First impressions count. When I flew into Tbilisi, Georgia for the first time, had my passport stamped by immigration, and was then presented with a bottle of red wine by the same official, I knew I was going to fall in love with both Georgia and the Georgians.
In Georgia, everything is about what you eat and drink, and who you share it with. This tiny, quite mountainous country in the Caucasus is possibly the world’s best-kept gastronomic secret, but as it’s finally stepping out of Russia’s shadow and forging stronger links with the US and the EU, the secret won’t stay quiet for long. Georgia is the cradle of wine.
For at least 8,000 years Georgians have been fermenting the country’s 400 or so indigenous varieties of grapes. They mastered the techniques necessary for fine wine making early on, carefully controlling the temperature throughout the fermentation process by burying their vessels in the ground, and they exported their finished wines to Ancient Greece. Medieval priests wrote lengthy treatise describing the perfect pairings of vine varieties and terroir, and this precious knowledge was passed on from one generation to the next by the Orthodox Church.
In the 20th century, during the upheavals wrought by the Soviet Union, many of Georgia’s traditions were lost: the priests were killed, the population was forcefully urbanised, and industrialisation swept away traditional agricultural practices. Now, 25 years after independence, a geologist and wine maker named Eko Glonti is spearheading the movement to revive traditional Georgian wine making and to share it once again with the world.
Eko has most of his vineyards in Kakheti, a province in the east of Georgia where the soil on the gentle mountain slopes is particularly suitable for growing grapes. Eko grows a number of different grape varieties, including rkatsiteli, saperavi and aladasturi, which are almost unknown outside of Georgia. All of the grapes are grown organically so that the chemicals don’t interfere with the taste of the wine.
Georgian wines are fermented in a qvevri, a slightly pointed terracotta vessel that is lined with beeswax to make it watertight. A single qvevri can hold as much as 770 gallons of wine and is easily big enough for a man to sit inside. Qvevri making is in itself an art form, and as few artisans today are capable of making the complex structure, renovation of old qvevris is increasingly a necessity. The qveveri is buried in the ground of the wine cellar with only its neck visible, thus insulating the wine from changing temperatures which would affect the fermentation process.
Unlike in conventional wine making, when Georgians make white wines they ferment not only the juice but also the grape skins and seeds. The shape of the qveveri means that these sediments naturally sinks to the bottom of the qvevri during the fermentation process, so there is no need to add sulphites (sulfur dioxide) as a stabiliser. The resulting wine is a golden orange color, giving rise to the name amber wines, and the flavor is more intense, more earthy than you’ll find with other white wines.
Although many Georgians would be happy to enjoy their wines themselves, Eko has magnanimously decided to share his wines with the world. He has created an enviable label, Lagvinari, that’s possible to try in Michelin starred restaurants in London.