Leaving the rocky moors of Samtskhe-Javakheti behind, Wendy, Erin, and I traveled up through the central Kartli region near Tbilisi and into the rolling hills of Kakheti, Georgia’s wine country in the east.
If you’re reading this blog, you might already know that Georgia boasts one of the world’s oldest wine-making traditions: people have been fermenting grapes into wine here for nearly 8,000 years. The country is home to 525 (!) native grape varietals that most of us in the US have never heard of. They’ve got colorful names like usakhelouri, “the nameless,” and kindzmarauli, “cilantro vinegar” (which must have been a ruse to deter someone from stealing the grapes, because these grapes produce a delicious blood-red semi-sweet wine that tastes nothing like either of its namesakes). During the Soviet period, Georgia supplied most of the wine for the entire USSR, and quantity took precedence over quality.
Today, things are changing. When Russia placed an embargo on the importation of Georgian wine in 2006, Georgia’s winemakers had to reorient their production for other markets. (Until then, Russia had been purchasing approximately 80% of all the wine Georgia exported.) Wineries revamped their standards to make their wines eligible for sale in Europe, and an increasing number of small producers saw the potential for marketing natural wines fermented in the classic Georgian style, which differs in a few key ways from the wines most Americans and Europeans are used to drinking.
First of all, Georgian wines are traditionally fermented in huge terracotta vessels called kvevris rather than in oak barrels or stainless steel tanks. The kvevri is coated with lime outside and lined with beeswax inside to seal the clay, then buried underground where the temperature remains constant. Winemakers who produce “natural wines” don’t spray their grapes with pesticides, rely on the “ambient” yeast present on the grape skins and in the air to generate fermentation rather than adding cultured yeasts, and typically do not add sulfites (which are used as a preservative in most Western wines).
In Georgia, white grapes have traditionally been fermented along with their skins, seeds, and stems (the “pomace”) just like red grapes, whereas European and American vintners ferment white grape juice all by itself. This practice gives some Georgian whites an amber or orange color (from the skin contact) and a tannic, highly savory quality, which allows them to stand up to the bolder flavors most of us would typically pair with red wine, like grilled meat.
Iago Bitarishvili is one of the vintners making internationally renowned kvevri wine in Georgia today. Wendy and I had tasted his delicate 2010 chinuri (which takes its name from a native Georgian white grape) at Oda House in New York a couple of years ago and were thrilled to have the chance to visit his marani (the Georgian term for a place where wine Is made) in Chardakhi, a village about 30 kilometers outside Tbilisi.
Iago is a trim man with kind eyes and a dimpled smile. His easy speech (elegant English) and measured movements seemed to reflect an inner calm that set me right at ease. We had hoped to catch the grape harvest (rtveli) in action, but 2014 was a hot year so the grapes had ripened early, he explained. He walked us through the stages of fermentation while stirring the grapes in one of his open kvevris:
- The grapes are picked but not pressed and poured into the kvevris just as they are. Six of Iago’s kvevris are 300 years old! With a product that lasts for centuries, it’s no wonder that kvevri makers are so few and far between. The kvevris are covered loosely with tarps or mesh, so as to keep bugs and dust from getting in while allowing the gases produced during fermentation to escape.
- Within a few days, the grapes are crushed under their own weight and their juice (the “must”) begins to bubble: this signals the release of carbon dioxide as the grapes’ natural sugars are converted into alcohol. The grapes must be punched down and stirred a few times each day as this first stage of fermentation proceeds. Families who make their own wine at home often start drinking the immature wine (called machari) at this stage, when it tastes fizzy and tangy-sweet.
- After about 2-3 weeks, when the bubbling dies down, the must is filtered off the lees (the stems and seeds that have sunk to the bottom of the cone-shaped kvevri) and poured into another kvevri, where it is left to age for another 5-8 months under a tightly sealed cap. Many winemakers, including Iago, continue to ferment the lees into chacha, or Georgian grappa.
- Finally comes bottling and labeling, both of which Iago does himself on-site. He produces only about 3,000 bottles a year, which he is now exporting to eight countries.
After our tour, we get a lesson in folding khinkali dumplings from Iago’s wife, herself a rare female winemaker, then sat down to eat them along with the other Georgian stand-bys of khachapuri, cucumber and tomato salad, eggplants with walnut sauce, and, of course, plenty of wine.