Visiting Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia (and pronounced Teh-beh-lee-see), is a startlingly immediate and abrupt immersion in Georgia’s very distinctive culture. The visual elements are eye-popping with traditional architecture that paints a colourful, fanciful, eastern fairytale juxtaposed with splashes of modernism. The country and the capital city have a proud and enduring sense of their own history and culture -a culture that is distinctively different than the European, Russian, Turkish and Persian cultures that form a broad ring around Georgia. Indeed (without getting too deep into the fascinating history of this region) the Caucasus region where Georgia is located is so rugged and mountainous that even the tiny countries that are immediate neighbours to Georgia have wildly different cultures. It goes without saying that each of these countries have a fierce sense of independence and identity.
In Georgia, wine is a really fundamental and transcendent part of local identity. Georgia is pretty clearly established by just about everyone as the historical birthplace of wine. And that is really saying something given the bragging rights associated with such a claim. Even the Greeks will graciously admit that their contribution was to “perfect” winemaking, not invent it. No, that honour goes to Georgia. And the Georgians pay homage to this 8,000 year old accomplishment by, you guessed it, making wine in exactly the same way! Now that is a mark of pride, respect and sheer self-confidence. If putting grapes in a clay jar lined with beeswax and burying it in the ground to ferment worked for their ancestors in 6,000 BC then why change the formula now?
Why Kakheti For Wine
It is important that we don’t distort reality by suggesting that Georgian wine is all still made in the traditional qvevri (similar to an amphora but larger and usually buried). In fact it is thought that only about 3% of commercial wine is made this way. But the popular image of these artisanal wines that has been established and which populates Instagram pages has been a major boon to Georgia’s international wine image. Make no mistake, qvevri winemaking is very important to Georgians. These are intriguing wines with rich history and a profound back story. But the modern wines of Georgia shouldn’t be overshadowed by their artisanal cousins. There is enough pedigree as well as enough investment in modern winemaking technology to underpin a large and robust community of quality winemakers. Moreover, Georgia boasts a suite of its own indigenous grape varietals so the Georgian wine identity is chock full of its own distinct identity. Kakheti is the most important wine region accounting for the lion’s share of vineyards and perhaps 80% of commercial wines. And in Kakheti you can find the cross-section of compelling Georgian grape varieties, including the flagship powerhouse Saperavi, the more refined Shavkapito, the white Rkatsiteli and many, many more. Natural wines also are woven into the fabric of Georgian wines. They are - well - just natural to Georgia and you will find many winemakers eschewing filtration or additions to their wines.
Where is Kakheti
The Kakheti wine region is in the far southeast of the country and most of it can be found embracing the banks of the Alazani River. This is a friendly and adventurous place to go wine exploring. The winemakers are extremely eager to show off their wines and to explain the qvevri winemaking techniques. You will find ancient wineries, deeply passionate winemakers, an array of winemaking philosophies including a good representation of natural wines and biodynamic practices and a local cuisine where the rich traditional foods are well matched by the deep, gripping wines. For the wine traveler there is the convenience that the wine region is within reach for day trip from Tbilisi. But if you are coming here it is crucially important that you find as much time to spend in wine country as possible - there is so much to see, experience, learn and taste.
Who Are The Winemakers
Fittingly the winemaking in Kakheti and in Georgia generally ranges from homemade in the family cellar or shed all the way to the large international exporting wineries. This is undoubtedly a big part of the charm - a cellar door environment where you may be tasting wine in the kitchen or in a modern tasting room. Here is a representative sample of some of the many, many winemakers in Kakheti:
Twins Wine Cellar is a winery and museum and a mainstay of the Kakheti wine trail
Traveling Kakheti’s Wine Roads
You will almost definitely start your journey in Tbilisi so take the time to soak up the ambience of this city at the heart of Georgian culture. Visit the old town including capturing the view from the aerial tramway that passes over it. You can also start your wine research at the Vino Underground wine bar at 15 Galaktion Tabidze St or the more modern Easy Wine Bar at 7 Bambis Rigi Street. Once you are ready to hit the road, find a wine tour operator that your hotel recommends or hire a good taxi and you are off. The road to Kakheti takes a couple of hours. Once there you might want to base yourself in the historic and atmospheric town of Sighnaghi. From here you have monasteries, restaurants, wineries and dramatic scenery all around you and within easy reach - and all of it soaked in history and powerful evocative wines.
Photo and map credits: Georgia Wine Association; Georgian Wine Society; World Bank