was dry, with medium-plus acidity and tannins and quite a complex palate. The 2011 Saperavi was fermented in stainless steel, saw no oak and was bottled, unfiltered, and aged in the bottle for one year. It was a medium ruby in colour with aromas of cherry and damson plum. It was dry with medium-plus acidity and tannins and flavours of damson plum, cranberry and cherry with a medium-plus finish. The 2009 Vinoterra Saperavi spent 6 months in qvevri, 1 year in French oak and 3 years in bottle. It was a medium ruby colour with complex aromas of dark berries, plum and dried fruit. It was dry with medium-plus body, medium-plus acidity and tannins with flavours of dried cherry, spice and dark berries, beautifully balanced with a long finish – quite delicious. Because most of us were curious to try the sparkling wines, they brought out a bottle of each for us to try. The sparkling Rosé had ripe berry and cherry flavours, tiny bubbles and was quite pleasant. I enjoyed it much more than the sparkling Chardonnay, which I felt was lacking acidity. After filling up on lunch and the views, we once again boarded the bus for our final destination of the media tour – the beautiful town of Sighnaghi.
Sighnaghi is situated high on a hilltop overlooking the Alazani Valley and the Caucasus Mountains beyond. It is considered to be the prettiest town in Kakheti, with its 18th and 19th century Italianate architecture. Interestingly, the town was originally developed in the 18th century by King Erekle II in part as a refuge for the area’s populace against Ottoman and Persian attacks. The name comes from the Turkish siğinak, which means ‘shelter’. We checked into Hotel Kabadoni, a lovely modern hotel with spectacular views and huge suites, before heading to our final supra, being hosted by Pheasant’s Tears Winery, located a short walk from the hotel. During that short walk, I noticed that just like elsewhere on our tour, there were a lot of sculptures dotted throughout the town, along with the omnipresent stray dogs. Once we arrived at Pheasant’s Tears we could visit the qvevri cellars in the basement, view the artwork in the Old Town Studios or just wander through the courtyard. For the supra, hosted by John Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears Winery, we were brought many dishes prepared from local foods, including some foraged foods. We also finally had the chance to try the much-spoken-about khinkali dumplings. Throughout the meal we were poured several natural wines. The Pheasant’s Tears 2013 Tsoulikouri from Imereti was a pale straw colour with a tropical nose. It was dry with medium-plus acidity with flavours of lemon and a long finish. The 2013 Tsitska was made from grapes that were picked in Terjola in Imereti from such a steep site that not even horses can work it. It was pale gold with an apple-cider-like nose. It was dry with medium-plus acidity, medium-minus tannins and flavours of citrus, quince and spice with a medium-plus finish. We then compared the 2012 and 2013 vintages of the Tavkveri Rosé. I must say that my favourite was the 2013. I found that the 2012 just had a bit too much funk and acidity to it for my tastes. The 2013 on the other hand had a lovely berry nose, was dry with medium-plus acid and light tannins. It had flavours of citrus and red currant – quite pleasant. Next we tasted the 2012 Kisi that had 6 months of skin contact and 20% of stems added into the qvevri. It was medium amber in colour and a bit cloudy. It had that apple cider note on the nose, was dry with medium-plus acidity and medium tannins with flavours of citrus and quite a bit of complexity and savoury notes on the palate. The 2011 Kakhuri Mtsvane came from 75-year-old vines in Manavi village in Kakheti. It was a clear pale amber with a complex honeyed nose. It was dry with medium-plus acidity and tannins. There was some salinity on the palate, along with flavours of citrus and spice. The 2011 Rkatsiteli came from an area of Kakheti that is close to the border with Azerbaijan. It had 3 months of skin contact with 10-15% stems added into the qvevri. It had some smoke on the nose along with some floral notes. It was dry with medium-plus acidity and medium tannins. Its complex palate was elegant with flavours of citrus, spice and some interesting salinity again. Next up was a 2013 blend of Rkatsiteli, Chinuri and Mtsvane that had been made by one of our young tour guides, Alex Rodzianko, who also works at Pheasant’s Tears. This had been his first attempt at his own wine and was fresh out of the qvevri, and I’d say he did a pretty good job! It was clear and pale gold in colour with apple, stone fruit and some nuttiness on the nose. It was dry, with high acidity. It was still a bit young but I think it will be lovely with a bit of age on it. Next up was a 2011 Shavkapito from the Kartli region. It was medium ruby in colour with a fresh nose and aromas of red fruit with a hint of meat and smoke. The nose reminded me a bit of a Beaujolais Nouveau. It was dry with medium-plus acidity and medium tannins with minerality, red fruit and spice on the palate. Next we were treated to a 2008 Saperavi Reserve, of which there were only 30 bottles left. It had undergone spontaneous malolactic fermentation in a second qvevri, spending a total of two years in qvevri. It had not been filtered or fined and no sulphur had been added to it. It was a deep purple with a ruby hue to it, with a bit of funk on the nose and aromas of deep red berries and cherry. It was dry with medium-plus acidity and tannins, a full body and flavours of cherry, damson plum and spice with a long finish. Next I opted to try a couple of wines that were not Georgian. The first was a Vin de Savoie from D & P Belluard made from the Gringet varietal. It was pale lemon in colour with aromas of lemon rind and orange rind. It was dry with high acidity with crisp citrus and minerality on the palate. It was a complex, elegant, well-balanced, delicious wine with a long finish. The second was the 2010 Jakot from Dario Prinčič of Oslavia in Italy, near the Slovenian border, made from 100% Friulano-Tokaj grapes. It was a medium amber in colour, slightly cloudy, with a lovely nose of tangerine. It was dry with medium-plus acidity and tannins, a complex palate with flavours of citrus, spice and orange blossom with a long finish – fabulous! Throughout the supra we were treated to traditional polyphonic signing and some wonderful dancing. Some of the guests even got up and joined in. After saying our goodbyes to our fellow tour-mates we headed back to the hotel for a bit of shut-eye before an early start in the morning. Although we were flying out of Tbilisi later the next day, my co-presenter and travel companion Allison Markin and I were going on a little side journey and parting ways with the rest of the media tour.
When the trip organizers discovered that Allison had some family history in Georgia, the Georgian hospitality gene kicked into full gear. They helped organize a car and driver/translator to take us a couple hours outside of Tbilisi to her family’s former village before bringing us back to the airport to fly home. I will post some of the photos I took along that journey to show you the changing landscapes, however I will let Allison tell her story, so please check it out on the All She Wrote blog. Overall, the time spent in Georgia was truly an experience of a lifetime and I will be forever grateful for it.
The wild cows of Georgia!