In the Republic of Georgia, every meal is a feast. The entire family, from grandmother to grandchildren, will spend days preparing a meal when people are visiting. I learned this firsthand when I recently traveled the country with a small army of natural winemakers, importers, sommeliers, and chefs from the all over Australia, the US, and Europe during a week of intense eating and drinking.
Within the world of natural wine world—the cult of people who produce wine without any chemicals, often relying on esoteric philosophies to guide them—Georgia is considered the ancient home base of this movement. Winemakers who are devoted to sulfite-free, organic production (the funky, barnyardy wine you might find at your local more-hipster-than-thou shop, or at that new fancy wine bar where the servers wear tidy Nordic-style aprons), and especially those interested in using clay amphorae (barrels are so 20th century), want to understand Georgian culture.
Georgia is unique because nearly all of its wine is made in underground clay vessels called qvevri, and traditionally the winemakers allow "skin contact" on their white wines—meaning, the colored skins of the grapes stay in contact with the juice during fermentation, resulting in tannic, strongly flavored wine. There are 525 known grape varieties in Georgia, but only in recent years are some of them being re-discovered, because no more than four varieties were permitted during Soviet rule. During those 70 years, winemakers who dared to harvest and produce anything but rkatsiteli, mtsvane, tsolikouri, and the inky red wine saperavi were at risk of being thrown in prison—and some actually were.
In post-Soviet times, Georgians are glad to have their wine culture back in their hands, and they are also happy that the world has discovered the deliciousness of qvevri wine—because it means people are coming to visit Georgia to experience the world's oldest continuously producing wine culture, going on 8,000 years. And this gives Georgians an opportunity to flex their incredibly strong hospitality muscles.
Leaving the capital city of Tbilisi early in the morning, we head westward to Imereti to see a family of winemakers. We travel along a bumpy, rural road, in a drizzle of rain, surrounded by lush green plains all around, the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains in the distance. Imereti lies very close to a disputed territory that's currently controlled by Russia. A few of us raise middle fingers directed, in spirit, at Putin.
Midday, we arrive at the home of Archil Guniava, a modest house tucked behind a rickety wooden fence, with trees all around. We grab glasses and crowd into the wine cellar—a garage, basically—and Archil crouches on the ground, lifting up the heavy glass tops of the qvevri to scoop out wine for us to sample.
Georgian wine grapes have incredibly complicated names—there's no native pinot noir here. Instead, we are sampling khrakhuna, a white grape that has been fermented on its skins; it's full of white peach and citrus flavors, with this soft hum of tannin that makes you want to gulp down an entire glass. Which we do, because there's nowhere to spit in this den of qvevris. Orange wines, because they have bright acidity but also tannins, cause salivation, and they get the appetite going. After tasting Archil's wines, plus the ones his 20-year-old daughter makes, plus a few from a neighbor, it's time for lunch.
Meals in Georgia are often served family-style, in waves of small communal plates. And they are vibrantly colorful, featuring many seasonal vegetables. The first course at Archil's includes ikala, or pickled wild creeping vine; sautéed leeks and walnuts; and sumptuous suckling pig. Then, the signature dish of Georgia arrives: khachapuri , a leavened flatbread, flaky on the outside, with tangy melted cheese within. We use it to mop up the vegetables, and drizzle homemade sour green plum sauce atop. More wine is poured, again with that beautiful orange hue, and then somebody stands up. It's time for a toast.
Each meal has an appointed tamada, a "toast master." This person will give thanks to the ancestors, to the hosts, to the guests, to just about everything and anything, throughout the meal. And every time, you'll clink glasses—eye contact!—with everyone around you, and drink. Here, you don't spit or dump your wine while tasting, as professionals typically do. Be prepared to drink everything that winds up in your glass. You will not stay sober.
Archil toasts to his ancestors, and us for allowing him to share his wine with the world, as the food keeps coming—tender veal stew, homemade sausage called kopati, dumplings made of beetroot or flowers. At the end of the meal, there are fresh local strawberries, and shots of chacha, a strong distillate made from wine and grape must.
As we leave the table, Archil hands out plastic quarts of chacha—which we immediately drink as we head to our next visit, to see Ramaz Nikoladze, a legend of Georgia's natural wine movement.
Rain pours down but we don't care, and we tromp right into the vineyards. Immediately, we feel the power of the place; Ramaz tells us that he has not cultivated these fields in 15 years—no tilling, no weeding, and definitely no pesticides, herbicides, nor fertilizers—and they are absolutely vibrant, pulsing with life. The winemakers in the crowd begin identifying plants and herbs, explaining how they benefit the soil. The word "winemaker" isn't totally right here, actually—in natural winemaking, it's the vineyards that make the wine, and people merely move the juice into vessels, like the qvevri, that allow it to ferment and mature. Some people prefer the word "winegrower" for this reason. Ramaz's vineyard makes us feel that distinction quite profoundly.
We have drunk quite a bit of chacha on the bus, and some people have that boozy look in their eyes. Back at Ramaz's house, we sit down to dinner on the patio, all 20 of us around a long table.
Our host pours the first wine for us to taste and we stick our noses into the glasses, inhaling the tart and complex aromas of amber-hued Georgian wine, so different from wine anywhere else in the world. Around us, the rain continues, pitter-pattering on the wooden patio.
It is largely thanks to an American artist named John Wurdeman that Georgian wine culture is enjoying international attention. John studied painting in Moscow as a college student, and then made his way down to Georgia. He was painting outdoors near a monastery one day, when a group of men came over to him and asked if he wanted a drink from their winery.
"No, thanks, I'm painting," he told them.
He went back to focusing on the landscape, but then half an hour later, the men were back—carrying a long, wooden table, and armfuls of food and wine. They planted the table down beside him, set it up, took their seats and looked casually back over their shoulders at John, standing there in front of his easel.
"Oh, don't mind us, you keep painting," they told him.
Finally, John gave in. Eventually, he fell deeply in love with the place, and created a home and family for himself in the vineyards of Khaketi, where he established the now iconic wine label Pheasant's Tears, with 2007 as its first vintage.
John realized that, all over Georgia, small producers with organically farmed vineyards were making household qvevri wine, and he began trying to get the word out, inviting Georgians to join him at natural wine festivals around the world, which were multiplying as people learned that wine made without chemicals could be stunningly delicious.
Back on our wine tour, we arrive at the home of Zaza Gagua and Kati Ninidze, in the M'artville Gorge of Western Georgia, where we are shown Kati's newly planted vineyards and the space she is building out as her wine cellar. She beams with pride as her husband explains with a shrug, "She said she wanted her own space to make wine, so."
Zaza and Kati make very different wines. Kati uses a unique and rare grape tamadacalled ojaleshi in two of hers—one, which she calls "Naked Wine," is made from a white variant of the grape. On the label, two nude women's bodies are depicted; one is in full splendor, free and unencumbered, while the other is literally in a cage. As we taste the wine—not made in qvevri, but instead produced in stainless steel—Kati explains that women in Georgia were often taught to hide themselves, but she thinks women should be able to show their bodies if they feel like it. She also pours for us her fresh and fruity rosé, made of orberluri ojaleshi. "Somm crack juice," notes one of the women in our group.
Zaza's wines, meanwhile, feature the somewhat more common white grapes tsoulikouri and krakhouna, made in qvevri with skin contact, as well as two robust and sultry red wines. Their two distinct styles compliment each other.
Then, the food comes out: cornmeal cakes stuffed with cheese curd and spicy green peppers; dumplings of beetroot, cabbage, and ikala; decadent water buffalo milk cheese cultured in its own whey and served with pomegranate seeds; and of course, khachapuri. Roosters crow as the entire family—grandmother, grandchildren, and everyone in between—serves us this meal they've spent days preparing.
We raise our glasses to toast the ancestors, and to thank Zaza and Kati for sharing their delicious wines, their home, their food. How can we be so far away from our own homes, yet feel so welcome? That is the mark of true hospitality—something we should all aspire to provide evermore.