Wine has been made in the fertile valleys of Georgia for more than 7,000 years. Kevin Gould travels to the former Soviet republic and finds the traditions of its viticulture entwined with the country's national identity. Photographs by Jason Lowe.
Georgia is a young republic with an ancient history. Sharing frontiers with her Chechnian, Dagestani and Azerbaijani neighbours, and bordered by Russia to the north and Turkey and Armenia to the south, Georgia has one foot in the East of the Silk Road and the other in the West of the busy shipping lanes of the Black Sea. Her head is crowned by the thickly wooded mass of the Caucasus Mountains, whose snow-capped peaks water the fertile valleys of her heart. And it is the rich soil of these valleys that grows the defining symbol of Georgia's spirit, the grape.
Georgia's heart beats with a pride born from the knowledge that she is the oldest wine-making nation in the world. The roots of her viticulture stretch back to between 7000 and 5000BC, when Caucasian man discovered that wild grape juice turned into happy juice when it was left buried through the winter in a shallow pit. This knowledge was nourished by experience, and from 4000BC Georgians were cultivating grapes and burying clay vessels, kvevri, in which to store their wine ready for serving at perfect ground temperature.
When it came to expressing their unique language in written form, Georgians used the shapes of the vine to provide the sinuous, flowing alphabet that is still in use today. To European ears, spoken Georgian contains very few recognisable words, with the grand exception of ghvino, or wine, whose pronunciation was disseminated from here to the rest of the world by the Phoenicians and Greeks.
This love affair with the grape was given further encouragement by the arrival of Saint Nino in the 4th century. Fleeing Roman persecution in Cappadocia, in what is now central Turkey, and bearing a cross made from vine wood and bound with her own hair, Saint Nino was swept up in the warm embrace of the Georgians, who became early converts to Christianity. Thus cross and vine became inextricably linked, perhaps even interchangeable symbols in the Georgian psyche, and the advent of the new faith served to sanction the vinous practices of the old.
Not all visitors to Georgia, however, were welcomed as warmly as Saint Nino. The first of the foreign invaders to test the Georgians' legendary hospitality were the Ottomans, who stuffed their harems full of the shapely, pale-skinned, dark-eyed Circassian girls. Then, more recently, came the Soviets, whose futile attempts at systematising and controlling this free-living race must have frustrated many a Motherland functionary. The legacy of the great Soviet experiment - which ended with Georgian liberation in 1992 - is an appallingly messy infrastructure, although this burden has done nothing to dim the stupendously ironic Georgian sense of humour, which turns on self-deprecation and straight-faced stabs at authority.
When it comes to wine-making, though, Georgia is blessed. Extremes of weather are unusual: summers tend to be short-sleeve sunny, and winters mild and frost-free. Natural springs abound, and the Caucasian Mountain streams drain mineral-rich water into the valleys. Together with luscious tomatoes, the sweetest white and red cherries, and any amount of wild mulberries, the Kakheti region in the east, which is one of Georgia's five main wine regions, also produces what must be among the finest grapes in the world.
Although there are nearly 500 to choose from, only 38 varieties are officially grown for commercial viticulture in Georgia. Like most of his neighbours in the Napareuli area of Kakheti, Andrea, a wise 76 year old of compassionate blue eyes and grey moustache, grows Rkatsiteli grapes for white wine and Saperavi for red, all of which are destined for the winery of the Georgian Wine and Spirits Company (GWS), located further up the Alazani valley.
When Georgia was producing three-quarters of all the wine drunk in the Soviet Union, some 25 million decilitres a year of indifferent plonk were churned out to service a guaranteed, subsidised market intent on taking a mental holiday from Communism by way of some heavy drinking. Today, with some sensitive investment from French drinks company Pernod Ricard, the sure hand of gws chief wine-maker Tamaz Kandelaki and the youthful energy of Australian flying wine-maker David Nelson are converting Andrea's grapes into astonishing red and white wines of unusual character in carefully measured quantities.
White wines such as Old Tbilisi 1997, and the rich, honey-coloured Tamada 1996, both made with Rkatsiteli grapes, marry the class of the Old World with the verve of the New. The reds tend towards the tobacco or spice styles so loved by the Californians, with the well-balanced Saperavi 1997 and Tamada 1996 deserving particular praise. Most impressive, perhaps, are the semi-sweet wines. These shapely beauties, such as the red Pirosmani 1996 (Saperavi) and the white Tvishi 1997, made with Tsolikauri grapes, manage to avoid the sticky oiliness of many a dessert wine, delivering instead an enchanting mouthful of complex and developing flavours. Pirosmani straddles a meal with ease, and is equally at home as a chilled aperitif as with a dessert of fresh cherries and apricots.
Some of the wine made from Andrea's grapes will be ceremoniously returned to the ground. Just like his forefathers, Andrea has a consecrated place, or marani, dug out under his house, where the clay kvevri are buried and the wine can mature thanks to the cooling properties of underground streams. When filled with the fermented juice of the harvest, the kvevris are topped with a wooden lid and then covered and sealed with earth. Some may remain entombed for up to 50 years. Gathering his closest family around him, and wearing a black felt helmet, the family patriarch presides over the emotional moment when a kvevri's lid is removed. Intoning a toast of thanks and praise, he scoops a shallow earthenware bowl into the surprised liquid, and with the salutation 'Galmajous!' drinks it down in one. As more bowls are filled, the menfolk chant the powerfully plangent song 'Mravalzhamier', 'Many Years of Life', in polyphonic harmonies. Wiping away unembarrassed tears, the men then fill late 20th-century plastic jerry cans by siphon to be borne triumphantly to the feast.
If Georgia's spirit is the grape, then her body is the feast, where all life is celebrated and thanks are offered to Saint Nino and to all Nature's spirits. Georgians feast regularly and seriously, and Andrea's ancestors have been feasting in the same secluded glade since the 6th century, when a priest named Abraham built a stone chapel in the forest to shelter his flock from invading Persians.
A long, wooden table for 30, set next to a rushing river, groans under the weight of the banquet. Aubergines with walnuts and wild garlic sit next to piles of purple basil, green tarragon and flushed pink radishes. Salty cheeses and salads of wild mushrooms and dill-heavy green beans complement misshapen loaves of local bread. Platters of fat sausages and bowls of corn-yellow chicken legs are passed around, and a fire of crackling wood and vine cuttings is on the go. Chunks of seasoned lamb and marinated pork are kebabed onto sharpened branches of green beech and Andrea is elected tamada, or toastmaster.
All over Georgia, the tamada is respected for his ability to drink deeply and to propose the most touching, expressive toasts. The tamada's guests listen respectfully and nod with sage delight as he heaps praise on the Mothers of Georgia, or the cultures of all nations. Glasses are emphatically drained in one, as if imbibing the very soul of the earth, and are refilled by the tamada's assistant, the ever-sober merikipe. Baskets of cherries, plums and apricots are brought out, and the tamada hums the first few bars of a melody. With hearts full of the Georgian grape, the family fill their lungs and link arms. Looking into each other's eyes, they raise their glasses to harmonise and praise the moment where breath mingles with spirit and life is lived to the full.
Georgian Wine and Spirits Company wines are currently available mainly in the US, Japan, Russia, Ukraine and Holland. In the UK, you can sample Georgian wines at Vinopolis - City of Wine, four new restaurant/bars dedicated to wine, 1 Bank End, London SE1. Tel 0870 4444 777.
This article was first published on Waitrose.com in September 1999