Tbilisi looks like it needs work done on it. Rather dusty and bedraggled with all kinds of dangerous-looking add-ons to old concrete buildings. But there are some gorgeous churches and castle-y things we won’t have time to investigate. There are also some big look-at-me architectural showpieces. Many built by the Chinese who, they say, are intent on buying Georgia. But, the place works even if the roads are very, very bumpy. However, at least that slows down the Georgian drivers who are quite mad. But a walk to the Old Town in the evening throng, for a drink and a meal is delightful. They love their food here and eat a lot of it. There is a lot of kebabbed meat – shaslik – and pizza-like bread covered in thick melted cheese … that alone is worth the trip.
We went to a wine bar which was promptly invaded by a horde of small wine growers of the sort who still make wine in large pots sunk in the ground, and give it very minimal attention. Such qvevri wines are much loved by today’s cool young wine geeks in The West. To the extent that next week a Convention is to be held here and many of the Great and Good of the wine world are coming to discuss qvevri.
Qvevri wines are, for me, an acquired taste I have not yet managed to acquire … though I have tried. We think we will ship some over so our customers can decide for themselves. Putting bunches of grapes in a big jar and leaving them totally alone six month to do what they will sounds quite a cool idea. Like really ‘back to nature’. Like what some neolithic person must have done 8000 years ago … and got a bit of a surprise. Well, it can still come as a bit of a surprise, I find. But if you want to acquire the taste a little suffering is inevitable. There is more than a touch of fanatical CAMRA (real ale campaigners) about these wine beardies, all toasting, singing and speechifying together.
The wine district we went to first was Kharkheti – the largest – which sits in a remote valley. Getting there involves a slow, winding trip up and over the Gambori hills, described to us as the Little Caucasus hills. The real (Big) Caucasus Mountains loom over the other side of the valley, to the north … a massive barrier to all sorts of things.
We went to see just three of the bigger wine producers – this is just a short first-look trip. We cannot cover too much territory. Especially as we are their guests, they are driving, and are big on hospitality which means big meals and everyone standing up making lots of toasts to anything they can think of. This slows you down … as does the heat.
The first group is under the control of two French expats who take us round new or restored hillside vineyards planted with native Georgian varieties. There are over 500 such varieties, so there is really no need to bother with Chardonnay and Cabernet. Which is what, in glorious USSR days – as in Bulgaria – they planted vast acreages of, on the easy to cultivate valley floor. As in Bulgaria, one supposes, they did a fair job but today they are aiming higher. And hillsides are always better … anywhere. The Georgians, it seems, have worked out that the only way into western markets is by producing wines that are both outstanding and original.
This group still operate out of one of the old soviet wineries – not pretty – but now made perfectly serviceable at reasonable cost with a lot of good modern kit in the way of presses and such and a lot of quality French oak barriques.
The second winery we saw was brand new but made to look old and set up as a tourist destination as well as a working winery. Apparently it is owned by an important German railwayman wishing to diversify and who loves the country. Excellent wines, and there were, indeed wine tourists – even British ones – sitting on the terrace, out of the sun, looking at the mountains and vineyards, sipping them.
The last place that day had pushed the tourist concept yet further. Vastly further. We were quite stunned by the welcome. And old hands like us are not easily stunned. Firstly, in the vineyards we found a group of traditionally dressed Georgians in full regalia with the baggy pants and the boots and cartridge pockets on their jackets and all … singing! Singing so beautifully, songs where each singer from high tenor to deep bass sang his own tune quite sublimely. There was this high … gantry? over the road up which we climbed on ladders – Beth wishing she had worn trousers – and saw endless vineyard all around us … whilst the singers below, sang sweetly. Good moment.
At the ‘Chateau’ itself things became surreal. We were invited, first, to climb into a large, hollowed out old log filled with grapes and squash them with our feet, then drink the green, only slightly foot-flavoured juice that trickled out of the end … whilst again, the Georgian boys sang. Then we went over to a place where a great fire of vine cuttings burned. We were shown how to make and cook and eat dumplings. We then tried to cook bread their way slapping dough onto the walls of a tandoor-type of oven called … something else. We failed utterly but it didn’t matter.
Then we were making something you see everywhere in Tbilisi being sold from stalls. Sausage-like dangly things which aren’t meat at all but pieces of walnut or hazelnut tied in long strings then dipped in a toffee-like substance made simply by boiling and concentrating fresh grape juice with flour. This goo adheres to the nuts and a sweet sausage thing is formed, then dried, and kept, for good, nutritious eating right through the year.
Then there was the still-house where warm white spirit trickles out of the still and you get to sample it after it has been aged for at least … ten minutes.
This wine and food fairground was for our benefit but it is now there for anyone who cares to visit the place … which they call ‘The Tunnel’. For indeed a tunnel is the climax of the visit. Miles of tunnel cut out of a very solid granite hill, from one side to the other so the air circulates constantly at a stable, cool temperature. Lined with bottles, and with qvevris full of wine underfoot. They remove one qvevri lid and dip straight in for cups of amber liquid, for yet another surreal experience because, of course, the Georgian boy band have started up those haunting polyphonic melodies yet again. It is all too much when they whizz us up a good hundred feet in a lift to the eyrie at the top of the rock where they have set out the work part of our visit – the tasting. Sparking wines , white wines , pink wines, orange wines, red wines, black-red wines. Dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, and sweet. An amazing range.
Does Georgian wine have the potential to make it in the West? You bet it does.
The next day we head west to another region, driven – whew – nicely by an old friend and neighbour from Castillon. Patrick Hannef ran our most-feared rival winery in Castillon – Château D’Aiguille – until, looking for a big new challenge, he upped and left for Georgia … though he comes back for holidays. I like Patrick a lot as, despite being a rival, he was very generous with his help and advice to my son Henry when he set up his own winery.
Today I see Patrick certainly has a big job here. And is not short of challenges. The owners of the property he runs have spent millions restoring an eighteenth-century French style wine chateau built by a Georgian who had visited Bordeaux, got inspired and built up a hugely successful wine empire. But then came phylloxera. And what that didn’t finish off was finished off by his gambler son. But the ruins have been restored, the vineyards replanted, the cellars re-done and the great park is now well looked after. It is a work in progress. Patrick intends this too will be a ‘Destination’ for wine tourists … the Number One destination, in fact, with the Number One wine… and looking at his record with d’Aiguille well, my guess is he’ll do it. Look out for Chateau Mukhrani. (The name might need some work).
We finish with a comprehensive tasting in Tbilisi that the Georgian Wine Association considered worthy of our attention. Quite a lot to assimilate in a short time. Head-spinning stuff.
All I know is we will all be hearing more about Georgian wine, for sure … err … I hope. Patrick did let slip that just before he arrived at his chateau the Russians had actually – not figuratively – parked their tanks on his lawn … and even now were only 40 miles away.
But Georgia has survived worse, and 8000 years of winemaking! That’s not going to go away is it?