We were in Georgia, and we wanted to taste wine. Lots of it. So we booked a night at a guesthouse in Sighnaghi, a small town on the top of a mountain in Kakheti, Georgia’s renowned wine-producing region. As is his trade, the owner immediately offered to book us a tour of several wineries in the city of Kvareli, about 40km away. We were dubious.. why can’t we check out some wineries close by? We had seen a couple within stumbling distance on our way into the town. But the dude insisted, and because the price was pretty cheap we relented and let him work his magic.
For 50 GEL we got a driver who would traverse the 40km in our own car with us in tow. He didn’t speak any English, and while he was nice, most of the ride was spent in silence broken by occasional efforts at communication from either side. He cruised along at high speed, passing slower vehicles in the oncoming traffic lane with a flick of his cigarette. Until he got stopped by the cops. Slammed with a 50GEL speeding ticket–the same amount as we’d pay him for the day–the silence in the car suddenly felt like a heavy, wet blanket. We were happy to get to Kvareli.
Our first stop was Kindzmarauli Marani, former wine cellar of the royal family. Constructed in 1533 along with Kvareli fortress, it supplied the royals and aristocrats with many boozy days and nights until the Bolsheviks took it over in 1921. For decades they forced the locals to supply them with grapes, then shipped the wine to bigger cities in the Motherland. In 1993 the company was finally privatised, and they now produce over 1.5 million bottles each year, 80% of which is exported to countries like Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus.
It was big–more of a factory than a winery–and hardly the intimate experience we’d hoped for as we walked around with a group of 10 other foreigners. But there was the promise of free wine at the end, and factories are pretty cool anyway.
The focus of the tour was on the Georgian style of winemaking, which is different from Western European style and produces wine that is darker in colour and stronger in alcohol content. We really don’t know that much about wine production, but it sounded awesome already.
Georgian wine doesn’t start off so different. The grapes get smashed, traditionally with the frantic stomping of dudes (grape smashing is men’s work) but nowadays most people use machines. When the juice has been removed, the entire thing–juice, peel, pips, and stems–are dumped into a special clay pot called a qvevri that is buried in the ground. Much more than a simple pot, qvevri can hold anywhere between 50 litres to five tonnes of grapes, and some are built with steps inside so men can more easily climb inside to clean them.
The mixture is stirred through fermentation, and then the qvevri are then topped with a wooden lid, and sealed with clay and left to filter for between two to six months. Qvevri look like this in the ground:
When the filtration is finished, the wine is removed and bottled. The wine at the top of the qvevri is high quality, while the stuff in the middle is sold as table wine. The leftover skin and pips at the bottom get removed to make the only drink that Georgian’s love as much as wine: chacha.
The tour also took us through the fermentation and filtration tanks for their European wine, as well as their bottling facilities. It was hard to get the workers to crack a smile.
Because Georgian wine uses 100% of the skins, pips and stems from the grapes, as opposed to the around 20% used in European wine, and because it’s fermented in these clay jugs, the end product has more tannins and deep, complex flavours than traditional wine. (and it’s stronger) Georgian wine isn’t always good, but it’s definitely different.
In the tasting room, while suffering through a Georgian folk chorus, we sampled two whites and two reds. The first white was a 2011 ‘Kisi Qvevri’, a dry white made from a type of grape that is only grown in Kakheti. It had a deep yellow colour definitely unlike any white I’d ever seen, and a 13% punch. The flavour was really difficult to describe and more complex than I’d expected; since I’m not a wine expert we’ll go with “fruity and slightly sour”, but that would be writing this wine off. It was pretty unique.
The next two weren’t really notable, but for posterity’s sake they were a 2013 kisi dessert wine (European style, 12%), and a 2011 saperavi (probably the most well-known Georgian grape; qvevri style, 13.5%).
The last wine was presented to us with the factoid that it was Stalin’s favourite wine. Always a good ol’ hometown boy, Stalin loved Kindzmarauli’s qvevri-style saperavi. Ours was from 2013 and 13%, but as a knock against Stalin’s taste, unfortunately it wasn’t very good. The group next to us happily dumped it out.
We left without paying or being asked to pay, and our driver told us that groups of 10 or more are free, pointing at the other complete strangers that had been corralled around with us on the tour. Free wine, score!
The next stop was a “wine cave” owned by a winery called Gvirabi. Our eared perked at the words “wine cave”, as we had been to the Cricova underground wine cellars in Moldova (reportedly the second largest in the world at 120km of tunnels) and they were pretty awesome. These tunnels were much smaller, but they were dug out in 1965 by the same company that did the Tbilisi Metro system, originally to be used as army storage by the Soviets and instead turned into space for wine.
Unfortunately the Gvirabi wine tour was pretty lame. We weren’t allowed into the actual wine storage areas, and instead our guide awkwardly escorted us around a fake Georgian winemaking setup. Her English wasn’t great, which is fine, but she kept eyeing us nervously like she wished we’d just disappear so she could go back out into the warm daylight.
She tediously and exhaustively went through all the English she had practiced, one-by-one pointing to the wine-making accessories in the hallway and explaining what they did. When we got through wine, she started showing us ceramic plates and kettles for boiling water, cups, etc. Boooring.
Finally we got to wine tasting. Our 12GEL per person tours included two qvevri wines and we managed to get her to give us a third, but none of them were very good. While we were inside I think our driver may have had a wine tasting too, because he transformed from quiet, smiley, I-can-only-speak-Russian bashfulness into tour director extraordinaire. He grabbed my camera and started posing us.
The last stop was a “wine museum” called Wine Cellar Numisi. It was like visiting your grandma’s house, if your grandma was an expert chef and also produced hundreds of thousands of litres of wine in her basement. It was awesome.
We were greeted by the owner, Nunu, who immediately apologised and said she was too busy for us. Great! She gave us a cursory explanation of Georgian winemaking, then let us loose to wander around her awesome wine cellar.
We then headed into the dining room, where for 10GEL each we were treated to the most lavish wine and chacha “tasting” I’d ever seen. We were given two carafes of wine, one white and one red, a bottle of chacha, local cheese, homemade bread, and grapes. We offered our jolly driver some but he refused, so we had to go at it alone.
It was rough, and awesome. The white wine tasted pretty much like the homemade vermouth we had scored on our trip to Ukraine last year. We made it most of the way through that one before I gave up, and our driver let us have the red wine instead, washed down with shots of chacha. The family were preparing a large dinner spread for a Russian tour group, and they pumped Georgian folk music through the room while they prepared the fire for shashlik. Suddenly our photogra—er—driver had us up and into costume, playing the part of drunken tourist perfectly. They had better moves, but we were better fuelled and we needed to burn off all that booze.
From there things get foggy. We headed back towards our guesthouse, and it was finally our driver’s turn to drink. We ended up at some restaurant nearby, with heaps of steaming khinkali and brimming bottles of chacha. There were a young group from Israel also in town to do wine touring, and we spilled our praises for the tour set up by our guesthouse that seemingly just wouldn’t end. Our guesthouse owner came over to join the drunkenness. Costumes were appeared and more dancing ensued.
While we don’t really remember the end of the night, we woke up the next morning with light wallets, heavy heads, and a great lesson in both Georgian winemaking, and Georgian wine consuming.
Thank you driver dude, wherever you are!