Kakheti is one of the top winemaking regions in Georgia. // © 2018 Creative Commons user marofieber
Feature image (above): Georgia’s winemaking history dates back up to 8,000 years. // © 2018 Creative Commons user ritingonthewall
The country of Georgia has a long history of making wine. Some claim it is the world’s oldest winemaking region, dating back up to 8,000 years. Though other countries can also boast a rich heritage when it comes to fermenting grapes, Georgia’s traditional production method makes it extremely unique. And, despite its legacy, modern-day tourism to the region is relatively fresh, meaning there’s a beautiful blend of old and new worlds to discover.
European-Style Versus Georgian-Style Winemaking
Winemaking as we know it in the Western world — referred to as “European-style winemaking” by the Georgians — involves pressing the juice from the grapes, then fermenting that juice in steel tanks and aging the wine in oak barrels.
Georgian-style winemaking is different right from the start. It substitutes the steel tanks and oak barrels for an earthenware, tear-drop-shaped container known as a qvevri. The qvevri is buried in the ground with its opening on top. Unlike European-style winemaking, where only the juice is used, the Georgian-style method makes use of the entire grape, including the fruit, juice, seeds and stems. All items are placed inside the qvevri, where they sit and ferment for approximately six months (the duration varies based on grape varietal, conditions, etc.). Georgian-style winemaking is very laborious and requires the mixture to be stirred once every three hours during the height of fermentation. Because the qvevri is buried in the ground, the winemaker cannot control the temperature; this means that fermentation continues until all the sugar has been consumed. All qvevri-produced wines are dry wines.
Unique Georgian Varietals
Along with discovering Georgia’s unique process of winemaking, clients will taste grape varieties that are definitive of its land. The most popular is a red grape called saperavi. You will see variations of saperavi at nearly every winery in Georgia, along with other popular varietals such as rkatsiteli and kisi. In total, there are more than 500 varietals of Georgian grapes grown throughout the country.
Where to Drink and Stay in Georgia
If clients are staying in the capital city of Tbilisi, they don’t have to go far for great wine. On the outskirts of the city are easy-to-reach places that display the traditions of the Georgian chateau, such as Chateau Mukhrani. These former royal palaces once produced wine, and many of them still do.
On a whole, the most popular winemaking region is Kakheti. Its fields of grapes and agricultural position are surrounded by the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, making it a scenic escape from Tbilisi (approximately two hours by car). With a range of established and budding wineries, it’s the best place for first-timers to learn about qvevri wine and rural Georgian living.
One of the most famous Kakheti wineries is Pheasant’s Tears Winery in the picturesque, mountain-top village of Sighnaghi. Co-owned by an American, Pheasant’s Tears specializes in organic wine and serves the best traditional cuisine in town. Make plans for lunch and a tasting before visiting the nearby Bodbe Monastery, which was made famous as the burial place of Saint Nino, the immensely revered woman who brought Christianity to Georgia.
A brand-new, promising chateau in Kakheti is Babaneruis Marani. Though it’s not a true royal chateau such as Mukhrani or Chateau Mere, it offers a pleasant mix of historical reverence and modern comforts, with nine rooms, a restaurant and large terraces that overlook the area’s villages and vineyards.
In addition to being the largest agricultural region in Georgia, Kakheti is famous for its abundance of wine caves (also known as maranis). The best example is found at Winery Khareba, with its miles of underground tunnels that are open for touring and tasting.
Also in the region is the Lopota Spa Resort, a popular holiday respite for Tbilisi residents escaping the city. Centered around an expansive lake, Lopota offers a campus-like feel and a relaxing atmosphere just miles from the surrounding wineries.
Buying Georgian Wine
After the wine is siphoned out of the qvevri, some of it is bottled for sale. But another regular method of distribution for Georgian wineries is to put it in a large cask and sell it as “draught wine” to restaurants. This is very popular in restaurants in Tbilisi, for example, and comes cheap by the pitcher for the table, making it a local favorite. Ask for “draught wine” when ordering in restaurants for the best combination of value and quality.
If you want to take wine home, there are a couple things to keep in mind. Today, Georgia produces wine in both traditional qvevri and European styles. The traditional style is more expensive because of the labor involved, usually $10 to $30 per bottle, depending on the winery. European-style wines are generally cheaper, starting at $4 or $5 a bottle and going up from there. But just because a wine is made European-style doesn’t mean it isn’t reflective of Georgia. Local winemakers often utilize the European process to make semisweet and sweet wines with their grape varietals (as the qvervi can only produce dry wines).
When you’re in a wine shop, you can easily tell the difference between wines produced in the qvervi and wines produced European style by looking at the label. All wines produced in the qvervi will have “Qvervi wine.” written clearly on the front.
If You Go
According to Inter Travel Georgia owner Kartlos Chabashvili, “Georgia without Georgian wine is almost unimaginable.”
Chabashvili offers custom tours of the Kakheti wine region, including day and multinight trips. Contact Kartlos at +995 551 19 19 20.