Exploring Georgian Wine Culture on a Kakheti Wine Tour
From the moment you pass through Georgian immigration, the country makes clear its pride in its more than 8,000 years of wine-making tradition.
You quite literally have a fun-sized bottle of Saperavi wine thrust into your hand as they stamp your passport. Despite it being 1 am when we touched down in Tbilisi, several of my fellow passengers crack open their bottles then and there and drink it while waiting for their luggage.
Georgia’s wine culture is something very much worn on the country’s sleeve. You can buy plastic qvevris* of wine in supermarkets for as little as $2 USD per liter, while restaurants sell it by the glass, by the bottle, or by the liter.
“A Georgian man will drink at least three liters at wine at a supra*,” Tom from Food Fun Travel informs me as we start on our third or sixth carafe of semi-sweet red, “You’ll need to up your game”.
It’s a rare meal that passes without at least a glass of wine accompanying it, but to really get an appreciation for Georgia’s wine-making culture, a tour of Kakheti’s winemaking region is a must.
Located a short 90-minute drive from Tbilisi, Kakheti is the unrivaled home of Georgian wine. It’s not just vast factory vineyards and commercial cellar doors, either. You’d be hard-pressed to find a local home that doesn’t ferment its own wine in clay qvevris buried in the earth.
Georgians live and breathe their wine culture, and Kakheti epitomizes this.
Qvevri: Large, earthenware vessels used for fermenting wine in the Georgian style.
Supra: A Georgian feast or celebration.
A Roadside Breakfast
Our Kakheti wine tour begins, as all adventures should, with breakfast.
Tattered shreds of mist still drift aimlessly about as our car pulls up on an unremarkable stretch of road. The air is chill as we step out and eye a row of crude concrete buildings, many of which have listless stray dogs lolling outside.
Richelle’s eyes light up as an uncharacteristically gregarious ginger cat trots over to claim us as its own, but our guide soon ushers us into one of the rude buildings. A number of faded plastic tables are scattered about the room, satellites orbiting a stone oven over which a bent-backed local woman currently hovers. In the corner, a rabbit-eared television the size of a microwave plays local TV in black and white. It has got to be older than I am.
Rather than conventional baking, local breadmakers bake their bread on the sides of a well-shaped oven called a tone. They scrape puri loaves the size and shape of deflated footballs off with a metal scraper, heaping the steaming loaves onto the table for us to choose from.
Our guide, Kakha quickly snatches up a couple of loaves and gestures to a nearby table laden with wheels of cheese. We sample a few and settle on a crumbly white cheese that lies somewhere between feta and blue cheese on the flavor spectrum.
Standing outside in the chill morning air, we tear off hunks of the warm bread and pair them with this cold, crumbly cheese. It’s a simple repaste, but there’s something remarkably wholesome about a meal of bread and cheese in the Georgian countryside.
Amber, Red, and White in Sighnaghi
The first wine-tasting of our Kakheti wine tour takes place in the picturesque town of Sighnaghi. Like something out of Tolkien’s Rohan, Sighnaghi looms up over the fertile Alazani Valley like a fortress. Indeed, the quaint village is surrounded by a wall behind which local villagers would once seek shelter when Persian invaders sought to raid their farms.
Its cobblestone streets and old-school architecture put us in mind of a less over-touristed Bellagio, Italy. Were it not for the camera-wielding tourists and Soviet-era cars crowding the narrow laneways, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped back in time.
A visit to the Heroes Monument and a walk along the icy city wall act as a prologue to our first wine-tasting at the well-appointed Okro’s Wines. Boasting the highest terrace in Sighnaghi, Okro’s affords us a breathtaking view of the medieval town and the surrounding Alazani Valley.
Okro’s is 100% Georgian owned and operated, and proudly boasts of it organic winemaking process and its role in resurrecting Georgian winemaking traditions that were almost lost during the Soviet era, where mass-produced wine quickly supplanted traditional winemaking methods.
It is here that we try Georgia’s famous amber wine for the first time, sampling two examples alongside a dry saperavi and the obligatory shot of chacha.
The wine is fantastic. The chacha… not so much. This is not a commentary on the quality of Okro’s chacha. I’ve had the spirit – made from fermented grape stems and skins – on multiple occasions and it has always tasted like paint thinner to me. It’s one of those “grin and bear it” cultural experiences, like shots of baijiu in China or watching Aussie Rules in Australia.
A Backyard Supra
Our next stop is as unassuming as the first. Our car pulls into the driveway of a residential home down a dusty side street.
Chickens scratch about in the dusty drive while a grinning man in his 60s or 70s barbeques skewers of meat over coals on a concrete slab. After introductions, we’re immediately led into the home’s subterranean wine cellar. Here, he shows us traditional clay qvevri as well as the trough in which barefoot men still gather to stamp the grapes as they have for thousands of years.
Such wine cellars are common across Georgia, where making your own wine is part of the cultural fabric. Some make it for sale, but many simply make enough for their friends and family to enjoy.
It’s musty and cold in the cellar, but we’re soon warming our bones with glasses of homemade wine sloshed generously into glasses. We chase these with multiple shots of chacha, some of which manage to approach palatable. Or maybe I’m just getting drunk.
With multiple glasses of wine and chacha lighting a fire in our bellies, we ascend to an entertaining space where a fire crackles in the hearth and a long table is laden with food. Signature Georgian dishes such as deep-fried salguni cheese, tomato & cucumber salad with crumbled walnut, lobio (red bean stew), fresh cornbread, and skewers of barbecued meat are on offer. This simple yet delicious meal is accompanied by multiple jugs of red wine.
Our host, whose name I never caught, raises the first of seven toasts. Toasting is a key part of Georgian supra culture, and while the exact order of toasts seems to vary from table to table, there are rules I haven’t quite grasped.
We toast to peace. We toast to family. We toast to love and friends. We toast to God.
Our teeth turn purple and the stories begin to fall from our lips like errant drops of wine spill from the jug as it is passed around the table. The food, all of it delicious in the way that only a home-cooked meal can be, is soon forgotten as we call for our second (or is it third?) jug of wine.
By the time we make our way back out to the car, Richelle and I are both pleasantly full and happily drunk. We’ve still got one stop on our wine tour, but I have eyes only for that comfortable looking back seat and a mid-afternoon nap.
Wine in a Fallout Shelter
After the local charm of our first few visits, there’s something a little too commercial about Winery Khareba. The juxtaposition is intentional, however, as our host wants us to have sampled both homemade wine and factory produced wines made in the European style.
Khareba is certainly not without its charms. A mountain looms up ominously over us as we arrive, and the tunnel that pierces to the very heart of it is rumored to have been a fallout shelter during the Cold War.
It’s well lit and lined with bottles of wine these days, but there is still something intimidating about the darkness that stretches out ahead of us as we make our way towards our tasting. The guide is an over-exuberant local lad in his early 20s. We chat about rugby, How I Met Your Mother, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe between glasses of wine and a cheese tasting platter.
I wish I could say I remember anything about the wines we tried at Winery Khareba. My iPhone’s notepad app is home to my drunken observations:
- Smells of fresh-baked bread. Tastes of citrus.
- Smells of green apple. Tastes of toffee and green apple.
- Smoky nose. Tastes of cherry and plum.
Without the names of the wines or a picture of them, however, the above notes don’t exactly help me much in the writing of this article. Good job, drunk Chris.
It is sunset when we emerged bleary-eyed from the tunnels, feeling like the Lone Wanderer out of the Fallout series of games. The air has turned bitterly cold and our day of excess has caught up with us. We sleep fitfully for the two and a half-hour drive back to Tbilisi, arriving in that uncomfortable mid-point between still drunk and starting to feel hungover.
A Good Introduction
In the week since our tour, our more immersed wine-loving friends have picked our brains over our tour. What did we like? What didn’t we like? What did we think of that one cellar door?
There’s a certain level of jadedness that a long-term expat gets when it comes to tourism in their backyard. They comment on the wineries or the photos in the same disaffected way I might comment on a friend’s choice to visit Mutianyu Great Wall in China or Marble Mountain in Da Nang. These places have become ho-hum to them, and they’ve all got their favourite local watering holes and secret wineries that they swear by.
I don’t doubt that our Kakheti wine tour was not as authentic or off-the-beaten-track as it might have been, but that isn’t what we were looking for. We wanted a crash course in Georgian wine and – let’s be honest – the opportunity to drink a lot of wine in the process.
In this way, our day tour was the perfect introduction to Georgian wine. We didn’t need to be overwhelmed by information, nor did we need to see the off-the-beaten-path before we’d even trod the regular path.
I’m no longer a wine virgin like I once was, but when it comes to Georgian wine, I’m certainly glad that my first time was gentle.
A huge thanks to Viator for helping make the trip possible. Viator connects tourists with local tour operators across the world, and there is an abundance of tours both here in Georgia and virtually anywhere else you might be traveling.
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