Following the wrap-up of the two-day International Wine Tourism Conference (held at the fabulous Tbilisi Marriott) with the announcement that Champagne – La Marne would be hosting next year’s Conference, the media tour group headed out of Tbilisi en route to the wine region of Kakheti, to the northeast of the city. We had a bit of an adventure on the way there because in order to get to the town of Telavi (no, not Tel Aviv), where we would be having dinner and spending the night, the shortest route involves crossing the Tsiv-Gombori Mountain Range through Gombori Pass. Unfortunately Mother Nature was not on our side and due to a snowstorm we got turned around by police in the foothills and had to extend our trip by approximately 3-4 hours, arriving in Telavi quite late for dinner. We stayed at the Old Telavi Hotel, quite central to the historic district of this capital city of the Kakheti region. In the morning I was able to go for a brisk walk (there were snow-covered peaks not too far away and I only had spring-weather clothing) to check out the old fortifications before we headed out for our busy day of touring.Our first stop was the Ikalto Monastery & Wine Academy, a site of learning that dates back to the 6th century. The original monastery was founded in the second half of the 6th century and there is still a small building on the site that dates back to that time. The existing church dates back to the 8th and 9th centuries, and the Ikalto Wine Academy, which is now in ruins, was one of two such medieval academies in Georgia, established in the 12th century. It is a very serene setting, with disused qvevris scattered around the grounds, some almost in a “qvevri graveyard”. Although the wine academy is in ruins, it is still possible to see where the grapes were crushed and the channels where the must would have flowed into the qvevris – some still buried in the ground.Our second stop was to another monastery a short drive to the north – Alaverdi – where the monks have been making wine since the year 1011, and still continue to this day. Here, as a sign of respect, all women must wear headscarves and long skirts; these are provided at the entrance if you are not prepared (wraparound skirts that can go on over pants etc). Although parts of the monastery date back to the 6th century, the current cathedral was built in the 11th century, when a giant wine cellar was also built to make qvevri wines. Since 2006 there has been an archeological team unearthing parts of this ancient cellar, including up to 50 qvevris able to hold a total of 60 tons of wine! Following our tour of the cathedral, we were led through to the monastery area where Father Gerasim, the winemaker, talked of the history and of the wines themselves, concluding with a tasting of an amber wine made from the Khikhvi grape (so delicious that I had to purchase a bottle for my cellar), a deeply crimson Saperavi which was also tasty and finally some chacha poured from a massive bottle. For those of you unfamiliar with chacha, it is the Georgian grappa (chacha is the Georgian word for the pomace – the skins and seeds of the grapes left after pressing) which is also sometimes referred to as grape vodka. Almost every feast ends with shots of chacha, and many of the wineries we visited had some on offer as well. We tried varying quality levels – some rough, straight from the still and others aged and beautifully smooth and fragrant. Most of it was too strong for me, but I could certainly appreciate the good stuff!
We left the monastery and headed south to Chateau Mere – a lovely hotel, restaurant and winery with lots of charm and the feeling of being well-loved by many people who have visited again and again. Here we were greeted by George Piradashvili, the owner, who led us through a tasting of some of his Winiveria wines prior to lunch. The 2011 Khikhvi was fresh and clean, with floral and apple aromas and flavours of pear and apple with crisp acidity and a lingering finish. The 2010 qvevri-made Saperavi was a deep inky purple with chocolate and dark fruit on the nose. It was dry, with medium-plus acidity and tannins, with flavours of plum and prune. We feasted on quail, a delicious baked cheese dish, beans, salads and of course the ever-present khachapuri (cheese pie) before taking in a tour of the cellar and the gardens. Prior to our departure, George very generously gave each of us a bottle of his chacha, in a unique flask-shaped bottle.
From Chateau Mere we travelled about 45 minutes east to the Kindzmarauli Marani winery, towards Kvareli. We were delayed slightly by the ever-present herds of sheep, goats, mules and cattle that were being led to higher pastures, blocking the highway periodically. In BC, we have to watch out for deer; in Georgia, it’s cows or sheep. Upon arrival at Kindzmarauli Marani, I was very impressed with their demonstration vineyard which contains 400 indigenous Georgian varietals – very cool to see, even if I didn’t recognize most of them. The production facility is very much along the same lines as many North American wineries, with large stainless steel tanks, modern equipment and a large barrel cellar. They do however produce wines both in the European method (tanks/barrels) as well as the traditional method (qvevri). We were led up into a room at the top of a tower to taste through several wines. I was happy to be able to try a white wine again that I had first tried in class with some of my students prior to my trip – a 2012 Mtsvane from Kindzmarauli Marani. I hadn’t enjoyed it in Canada but now I know that it must have been improperly stored on its journey to the BCLDB, or after its arrival. It was a night and day difference, with the wine I tasted in Georgia being crisp, dry, with aromas and flavours of citrus, apple and pear, and some complexity – very pleasant. My highlight of the tasting was however a 2005 Qvevri Kakhetian Royal (White) – a blend of Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane and Khikhvi grapes. This amber wine was rich, complex and delicious, with aromas of dried fruit, fruitcake, prune and raisin. It was dry with medium-plus acidity and tannins and flavours of raisins and dried apricots – loved it!
A bit further up the road, in Kvareli, is the Winery Khareba where we would be staying for dinner. First we were given a demonstration of how to make the local bread, known as tonis puri, which is baked in an oven similar to a tandoor. Anybody who wanted to could try their hand at shaping the dough and slapping it to the inside walls of the oven. Following the baking lesson we trundled up the hill to their famous wine tunnels that are carved into the mountain. There are two long parallel tunnels and 13 smaller tunnels linking the two, for a total of 7.7km of tunnels. Needless to say, we didn’t explore all of them. We were led into one of the smaller ones to conduct a tasting of two of their wines a 2011 Khikhvi (white), with stone fruit and citrus flavours and crisp acidity, and a 2010 Saperavi (red), a medium-bodied smooth wine with flavours of dark berries and cherries. Our next stop was outside the tunnel at the chacha still. Here we were offered a shot glass of chacha, paired with pickles. After doing the shots, we were able to head outside where a woman was heating a large pot of grape juice over an open fire in order to make churchkhelas, or Georgian “snickers”. We were handed strings of nuts to dip into the thickened grape juice to cover them. We then took them out and hung the strings from a frame to dry to a fruit-leather-like consistency and turn into the delicious snack that they are. We were then directed to climb the hill to the restaurant. This must have been a ploy to ensure we would be hungry as it really was quite a seriously steep climb, topped by several flights of stairs to get to the top. We were once again provided with a delicious feast, this time culminating in a suckling pig with sparklers being wheeled into the room!
After such a full day of touring, we were all happy to head to our hotel – the Kvareli Eden Hotel & Spa. Although several people met up to drink some more wine, it was time for me and Allison to sort through our accumulated bottles and plan a packing strategy for how to bring them all back to Canada in a few short days, and turn in for an “early” night. Early is a relative term on these chockablock tours. They are fabulous as so many things are crammed in to a short period, but sleep definitely falls down the list of priorities. Once again, this was a beautiful hotel and after I had a chance to wander around a bit in the morning, I was sad that I couldn’t stay longer and take advantage of the lovely spa facilities – a wine spa in fact! Many of the treatments include products made from wine or grapes, and this was carried through to the toiletries provided in each room. Once again, I was left with a need to return to Georgia for another trip!
Stay tuned for Part 3, with the continuation of the travels, food and wine in the Kakheti region of Georgia, including a preview of the first Qvevri Museum at Twins Wine Cellar in Napareuli, and the beautiful town of Sighnaghi.