Wine is absolutely central to the Georgian lifestyle and to their self-image, and everyone (especially men) drinks large quantities and will want you to do the same.
As deeply satisfied as you'll find yourself after any Georgian repast, it ultimately would be incomplete without the magnificent red and white wines that accompany every lunch and dinner. Just as we in the West so often mistakenly called the former Soviet Union "Russia" as though the two were synonymous, we also tended to think of vodka as the alcoholic beverage that lubricated every festive occasion throughout the former empire. Nothing could be more inaccurate with respect to Georgia.
Georgian life remains rooted in the Bacchic tradition, in which reverence for the grape influences everything from Christian iconography to the oral traditions embedded in toast-making. St. Nino, the Cappadocian nun who brought Christianity to Georgia in the fourth century AD, made her cross from vine branches tied with her own hair. This remains the cross of the Georgian Church.
Georgian winemaking is an ancient art. There's been wine in Georgia almost as long as there have been Georgians: around 6,000-7,000 years. Stone wine presses and clay containers have been found dating from the 3rd millennium вс, and vine leaves and stems have been found in Bronze Age tombs. In fact, Georgia is thought to be the place where viticulture began. Hugh Johnson in his book Vintage: The Story of Wine has this to say: "Archaeologists accept accumulation of grape pips as evidence (of the likelihood at least) of winemaking ... the oldest pips of cultivated vines so far discovered and carbon dated-at least to the satisfaction of their finders-were found in Soviet Georgia, and belong to the period 7000-5000 BC."
Additional archaeological findings are large kvevris, cone-shaped clay jugs buried in the ground, which stored wine and allowed it to mature.
In theory Georgians drink red wines in winter, and whites in summer, but in practice it's hard to tell the difference, as even 'red' (literally 'black' or shavi) wines may in fact be straw-coloured. Most families mаке their own, storing it in kvevri, large sealed clay vessels set into the floor of a room known as the marani. In every ancient site you visit, such as Vardzia or Uplistsikhe, there'll be a marani or three. It seems that English word 'wine' derived from the Georgian ghvino.
There are at least 500 varieties of grape in Georgia, with up to 38 in common use, and more or less every village produces its own wine, effectively semi-organic - draught wine accounts for 80-90% of the domestic market. Farmers will sell theirs in Tbilisi markets for GEL 1.20 a litre (bring your own container), but a regular bottle will cost you about GEL6-10 (US$4-6). Despite its antiquated production methods, Georgia has great potential for producing wine of reasonable quality for export; but it has to be admitted that Georgian wine is not easy going for consumers accustomed to the rounded fruity flavours of New World wines.
There are around 60 varieties of wine commercially produce . These wines have won well-deserved fame throughout the world. The most famous of the Georgian grapes are Rkatsiteli, Saperavi, Mtsvane, Tsolikauri, Tsitska, Cabernet, Chinuri, Goruli-Mtsvane, Aligote, Aleksandreuli, Ojaleshi, Chkhaveri, Krakhuna, Khikhvi, and Izabella.
Most wines take their names from their place of origin. The most famous wine-growing regions in Georgia are Kakheti, Imereti, and Racha-Lechkhumi. The Republic of Abkhazia also produces excellent wines, especially in the regions of Gali, Gudauta, and the city of Sokhumi. Most wines have a strength of 10-12 percent alcohol. They possess amazing purity which generally allows for huge intake and no raging hangover later. You will most likely encounter the famous wines described below. You can taste an even larger selection at a sachashniko, or wine-tasting shop.
Rtvelli, the grape harvest, occurs in early October. While the great wine cellars of the major vin- yards have bins carefully catalogued by year, the wine labels themselves do not carry a date. Questioned about this, a friend remarked that Georgians enjoy drinking their wine, not worshipping it as though at a shrine.
VINTAGE DRY WHITE TABLE WINES
Gurjaani: Of a pale straw color, fruity bouquet, and piquant flavor, this wine is made from Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane grapes cultivated in the Gurjaani, Sighnaghi, and Sagarejo districts of Kakheti. Manavi: Ranging in color from pale straw to straw green, this much-loved wine has a fruity aroma and finely balanced flavor. It is made from the Mtsvane grape cultivated in Manavi, Kakheti, and matures in oak for three years in the cellars of the Gurdjaani winery.
Napareuli: This wine has a pale straw color and light fruity flavor. It is made from Rkatsiteli grapes cultivated in tbe Napareuli district of Kakheti. Rkatsiteli: From Rkatsiteli grapes cultivated in Kardanakhi, Kakheti, this wine undergoes the process of fermentation in clay jars buried underground, a unique Kakhetian practice. It has a dark amber color, a rich fruity bouquet, and a very smooth taste.
Tsinandali: The pride of Georgian wines, perhaps the best-known wine from Kakheti. Tsinandali is a white wine made since 1886 from Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane grapes which are left for weeks to macerate with their skins, as for red wine, giving a strong tannic flavour. For three years it matures in oak barrels in the cellars of the Tsinandali winery, and when ready it's a pale-straw colour, with a fine fruity bouquet. made from Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane grapes cultivated in Telavi and Kvareli, it matures for three years in oak barrels in the cellars of the Tsinandali winery.
VINTAGE DRY RED TABLE WINES
Kvareli: Made from Saperavi grapes cultivated in the Kvareli district of Kakheli, it is aged for three years in oak barrels in the Tsinandali wine cellars. In color, bou-quet, and aroma, it resembles Napareuli.
Mukuzani: Probably the best of the vintage reds, this wine is made from Saperavi grapes cultivated in the Mukuzani district of Kakheti. It has received eight gold medals, four silver, and one bronze at various international competitions. Napareuli: Made from the Saperavi grape cultivated in the Napareuli district of the left bank of the Alazani Valley in Kakheti, this full-bodied red has a superb dark pomegranate color and a heady bouquet and aroma.
Other contenders are Rkatsiteli, 'rich and full-bodied, making up for its very dry aftertaste', and Sameba, seen by some as 'the grape of the Georgian future'. Other dry wines from Kakheti include Tibaani, Manavis Mtsvane and Vazisubani.
SEMISWEET WHITE WINES
Akhmeta: Made from Mtsvane grapes cultivated in the Akhmeta district of Kakheti, this wine is of a greenish straw color and possesses an admirable light sweetness. Chkhaveri: Grapes grown in the Bakhvi part of western Georgia and Abkhazia make this pale wine infused with a pinkish tint and hints of the flavor of apples. Tetra: Rachuli-Tetra grapes are cultivated in the Ambrolauri district to make this naturally semisweet wine, which has a fruity and delicate exuberance.
SEMISWEET RED WINES
Akhasheni: Often found on the tables of Georgian homes, this wine comes from Saperavi grapes cultivated in Akhasheni of the Gurjaani district in Kakheti. This wine, along with Kindzmarauli and Khhvanchkara, is sometimes referred to as "the blood of giants."
Khvanchkara: An excellent red wine made from Alexandreuli and Mujhureteli grapes cultivated in the village of Khvanchkara in western Georgia. This wine has the dubious distinction of having been Stalin's favorite (and costs twice as much as other wines); you will inevitably hear this upon its being served. Extremely popular, it has a dark ruby color with a potent aroma and bouquet. Kindzmarauli: On par with Khvanchkara, this wine comes from Saperavi grapes cultivated on the slopes of the Caucasian mountains in the Kvareli district of Kakheti. Rich burgundy in color, it is full-bodied and sinuous.
At the other end of the country, in Imereti, they make lighter, more flowery wines using the Aladasturi, Otskhanuri Sapere and Odzhaleshi grapes for red wines and Tsitska, Tsolikouri and Krakhuna for whites; here vines are allowed to grow high on trees and the grapes are collected in a pointed basket known as a gideli which is lowered down on a rope. This doesn't affect the taste, but does give rise to a specific genre of worksongs.
DESSERT WINES, BRANDIES, CHAMPAGNES
Among the most famous semidry wines are Pirosmani and Barakoni; the most famous white is Tbilisuri. Among the fortified dessert wines are Kardanakhi, Anaga, Sighnaghi, Iveria, and Kolkheti. Other dessert wines include Saamo, Salkhino and Atenuri (both white and sparkling), and Sadarbazo (a sparkling red).
Georgian brandies are first-rate and equal in quality to some of the better-known Armenian cognacs. Like heroic soldiers, they receive medals denoting quality and age. The best of the best-the 40, 50, and 60 Year Jubilee brandies-are hard to come by. In descending order, however, you should seek the following:
Vardzia (25 years), Sakartvelo (20 years), Tbilisi (15-20 years), Eniseli (12-15 years), OS (12 years), Abkhazeti (ten years), Kazbeki (ten years), Gremi (nine years), Vartsikhe (6-7 years), Egrisi (six years), Georgian Brandy (3-5 years).
Georgian champagne is pleasant and refreshing, though a little too sweet if you enjoy chewing a Mumm's Extra Dry.
Chacha is the Georgian aquavit, made from undistilled alcohol produced from grape pulp in oak barrels. With 50 percent alcohol or greater, this stuff can really knock you for a loop. Georgian city dwellers often buy chacha directly from farmers who make large volumes of it at harvest time. Be warned, therefore, that a Georgian host may well keep his supply in a champagne bottle. If you don't hear a pop when you open a bottle, go slowly.
Borjomi is the Georgian Perrier. A sparkling water high in mineral content, stronger lhan San Pelligrino, less fizzy than Perrier, it is widely consumed for its curative and digestive properties. The Borjomi factories, located in a famous spa town of the same name on the banks of the Mtkvari (Kura) River in central Georgia, produce more than 300 million bottles a year from a source that has a daily yield of 500,000 liters.