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Gaumarjos, Georgia!

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When thinking of wine, your first thought might immediately be France. But have you ever considered Georgia? According to ancient Greek and Roman narratives, “It is the real homeland of wine”, where numerous varieties of vines and grapes have been developed. And “there is no other country in the world in which wine is so good and drunk so amply as in Georgia”, where ancient winemaking techniques have been preserved and still used today.

When I passed through immigration and border control at Tbilisi Airport I was not only handed back my passport, but a small bottle of wine as well. The bottle was labelled “WELCOME TO THE LAND OF 8000 WINTAGES, GEORGIA”. It’s probably the best marketing campaign ever created for a country! You enter the country with a good vibe.

Wine History

The roots of Georgian viticulture are between 7000-5000 BC when people of south Caucasus discovered that wild grape juice turned into wine when buried in a shallow pit. Cultivated grape pips found on Georgian territory date back 8000 years and are considered to be the only proof nowadays that wine once started here.

What makes Georgia most interesting is its unique winemaking method – the Qveri (Clay Vessel). The Qveri was the first vessel ever to be used in wine making, with archaeological finds dating back to 6000 BC.

More than 500 indigenous grape varieties out of 2000 in the world are Georgian. Wine is deeply entwined in the everyday life and culture, even the Georgian alphabet is modelled after the shape of the vines curly offshoots.

When St. Nino in the early 4th century AD introduced Christianity to Georgia, she preached bearing a cross made from the vine wood bound with her own hair. And Qartlis Deda, mother of Georgia, is a monument in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, which has become a symbol of the city. She symbolises the Georgian national character- in her left hand she holds a bowl of wine to greet those who come as friends and in her right hand is a sword for those who come as enemies.

Qvevri Wines

Qvevri wines are the type of treasure that many other wine regions of the world are trying to emulate. The difference here is that, in Georgia, wines have been made in Qvevri for thousands of years.

A Qvevri is a unique earthen vessel for winemaking and storage. The grapes are crushed in the wooden crusher with the juice running down to the Qvevri. The skin is also used during fermentation process with continues for 6 months. After 6 months, wines are moved to another Qvevri to be cleaned and matured for 2 years. The wine gets “orange” colour, full of tannins and natural vigour.

Speaking of Qvevris, one of the highlights for any wine lover who has been to Georgia must be the Alaverdi Monastery, located 25 km from Akhmeta, in the Kakheti region of Eastern Georgia. Parts of the monastery date back to the 6th century and the beautiful cathedral dates back to the 11th century. More importantly, amazingly good wines are being made there in Qvevris by the monks. And if you love wine, this is one of those unique experiences in life. This is not just another Georgian attraction, but is a must visit to any wine lover.

We had lunch at Twines Old Cellar, where twins Gela and Gia Gamtkitsulashvili run a complex comprising wine cellars and a hotel, in the Kakheti region. They make their wine in Qvevri in accordance with the traditional Georgian method.

The Saperavi variety is not to be missed it is the leading Georgian aboriginal variety from the Kakheti region. It can produce high quality and intense dark red coloured dry wines and naturally semi-sweet red wines. It also has a great potential for producing the high quality fortified wines such as port. The Saperavi wines have also received several awards from around the world.

White wines made in Qvevri we tasted were Qisi, Rkatsiteli, and Mtsvane. In general they were fruity, fresh and well balanced. Others including Aleqsandrouli, Mujuretuli, Tsitaska, Tsolikauri, Goruli Mtsvane, Chinuri are also widely used grape varieties. You can find more details at http://www.winesofgeorgia.ge/.

Wine Tourism

Georgia is both “old world” and “new world”. Qvevri wines are labelled in new world such as Saperavi but some Georgian wineries opt for the European way to produce wine adopting techniques from France, Italy or Germany and are labelled as old world wine.

Georgia as a whole is making an effort to promote the country’s wine reputation. Wine tourism destinations are being built orrenovated, such as Chateau Mukhrani. Since being founded in 1878 by the Prince of Mukhrani, Chateau Mukhrani has always been the country’s flagship wine brand, combining local traditions with contemporary technologies to revolutionise the sector and create the finest of Georgian wines. The company offers the opportunity to discover the Georgian royal family’s history and breath-taking legends, and enjoy premium wines. The company is currently reviving Ivane Mukhranbatoni’s (a famous representative of royal family, political and public figure of the 19th century) 19th century castle and it will include a vineyard, manufacturing factory, horse riding, tennis court and theatre with some music festivals. After the renovation of Mukhranbatoni Castle, it will be the crown on top of the Chateau Mukhrani brand, a destination where one can truly feel and experience the extraordinary royal heritage behind the finest of Georgian wines.

Schuchmann Wines Chateau in Kisikhevi, uses European winemaking standards, professional methods of quality assurance and access to the finest indigenous grape varieties and the unspoilt winegrowing tradition of the country. They also produce Qvevri wines. Here you can discover how winemaking works, sample a taste from the Qveris and wake up the morning after a tasting in their wine cellar to a breathtakingly beautiful landscape with a view of the Greater Caucasus. The hotel there has six double rooms (20-30m2), a junior suite (65m2) with a balcony and a tower suite (70m2), which includes a fireplace room and a balcony. It truly was a great and unforgettable experience.

Tbilvino is the largest and well-established Georgian wine making company with a diverse portfolio of wines. It has been a leading producer of high quality Georgian wines since its establishment in 1962. The enterprise was completely renovated, restructured and equipped with modern European machinery. As a result of these innovations Tbilvino now produces 78 different wines under several trademarks. In 2009-2011 Tbilvino became a leading exporter of Georgian wines. A broad range of Tbilvino wines are successfully exported to 28 countries worldwide and are appreciated by wine-lovers and connoisseurs in Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Poland, Germany, Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, France, UK, Ireland, China, Canada, Cyprus, Belgium, India, Austria, Turkey and others. Their wines have been highly recognised and awarded with Gold, Silver and Bronze medals at renowned and prestigious international wine competitions such as Decanter – London, IWSC – London, Concours Mondial de Bruxelles – Brussels, and so on.

Wine Brandy Manufacturing Enterprise JSC Sarajishvill is first wine brandy production in Georgia using classic technology since 1884. In 1889-1992 the Sarajishvili brandy was awarded with Gold medals during international shows in Paris, Chicago, Brussels and several other cities. In 1913 the company was honoured with the status of The Official Supplier to the Emperor’s Court. Over the years the Sarajishvill Company survived from wars, destruction, limits, and prohibition and the company has never ceased to evolve or adapt. Today, when you go to the factory, you might have the chance to try their brandy that is 100 years old. You still can get a feeling for its roots, nobleness and originality from many details. It’s as if it tells the history of Georgia as well as the company.

Bagrationi 1882 is the leading sparkling wine producer in Georgia founded in 1937 and named after the Georgian royal family member Ivane Bagrationi - Mukhraneli, who in the middle of 19th century started large scale production of Georgian sparkling wines using the French method of second fermentation in bottles. Georgian sparkling wine from Bagrationi cellar received its first international recognition in 1882 at Moscow wine show and was awarded the Grand Prix. Bagrationi winery is completely modernised and equipped with the advanced Italian and German equipment. Sparkling wine is produced using both method traditional and Charmat methods. The vineyards are located in Karli and Imereti regions known as best for sparkling wine grape varieties. The country’s old traditions mixed with experience, perfect soil and climate together with modern technology produce excellent sparkling wines with unique taste. The guide has studied Chinese in Beijing before and he was the only one who spoke to us in Chinese, which made every one of us feel comfortable.

But it’s not just about wineries, the Georgian traditional restaurant Faetoni is perfect for celebrations (www.info-tbilisi.com/phaeton), Pheasant’s Tears Wine Bar & Gallery in town Sighnaghi (www.pheasantstears.com), and rooftop restaurant with great view ofTbilisi – Kopala (www.restaurants-georgia.com/kopala-tbilisi ), are all strongly recommended.

People in Georgia

A simple Google search for “Republic of Georgia” will give you the top result being BBC news: “Situated at the strategically important crossroads where Europe meets Asia, Georgia has a unique and ancient cultural heritage, and is famed for its traditions of hospitality and cuisine.”

And it’s true, their hospitality is unmistakable, they are very pleasant and nice people. The team from the National Wine Agency under Ministry of Agriculture of Georgia accompanied us along our wine tour. Deputy Head Irakli CHOLOBARGIA is a big guy yet sometimes shy, and he definitely had a warm personality. Assistant Sopho Kavlashvili is a beautiful, fashionable young girl who had great organisational skills. The driver was a little quiet not just because he didn’t speak English but he displayed great sense of responsibility to drive us everywhere safely. In the end we turned out to be friends.

Shergil Pirtskhelani, who we met at Peasant’s Tears is a music teacher who teaches folk and sacred songs from Caucasus Georgia with traditional Georgian stringed instruments. He has toured a lot in Europe and America to promote Georgian music. He just happened to be there and graciously sung two pieces of Georgian songs with a two-string guitar.

Vakhtang Matchavariani is a Georgian National Orchestra Conductor who we happened to meet in the hotel lobby. He was excited to see Chinese there (few Asian faces could be found), he told us he has performed in many places including Taiwan and Hong Kong. He hoped he would perform in Mainland China someday. He even kindly sent my friend from Hong Kong and I three of his CDs.

Shota Bitadze, the owner of Chinese Tea House in Tbilisi, is a real Chinese tea enthusiast. He has studied tea knowledge in China and produces tea in Georgia using Chinese tea technology. He speaks little Chinese but he definitely knows a lot more about Chinese tea I do. It’s always good to see something about China in another country but it’s even better to sit down and sip tea, served by a Georgian with the Chinese name Bai Long (白龙). Language (broken Chinese and broken English) was not a big deal for us at all.

Luarsab Togonidze is the owner of Azarphesha Wine Restaurant and he is also a folklorist of Georgia. He welcomed us in front of his restaurant and dressed up in traditional Georgian costume. He has taken a lot of effort with a small team to rediscover the treasure of Georgia including culture, tradition and clothing. He gave us a presentation how beautiful Georgian costumes from different generations were and they also have cooperated with fashion designers to work with new designs that combine Georgian tradition and modern elements.

Luarsab Togonidze spoke very good English and he gave several toasts; for friendship, world peace, parents, women, and children. He was just like a poet, with a lot of beautiful words in every toast. “When I was young, I never dared anything. But now, I have five children and they make me feel that they deserve a better future. To have a peaceful and democratic country is so important for us.”

The Georgian Parliamentary Election of 2012 was in the process when we were in Georgia in late September and the final result was on October 1st. I am not sure if this new elected Bidzina Ivanishvili is who people really wanted.

The strong Georgian drink (similar to Vodka) – Chacha is often the drink used to toast. So the only Georgian word I learnt was CHEERS which is, GAUMARJOS! Hereby I would like to propose a toast for Georgian people with best wishes: Gaumarjos, Georgia!

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