We'd probably been in the country for 15 minutes when we had to stop "just for a snack".
It was delicious and judicious - it turned out to be a pretty long night in the wine bar. There was dinner too, but late enough that the snack sustained us for some hours.
The Georgian culture of hospitality is extreme. There are no half measures. They make even uber-hospitable Italians seem a bit... maybe not stingy, but restrained. I'm pretty sure there's no such thing as drinking without food, and there's no such thing as just a little food.
The table gradually gets covered in drifts of plates in layers. The food, by the way, is really good.
A neophyte can find references to Ottoman Turkish food, Persian food, Russian food, Russian Jewish food - bits from all of the various tribes and nations who have passed through (and believe me, a lot of them have passed through this geographically crucial place) but even a neophyte can tell that the food, like the wine, very much has its own identity.
I went to Georgia in August 2015, for just 5 days on the ground, with Pascaline Lepeltier, Chef Kris Yenbamroong (from Night Market in LA), and John Wurdeman from Pheasant's Tears as our guide. Friends who'd been to Georgia had generated pretty high expectations, but it was MUCH better than I'd hoped for. I've spent some time in places with deep-rooted wines, but never any place where wine is so directly and intensely linked to and expressive of history, art, music, religion, and food - a lot of life.
You can read about this again and again, as I did, or hear it told, but if you get a chance to visit Georgia, don't hesitate. If you're really lucky, you'll spend some time with John Wurdeman - American born, but with a Georgian soul, and the smartest, most generous tour guide you can imagine. He sings pretty well too, and a couple of our meals included John and friends performing magnificent Georgian polyphonic music, which I wish I could play for you now.
Note the drinking horn at bottom left. It gets filled to the brim, and you are supposed to drain it in one-go. Or else.
Before our trip I'd only tasted Georgian wine a few times, an intriguing but very limited sampling. Many of us know about the anfora used there - I write anfora because that seems to be the term in use in western Europe, but those anfora are really qvevri, clay pots quite possibly invented in Georgia, and certainly perfected there.
In fact wine in Georgia is very ancient indeed, with the oldest archaeological evidence of winemaking that's turned up anywhere - circa 8,000 BC.
The photo on the right (taken in the wonderful Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi) shows bits of grapevine that are covered in silver. These were found in tombs that date from about 3,000 BC.
The long history of wine in Georgia matters because it matters to the Georgians, because their history is something alive to them in a way I've never experienced anywhere else, and because their grasp of their history and its relation to wine is a critical element as they build on the roots that survived the 20th century, the USSR, civil war, and other assorted chaos. The old style of production of wine - mostly by families, for their own use, on a small scale using ancient methods - was almost wiped out by the Soviets in their drive to collectivize (Stalin, lest we forget, was Georgian and so paid special, far from benign attention to the region). The people we visited in Georgia have revived and reinvented traditional wine; along with the challenges I've touched upon, they face considerable pressure to internationalize their wines, to plant Chard and Cab, to doctor the wines to make them uniform.
So what about the best wines from Georgia? They are very good indeed, and it's the distinctiveness of the native Georgian wines that's interesting and that makes them special. Many we tasted were just plain delicious, drinkable and great with the food.
The style of many white wines from Georgia will likely already be familiar to you from some European examples - they are orange wines, made by fermenting and aging the juice with the skins in qvevri. The best Georgian wines are often better that the western versions because they maintain a remarkable freshness, purity, and sense both of the variety and of place. If you've come to feel that skin- fermented white wines are too uniform, you should try the Tsikhelishvili Rkatsiteli. There are also some terrific whites made without skin contact. There are also some wonderful red wines (think along the lines of COS "Pithos"), mineral-driven and savory light reds - simply fantastic wines.
All of this and more is properly discussed in detail in Alice Feiring's excellent new book "For the Love of Wine." Alice's personal approach perfectly suits the very personal and passionate character of Georgian wine; she has spent a lot of time there and really understands the wines. Please join us and Alice for a book-signing and tasting on Saturday, June 4th, from 4-7pm. Four of Georgia's best winemakers will be present: Nikki Antadze, Ramaz Nikoladze, John Okrashivili and John Wurdeman.
John Wurdeman did not set out to own a winery. A trained painter who started his studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore in the 1990s, a chance encounter in 2005 with a local Georgian farmer, Gela Patalishvili (now the current winemaker), sparked a lifelong friendship and catalyzed the foundation of Pheasant’s Tears. Both John and Gela continue to champion local grape varieties and traditional Georgian winemaking practices to ensure that the 8000-year region’s viticultural history is not lost. Their Rkatsiteli (with three weeks of skin maceration followed by another two months in qvevri, without skins) is powerful, smoky and saline, with aromas of baked apricot, walnut, cinnamon, honeysuckle, white peach and flowers. These notes carry through onto the palate, which is rich and robust with a persistent savory and saline minerality. A surefire match with more exotic and flavorful game birds, this wouldn’t overpower lighter vegetable dishes. Tim Gagnon
Another favorite of our trip because of the golden color and savory, somewhat herbaceous aromatics reminiscent of skin-contact Chenin Blanc. Dry honey is present, as well as black tea and a delicate florality. The wine has lovely acidity, and some moderately astringent tannins; nevertheless, it’s rich and energetic, beautifully pure, delicious wine. The grapes are foot-pressed and the wine spends seven months with its skins in qvevri; it was racked into barrel with batonnage for 48 hours, and then put back into qvevri for one year. An interesting recipe for a very good wine. Jamie Wolff
Okro's Wines is a family-run estate with two cellars based in the hilltop town of Sighnaghi, in the eastern region of Kakheti. They have 5.5 ha of vines, mostly in Kakheti, with some vineyards further west in the Imereti region. This is 100% Rkatsiteli, grown organically, aged in Qvevri, with no sulfur added. A soft, burnished gold, the wine is aromatic and truly unique, with notes of piquant spices and paprika emerging over the browned pineapple and honeyed walnut aromas often associated with Rkatsiteli. The palate is savory yet tart, medium bodied, and quite delightful with high-toned cranberry, peeled starfruit, and a tropical acidity. Cari Bernard
A traditional, skin-contact expression of Rkatsiteli from the highly-productive eastern region of Kakheti, the color is amber in the glass, clear although unfiltered - akin to the darker tawny of wildflower honey. Fruit takes a backseat to earthy and savory flavors of damp wheat, stewed tomato, woodland brush and almond oil. Gradually, hints of tree fruit emerge - dehydrated pear, over-ripe apples, and tiny wildflowers. The most prominent impression is (surprisingly for a white wine) the persistent tannins, which along with the high acidity seem to grip and rinse the tongue, crying out for the rich, garlic-soaked cuisine of Georgia to cut through. Hand-harvested with native yeast fermentation in 2,000 liter clay qvevri. Karina Mackow
Nikoloz Antadze started to bottle his wine commercially in 2006, though his grandfather had been making wine for years. His 3-hectare estate is located in the town of Manavi, in the Kakheti province of Georgia, close to the Azerbaijan border at 750m above sea level. This wine is made from Rkatsiteli (a common Georgian grape variety) with no skin contact – a rare specimen in a country where white wines are traditionally made with long periods of maceration on the skin. The nose is incredibly vivid and rustic with peach purée, pine needle, oregano, and pear skin aromas exploding from the glass. The palate is pleasantly fuller-bodied and textured with a piercing minerality, vibrant orchard fruit and spicy green herbs coalescing on a long, musky finish. This, like almost all Georgian wines, needs some hearty, garlicky food. Tim Gagnon
The label humbly introduces the wine and winemaker as “I am Didimi from Dimi and this is my Krakhuna.” Krakhuna, a white grape, is indigenous to the Imereti region of western Georgia and is mostly found in the village of Dimi, where seventy year old Didimi lives. Krakhuna is reminiscent of a dry, Loire Valley Chenin Blanc (albeit with some skin contact) with flavors of lemon peel, pear skin and dried pineapple. It has a subtle, bitter and tannic finish, which would perfectly pair with traditional Georgian satsivi (chicken with walnut sauce) or a mild, coconut-based curry. Jonas Mendoza
From an outsider’s perspective, Ramaz Nikoladze is a key figure in artisanal Georgian wine. For one thing, he is (or was) the Georgian head of Slow Food, which has helped make some really important links between Georgia and European winemakers. For another, he seems to be inexhaustible, and has proselytized, mentored and supported numerous younger people in wine in Georgia. Thanks to Ramaz (and other key players, like John Wurdeman) fine artisanal wine has a beautiful future in Georgia. We talk, sometimes rather casually, about a wine being traditional, but Ramaz’s wines are a close as you can get. First, the vines are co-planted with other crops – fruit trees, corn, and lots of edible plants. Only copper and sulfur are used in the vines. The vineyard looks chaotic to anyone used to commercial wine farming, but it’s also a kind of Eden, and full of life. And the winemaking is fundamentally ancient - grapes fermented in qvevri, sometimes with some of the skins, and aged until they are decanted for bottling. A blend of two grapes – Tsitska brings lemony acidity, Tslokouri, depth and texture. Jamie Wolff
From a small family winery in Imereti in western Georgia, this very intriguing wine is a blend of the red grape Otskanuri Sapere and the yellow-skinned, white grape Tsolikouri. A beautiful pale strawberry color in the glass, the wine is dry, savory and complex on the palate with notes of fresh, tart red berries, a hint of blue cheese, bitter herbs and smoke. Sydney Snyder Earthy with easy tannins, juicy cranberries, raspberries, damp rose and violets, with a hint of white pepper. A really interesting and delicious introduction to Georgian reds. Christine Manula
From a small family winery in Imereti in western Georgia, this very intriguing wine is a blend of the red grape Otskanuri Sapere and the yellow-skinned, white grape Tsolikouri. A beautiful pale strawberry color in the glass, the wine is dry, savory and complex on the palate with notes of fresh, tart red berries, a hint of blue cheese, bitter herbs and smoke. Sydney Snyder
Earthy with easy tannins, juicy cranberries, raspberries, damp rose and violets, with a hint of white pepper. A really interesting and delicious introduction to Georgian reds. Christine Manula
From the Terjola region of western Georgia, this is a fresh, relatively low-in-alcohol wine quite reminiscent of a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc. Round, juicy red fruit notes are pierced by a bold and invigorating streak of cracked black pepper and minerality. Sydney Snyder
Made from free-run juice, Gogita's Aladasturi is the color of a light rosé. “Happy July wine,”my note says, and this is certainly very refreshing and bright and very easy to drink. Jamie Wolff Hints of strawberries, grapefruit rind, almond oil and sage. Just enough grip to accompany any fish you might throw on the grill. Christine Manula
Pheasant’s Tears is a winery derived from the passion of American ex-pat painter John Wurdeman and the long vine growing tradition of Georgian winemaker Gela Patalishvili. The 2014 Pheasant’s Tears Shavkapito hails from Kartali in the eastern part of the country. The robe is a dark violet color though the wine is light-bodied. On the nose there are aromas of blackcurrant, wet iron, woody herbs, and a smokiness reminiscent of a campfire made with driftwood. The palate has a granular texture with substantial tannins, which gives way to flavors of black plum skin, game, black peppercorn, and savory, smoky, medicinal, amaro-like notes evocative of gentian. The tannic profile, which one could perhaps place between Nebbiolo and Baga, works in the context of the fruit and other flavors, if only for the frankness of the expression of the grape--no wood, no polish, no artifice, just grape and earth. And while this may be viewed as rough-hewn compared to the lapidary quality of more technological winemaking, the wine is intriguing and worthy of exploration by the adventurous drinker. With the tannic and savory quality of this wine, I’d think this is a red which will shine with heartier, strongly-flavored fare, such as lamb shoulder, stews, grilled game, or variety meats. John McIlwain
One of a very few Georgian wines made by a woman. You thought it was patriarchal in the West, but Mariam is smart and plenty strong and she’s had the advantage of working with John Wurdeman (Pheasant’s Tears) and the support that comes with knowing John. I’ve tried a few Tavkveri and it certainly it worked well in warm August weather in Georgia. Light and fresh with some cranberry fruit, it makes me think of Schiava. Mariam’s Tavkveri is bit darker and more structured; the wine is macerated on the skins for two days and then half the skins are removed; the total fermentation is for 30 days in qvevri. One of my favorite reds of the trip. No SO2! Jamie Wolff Refreshing and expressive, Mariam Iosebidze’s Tavkveri leaps out of the glass with aromas of sandalwood incense, white pepper, and plenty of fresh red fruit. Tart cranberries, green strawberries, and bay leaf swirl across the palate. This Georgian red displays great finesse and refreshing structure, with lively acidity and chewy tannins. A beautiful pairing with barbecued meats, curried chicken, or smoked charcuterie. Andy Paynter
One of a very few Georgian wines made by a woman. You thought it was patriarchal in the West, but Mariam is smart and plenty strong and she’s had the advantage of working with John Wurdeman (Pheasant’s Tears) and the support that comes with knowing John. I’ve tried a few Tavkveri and it certainly it worked well in warm August weather in Georgia. Light and fresh with some cranberry fruit, it makes me think of Schiava. Mariam’s Tavkveri is bit darker and more structured; the wine is macerated on the skins for two days and then half the skins are removed; the total fermentation is for 30 days in qvevri. One of my favorite reds of the trip. No SO2! Jamie Wolff
Refreshing and expressive, Mariam Iosebidze’s Tavkveri leaps out of the glass with aromas of sandalwood incense, white pepper, and plenty of fresh red fruit. Tart cranberries, green strawberries, and bay leaf swirl across the palate. This Georgian red displays great finesse and refreshing structure, with lively acidity and chewy tannins. A beautiful pairing with barbecued meats, curried chicken, or smoked charcuterie. Andy Paynter