It was known as the “Tuscany of the Soviet Union,” a strange handle for a place better known for being overrun by Mongol hordes and the Red Army, among others.
Yet it fit. Everyone in the Soviet Union knew it, thanks to wine, the greatest gift the Republic of Georgia gave mankind.
Wine was being produced south of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, as early as 8,000 years ago. Throughout its history and its oppression, Georgia always had wine to fall back on.
It became a form of expression when Georgians had none. And it was the main source of wine for Mother Russia, its neighbor. And since independence in 1991 and a Russian embargo in 1998, improved production and marketing have made Georgian wines among the trendiest in the world.
I spent two weeks this summer in Georgia, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, and toured some of the 20 wineries around Telavi, the capital of the Kakheti region where 60% of the country’s wine is produced in an area of about 90 square miles.
In three trips to Moscow and St. Petersburg in the last 13 years, I had learned that a big Russian evening out involved a Georgian restaurant. Great food, such as its signature khachapuri, a boat-shaped bread filled with cheese, attracted me, but the Georgian wines—dark, bold, mysterious—hooked me.
When I moved to Rome in 2014, I put Georgia on my “must-see” list.
Ancient ways are best
Georgia produces a variety of wines for nearly every palate, including semi-sweet wines that placated native son Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union for decades. Its dry reds have spread across the world, and sparkling wines are growing in popularity.
Georgia is the same latitude as Tuscany and has similar conditions, with warm air from the Caspian Sea to the east and mineral-rich water flowing from natural springs in the Caucasus mountains to the north.
These are ideal conditions for growing its 530 varieties of grapes. The quality of Georgian wines is becoming recognized worldwide; last year its wine exports to 53 countries were up 60% from 2016 to 76.7 million bottles, generating $170 million.
The best part about Georgian wine is you're often one on one with the winemaker. In Napa and Tuscany you sometimes fight for space in crowded tasting rooms, but except for Georgia's high season in July and August, you're up close with the brains behind the wine.
I saw only two other visitors in my stops at five wineries in May and June. With so few crowds, touring took little planning. I just called the well-organized Kakheti Wine Guild, which arranged five winery visits and a taxi driver for about $63.
With that, here are some things to know about Georgian wine.
Although Georgia has changed — this former Soviet republic attracted 2.7 million visitors in 2016 — the way it produces wine has not. Georgians still use the same methods their ancestors did.
Irakli Rostomashvili stood in a small stone room surrounded by six holes in the ground. They are the production basins of Rostomaant Marani, his small family wine business, one of thousands of family wineries that dot the Georgian countryside.
The holes contain beeswax-lined clay pots called qvevri (sometimes spelled kvevri), in which wine is fermented and stored for as long as two years.
Last year archaeologists found ancient fragments, once part of large vases decorated with carvings of grapes, that were used to store wine. Pollen analysis showed that the hilly area, about 20 miles south of Tbilisi and populated by Stone Age farmers, had grape vines.
Rostomashvili uses the same types of qvevri today. “Today, it’s the same technique and it tastes better,” he said.
After two months the qvevri are examined, and the grape skin and seeds at the bottom are crushed and made into chacha, Georgia’s lethal brandy.
“It’s not easy,” said Giorgi Dakishvili of Vita Vinea, another family winery. “It’s a lot of manual labor. Labor costs are high.”
What’s left, however, is an all-natural wine that is almost considered one of Georgia’s four major food groups.
Make a toast
Everyone makes toasts, but Georgians turn toasts into entire evenings.
Supra are so important here that there are professional toastmasters. The tamada will lead the toast, and each person around the table must make a supra or face the wrath of friends and family members.
The toasts often start with toasts to God, thanking him for the food and wine. Subsequent toasts can salute almost anything, from the love of a woman to a new oven.
Some toasts are so moving that grown men cry. Others laugh. And everyone takes part. Eat in a restaurant with a large dinner party and you’ll be entertained. (It helps to have a translator; many younger people speak English.)
“It’s a way of communicating,” said Zurab Ramazashvili, owner of Telavi Wine Cellar, which sold more than 5 million bottles last year. “You keep talking around the table. The subject could be love, betrayal, country, women. It’s for all people.”
For hundreds of years the supra was one of the few ways Georgians could express themselves. And no matter how oppressed they felt, how grim their outlook, how unhappy they were, Georgians always had wine to look forward to.
With wine, Georgians had power. It’s one reason vineyards were often the first places invaders attacked.
“Wine helped us survive ancient times,” Dakishvili said. “The Persians, the Turks, Soviet occupation. Now we have freedom.”
How did Georgia advance a simple tradition that has people clinking glasses around the world?
According to Georgian legend, when God distributed the world’s land and told all people to gather, the Georgians showed up late. When asked why, they told him they were toasting him.
God then said, “If that’s the case then I will give you the best piece of land, the one I was reserving for myself: Georgia.”
Georgia has 530 grape varieties, a huge number for an area less than half the size of its namesake in the U.S. Although the Kakheti region in the east has 60% of the country’s vineyards, it’s one of 15 wine-growing regions in the country. If you go, here are 10 well-known wines you should look for:
Saperavi: Georgia’s flagship wine and award winner is your introduction to Georgian wine. It has been produced since 1886 and used in many blends. Saperavi means “dye;” its color is deep red to black.
Rkatsiteli: Georgia’s best-known white wine; it’s often compared to a Petit Chablis.
Mukuzani: From the Saperavi grape and stored in oak barrels for nine months. It’s one of Georgia’s highest-quality wines and the best I had in my two-week visit.
Kindzmarauli: A semisweet that’s been produced since 1942. Also from the Saperavi grape. It has won numerous international contests.
Tsolikouri: A semisweet white often used in blends for the international market.
Tsinandali: A blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane grapes. It’s one of Georgia’s most popular, inexpensive table wines.
Khvanchkara: The favorite of the most famous Georgian, Joseph Stalin. Its blend of Mujuretukit and Alexandreuli grapes is semisweet and relatively expensive.
Mtsvane Pét-Nat: One of Georgia’s best-known sparkling wines, which are growing in popularity. Made in qvevri, Mtsvane means “new, young and green.” Okro’s Wines’ Mtsvane Pét-Nat made Esquire’s 2017 list of the world’s top 10 sparkling wines.
Ojaleshi: This semisweet is considered one of Georgia’s best red wines. The name means “grows on trees,” which the grape once did.
Khikhvi: A versatile white dry table wine made in qvevri.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO TBILISI, GEORGIA
From LAX, KLM, Delta, Turkish, Aeroflot, Lufthansa, United, Air France and LOT offer connecting service (change of planes) to Tbilisi. Restricted round-trip fares from $1,497, including taxes and fees.
Take a marshrutka, a big minivan and Georgia’s main mode of cross-country travel, 1 hour, 45 minutes to Telavi for about $3.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 995 (the country code for Georgia) and the local number.
WHERE TO GO
The Telavi area has about 20 wineries. Make an appointment to visit or go through Kakheti Wine Guild (1 Rustaveli, Telavi, Georgia; 350-27-90-90, email@example.com) Its office is lined with bottles of locally produced wine for sale. The helpful English-speaking staff can arrange tours and taxis.
Harvest takes place in September and October. It’s busy and some wineries may be full, but guests are allowed to pick and press grapes. Some tastings are free, but most are $8-$10. Below are the wineries I visited.
Vita Vinea Winery, Village Shalauri, Telavi District, Georgia; 577-50-80-29. Large family winery with beautiful tasting room.
Telavi Wine Cellar, Kurdgelauri, Telavi, Georgia; 350-27-37-07. One of Georgia’s biggest wineries and maker of the popular Marani label.
Vaziani Winery, 42 Mshvidoba St., Telavi, Georgia; 322-90-47-74. Medium-sized winery with award-winning Saperavi 2017.
WHERE TO STAY
Tushishvili Guesthouse, 15 Nadickvari St., Telavi, Georgia; 577-75-66-25. A five-minute walk from the Kakheti Wine Guild. Sprawling guesthouse has a big courtyard and comfy upstairs rooms. Massive breakfasts. Winery tours with a taxi can be arranged here. Doubles $14 per person with breakfast. Dinner with wine, $8.
Guest House Family, 10 Arsenishvili St., Telavi, Georgia; 593-79-30-40. Centrally located with garden, terrace and balconies with each room. Continental breakfast. Doubles $20.
WHERE TO EAT
Cafe Bravo, Nadikvari Street, Telavi, Georgia; 593-15-27-13. Open 24 hours. Excellent local dishes served on a nice terrace; try the lamb covered in white onions. Dishes $3-$8.
Barbarestan, 132 D. Aghmashenebeli Ave., Tbilisi, Georgia; 322-94-37-79. Elegant restaurant serving Georgian dishes inspired by a 19th century cookbook. Has a variety of khachapuri, Georgia’s signature dish. Dinner and two glasses of wine are about $23.
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