In Georgia, wine making is so intricately bound to religion that the grape vine is the symbol of the Virgin Mary and the grape, fruit of the vine, Jesus Christ. Archeologists date grape seeds back to the 5th millennium BC. In the mountainous Svaneti region, the fertility goddess Lani was replaced with the Virgin Mary when Christianity arrived. We had been warned by friends that Georgian wine was not up to our Australian tastes but our early forays into dry whites on arrival in Tbilisi suggested they were wrong.
The Khaketi region of Georgia in the north east is regarded as the premier wine producing area and we arrived at the Khareba cellars bright and early on our 4th day. We donned flowing red capes to keep us warm in the 14 degree underground and proceeded into one of the eight wine tunnels of the vineyard.
The charming young Geri was our guide. The vineyard has 25 grape varieties and owns 1000 hectares of land. They use both the ancient Georgian style of wine making, which dates back to the 5th century BC, as well as European methods. Georgian style Qvevri method uses the whole grape – seeds, skin and juice – in the fermentation process, providing a richer, full bodied taste. Monasteries mastered the art of ageing the wine using ancient Qvevris or clay amphorae buried in the ground. The wines we tasted were Otskhanuri Sapere from Western Georgia and Tsinandali and Mtsvane from Eastern Georgia.
We were also told that only men can trample the grapes at harvest and must abstain from all female contact, fast for three days and then wash their legs in lime before leaping into a special wooden trough. That did seem like a religious ritual! We left clutching a very reasonably priced Tsinandali.
Our next stop was the Shumi vineyard in Tehlavi. Shumi apparently means the genuine undiluted or best wine! The entrance boasts a huge topiary gryphon, and a charming garden full of roses and spring flowers. The mythological gryphon was thought to have brought the first bunch of grapes to the people of Georgia.
Our guide here was the lovely Giga – Gregory – who introduced us to the original chacha still. Chacha is Georgia’s equivalent to grappa – the distilled product from disused grape skins after wine making. Giga took us through the wine museum where an 11th century amphora was displayed and then down into the cellar where we could view the qvevris aging the Shumi wine. Each qvevri holds 2000 litres of wine, which is aged for 6 months. Only 10 percent of Shumi wines are made using the Georgian method and the vineyard is experimenting with combinations of European and Georgian styles. From then, chacha became a nightly tipple for some in our group!
The wine tasting in Georgia involves being offered a 100ml slug of wine, so by the time we’d tasted several Shumi wines we were well and truly ready for some food. Several of us shared some Khachapuri Megruli, a cross between a cheese pizza and a toasted cheese sandwich. They are delicious.
Our final wine experience of the day was Prince Alexander Chavchavadze’s museum and winery. The prince built the stately home, now a museum and art gallery, as a summer house. He was well connected with Russian nobility in the late 18th century but his family fell on hard times at the beginning of the 20th century. The hotel, museum and winery is now owned by the Radisson group but is managed by one of the Chavchavadne descendants. It was a beautiful setting to end our tour with yet another glass of excellent wine.
Our accommodation outside Tehlavi was at the Chateau Mere, where we happened to have a room on the first floor of the tower. This quirky hotel built of stone and with grapes, lavender, strawberries and roses growing in the garden was a perfect end to a very mellow day.