The easy-going, wine-growing province of Kakheti, to the east of Tbilisi, is justifiably popular for easy excursions of a couple of days (or even day trips from the capital), but it also gives access to Davit-Gareja and Tusheti, much harder trips along very rugged roads, but well worthwhile if you have the time. Lying in the easternmost part of Georgia, the province of Kakheti has an area of 11,340 sq. km and a winter population of half a million. The Gombori Range divides Inner and Outer Kakheti. The former comprises the fertile Alazani River valley, and the latter the Iori Plateau. In the 150-km stretch of the Alazani Valley, the climate and soil conspire to make the grape king. In the Iori Plateau where a dry steppe climate predominates, corn and wheat thrive.
Kakheti is also an area rich in history and was an independent or semi-independent kingdom for long periods. Here you’ll find the incredible monastery complex of Davit Gareja, many beautiful churches, castles and mansions around the main town, Telavi, and picturesque Sighnaghi, which is being developed as the capital of wine tourism.
Kakheti is one of the provinces richest in historic monuments. Of more than 5,000 architectural monuments in Georgia under the protection of the State, only Kartli can rival it in sheer number. Three days at least are needed to get more than a very truncated perspective on the wealth of history here. Certainly its proximity to Tbilisi, the terrain of the Iori Plateau and Alazani Valley, and the quality of the roads make travel here considerably easier than in some of the more remote, moun-tainous parts of the country.
The People and Their Wine
Kakheti is justly renowned as the most important wine-growing region of Georgia. Hundreds of different grapes are grown here, and every village has its own particular variety; villagers speak eloquently about the advantages of their soil over that of their neighbors and why true connoisseurs favor their wine above all others. Almost everywhere you go in Kakheti, at almost any time of day, you’ll be invited to a glass of wine and it’s easy to find yourself wandering around in a semipermanent mellow haze. Throughout the region you can knock on any door for directions and find yourself five seconds later with a glass of wine in hand and an invitation to stay the afternoon to drink and eat. If you're not careful your touring could be seriously impeded by this superabundance of hospitality. If you're an oenophile, however, why worry? Many of the home-grown wines you'll stumble on will rival more famous labels like Tsinandali, Akhmeta, and Napareuli. Wine connoisseurs also have an opportunity for more formal tastings at the Tsinandali Winery, ten km west of Telavi.
A very good time to visit at the beginning of October, when the rtveli (grape harvest) is being taken in, to the accompaniment of feasts, musical events and other celebrations. Many accommodation places can organise for you to see the harvest in action and join in the partying. The region is famous for its drinking songs, the most famous of all being ‘Mravalzhamieri’.
The autumn colors are magnificent, and every village celebrates the bounty of its vineyards by decorating balconies with bunches of grapes and filling every basket and bucket until they're brimming over. The fields and roads are alive with this grand agricultural enterprise, and the songs and the scents are unforgettable. In many a yard you'll be offered a taste from a ladle just emerging from deep inside a kvevri, the large clay amphora buried underground in which Kakhetian wine ferments.
Kakhetians are more circumspect than, for example, the garrulous Imeretians. Like the wise husbandmen they are, Kakhetians tend to keep their own counsel and look on the foolishness of the world with great bemusement. Kakheti is one of the regions in Georgia that suffered most harshly from foreign invaders, and many older kakhetians still wear the famous fell cap as a link with and a reminder of the past. The felt cap-just like the Svanetian variety-was worn at all times so that a metal helmet could be thrown atop it at a moment's notice, allowing a man to defend his village.
The arrangement of the villages throughout the region was also designed with defense foremost in mind: houses backed up against one another, with one family's terrace serving as another's roof, and so on up a hill. This allowed defenders to retreat through the maze of interconnected houses should they start losing the fray. Longitudinally, it is often difficult to determine where one village ends and another begins. This is much due to the incredible wealth of the land, where every square meter is utilised by someone, as it is to a deliberate plan of safety in numbers.
Touring the Province
Allow yourself at least three days to discover the richness of Kakheti. A fourth should be added if you'd like to visit the nature reserve of Lagodekhi in the easternmost part of the he province. A stop at the ancient fortress town of Sighnaghi could be made en-route to Lagodekhi. The first excursion into Kakheti can be done as a day trip from Tbilisi. This would include sites in outer Kakheti: Ninotsminda and David-Gareja. The second and third itineraries are best handled as two day trips from Telavi.