I went to Georgia in March, and it was without doubt the highlight of my year. The Georgians themselves are so full of good humour and energetic hospitality. There’s a sense of magical realism about the place, from Shota Rustaveli’s “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin” to the enigmatic mountain ranges which quietly watch over the plains below and occasionally appear through the high altitude mists – magisterial and silent.
The primary purpose of the trip was the International Wine Tourism Conference; speakers came from around the world and shared their stories. We heard from vineyard owners and winemakers connecting with their customers in imaginative ways (Messina Hof in Texas stood out for their hospitality) and from regional bodies as far away as Canada (BC Wine Information Centre). They all had something to contribute and teach the other delegates. Everyone was enriched by the experience of sharing stories and ideas – seeing things from new and open perspectives.
My own talk was called ‘A Lasting Impression’ and was trying to understand ways of regions engaging with visitors not just during the visit but all year round and creating imperatives for people to return. You can read the speaker notes on the IWINETC 2014 website here.
It is, of course, this spirit of engagement and productivity that makes this annual conference such a pleasure to be a part of. However the character of the host region provides the backdrop and the overall atmosphere. So, Georgia.
From the tables outside the conference rooms laden with wines made from exotic and little known grapes as well as the Grand Finale led tasting of as many of the 500 variteies as Shalva Khetsuriani (president of the Georgian sommelier’s association) could fit in, to the talk by John Wurdeman of Pheasant’s Tears Winery which incorporated the polyphonic melodies of a local choir (of which more later). The conference was soaked in the character of the local wines and personalities and I personally felt wide eyed at the strangeness and beauty of it all.
The grapes – most of which I had never come across – are now being seen (at least the main ones) in the UK on some lists thanks to the tireless efforts of some importers (Caves de Pyrene in particular) and serious advocates (Isabelle Legeron MW). But still they puzzle people with their unfamiliar combinations of consonants; Kakhuri Mtsvane / Tavkveri / Rkatsiteli / Saperavi / Chinuri / Shavkapito and so on…
This is a very proud culture and these wines are not going to be compromised to fit the mainstream in the export market. But they do appeal to wine lovers, they reward that little bit of patience you need and a sense of adventure in not knowing exactly what you’re ordering but trusting that it will be a learning curve that could send you into ecstasy. In fact many new arrivals to ‘natural’ wine do become evangelists – finding the experience of drinking them unlike anything else. Not every wine will please you because of course these are very pure, individualistic and expressive of specific terroir. It can take a little bit of time to familiarise yourself with this new palate of aromas and flavours but it is so worth the effort and you too will hopefully have a Eureka moment (if you haven’t yet) when the clarity and purity of the winemaking, terroir and magic all align and show you another dimension to wine.
I make no apology for the mysticism in that last sentence as I think that is central to everything there in Georgia. We visited the Alaverdi Monastery founded in the C6th with a winery dating back to 1011, where monks now make the wine under the direction of Friar Gerasim, who emanates a combination of solemnity and a mischievous joie de vivre which you often see in holy people.
It was a mostly grey day when we were there but the sun did part the clouds from time to time and being bathed in its golden light and warmth, there among the ancient stones, felt like a divine blessing. The spirituality of wine and wine making here was a theme that recurred throughout the week. The process of vine growing and wine making is a path towards God for the Georgians and only makes sense in this context. So grapes are not separated from their skins and stems but left together as children with their mothers, and they are fermented in clay vessels – God created man from clay, man creates qvevri fom clay and the clay qvevri create wine.
We tasted the monastery’s wines on a beautiful stone patio generously laid with nuts and fruit delicacies and finished with a glass of chacha – their eau de vie. Their wines are so beautiful, from the golden amber hue to the delicate notes of baked apples, tea leaves, plums and the ethereal fragrance of white blossoms. They have a tannic structure which belies this feminine delicacy yet it is all in such harmony and makes perfect sense. 70% of wine made in Georgia is white, here we tasted 2 whites – Rkatsiteli 2012 which I’ve described above and Khikhvi 2011 which was honeyed, fresh and delicious and a red Saperavi 2011 with linear minerality, balanced and subtly nuanced, beautiful fruit.
Toasts during meals are a huge part of the culture, the famous Georgian Supra or Feast comprising of many courses and requiring a Toastmaster called a Tamada. This is a very important and honoured person who sets the tone by creating and proposing toasts throughout the feast which are designed to be miniature poems in their structure and demonstrate both wisdom and a sense of humour. It is a meal full of thanksgiving, extremely moving and wraps you up in big Georgian love.
The landscape in Georgia is as dramatic as one could hope for from a country with such a complicated and turbulent history. Under the looming Caucasus Mountain many centuries ago traders crossed from East to West exchanging riches and laying the foundations for political and geographical conflict and bloodshed in the centuries to come. Georgian soldiers all carried a vine inside their armour and if they fell in battle a vine would grow. Their land and their wine , for them, is literally soaked in the blood of their ancestors and there is a great sense of honour and duty in respecting that and maintaining their traditions.
Each region has a distinctive topography from mountainous Kakheti, the valleys of Kartli, the gorges of Imereti and Racha, the rivers of Guria and the terraces of Meskheti. The polyphonic choirs which serenaded us (and I do mean in the sense of being wooed) at the conference and then at the Supra on our final night drew from musical traditions from around the country. The lilt, pace and harmonies apparently reflecting the landscape from whence they came (think of the lilting Welsh accent and the ‘harp shaped hills’ of Dylan Thomas’ poetry) and being in perfect accord with the wine that’s made there, the food that is served and the personalities of the people who live there.
This is a culture with such integrity – in that thoughts, words and deeds seem fundamentally entwined. It is a fascinating country for so many reasons, the people, gastronomy, hospitality, history, and wine. We were very lucky to visit some wonderful producers about who I will be writing shortly. I hope to visit Georgia many more times and feel sure I will discover new things with each visit.
Producer Profile (1)
South Africa (1)
Vinho Verde (1)