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When we think of historical, old world wine regions, we imagine the rolling hills of Tuscany, riding a bike along the Loire, Chateaus in Bordeaux or glamorous high end design wineries in La Rioja. While the Mediterranean basin and some of Europe claim a few thousand years of wine history, we have to look further east, to Transcaucasia, the cradle of wine. The country of Georgia is the only region in the world where the relationship between humans and wine was never interrupted.
The oldest traces of viticulture (vine growing) can be traced back to Georgia. A few decades ago, archaeologists uncovered grape pips from 6000–5000 BC in the Neolithic settlement of Dangreuli Gora, south of Tbilisi. This was followed by excavations in 2006 and 2007 at the Gadachrili Agora settlement, where more grape pips were found as well as fragments of clay vessels that contained the telltale signs of wine production: tartaric acid, a byproduct of wine.
The qvevri is a key instrument when it comes to wine-making techniques in Georgia, and is widely regarded as the symbol of the country. Qvevri are egg-shaped earthenware vessels, made from terracotta and permanently planted in the earth in indoor or outdoor marani, or wine cellars. The temperature of the earth remains constant and is considered ideal both for fermentation and maturation of the wine. The oldest prototype of the qvevri dates back to the 6000 BC, and was decorated with bunches of grapes on the outside. This proved particularly interesting to wine historians, due to the fact that the vessels were buried in the ground and the decoration would have not been seen. Wine historian Giorgi Barisashvili believes these decorations were religious or spiritual in nature; perhaps they were offerings to the gods of the day, to ensure a plentiful harvest and good wine.
Over the centuries, animism gave way to paganism and the cult of Dionysius was replaced by Orthodox Christianity when patron Saint Nino brought Christianity to Georgia in the 4th century. Wine remained a constant throughout the country’s multiple invasions. In the Orthodox Church and in Christian tradition, wine came to symbolise the blood of Christ. In the Georgian church, the Georgian cross is made of grape vines that are bound by St. Nino’s hair, which once again links the vine to the country’s culture. Now, as Georgia claims its rightful place in the world of wine, there are approximately two hundred wine companies producing a variety of wines, ranging from traditional qvevri made to the European styles most consumers are used to.
Georgia now has 18 PDOs (wines of Protected Designation Origin), which is a European appellation scheme designed to regulate quality. Within this system, regional brands are monitored and wines must be produced in a certain way to maintain their status. This includes everything from style, yields and grape variety. Though Georgia has over 500 known grape varieties, there are about 25 that are in common use and that are more readily available than others. There are ten regions in Georgia, but the following three are the easiest to visit for those wishing to imbibe on a wine tour from Tbilisi or Kutaisi.
Kakheti is Georgia’s main wine production hub, with loads of wineries to choose from. A suggested day tour from Tbilisi would include visiting the picturesque town of Signagi, known as the “city of love” due to wedding services being available 24 hours a day. Enjoy views over the Greater Caucasus before embarking on a wine tasting journey. Visiting the Alaverdi Monastery is a must for any visitor to Kakheti. The monks there have been making wine since 1011.
Central Kartli is one of the easiest wine regions to visit from Tbilisi. Travellers can be immersed in wine culture within 45 minutes and have time to check out the cultural sites along the way. From Tbilisi, stop at the Jvari Monastery with its sweeping views over Mtskheta, the ancient capital. The sixth century monastery itself is beautiful and ancient and worth the time it takes to drive up the winding road. From Jvari, drive down to Mtskheta, the ancient capital and one of the oldest permanent settlements in Europe.
There are a number of wineries to visit in the area that focus on traditional wine making. Visiting Iago’s winery feels like being invited to a friend’s home. Iago and his wife have converted their winery into a visitor friendly location. Eat homemade dumplings and try wines from Iago’s line and Mandili wines, Georgia’s first qvevri wine produced by women.
Imereti is a wine region in Western Georgia which makes some of the most elegant wines in the country. A day trip from Tbilisi is not entirely feasible, but as Kutaisi welcomes more and more international and low cost airlines, Imereti is going to be the next hotspot for wine tours in the area, and the focus will be small, family owned businesses such as Archil Guniava’s winery.
If you are only in Tbilisi for a short time and prefer city life to country excursions, there are dozens of places to enjoy wine within the city. Vino Underground is an essential wine bar for connoisseurs, while G.vino in the old town offers up elegance paired with delicious Georgian food and wine. But if you don’t want to leave Tbilisi and still want to experience the best of Georgia’s wineries, Bina 37 is the place to be. The owners converted an eighth floor apartment into a rooftop marani where they host guests and serve delicious homemade food, and their wines which are made in qvevri, are buried where there was once supposed to be a rooftop pool.