Laying claim to an 8,000-year-old winemaking heritage (the world’s oldest) and over 500 native grape varietals, the small, ex-Soviet country of Georgia is a surprising destination for oenophiles.
There is certain protocol for receiving wine in a restaurant. First, there’s the wine list ushered forth by a trained sommelier. A bottle is selected and presented for inspection: First the label, then the cork. A taste is poured into polished, varietal-appropriate stemware. Finally, the wine is swirled, sniffed, and sipped.
The first time I encounter wine in Georgia, it’s nothing like this. Sat in Sormoni, a no-frills Soviet-era restaurant outside of the city of Kutaisi, west of the capital Tbilisi, a fat jug of wine is inelegantly plopped down on the plastic tablecloth that’s already crowded with dishes of pastoral fare.
In its glass vessel, the wine’s the color of the sun on a hot day—almost white and thin. There’s no fancy glassware either; it gets sloppily sloshed into stout tumblers that, at most, hold a few ounces at a time.
I ask Ia, my guide, what kind of wine it is and I’m told it’s Imereti wine (aka house wine, as we’re in the region of Imereti). When I press her for more information, Ia tells me it’s probably Tsitska, a dry white grape grown throughout the sunny Imereti region. The family who runs the restaurant makes it. “Almost every family in Georgia makes their own wine,” explains Ia. To ask this question is as strange as asking who made the mchadi (cornmeal bread) besides the pitcher of wine. Of course, it’s made here.
I head into the kitchen to meet the staff after my epic meal of thick and squeaky country cheese, bright salads slathered in walnut paste dressing, and wood-roasted piglet lashed with sharp plum sauce called tkemali. In the simple kitchen, the master chefs behind the meal greet us in aprons and headscarves. One sits clattering beads on an abacus. These are the winemakers behind my first oenophile experience in Georgia.
And the wine? It’s … interesting. There’s no burst of acidity or burn that you might expect from homebrewed booze. Instead, it’s surprisingly balanced, refreshing, and certainly complimentary of the fresh food. It doesn’t taste like wine as I know it—but I almost immediately like it.
Almost all the wine in Georgia is natural wine, meaning it’s made with nearly no chemical or human interference. And because it’s Georgian wine we’re talking about, it also means it’s made using an ancient method whereby the grapes—stems, skins and all—are filled into beeswax-lined earthenware pots called qvevri and buried underground, where the wine goes through a natural fermentation process for two or three weeks, followed by a few months of aging.
“The philosophy of natural wine is that you don’t change anything. If you have high quality in the vineyard, we can keep this high quality in the wine.”
Iago Bitarishvili, Iago's Winery
A recent archeological excavation in 2017 unearthed a Georgian qvevri dating back 8,000 years, making Georgia the oldest wine-producing country in the world. The fact that wine is still being made in this fashion is remarkable. The qvevri mythology is actually on UNESCO’s intangible heritage list.
As I travel throughout the country, I try more and more grape varietals—usually, they’re casually presented alongside amazing food, much like my first encounter. Here, wine is food. “I have a grandmother who’s 99 years old,” Ia tells me, “and every day she has a glass of wine, so it’s good for a healthy life!”
Yet despite homemade production, there are also plenty of small-batch producers who are presenting and marketing their wine in a more official manner.
Iago Bitarishvili of the eponymous Iago’s Winery in Mtskheta, just north of Tbilisi, is one such producer. You can find his winery and others by looking out for the brown road signs marking the wine route along the highways of Georgia. And by the way, though you don’t necessarily need a tour guide, you will need a driver if you’re planning on stopping—and drinking—at the wineries.
Iago’s wine is available in 11 countries worldwide, and he’s noticed an uptick in popularity, due in part to wellness and organic trends. “The philosophy of natural wine is that you don’t change anything,” says Iago, his intense blue eyes underscoring this key idea. “If you have high quality in the vineyard, we can keep this high quality in the wine. This wine is for everybody, but especially it’s for the people who think that nature does it best.” Luckily, more and more people are beginning to think like this—myself included, after this trip.
Another small-batch winery is Pheasant’s Tears Winery, run by a husband and wife team who has been a leader in exporting Georgian wine. A few years ago, when famed Israeli-born British chef Yotam Assaf Ottolenghi visited Pheasant’s Tears’ winery the picturesque medieval town of Sighnaghi, he started selling their wine in his artisan British delis and restaurants.
The Saperavi grape—grown in monasteries throughout Georgia—was also the alleged favorite varietal of Stalin, who was probably the most (in)famous Georgian of all time.
In the entrance to Pheasant’s Tears’ dusty cellar, there’s a sign that reads: “Nature is full of diversity, artificial intervention creates homogeny.” It’s attributed to folk wisdom.
The red Saperavi at Pheasant’s Tears, called ‘black wine’ because of its dark blood-red shade, is especially remarkable. Tannic and dusty, it tastes like the earth. The Saperavi grape—grown in monasteries throughout Georgia—was also the alleged favorite varietal of Stalin, who was probably the most (in)famous Georgian of all time.
There are big wine producers in Georgia too. Winery Karheba is a spidery sprawl of Soviet tunnels repurposed into cellars and tasting rooms, the size, scale, and modernity of which could rival Napa. Tourists from near and far come here. I do my tasting next to a family from Azerbaijan.
By now, we all know the word for cheers (“Gaumarjos!”), which literally translates to ‘victory’. The sleek and polished Karheba sells and serves both qvevri and European-style wines, but the traditional qvevri style is the clear preference.
That also seems to be the same thinking in the up-and-coming capital of Tbilisi. At the bar in the hipster-chic Rooms Hotel—named by Monocle magazine as the coolest place to stay in 2018—the wine list only has qvevri and organic wines, and most city wine bars like Vinotheca have the same policy.
After all, when you’ve been doing things the same way for 8,000 years, why stop now?