Georgia stands at a precipice for potential wine tourism, on par with Napa, Bordeaux and Toscana. Terry and Kathy have journeyed to, explored and written about over 1,000 wineries and vineyards in North America, Europe and Oceania. As our wine travel experiences around the world builds, we looked forward to a land that has something different to offer wine enthusiasts. Georgia is that land.
We will return to Georgia in March 2014 to present at the International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINETC) held in Tbilisi March 28 – 29. The IWINETC will showcase Georgian wine. The conference also provides an opportunity for winemakers, winery owners, wine tour operators and hoteliers to gain knowledge about wine tourism.
In September 2013, when we reached the country of Georgia, we discovered that the people of Georgia call their country Sakartvelo. With the help of the National Wine Agency, it was in Georgia, where we experienced the greatest diversity of grapes. Georgia has more grape varieties than any country our travels have taken us. There is also great diversity in winemaking procedures. Their beautiful alphabet, language and customs are different from what we have previously experienced. This is a country wine enthusiasts and travelers need to visit.
When we visited regions in France this summer we experienced Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon among other grape varieties that we had previously experienced thousands of times. Our visit to Georgia was different. Here we experienced wine grapes that one usually cannot taste in the rest of the world. White grape varieties such as: Chinuri, Mtsvane, Kisi and Rkatsiteli, and black grape varieties such as: Aladasturi, Alexksandrouli, Mujurentuli, Saperavi, Shavkapito and Tavkveri expanded our learning about varietal grapes. The fact that some of these varieties have been harvested for thousands of years challenged our perception of “how old is old.” Our previous idea of old extended to the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. When one visits Georgia, one deals with a history of grape growing and winemaking dating thousands of years before those civilizations.
Wine travelers who enjoy history will enjoy traveling to wineries in Georgia. They can taste grape varieties pre-dating the international grapes. Grape varieties are not the only link to an 8,000-year past that wine travelers will experience. Winemaking techniques also provide a glimpse of what happened long ago. While visiting many wineries, we saw the familiar stainless steel tanks and oak barrels. Much of the wine produced in Georgia is for an European palate. We were most fascinated in learning about wine made in qvevri, an ancient wine vessel made from clay, dried in large hand-built kilns and buried in the earth. These vessels are made of the earth and returned to the earth to ferment and age wine.
Traditional Georgian winemakers have made wine in qvevri for thousands of years. Although there are some differences in the procedures for making a wine in qvevri, resulting wines provide the best example of a grape expressing itself in a natural way during the fermentation and aging process. Most winemakers making wine in a qvevri do not add yeast, yeast nutrients or winemaking products during fermentation and aging. The wines do not pick up any aromas or tastes from the qvevri. The resulting wines are natural.
Besides qvevri, we saw many old wood presses. These elongated boxes are about ten feet long. They are sturdy enough for several people to stand in and crush with their feet. Some have been made from a single trunk of a tree. Terry experienced stomping grapes while at Twins Wine Cellar in Napareuli. Several other wine tourists joined in the stomping of grapes.
Georgia is a place of discovery. We discovered that wine, food and God’s blessing is what is important to the Georgian people. It has been this way for centuries. We discovered the monasteries and their connection with wine. We discovered beautiful churches, frescos and devout Christians. We learned why Saint Nino is so important to Georgians and how she crafted a cross made from grape vines and tied together with her hair.
An event the world needs to experience is a Supra. Our first night in Georgia we attended a Supra. The toasts by the Tamada, polyphonic singing, great qvevri-made wine and wonderful food, had us feeling like we were part of the family. A Georgian winery owner noted, “Wine has a great tradition of making people happy.” The toasts were simple, poetic and philosophical. “Without peace, wine has no aroma or taste; flowers have no color.”
Wine enthusiasts can get excited about the grape varieties, winemaking techniques especially making wine in qvevri, participate in a harvest or vineyard tasks and even help make a qvevri wine. We spent hours with a family harvesting Rkatsiteli. Later we helped to put the grapes into a crusher/destemmer. We cleaned a qvevri and finally filled it with the grapes. During the March trip to Twins Wine Cellar in Napareuli with IWINETC media FAM group, we hope to open the qvevri and taste the wine.
Georgia is the only place on Earth that we became excited to see a hole in the ground. We visited a site of a future marani or wine cellar. The hole was partially dug out and qvevri lay nearby. We did not see it for what it was. We saw a hole and dreamed of what it would become. We envisioned several qvevri, made from earth and buried in the earth. The qvevri held wine. Above the hole, we imagined people from all over the world tasting wines with smiles on their faces, and enjoying it with delicious Georgian foods.
What wines did we discover and like? We both enjoyed wines that were made and aged in qvevri. Terry likes a wine with very bold tannins. The Umbria region of Italy produces a wine with very bold tannins made from the grape Sagrantino. Terry refers to this as a kissing wine. The tannins pucker your lips as though you are ready to kiss someone. Georgia produces many kissing wines. In Georgia, they can be white or red wines. You can find white wines made in qvevri that have very bold tannins. There are many red wines that can be kissing wines, most notably Saperavi. Any wine enthusiast who likes tannins should travel to Georgia and experience some of the wines made in qvevri.
Despite the differences in language, alphabet and customs, we felt at home in Georgia. The people of Georgia have been generous with smiles and regional food specialties. They have welcomed us at their wineries and in their vineyards.
Returning to the United States, we continue writing about our experiences in Georgia. In addition to our blogs and articles, we are writing a book: Georgia, Sakartvelo: the Birthplace of Wine that we will have published in time for the International Wine Tourism Conference in March.
Our wishes for the people of Georgia include good health, good wine, good food and peace.