Tuesday, 23 June 2015

7,000 Years of Georgian Wine

The Georgian’s have been fermenting grape juice into wine for over 7,000 years. During an expedition driving full circle around the Black Sea, Simon Raven and Chris Raven drop by a small vineyard in the Imereti region of Georgia at the heart of the ancient kingdom of Colchis.

Extract from the book: BLACK SEA CIRCUIT
By Chris Raven, Simon Raven

Deep in the Imereti province of Georgia at the heart of the ancient kingdom of Colchis, a brown sign pointing to a wine cellar grabs my attention. Simon and I walk down a narrow track to a large house with bunches of juicy green grapes spilling over the wall. I peer through the vines and call over to an old chap tending to his garden. He looks startled at first, but then breaks into an enormous smile and waves us over to the front of the house. Swinging open two towering metal gates, he greets us both like we are old friends. I ask the guy, with white shortly cropped hair, if he has any wine for sale. Completely unfazed by the request, Giorgi kindly invites us into his home. We enter a large farm kitchen with a stone floor and a cast iron stove. A rosy-cheeked grandmother wearing half-moon spectacles and a floral print apron, smiles at us warmly as she chops vegetables on a wooden kitchen table. Leading us through the house, we are shown into a grand dining hall with a beautiful handcrafted wooden staircase that leads to an L-shaped balcony. A large fireplace dominates the room with a height adjustable rack for barbecuing meat. Unveiling a banqueting table hidden beneath a dust sheet, Giorgi proudly shows us the unfurnished rooms leading off the balcony in this newly renovated part of the building. In November, after Giorgi has harvested his grapes and produced a fresh batch of homemade wine, he plans to open the house to guests. You can see from the excitement in his face that this renovation project has given him a new lease of life.

Exiting the house, we pass a small garage and I see a Russian army jeep parked on a ramp. Simon grabs his camera and asks Giorgi to stand beside it. He throws back his shoulders with pride and strikes a pose. Herding us into a nearby outbuilding, Giorgi whips a hosepipe out of a barrel. He sucks firmly on the end of the pipe and siphons white wine directly into a glass. Expertly swirling the pale green liquid around to awaken the flavours, he offers us a taste. I take a sip and nod my head with delight at the cool crisp taste of the wine. Simon follows suit and his eyes spring open. He enthusiastically congratulates Giorgi on its great depth of flavour and bouquet. Filling a large glass jug to the top, Giorgi invites us to sit at a table on the sunny patio. He explains that the grapes are crushed in a machine and the juice and skins are poured into an enormous ceramic clay jar called a “kvevri”. He points down at a manhole cover and I presume there is a kvevri under the patio. Buried in the ground up to its neck, the kvevri can maintain a stable temperature for fermentation during the winter. This method of winemaking dates back 7,000 years, when the people living in this region of the southern Caucasus discovered that wild grape juice fermented into an alcohol when it was left buried in a shallow pit. The entire winemaking process takes place within the kvevri, from initial fermentation right through to maturation. I’m fascinated to learn that the skins are left on the grapes (and in hotter regions the stems as well), which produces wines of exceptional flavour and complexity and gives it the green hue typical to Georgian white wine.

During the Soviet period wines produced in Georgia were extremely popular, especially in comparison with other wines from Moldavia and Crimea that were also available on the Soviet market. According to statistics published by the Pacific Wine marketing group, in 1950 vineyards in Georgia occupied 143,000 acres of land and by 1985 it grew to 316,000 acres, with an annual production of 881,000 tons. The heyday of wine production in Georgia began to decline during Mikhail Gorbachev's 1985-87 anti-alcohol campaign, and it was virtually destroyed in 2006 when Georgian imports were banned by the Kremlin in reaction to Georgia’s pro-Western stance and desire to join NATO. With news in February 2013 that Russia’s import ban may soon be lifted Reuters reported, “Georgia's wine exports plunged from $81.4 million in 2005 to $29.2 million in 2007 and, have not fully recovered, reaching $64.9 million last year (2013).” Reuters also estimated that if the ban were to be lifted Georgia could potentially export 10 million bottles of wine to Russia every year.

Giorgi’s wife calls from the kitchen and Giorgi returns moments later with plates of fresh home grown cucumber, pickled gherkin, beef tomatoes, red onion and a large metal platter filled with grilled shashlik lamb kebab meat, ham and strong soft white cheese. We sit in the sunshine and eat and drink until we are all red in the cheeks and feeling merry. Acting as toastmaster “tamada”, Giorgi proposes numerous toasts throughout the meal and ensures the wine flows liberally. He explains in broken English that Georgians never toast with beer, only wine, beer being reserved for their enemies.

The grapevine is central to Georgian culture and tightly bound to their religious heritage, with most families growing their own grapes and producing their own wine. Other central pillars of Georgian culture are feasting and hospitality and we feel incredibly privileged to experience these ancient traditions in the authentic setting of Giorgi’s garden.

After we have finished eating, Simon shows Giorgi a few photographs on his camera from our trip. He seems intrigued by our journey, and reveals he has seen many changes in his country over the past fifty years. Life had been difficult during Soviet occupation as it had been after the collapse of communism, but Georgia was experiencing a new challenge – modernisation, at least for some, and tradition and family structure was breaking apart. Both his son and daughter have moved to Tbilisi, in the pursuit of careers that will allow them to own a brand new car and buy their own home. I get a sense Giorgi wonders how different his life might have been if he had been presented with the opportunity to travel, or the chance to enjoy more independence in his youth. I smile at the thought that life for Giorgi is changing too. The house and vineyard that had once provided wine for his family and community is now becoming a tourist business. The tradition of wine drinking would continue inside these walls, only the gatherings would be with stranger’s friends and families instead of his own. Purchasing five litres of wine for 25 GEL (approximately €10), we firmly shake hands and thank Giorgi for his outstanding hospitality and fantastic tasting wine.

BLACK SEA CIRCUIT by Chris Raven & Simon Raven. Publishing date: 4th June 2015.

UK travel writers go on a quest to drive full circle around the Black Sea in a twenty year old Volvo.

Order your copy online from Amazon and all major book retailers. ISBN 9780954884284.

USA Amazon: Buy Black Sea Circuit >

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