As the world’s oldest wine-making culture, Georgia is making a name for itself as a destination for connoisseurs the world over. In the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, a plethora of wine bars invite visitors to discover the best of local varietals.
Georgia is home to the earliest-known wine-making in the world, with evidence of production that dates back 8,000 years. Georgians like Guram Maisuradze, sommelier and manager at g.Vino – one of the city’s top wine bars – are proud of this heritage. He explains that wine’s birth here was “3,000 years before the invention of writing and 5,000 years before the beginning of the Iron Age – so I think it’s easy to guess how we feel about wine and how we care for it”.
Expect robust reds here, mineral-edged whites, sweet wines and rosés, as well as something a little bit different: amber wine (also known as orange wine). Made by fermenting white grapes on their skins, then burying the juice, skins and seeds together underground in huge clay amphorae called qvevri, the wine ranges in shades from the lightest peach to a bold dark yellow-orange.
Most of the winemakers here are still small-scale operations – it’s kind of impossible to scale up qvevri-style products effectively, says Maisuradze. Since it’s not common to find Georgian wines in your local grocery store, you have all the more reason to try them when you visit. Best of all, because most of the wine-making process here is natural or very close to it, the chances of a hangover are fairly low – though this is no excuse not to hydrate!
The best places to try these wines in Tbilisi? Wine bars. While they’re a relatively new trend in the city where wine is traditionally served with dinner – and in quantities a bit larger than a glass – they’re becoming increasingly popular.
Tucked away in a garden in the middle of Tbilisi and opened by Nia Odzelashvili, Sulico – which comes from the Georgian word suliko, meaning soul – is a wine bar with excellent food and deftly walks the line between cosiness and sophistication. With around 130 different bottles in stock, the focus is on qvevri wines from family producers. It also serves great European-influenced organic meals with local ingredients, including elevated comfort food, such as lamb chakapuli (a stew with white wine, tarragon and unripe plums), to a richly indulgent beef filet with saperavi wine and chocolate sauce. Each dish is designed to pair with traditional Georgian wines. When visiting, end your tasting with some of the semi-sweet tvishi.
Every wine from this extensive curation of Georgian output has been selected through an independent committee’s blind tasting, which takes place with 100 wines once a month. While the owners aren’t quite up to 8,000 different bottles yet, the committee has selected 800 particularly dynamic ones from the 2,500 they’ve tried so far. Happily, bottles are sold in the store and served without an additional markup beyond the shelf price, leaving some money for an incredible charcuterie board. For a fully educational tour through Georgian wine, sign up for a one-hour tasting with four wines and a mixed board.
Vino Underground is one of the most well-known places in the city to explore Georgian wine – and an atmospheric one, with tables and bottles lined under rounded brick archways. Founded by a group of Georgian wine producers, the shop is the first to feature solely natural wines, focussing on those made by smaller producers. The bar staff – all winemakers themselves – are helpful and informative; if you ask them for recommendations, they’ll guide you to the perfect pour or compose a tasting that hits all the highlights. After exploring nearby Freedom Square, which has featured prominently in key moments throughout Georgian history, stop by the wine bar and expect to stay awhile. The nights here can occasionally become a little boisterous (luckily, there are great small plates to fuel you through).
Karalashvili’s Wine Cellar is the Old Town treasure trove of the Karalashvili Winery, a family-run operation since 1396 located in the wine-producing region of Kakheti. Here, in a 600-year-old cellar, patrons can try wines not available anywhere else. It’s a cosy place with piano music and well suited for those who want to try a proper tasting session. The full experience guides visitors through 11 different kinds of wine, so be sure to save time for a khachapuri stop afterwards.
This 19th-century wine factory in Vera, which produced wine into the 1980s, reopened in 2017 as a multipurpose space that includes a culinary school, a series of cafés and restaurants, an art studio, a concept store (including one specialising in Georgian fashion), street-food vendors and a wine bar. The terrace makes for a great place to while away a sunny afternoon, popping between the shops while trying to decide what your next glass of wine will be. Once you have the answer, visit the bazaar, where a red ladder rolls along a wall for multilevel access to the shelves of wine holding around 1,300 bottles from around Georgia. Once you’ve enjoyed the bartender’s recommendations, go down to the historic wine cellars; covered in dust and ornamented with cobwebs, they hold more than 30,000 bottles of wine and cognac – some with a bit of history. It’s said that bottles of Napoleon Bonaparte’s cognac and some wine from Stalin’s collection both lie in repose here.
Taking its concept from Spanish tapas bars, where small plates are served alongside perfectly paired wine, g.Vino is ultra-cosy with wood and whitewashed brick and seats covered in Georgian weaving patterns. Located in Tbilisi’s Old Town, this bar specialises in organic wine – a blurry line in a country where wine production still tends to be close to the earth – some of which isn’t available in shops. For food, expect traditional dishes served to high standards and given a modern twist. Bookings are essential at this popular spot.
Opened by a couple from Moscow, the Sololaki district’s Dadi Wine Bar and Shop is another stop near Freedom Square. As you go through your tasting, you can reference the massive map on this golden-lit haunt’s wall to trace the origins of your wine. Don’t leave without trying chacha (a grappa-like spirit), made from all the grape skins used to age qvevri wine and often home-distilled (Dadi’s selection is all local). If you need something to soak up a session here, go for one of the bar’s local cheeses or something from its menu of small and large plates.
Although it’s not all amber wine here, this brick-walled wine bar off Agmashenebeli Avenue is a great place to try a glass or to do a tasting of some of the more than 100 wines on offer. Welcoming and warm, but not too loud, it’s the perfect place to come with a friend and have a good catch-up session over a bottle (although, do keep an eye out for its live acoustic music nights). Like any good wine bar, it also serves up some delicious Georgian plates, each with a bit of western European influence – think bruschetta with pear, walnut and blue cheese as well as chicken with prunes and pomegranate.
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