The scent of woodsmoke. An ancient Lada car, packed with watermelons — on the roof, in the trunk and crammed into the passenger seats. Bushels of corn lit by fall sunshine. A lamb carcass — or is it a goat? — outside a shack by the side of a gravel road. A bloodied cleaver is jammed into a butcher block beside it.
Nearby, men squat and talk. Flies buzz. Then, a child’s small, smiling face, bright as a star.
I memorized everything I could see while travelling through the small towns and countryside in the republic of Georgia, a small but fierce country that borders the Black Sea to the west, Russia to the north, Turkey and Armenia to the south and, in the southeast, Azerbaijan.
At every corner, it was clear that Georgia is a country of contrasts — eastern and western influences, rural and urban. The capital city, Tbilisi, features designer shops, lively bars and fancy restaurants, but a visit to the countryside is a step back in time. Everywhere I looked, I was mesmerized by Georgia’s fascinating history and its rich food and wine culture.
It hasn’t always been easy to visit Georgia. For 70 years, the country was hidden under the banner of the Soviet Union, one of the many formerly independent countries that were swallowed up by the USSR in the 1920s. In 1991, it regained its independence, but along the way there have been major hiccups, including a brief war with Russia in 2008.
A year or so ago, I visited Georgia to attend the first international qvevri symposium, a celebration of the country’s winemaking traditions. As the executive editor of Wine Access, a now-defunct Canadian wine magazine, I had been invited to join a group of writers, wine critics and sommeliers from around the world, who were gathering to find out more about Georgia’s ancient wine-making history, long hidden from outsiders.
Unloading grapes at a wine co-operative in Georgia
Georgians have been making wine for more than 8,000 years, since the fifth and sixth centuries BC. For generations, they put their crushed grapes in qvevri — massive terracotta clay vessels (some hold 9,000 litres) that are lined with beeswax and hidden in the ground. Some say this was a practice started as a way to hide it from invaders. (Over the years, myriad armies — Roman, Arab, Russian, Turkish, to name just a few — have invaded the small nation.)
The unusual style became popular, so much so that the Georgians began exporting their wines more than 2,500 years ago. In the 20th century, Russians were Georgia’s largest market — largely because of their proximity and the fact they were both part of the Soviet Union.
The Russians, however, put an embargo on Georgian wine imports in 2006, citing undefined “safety concerns” as the official reason, although no evidence has ever been provided and most say the embargo is simply an attempt at causing financial hardship for the former Soviet satellite state.
Georgian winemakers simply turned their sights on the wine-drinking west — the U.S. and, increasingly, Canada.
The traditional winemaking vessel in Georgia, qvevri are buried in the ground and lined with beeswax to seal them before the wine is poured in.
For North Americans more familiar with sweet Oz shiraz or oaky California chardonnay, these Eastern wines are mysterious, with unusual flavours and grapes we’ve never heard of — kisi, saperavi, rkatsiteli, mtsvane. Even how the wines are made is different than what we see in North America. The Georgian clergy, for example, has preserved many of these grapes along with the country’s ancient winemaking traditions. Massive old monasteries dot the countryside, and most seem to have at least one resident winemaking monk.
Republic of Georgia, a visit to a monastery where the monks, seen here, are renowned for their winemaking skills.
Yet, as in the days of the Soviet Union, much Georgian wine is still made in massive co-ops, where every farmer’s grapes are dumped together and crushed. The end product isn’t as much about producing fine vintages for one’s cellar as it is about washing down one’s dinner.
Other Georgians — such as the Margvelashvili brothers — own and operate Tbilvino, a large, modern winery located in Tbilisi. They rely on indigenous grapes (Georgians claim more than 500 varieties) as well as international varietals, grown in various regions throughout the country. Their products — made by an Australian vintner — would be at home on any wine lover’s table around the world. (You can find a selection of their wines in Alberta.)
Still others are redefining artisanal wine-making, with an emphasis on natural (free of all chemicals) wines and small production. American John Wurdeman is one such person. Based in Kakheti, the country’s largest wine region, he teamed up with a local winemaker to create Pheasant’s Tears. Their unusual lineup of small-production wines now sell internationally, including in Calgary.
With wine comes food, and plenty of it. Every night I was in Georgia, I was treated to a supra — a legendary feast where a single toast can go on for half an hour, and people celebrate each other and their ancestors half the night. (These feasts are pretty common, but the Georgians held myriad extra celebrations for the visiting journalists.) A supra—a sort of uber-dinner party — is an awe-inspiring experience, with hours of singing, dancing, wine and food. There are platters of local fish, eggplants stuffed with ground walnuts, salty homemade cheese, long loaves of dense bread, cabbage salads, skewers of grilled lamb and chicken, and bowls of cucumber and tomatoes.
A favourite supra dish is the kachapuri — a flat, warm cheese bread that’s also served at every meal, even breakfast. For us, in the morning, it was accompanied by locally grown tea, and at night, we washed everything down with cold white wine, served in small clay bowls.
Several times outside the monasteries, I saw women selling lumpy, brownish strings of something that appeared to be edible — or maybe not. “Candles? Sausage?” I asked a guide.
“No, Georgian ‘Snickers,’” he said with a laugh, explaining that they’re a popular homemade candy bar.
By chance, at our next stop, at a small rural restaurant, a woman in the outdoor kitchen was making them. She saw me watching and gestured. Would I like to help? I found myself threading walnuts onto a long loop of string, and then dipping the nut-laden string, again and again, into a warm sticky syrup made from grape pulp. We hung our creations to dry and later, at the meal, they were presented as dessert. Delicious.
The next day, while the two women I was travelling with and I were waiting for a ride at our small-town hotel, a woman who worked at the hotel heard via the young man at the front desk that we really enjoyed Georgian food. She offered to teach us later that morning how to make khinkali, artfully twisted dumplings that are often served at dinner. Boiled and then eaten, hot, by hand, they’re filled with cheese, potato or a brothy ground meat and onion mixture that squirts everywhere when you bite into a steaming bundle.
Our newfound instructor didn’t speak English, but cooking is universal. Throw some flour on a wooden board. Take a rolling pin and a bowl of dough. Use a grinder to prepare the filling, and a pot, positioned on top of an outdoor fire, to cook the final product. She demonstrated while we watched, and then we tried to duplicate her efforts.
Hers were miniature works of art, as you can see, above, but I needed practice. Still, after we boiled the dumplings in a pot over the firepit in the hotel courtyard, my friends and I ate them outside as an impromptu lunch in the sun.
Several times, walking down the streets in the small towns we visited, I was surprised by how few Georgians smiled when they were greeted by a stranger — especially one who was so obviously a tourist. (I was taller than most of the other women. I was the only redhead. Unlike the other women my age, I wore jeans. And I was constantly snapping photos.) Especially in the small towns we visited, they pulled to the opposite side of the street, and they avoided eye contact. Mothers shooed their children away quietly.
Later, I asked a Georgian fellow beside me at dinner if I’d been doing something wrong. Was I being rude when I smiled or tried to ask questions?
“No,” he replied. Then he paused. “Think about it. For thousands of years, we have watched people fight over our tiny country. They want what we have, and they’re prepared to take it at any cost. Of course we are suspicious of strangers.”
Their attitude changed once they knew why I was there – to learn more about their culture, to experience their hospitality and to check out and share our experiences of their fascinating wine scene. Then I was welcomed like I was long-lost family — hugged and kissed again and again at every meeting, and laden with gifts and stories.
My last night in the country, I found myself sharing a bottle of chacha with a group of my new friends, all Georgians. Between mind-numbing shots of the fiery, clear grappa-like alcohol, they were trying to teach me to dance like they do. Despite the fact that the liquor’s name sounded like a dance move, my hands refused to follow the delicate flutters the Georgian women demonstrated, and my feet — still clad in the dusty work boots I had worn in the vineyards earlier in the day — moved like they were made of clay. I gave up and returned to my seat, where someone had ordered us more khachapuri — this time, with a slightly poached egg nestled on top. I was assured that it was ideal for taking the edge off drunken nights with friends. The egg melded with the warm cheese and dough and it was so delicious, I ate and ate.
“You like it?” the woman sitting next to me asked. “Do you like our country?”
“Yes. Guamarjos!” I said, as I held up my glass and offered a traditional Georgian toast to her and her friends and country.
The expression means “To victory!” I meant it, and I still do. This beautiful, intriguing country holds so many secrets. I can’t wait to hear more.