I went to Georgia primarily to experience amber wines made in traditional Georgian qvevri (sometimes spelt kvevri and both pronounced /kwevri/). These are handmade, fired clay pots of anything between about 150 and over 2,000 litres which are buried up to their necks in the ground, usually in a roofed winery building, however humble, but sometimes outside under an open sided roof, or simply under the stars. My interest was – is – in amber wines (sometimes called orange wines but in Georgia referred to as amber; personally I prefer the term amber too), which are wines made from white grapes but vinified in the same way as red wines; by fermenting the grapes on their skins and then keeping the wine on the skins for up to 6 months after fermentation has completed. Production is generally from organic worked vineyards although generally not certified, but without use of pesticides and herbicides, and in the winery wild yeasts, no inoculation for either alcoholic or malolactic fermentation and no (or very little use of) sulfur. The resulting wines have lots of tannic structure and autumnal fruit and spice flavour profiles, with honey and nuts.
Qvevris are fragile in transit; all sizes have the same wall thickness so a 200 litre qvevri will be stronger than a 2000 litre one, which is why so many break in transit and no-one breathes until a new qvevri is safely buried in the ground. Very few qvevri makers remain these days, mainly as a consequence of the so called “Soviet Era” (1921-1991) and the many prohibitions of the time. Neither winemaking nor grape growing were permitted, unless for the soviet “wine factories” pumping out semi sweet reds for the thirsty soviet bloc. It is a miracle that many traditions have survived, at the risk of imprisonment if discovered, including old vineyards, indigenous varieties and the qvevri tradition.
Georgia is also a beautiful country, dominated in many ways by The Greater Caucasus Mountains along its northern limits, with an isolated language and tremendously delicious food, even for a digestively challenged person like me!
I had read several books in preparation for my trip, but nothing would have prepared me for trying to pronounce the language out loud! However, it helped me in recognising people, place names/regions and grape names, thankfully!
Any mistakes are mine and inadvertent, all written in the best of faith and from on-the-go, handwritten notes!
I arrived after a fraught journey, which took 12 hours longer than anticipated thanks to my flight from Madrid to Amsterdam arriving nearly an hour late. This meant that I missed my connection to Tbilisi. Instead I had to wait 5 hours for a flight to Munich taking about 2 hours, then another 5 hour wait for the 4.5 hour flight to Tbilisi. Suffice to say I was shattered when I eventually got to my hotel/guest house room at 5am on the Sunday morning with the sun coming up and birds singing all around!!! And imagine my joy at seeing my suitcase come off the luggage conveyor despite the extra flights and country!
The Sunday was to meet up with my brother, walk a little, take the cable car up to the Mother of Georgia statue and then walk back down and find Ghvino Underground, the very famous natural wine bar, but which was closed until 2. So we had wine further down the road (a lovely Kisi) and then went back. As we walked up the road I really couldn’t believe my eyes to see John Wurdeman standing outside (he’s one of the owner partners), and then his amusement as I explained who I was and my delight at meeting him! He has been instrumental in turning Georgian winemaking from a family affair into a global demand for these special wines. All boding well for a fantastic week ahead! We tasted a flight of four amber wines and I was in heaven, and then each chose our favourite to have a glass. Then it was over the river to meet my Georgian family and have my first of many typical Georgian spreads for dinner. Great first day!
My hotel, Gomi 19, was an excellent choice as I was looked after like family, always a treat when travelling alone! Mari fed me carefully and well!
Packing up on the Monday morning to begin the road trip I met Beqa, my guide, translator, and driver for the next 5 days with his big 4×4 truck (happy me!) and off we went out of Tbilisi and towards Mskheta.
Tbilisi to Mtskheta to Kutaisi (Monday 15th April 2019)
On the way we stopped at Svetitskhoveli Monastery and then Jvari Monastery, the first of several beautiful old monasteries we visited, fascinating me with history and stories. There is evidence of the grape and the vine in old church architecture, reinforcing Georgia’s claim to 8000 vintages and the longest living wine tradition in the world; also archeologically proven!
JIGHAURA EXPERIMENTAL VINE NURSERY (SAGURAMO)
Jighaura is home to 437 varieties of Georgian grapes, both wine and non-wine varieties, established about 10 years ago in order to recover varieties which were excluded by the Russians during the “Soviet Period”. It is a government funded institution and employs between 15 and 50 people depending on vineyard tasks. Vines are collected from all over Georgia, from old family vineyards which survived the soviet grubbing up of most varieties and to be replanted with other crops or the productive grape varieties. Their genetic status is then tested to determine whether the variety is already in the nursery or is another old, lost one for propagating. Wine quality is tested on a small scale, with there being as few as only 25 vines of some varieties. Although most varieties are Georgian, there are also 350 foreign varieties from all over the world. Small wineries in Georgia can request plants but this is not a commercial venture.
Website mostly in beautiful Georgian script but some English; srca.gov.ge
IAGO WINE CELLAR AND RESTAURANT FOR LUNCH (CHARDAKHI)
Iago Bitarishvili used to be the national Georgian expert for ecological (organic) agriculture, firstly in general then specifically for vines. He has 2 hectares of organically farmed Chinuri vines, a white variety planted in 1998. He makes 5-6,000 bottles a year now, up from 600 in his first bottled vintage, 2003 and anticipates increasing to 8,000 maximum. In total he has 22 qvevri, 15 inside and 7 outside with the biggest having a capacity of 2,000 litres and three being over 300 years old.
Hand harvested grapes are placed into the qvevri. Fermentation depends on the ambient temperature as well as the quantity of grapes in each qvevri and usually takes place at about 25ºC over three weeks with punching down. The CO2 produced during fermentation protects the cap from oxygen. All bar about 5% of Iago’s production is skin contact, with the skins settling out towards the bottom of the qvevri after between 4-6 months. This depends to a certain degree on the ripeness of the stems; shorter time if stems are less ripe, longer for riper stems. Fermentation generally finishes towards the end of November when it has turned very cold. The malolactic fermentation would not normally occur under ambient temperatures but as the qvevri are buried and the heat from fermentation has penetrated the ground, as well as there being no use of sulfur, the MLF takes place naturally straight after alcoholic.
He uses some very educational pictures of the qvevri winemaking process and what happens to the skins.
He also makes a small amount of pet nat and (obviously here in Georgia) distils his own chacha from the pomace; nothing is wasted!
We tasted his 2018 without skin contact and 2017 with skin contact over lunch (which is very common here!).
The 2018 is floral, off-dry (without skins and therefore their yeast cells, the fermentation does not always complete, leaving some residual sugar and alcohol of 11.6%). It is pleasant, clean and crisp but didn’t fulfil my reasons for being there!
The 2017 with skins is delicious, citrussy orange, honey and hazelnuts, fine tannins and full bodied. The nose is quite delicate, timid, but the palate much more concentrated. It is balanced with good length and intensity, lovely.
The chacha was fiery (about 45% alcohol), but much more floral when I (shame on me) diluted it with a little water, but it’s not for me I’m afraid!
Chinuri is apparently unique here in that maintains high natural acidity even when ripe.
Lunch was amazing, as I was to see and experience even more Georgian hospitality and food along the way; caramelised onion balls, jonjoli (fermented bladdernut tree buds, delicious), home cured bacon, rolled aubergines with walnut paste (this dish quickly became a favourite of mine on the trip), roast new herbed potatoes in cold pressed sunflower seed oil, roast vegetables, barbecued pork chunks, mushrooms and the ever present tasty tomato and cucumber salad, and breads which I couldn’t eat here but looked wonderful. Everything was adorned with fresh coriander and flat leaf parsley plus mint and dill and accompanied by walnut and green plum sauces. Followed by very delicate black tea and really lovely local sweets which included preserved walnuts.
Iago sells to 11 countries and has no stock left!
We then drove, well, Beqa my guide, driver and translator extraordinaire, drove further west towards Kutaisi. The valley starts wide open and fertile with the snowcapped Greater Caucasus in the distance on our right (impossible to capture in photos!) and eventually narrows to the 800m long tunnel into Kartli. Two lane dual carriageway becomes one, the crazy driving continues and I was grateful over and over again at not having chosen to even attempt to drive myself. The road now runs through forest, a river by the road, the Dzirula, and spring reveals many colours of green in the trees coming into leaf. Roadside stalls sell bread, fruit, honey, churchkela and earthenware items from plates and cooking pots to tone ovens (/toornay/) for baking bread and even some small qvevris.
Eventually we drive past Zestaponi, a seemingly sad place with many huge, now derelict and blackened, Russian factories, having taken their industry with them when they left between 1991 and 1993. There remains some metal ore processing in the town though.
And then, rather excitingly, on towards meeting Ramaz Nikoladze!
NIKOLADZEEBIS MARANI WINE CELLAR (family winery) (Nakhshirgele)
I had read a lot about the Georgian amber qvevri wine movement before I visited and Ramaz Nikoladze was logically on the list of hopeful visits; mission accomplished!
He was waiting for us, muddied and smiling in his dungarees from working the vineyard behind the winery. The soil is very heavy clay and he uses a “manual mechanical” plough to work it. A small plot of grafted vines planted only two weeks ago was already showing tiny signs of life. Ramaz has 1.5 hectares around the house and winery as well as family vineyards in the nearby village worked with his wife and uncle, all at about 150m altitude. He produces about 6,000 bottles. His two varieties are the white grapes Tsitska and Tsolikouri, which he vinified together until 2015, and since then separately. The main problems he has are fungal diseases due to the humidity in this region. He is organic uncertified and uses some copper, some sulfur and some biodynamic tisanes in the vineyard. The clay soil contains high levels of lime and the other vineyards are clay with flint stones.
Inside the winery there are three 500l qvevris, one 800l and three 1,000l, the smaller ones for ageing and also stainless steel vats for holding wines. All grapes are destemmed, as there can be under-ripeness in them, and then lightly crushed before putting them into the qvevri. All wines are fermented in qvevri but not all have skin contact. Yeasts are natural/wild.
The 2018 Tsolikouri from the family vineyard on limestone soil in the village has no skin contact and was fermented for two months in a 900l qvevri, then kept in a 1,000 litre variable capacity SS. Tasted from the vat, it is floral with peach and hazelnut aromas and has a soft palate.
The 2018 Tsitska is also without skins and fermented for two months, also tasted from the vat, and is more appley, but closed, then revealing floral notes with time. The palate is more ample and mineral. The vineyards are Ramaz’s own, being over 80 years old (very unusual as the Soviets ordered most to be grubbed up, so surviving old vineyards are not common) and on flint stone.
Ramaz is experimenting with a five year old barrel which he has had since the end of January, the wine having spent two months in qvevri, two more in SS and two in the barrel. It has a slight hint of vanilla on the nose and the palate is slightly rounder.
His skin contact wines spend 3-4 months on the skins (“with the mother”), the seeds fall to the bottom first and collect in the narrow base, then the skins fall after about a month post fermentation and the lees lastly. He decides when to separate by tasting, when he racks the wine to another qvevri where it clarifies naturally. No sulfur, fining or filtration is used on the wines, and moon cycles are important for vineyard tasks such as pruning and harvest as well as racking, where possible, and some biodynamic principles are used. Ramaz has recently insulated an area within the winery for wine storage and with air conditioning as the summers are getting hotter, reaching over 40ºC at times with high humidity.
The wines are exported to over 11 countries (including Spain; Ramaz’s delicious Tsitska/Tsolikouri was the only Georgian wine I had found in Madrid before travellin) the first vintage sold abroad being the 2010.
Ramaz also explained an Imeretian winemaking technique whereby the grapes are pressed to release the juice and then between 5-15% of the skins are added to the must resulting in a partial skin contact fermentation.
We then had a splendid tasting dinner with wines picked from Ramaz’ cellar; the menu included:
bread and corn bread, cucumber and tomato salad, aubergines with walnuts, roast and herbed baby new potatoes, green beans in walnut sauce, rice and beef, roast quail, blackberry and plum sauces, all prepared by Nestan, Ramaz’s wife and all absolutely delicious! The wines just slipped down very easily! And the very cute cat almost stole the show (rescue cat, broke leg badly, expensive vets bills, eventually called Garrincha, after a Brazilian footballer who had one leg longer than the other!). Ramaz and Nestan are involved in the Slow Food movement.
Three wines were chosen to accompany dinner.
Tsolikouri semi skin contact, only 200-300 bottles a year, not exported but sold locally, Nestan’s family wine, called Amiran from the time when Ramaz was dating Nestan! Baked apples, fine tannins, spices and coriander seed. Really lovely.
Tsolikouri called Solikouri in honour of Ramaz’s friend and mentor who died recently. Full skin contact, deep amber colour, orange marmalade, baked apples and spices. Again lovely.
Dzvelshavi 2017, 11.5% (Dimi) pale ruby in colour, 3 months on skins then racked to barrel, floral, cherries and elegant. Dzvelshavi is a rare and ancient variety with possible parentage to several European varieties.
We left, me very happy beneath the rain, and went back to overnight in Kutaisi.
Kutaisi to Samagrelo (Tuesday 16th April 2019)
We first visited Gelati Monastery en-route, built in the 9th century by David the builder, more amazing stories and history, the original gates came from a the town of Ganja in Azerbaijan, an ancient tradition being to remove the gates from a town when conquered.
We also visited the 8th century Motsamehta Monastery, the “tortured brothers” who were tortured for not relinquishing their territory in a battle and depicted on the church door. And after which we drove on.
NAKED OJALESHI (ODA HOUSE) WINERY and lunch
Keta (Ketevan) Ninidze is one of few (but a growing number of) female winemakers in Georgia. She met us outside her traditional house built in 1935, which is above the ground floor winery, but she commented that the Samagrelo tradition is to have qvevris outside. Keta makes about 3,000 bottles a year from the rare local variety Ojaleshi and her wines are called Naked Ojaleshi, with the label revealing a naked woman as a statement and also as the wines have no skin contact they are therefore naked. The main problems here are fungal diseases; mildew and oïdium. She has 0.15 hectares and skilled partner growers across the region who grow old Magrelian varieties from the state nursery. Her vines were planted in 2016 and last year was her first vintage, in both SS and qvevri. She has three 500l qvevris and one 100l plus two 700l and one 300l variable capacity SS vats, primarily but not exclusively, for storage.
She has some Tsolikouri, an Imeretian variety which is very resistant and can age for 5-6 years, some with, some without skin contact. Her flagship Naked Ojaleshi is a rosé which ferments for one month followed by 6 months ageing in qvevri. And she makes chacha of course!
Keta employs three people plus herself and her husband, Zaza Gagua also has his own, separate winery, Vino Martville. The brand name Oda comes from the architectural style of the houses, which are on legs with the living space upstairs.
Lunch and tasting
We ate and I tasted outside under the new open-sided, roofed area; blankets were needed as it was fresh, but great to be out in the fresh air.
Lunch was another wonderful spread and included mchadi maize breads for me spread with carrot, coriander and walnut paste, cucumber and tomato salad, home-made red adjika (very spicy chilli paste), roast potatoes and roast carrots, chicken with walnut sauce.
- Naked Ojaleshi (rosé, no skin contact) 2018, fermentation and ageing in qvevri for 6 months, 12%, cherry and hazelnut nose with a balanced, dry palate, nice soft acidity and very refreshing and bottled only two weeks ago.
- Tsolikouri 2018, full skin contact and 6 months in qvevri, 250 bottles and Keta’s only Amber wine. Bruised apples and honey, soft palate, medium body.
- Orbeluri Ojaleshi 2018 (means “The Magrelian One”), a very small vineyard at 900m on rocky limestone soil, she has been pafrtners with the grower since 2015, organic vines of 25-30 years old. It’s red, fermented in SS with 20% skins and one month for fermentation, followed by 6 months after pressing. Red fruits, spices and pepper on the nose but it’s very closed and needs time and aeration in the glass. Real character and very interesting.
We left the lovely house, garden and dining area as it began to spit with rain and decided to make a quick detour to the Martilivi Canyon complex; fascinating waterfalls and a quick trip upriver in an inflatable to see the way the water has carved the rocks over millennia, and the rail came down just as we got out of the boat!
That evening in the “Sapere” winebar in Kutaisi I drank one of my favourite wines of the whole trip, Jakeli 2017 Rkatsiteli-Kisi Amber, which I managed to buy at Ghvino Underground before leaving and stash in my case.
At this point, the hot sunny days of Sunday and Monday have become much cooler and rainy and the puddles can hide many potholes in the road!
Kutaisi to Tbilisi (Wednesday 17th April 2019)
ARCHIL GUNIAVA WINE CELLAR
Not far from Zestaponi, in a small village called Kvaliti we eventually managed to find Archil Guniava and his wine cellar, although Mrs. Google was intent on us not finding him; several full circles and one trip into a field gate! And boy was it raining! Beqa was much my needed translator here as Archil doesn’t speak much English and Georgian isn’t yet within my capabilities!
Archil and his family have 1.5 hectares of Tsitska, Tsolikouri, Krakhuna (whites) and red Otshanuri Sapere and Mgaloblishvili vines. The vines are either about 50+ years old or some are much younger at 5-8 years old. The vineyards are on heavy clay soil and face south. Winemaking is a family tradition starting before his grandfather. The qvevris are minimum 200 years old and his grandfather and brothers took some qvevris each and moved them to nearby houses about a hundred years ago! He has 17 qvevris from 50l to 2,000l in size and bottles directly from the qvevri, no fining, filtering or SO2 the wine falling bright in its womb over time. He says the qvevri does everything; it knows how to make wine!
He farms organically without certification and harvests generally from the end of September to mid October, but the Otshanuri Sapere is later, into November and, like others, at this scale all by hand. He makes both skin contact and no skin contact wines, the Imeruli (Imereti) wines are mostly semi skin contact, de-stemmed and gently crushed, 20-30 days fermentation (20 days skin contact, 30 days no skins) followed by 7 months to one year in qvevri depending on style sought. The maximum is February followed by up to 8 months off skins. MLF takes place in the qvevri. He also bottles by hand like most others and makes about 6,000 a year. He sells everything, even the 2017 is sold out, and he has no stock. Exporters came to him about eight years ago and since then most of his wines are generally exported; to the USA, England, Denmark, Canada and the Netherlands.
Tasting, direct from the qvevris! All 2018. All go through MLF.
- Tsitska, no skins, one month fermentation then 4 months in another qvevri. It’s pale lemon yellow in colour, and the nose is light, floral and nutty, about 12.5% alcohol (not yet tested). Balanced with an appley grip. Archil says it’s very young yet and that harvest was 20 days early because of the heat.
- Tsitska & Krakhuna no skin contact, pale lemon colour, very delicate nose, timid, Archi says it’s about 13% alcohol, super clean and fresh but difficult for me to capture in words.
- Tsitska & Krakhuna with skin contact, much deeper colour, now really amber. The nose is smoky, baked apples and custard, four months on skins then four months without, tannic grip, young yet. Nice!
- Gmalobishvili, a very rare variety removed by the Soviets and sourced from Saguramo (Jighaura). One day skin contact rosé, then the skins are removed from the qvevri (they are floating thanks to the fermentation process) although last year’s was for 9 days and was therefore deeper in colour. My note says “WOW NOSE!” Cherry and red fruits and berries, raspberries, complex palate, red fruits, fine tannins, black pepper, a hint of marzipan and nuts. He was afraid it still had some residual sugar and would re-ferment in the bottle so was pending having it tested.
- Blend of red and white grapes, a traditional technique, 30% red and 70% white. If the Otshanuri Sapere is vinified separately it can be very high in acidity and tannins and the white varieties soften it. It’s purple in colour with smoky and plummy aromas, very young, very grippy tannins, quite a difficult taste! But it was rather cold, about 8 or 9ºC in the qvevri at this time of year, slowly rising to about 15º in the summer, and these wine show best at about 15-16ºC.
We left as we had arrived, in heavy rain and headed back east towards Tbilisi again.
Lunch was at a roadside restaurant well known to the travel guides, great food, pickled cucumber, chillies and jonjoli (delicious), a herbed beef stew, “kebab” (minced spiced pork), tomato and cucumber salad dressed with walnut sauce and herbs, bread (not for me), and an amazing view from our restaurant window, high up on stilts on the valley side, looking up the valley and river in the pouring rain, wind and chilly!
On towards Tbilisi and calling at CHATEAU MUKHRANI wine cellar on the way. I wanted to visit one large winery to contrast my visits. The lovely Nana showed me around. Mukhrani is a well respected venture, with a wealth of history and which I’m not going in to here, just some basics. Established in 1878 it has a chequered history of ownership, loss and function. One of the facts that stood out for me was learning what the soviets did to wineries which they wanted out of action during their era. Many large cellars were destroyed, many others filled with concrete (therefore obviously impossible to recover) and some filled with soil. Chateau Mukhrani was “lucky” in that it was filled with soil and it took five years for the current owners (since 2002) to remove the soil and reinstate the cellars, unfortunately the walls were badly damaged and only about 5% of the original walls remain, the rest having being faithfully reconstructed. It is a beautiful job. There are all the trappings of a normal modern winery full of stainless, barrels and Nomblot concrete eggs. But. Something very interesting too. About ten to fifteen years ago when the current amber/qvevri wine movement was getting underway, the “modern” winemakers really thought the qvevri guys were mad and it would never be successful either as a style or commercially. Mukhrani now has 18 qvevris, installed in 2016 in a newly built, dedicated building, of 800, 1,000 and 2,000 litres capacity. Just goes to show how right the traditionalists have been!
I also saw their rather beautiful chacha still and watch as the clear spirit was collected from the tap at the end! Nothing like the home style versions I had seen everywhere else!
- Rkatsiteli Superieur 2016 from own vineyards, 12.5%, very aromatic, reminding me of Sauvignon Blanc or Verdejo, grassy, herbal, fennel and floral. Made in SS with battonage, very nice, about 19€ though.
- Chardonnay 2017, 13.5%, more typically international in style, peachy nose, very soft palate, but could have come from anywhere, about 17€
- Saperavi Superieur 2016 from own vineyards, deep ruby, 9-12 months in French oak, lush, plums, blackcurrant, vanilla, soft palate, red fruits, spice and vanilla, balanced, very nice, but very concentrated, about 17€
- And a special for me as it’s not usually tasted by visitors, Qvevri 2016, which was their first vintage from the qvevris, 50% Rkatsiteli, 45% Goruli Mtsvane and 5% Chinuri. Six months skin contact with 45% skins followed by six months in oak (Caucasian, American and French). Vanilla, apples, sweet spices, fine tannins, full mid palate, very nice and would be good with food (like all amber wines). (I am concerned that use of oak detracts from the uniqueness of qvevri wines.)
Very interesting to see that Georgia also does what the rest of the world does!
Back to Tbilisi for the night and then away east the following morning.
Tbilisi to Central Kakheti to Sighnaghi Thursday 18th April 2019
Driving north from Tbilisi we went up the hairpin bands of the Gombori Mountain pass, 1620m, then down again towards the beautiful Alaverdi Monastery. We were the only visitors here! The monastery makes wine, and the restoration has been assisted by the Badagoni group.
Spring is later here, with very different trees only just budding in many cases, the sleeping police men on every road all over the country, dogs by the road, and wisteria growing everywhere and mistletoe in many trees. On to our next stop for a winery visit and lunch.
Shota Lagazidze is a commanding figure at well over 2 metres tall! He explained that the winery is the family home built in 1926 by his grandfather. The Red Revolution of 1918-1921 brought the republic and being incorporated into the USSR. The construction of two storey buildings was forbidden and so many people incorporated basements to give themselves more living space. That at Shota’s family home has been converted to bricks and river stone.
The climate here is, logically, continental, with 38-40ºC in the summer, winters are not too hard with very little snow particularly when compared with the 3-4 weeks which were snow covered when Shota was a child. The coldest it gets is -3 or -4ºC and so the cellar is half underground; the qvevris need protection (he says that in the west the temperature and humidity do not demand a covered cellar). Also in the summer, the ground keeps them cool. Altitude here is about 550m.
Wines spend 6 months on skins and fermentation temperatures can reach 35ºC for a couple of days and then cool down! This develops aromas of dried fruits, figs, apricots and raisins. The skins are referred to as the “Mother” and the qvevri acts as a womb.
He owns one hectare of 35-40 year old Rkatsiteli and the vineyard is about 2km from the house, but on the other side of the river. As the bridge is 7km away, whenever he can he fords the river in his 4×4 to avoid the long trip round! He farms organically and uses limited copper (Bordeaux mixture for fungal diseases) and sulfur before ripening in the vineyard. In the winery, all stems are included and skin contact is about 6 months. Harvest is a bit later as the Alzani River and proximity of the mountains give a longer ripening season, often the first week in October. On my visit on 18th April there was still no bud break here. In Sighnaghi, only 80km away to the east, bud break has happened and there the harvest is usually in August.
Some Kakhuri Mtsvane is bought from a farmer friend 7km away, who has a 0.5ha organic vineyard.
The winery makes 1,500-2,000 bottles now, 2015 being their first vintage to be bottled (before that much like many others, selling in bulk or just making enough for family and friends) when 900 bottles were produced and all the 2016 and 2017 is sold. He has 8 qvevris which are 4-5 years old with a total capacity of 5,000l. They all have glass lids. I was lucky enough to see one which had been emptied of its wine that morning (damn, too late to help!) and to be able to see the skins remaining inside. Some wines spend time without skins in another qvevri and wines for export are bottled in July (most to Japan, then US, Denmark, Germany and France). Shota says a maximum of 10,000 bottles will enable him to maintain quality but no more.
Lunch and tasting
- Tstitska from a partner’s winery in Imereti, Western Georgia, full skin contact, mid amber in colour, baked apples, honey and quince on the nose. Palate; fine tannins, slightly smoky notes with autumnal fruits. Nice.
- Rkatsiteli 2018, from the top of the qvevri, the cleanest part, 14%, deep amber in colour, autumn ripe apples, honey and caramel. It is balanced, long, complex and has lots of concentration, very fine soft tannins and a full round body; excellent! (And went in my rucksack!) 30 Lari (that’s 10€ at three Lari to the euro.)
- Mtsvane 2018 (whose stems always stay green) deep amber in colour, lovely nose although a tiny bit lifted, volatile, difficult for me to note. The palate was dried apricots, tea, dried flowers and orange, fine tannins, integrated, lovely.
- Rkatsiteli 2017 Obolziani, a friend’s wine, experimental, qvevri-aged wine. There will be 200 bottles at some point, minus one as I bought one! This Rkatsitela has spent 6 months on its skins and then another 18 months without skins. It’s deep mahogany in colour and smells of nuts, dried apple and caramel, I wrote Wow!!! Extraordinary! Complex palate, very fine tannins, wants food and is delicious. Unique! Also in my rucksack, same price!
And lunch with the wines was amazing! Corn breads, eggs from the chickens outside, cucumber and tomato salad, phkali (spinach with walnut sauce), buckwheat, carrot balls (made especially for me!), aubergines with walnut paste, green plum sauce, roasted and herbed baby new potatoes and then meat as well! All incredibly delicious! It’s wonderful to taste while eating, although obviously a completely different experience from tasting “normally” with a flight or several in front of you and the distant hope of a meal at some point in the future! These are all very gastronomic wines and eating and drinking is such a civilised way to spend time! The Georgians consider wine as part of life, not something particularly for special occasions. Wonderful!
These people live a very attractive lifestyle for me, very close to nature, in the countryside, smallholder style, lots of food crops and trees in their gardens, a sort of self sufficiency in many things including preserves and fermented foods (I’m in love with jonjoli) and such a wealth of flavours from herbs and spices in the foods. We had to leave unfortunately.
On the road again, back past Alaverdi Monastery, we asked in the small shop if they sold wine; they do, and are also renowned for only selling aged wine, but their 2013 Rkatsiteli was 170 Lari it was too much (nearly 60€; next time!).
The snow capped Caucasus were now on our left as we drove on to Kondoli.
ORGO WINE CELLAR (TELEDA)
Orgo, started in 2012, have 10has of Rkatsiteli, Kisi, Saperavi and Kakheti Mtsvane. They make 50,000 bottles of qvevri wines and 50,000 European style wines. Rkatsiteli and Kisi are blended and a Saperavi rosé is made. 80% is exported to the USA, UK, Ukraine and Japan. Orgo is a family owned winery on a larger scale. It was the assistant winemaker who attended us and whose name I unfortunately wrote very badly; my apologies. The vineyards are in various villages, not organic but hand tended and harvested. The amber wines spend six months on skins without stems, the whites fermented separately,. The reds ferment for 25 days then spend 6 months in qvevri. Chacha is aged in barrels. Harvest is generally in September and October although the grapes for traditional sparkling wine are picked in August. This is made from Kakheti Mtsvane and spends 18 months on lees, 5,000 bottles.
There is a beautiful, small cellar with a library of previous vintages, the whole set-up is very clean, new and expensive looking, especially after the humble wineries I have visited, I suppose logically being what comes with increased size. The symbol on the bottle represents two things; it’s the sun and also an orgo is the name given to the round stone traditionally put on top of the qvevri.
- Orgo Rkatsiteli 2017, 13%, 15,000 bottles, nose of dried flowers, dried apple, toffee, quince. Palate dry, somehow metallic which I can’t identify. It spent six months on skins then straight to bottle with 17mg SO2 at bottling. It’s fresh but a little bit drying. (Qvevri? I didn’t note, I don’t think so.)
- Orgo Kisi 2017, Qvevri, 13%, very different nose, orange skin, dried apricot, more complex, concentrated palate, more tannic but lots of different flavours, nice balanced acidity. 2-3,000 bottles.
- Orgo 2017 Saperavi Qvevri, 20,000 bottles, 25 days on skins then racked to another qvevri without skins. Deep purple in colour, intense nose of liquid fruits, all cherries, plums, blueberries and spices. Mouth-watering acidity, firm but ripe tannins and slightly smoky. Nice but full on!
Next a detour, Beqa said we had time and this was interesting! So we then drove directly towards the Caucasus. The majesty was breathtaking but this didn’t show on any of the (many) photos I took. We headed for Khareba Marani, curious for me only in that it is housed in what were soviet army tunnels, 7km of which were bored deep into the mountainside rock as military bunkers during their era. I took the quick tour, just to see the tunnels, but unfortunately you aren’t shown much. I tasted two wines, both produced in large volumes and the visits here are not for winos like me but general tourists, many of whom were Russians.
- Tsitska 2012 (yes, old!), 12%, Gold in colour, the nose is volatile, orange skin, marmalade and apricot jam. Six months on skins and stems. The palate is light, appley baked tannins, old honey and spice, nice and very unusual as it’s an old vintage! Unexpected here!
- Saperavi 2015, 14%, first bottle was corked, despite it being two thirds empty by this point (there were lots of other groups at about 8 tasting tables in this specially set up part of the tunnels, and presumably no-one had bothered to taste it and no-one drinking it had noticed! The chap pouring was a bit disconcerted with me telling him, I asked him if there was another bottle, he eventually found one and this wasn’t corked. As a teacher I just had to ask him to smell both glasses, he was reluctant (I think they are just tourist guides at such a big set up) and he was surprised at the difference! Job done! Three months on skins and stems, nine months without, black cherries, plums, firm tannins, very fruit driven and these tannins need food.
Driving towards Sighnaghi/Signagi, spelling changes! The Caucasus are on our left now, they are again majestic and snow capped. I’m captivated by their beauty and size! Good job I’m not driving!
To get to Sighnaghi, there are 6km of hairpin bends to reach to the small town atop the hill at about 836m. Check in to lovely warm hotel, it’s been sunny all day and the view was amazing, over the Alazani Valley below to the mountains. I foolishly didn’t take a photo, and what a shame as the next day the weather was dense fog with heavy rain in it, absolutely no visibility and apparently unusual indeed!
That night we were booked in at Pheasant’s Tears restaurant in Sighnaghi and a tasting with their sommelier. I didn’t make it to the Pheasant’s Tears Winery this time, but one needs things to go back for!!! The meal and tasting were in the hands of sommelier Shergil, who looked after things very well indeed, bringing more wines than he was supposed to, I suspect! The restaurant is beautiful and we were lucky to be able to listen to polyphonic singing while eating; it’s unusual, quite haunting at times, but difficult to understand what seems like discord to my untutored ears.
Pheasant’s Tears, John Wurdeman’s brainchild with partner Gela Patalishvili, have been and continue to be instrumental in promoting Georgian Qvevri Amber wines outside Georgia. They are also recovering heritage varieties and have over 400 planted. All wines are made in qvevris and although many are small volumes, some are up to 55,000 bottles! I have noted 2mg SO2 added at bottling. 2008 was the first official vintage and some 2008 Saperavi remains (that would be interesting to try!).
Dinner; delicious Tsiteli Doli flour crisp-breads with cold pressed, unfiltered sunflower seed oil, beetroot salad, beet tops in spicy sauce (another version of the very versatile phkali, and this one also particularly delicious) tomato and cucumber salad, pork in wine sauce, onions, sour plum sauce. The parsley, dill and coriander herbiness was lovely. A bowl of beans was brought, but I was full and just tried them, nice but beans are not good for me anyway.
- Chinuri 2017, no skins, traditionally drunk young, right after fermentation and skin aged wines for longer ageing. 25 large qvevris. I found it hard to write a note.
- Chinuri 2016, two weeks skin contact, nose closed, nice acidity, firm tannins, apricots, oranges and spices. Nice.
- Chkvaveri (red) 2018, 20has in Adjara which is high altitude, and spends one week on skins, and it’s purple! Clean nose, red fruits and blue flowers, light palate but concentrated flavours, crisp red fruit and cherry stones. Really lovely.
- Polyphony 2018, 417 grape varieties blended together, tiny quantities from the varieties that they are recovering, mainly red this year, 2017 was mainly white, one week on skins, very interesting but I didn’t write much of a note.
- Saperavi 2018, but this apparently wasn’t it! It was deep purple in colour and very tannic with dark fruits, didn0t find out what it was as the correct one came!
- Saperavi 2018, opaque with a fuchsia rim! Black fruits and paprika (reminded me of chorizo!) smoked pepper, softer palate and less concentrated than the nose, but I’d just tried the chillied beans!
The next three were specials.
- Rkatsiteli 2018, six months on skins (this is standard for long skin contact whites), and Rkatsiteli means red stems, dry palate, very tannic, apples, mandarin oranges, quince and citric.
- Mtsvane 2012, six months on skins, no SO2 was used in 2012; it was a special year! It’s cloudy, lots of sediment, orange marmalade and hazelnuts, clementines and yoghurt. It was outstanding!
- Rkatsiteli 2010, six months on skins, nose slightly mute, palate soft, nutty, chamomile, dried flowers, long stewed apple, sweet baking spices, tannins soft from age. At first really amazing, then subtly becoming slightly horsey.
All in all a great experience! And looking forward to seeing the winery next time!
Sighnaghi to Tbilisi
The rain started about 10pm last night and beat down heavily on the veranda roof of my hotel room all night, very soporific! It was still puiring in the morning so the walking tour of Sighnaghi was abandoned for an hour on the internet and the hope that the slies might clear for a while! The didn’t and we braved the elements at 11am and went as planned to Bodbe Monastery in the foggy, heavy rain! Very atmospheric photos of what is actually a convent (the poor nuns spent lots of time mopping up wet floors due to the number of visitors – this is well on the beaten track unlike Alaverdi – and rain).
Okro’s Winery and restaurant is in Sighnaghi itself. We were met by Jane Okruashvili, sister and business partner of John. We had a quick look at the winery, qvevris and selection of chachas and preserved fruits below the house/restaurant and then back upstairs for the tasting and lunch. The Okrouashvilis have 7 hectares in different places in the Alazani Valley below. There are eight varieties; Tsolikouri, Tsitska, Tavkaveri, Kisi, Kakhetian Mtsvane, Rkatsiteli, Saperavi and Budeshuri Saperavi. They are also planting more varieties.
All wines are made in their 12 qvevri at the house plus two other cellars totalling 20 qvevri in all, 25,000 bottles, with differing methods of production, with and without skins Kakhetian style, sparkling wines and apple cider in qvevri. Chacha is made here too, but from wine not pomace. The lunch here distracted me somewhat from actually tasting the wines, so I made simple notes and drank like a good girl!
- Tsolikouri 2017 (I learned that Tsoli means wife in Georgian), from Western Georgia, Imereti, vineyards at 900 metres on chalky soil. No skin contact, light “Imeretian style”, high natural acidity, floral, apple and melon.
- Kisi 2017, Kisi is a special Kakhetian variety which had almost disappeared by three years ago. It produces balanced wines and has good natural acidity. The vineyard is at 500 metres, and the wine 7 months skin contact. It’s pale amber with a nose of baked apples, spice, fruit compote, russets, autumnal, dried apricots. Lovely palate, soft and full.
- Budeshuri Saperavi 2016, 12.5%. Budeshuri Saperavi is much lighter than Saperavi and has higher natural acidity. I understood that it’s not a teinturier and that Saperavi is, but it’s also often unnecessarily highly macerated and extracted. Skin contact/maceration 15 days, followed by two years in different qvevri. It’s opaque purply black in colour and the nose is of intense black fruits. The palate is elegant, youthful, not complex but so good that I bought a bottle! (35 Lari or 11.50€.)
Heading back now towards Tbilisi we have two more visits to make, in heavy rain and chilly cold weather; such a contrast from t-shirts on Sunday and Monday!
NIKI ANTADZE WINE CELLAR
Niki has built everything more or less singlehandedly. He has 23 qvevri the biggest being 2,800 litres and the smallest 130l. He makes between 10,000 and 15,000 bottles but in 2018 only 8,000 because of black rot, mildew and oïdium; he was away for three days and while he was away, he lost much of his crop. He has three hectares, one round the winery and two in the Iori Valley. His varieties are Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane Khanuri (sp?) and Saperavi, all qvevri and skin contact depends on the vintage. The vineyards are organic, uncertified, he uses some biodynamic preparations and tries to follow moon cycles for some vineyard tasks like pruning. Soils are sand, clay and alluvial stones with high percentage of lime.
Niki bought qvevris in 2013, five from before the 1960s and two are over 100 years old. He bought his vineyards in 2006, constructed the cellar in 2010, planted the qvevris in 2013 and in 2014 built the cellar around them (its walls are actually straw bales with three layers of plaster – it’s antiseptic – and whitewashed). The grapes are crushed outside then pumped inside, and winemaking is with skins and stems.
The wines we tasted are all 2017, the 2018 are still in qvevri and will be parted from their mother in a few days time (I missed it again).
- Rkatsiteli 2017, no skin contact, late harvest at end of October, his first experiment with pet nat. It was in qvevri until the end of May, still had some residual sugar and was fermenting slowly, and on bottling it re-fermented and is 16% alcohol! Delicious, floral and citrus nose, lemon meringue, the palate is full and round. Lovely, 1.5ats.
- Rkatsiteli 100% skins, 50% stems, 8 months skin contact, nose of quince, vanilla and custard, and a hint of varnish. The palate is dry, fine appley tannins, baked, toasty, biscuit, rye! Nice!
- Saperavi and Rkatsiteli co-fermented, 20%-80%, alcoholic fermentation 25 days with maceration, very unusual herbal nose, dry palate, red berries and cherries, plums, hazelnuts and herbal note again. It’s too cold right now.
- Saperavi 100% 2017, 14%, 22 days fermentation, deep purple in colour, intense nose of black plums, cherries, vanilla yoghurt (MLF happens naturally in qvevri, fermentation warms the soil, no sulfur, bacteria able to work easily). Palate is very tannic and grippy, but it’s cold and we’re tasting outside, fruit bomb, lots of black fruits, herbal notes, some stems from the Rkatsiteli are used in the Saperavi as a self filter. Niki plans the harvest of the three varieties so that he can use the stems!
Very interesting and humbling to see the grit and tenacity (and strength!) of one man!
And on to our last call.
LAPATI WINES, VINCENT JULIEN (SAGAREJO)
Vincent (yes, he’s French and not Georgian as is his business partner Guillaume) doesn’t usually have visitors so I was honoured to meet him, see his unusual qvevri set up and taste some of his exciting Pet Nat wines! He’s a bundle of energy and ideas and my notes were very limited and hard to follow, so bear with me! And Vincent can constantly flip between French, Georgian and English; extraordinary!
He’s been here for 12 years, makes 10,000 bottles of which 2,000 are Pet Nat. They own one hectare of Rkatsiteli but also have Takhveri and Chinuri for the sparks and some Saperavi, the latter for a full carbonic maceration in qvevri (imagine the work!).
Unusual marani; it’s under the house, but the qvevri are underground above ground! They sit in 14 cubic meters of sand in specially constructed retaining walls under the house, but effectively are not buried in the ground, but in sand above ground. Fascinating setup! It was from Vincent that I learned that all qvevris are the same thickness and so the smaller ones are much stronger than the big ones, and no-one breathes until any qvevri is settled in the ground. His empty qvevri are given a lime wash but are carefully washed before use.
His Pet Nats are made in classic wooden pupitres with hand riddling. The grapes are pressed and the must settles overnight. He needs clear juice for the Pet Nat and debourbage overnight gives minimum sediment later in bottle. Fermentation to adequate density with enough unfermented sugar remaining and then the wine is bottled and crown capped. This is the Methode Ancestrale, a single fermentation with CO2 being captured at the end to make the wine sparkle. He had problems in the past with bottles exploding, but he now sources from Armenia, Russia and France he has had no problems! He disgorges to order and the wines reach 5-6 bars. Although SO2 is used on the still wines at bottling, it isn’t on the Pet Nats.
- Khikhivi, Kisi and Mtsvane Pet Nat, (vintage?) are grown at about 1000m altitude and only 100 bottles were made. Very slow fermentation took two months in a small qvevri, followed by six months on lees. Opened a la volé and I wasn’t quick enough to capture the moment, but it’s impressive to watch as the cap flies off the edge of the veranda and the wine bubbles into a nearby glass; a real joy to see! It’s elegant, tropical with a hint of smoke. Delicious! (35 Lari but none to sell!)
- Rkatsiteli 100%, two weeks skin contact, no stems, destemmed by hand, bunch by bunch, no pigeage, three years on lees so lots of autolysis and “fat” in the wine, 500 bottles. It’s absolutely delicious! Dense, creamy, almost chewy mousse, smoky reduction, full bodied, plump and muscular, fabulous! 5g/l RS (Extra Brut).
- Saperavi carbonic maceration decanted directly from its qvevri. The vines are at 600m so produce lighter grapes with good acidity. He uses CO2 to fill the qvevri and then after a couple of days the juice produces enough itself to remain saturated. The problem is the management of the stems. He commented that Saperavi doesn’t need to be as hard as it often is, with too much punching down during fermentation and therefore too much extraction. The grapes have two weeks maceration and are then pressed and returned to the qvevri for a fast alcoholic and malolactic fermentations. Classic CM aromas of cherry, bananas, bubble gum, cinnamon with very low, fine tannins, tons of fruit, it’s a bit reduced, a metallic note, but opens up beautifully. Easy drinking it may be but I loved it!
Lovely wines and a shame that I couldn’t taste more or see more of how it all happens!
And that was it, the end to five days on the road in fascinating Georgia. I was sad, but we had the company of Vincent with us back to Tbilisi and lots of conversation! Rainy and cold we left him in the centre. Beqa delivered me back to my Georgian home from home, Hotel Gomi 19, and then I spent the next 24 being a tourist in Tbilisi, making another necessary trip to Ghvino Undergound, and seeing some sights while walking in the rain. And buying spices!
I can’t thank Living Roots (http://travellivingroots.com/ ) (especially Tamara) enough, who organised my tailor made, individualised tour, and patiently dealt with my changes and queries, and to Beqa for being a safe and patient driver, excellent company all over Georgia as well as being a mine of useful information on my Georgian education.
And a very special thank you to all of the wonderfully kind and enthusiastic people who invited me into their homes, wineries and restaurants. Madloba!!!
It’s been a blast and I’ll definitely be back for longer next time (and with a longer stopover at whichever airports I have to transfer at!).
I’m ashamed to admit that I managed to learn only three words in Georgian in my week’s travelling; hello (gamarjoba), thank you (madloba) and bye (nakhvamdis) as well as 5 days trying to pronounce road signs much to Beqa’s amusement! Not an easy language!
I do feel the need to make an observation about the use of the term “wine factory”. Many small qvevri winemakers are very suspicious of modern, larger scale wineries, even those which we consider to be normal, prestigious modern day wineries. I believe that this originates from the times of the soviet “wine factories” which were literally that; huge factories, pumping out massive volumes of semi-sweet, red, fabricated, I am told highly manipulated, “wines” for the thirsty USSR while at the same time, qvevri and small scale traditional winemaking was forbidden quite literally on pain of prison sentences. Despite this, many families continued to make their own wine, hence the survival of old vines and old qvevri. But much was lost under the soviet era and this is a source of much pain here. It’s difficult to understand,though, how larger volumes of qvevri wines could be made and the sheer number of qvevris necessary to achieve it; I have a vision of an enormous room with hundreds of qvevri necks sticking up above ground level as far as the eye can see! Just a thought which grew as I was travelling.