A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Pheasant’s Tears

At the beginning of last October, I arrived in Tbilisi for a month-long culinary sojourn across Georgia. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the many people who made that trip such a memorable and valuable experience. I’ve written about several of them on this blog already, but I let the chronicle fall by the wayside as the flow of life rushed on. I’m picking it back up with this post, one year later.

It seems appropriate, actually, to be writing about these autumn experiences as the season returns. As I type, woodstoves are being lit, persimmons and quince are being plucked from their branches, and grapes are fermenting into machari (slightly alcoholic fizzy grape juice), and then into wine. May that spirit of coming together to create warmth, enjoy the fruits of past labor, and put in the work required to create something new imbue your month as well, wherever you may be.

I left off in Kakheti, Georgia’s easternmost region and the one where the majority of its grapes are grown. My friends Wendy and Erin have come to spend a week traveling with me. We’re in Sighnaghi, a small town that underwent significant renovation within the past 10 years on a Georgian government-sponsored initiative to turn it into a tourist magnet. While the facades do at times feel superficial, the plan worked: thousands of people now visit the town every year.

View over the Alazani Valley, Sighnaghi, Georgia

View over the Alazani Valley, Sighnaghi, Georgia

One of the major draws of the town is Pheasant’s Tears, the product of a partnership between Georgian winemaker Gela Patalishvili and American artist (and shrewd businessman) John Wurdeman. I first visited Pheasant’s Tears in 2010, on a weekend mission to pick grapes and learn how qvevri wines are made while I was teaching English in Batumi. The restaurant and tasting room that were under construction at that time have since opened, and I wanted to come back to see how they’d turned out.

Before sitting down to dinner, we got a brief cooking demonstration from chef Gia Rokashvili, himself a Sighnaghi native whose kitchen is turning out some of the most enticing and creative food I’ve encountered in Georgia. He’s a calm, round man with a glimmer in his eye who sang to his vegetables as he pieced them together on the plate, as if they were his tiny children.

Chef Gia at work

Chef Gia at work

Gia’s love of fresh produce shows through in his dishes, which showcase fruits and vegetables from the kitchen’s garden in simple yet unexpected ways, like a salad combining blanched spinach, caramelized onion, fresh dill and watercress, and scallions with white beans and a dollop of water buffalo yogurt.

Spinach and watercress salad with water buffalo yogurt

Spinach and watercress salad with water buffalo yogurt

His cooking is solidly grounded in tradition but manages to surprise with subtle additions and twists that set it apart from more typical fare, like a beet salad marrying roasted, cooled beets with blue fenugreek, coriander, summer savory, garlic, cilantro, and tkemali (a tart plum sauce), garnished with dill. The flavors are all inherently Georgian, and if the beets and herbs were pureed, this would be traditional pkhali, yet there is that smoky fruit tang lingering in the background.

Beet salad with tkemali plum sauce and dill

Beet salad with tkemali plum sauce and dill

Dinner involved a series of dishes brought out in succession at pace with six different wines, starting with the lightest (a delicate chinuri) and proceeding to the darkest (a rich saperavi, a red grape so dark its name literally means “dye”). All the wines at Pheasant’s Tears are fermented in qvevri, but not all are fermented along with the grape skins and stems. We tasted two versions of a wine made with the rare red tavkveri grape, one with “skin contact,” one without. The grape skins lend color and tannins to the wine, so whether a vintner chooses to ferment the wine on the skins or not (and for how long the skins remain in the qvevri) profoundly affects its flavor and the way it feels in your mouth. The tavkveri fermented without the skins tasted light, easy-drinking, a little sweet. Skin contact turned it into a chewy, earthy, complex wine crying out for something animal.

The kitchen delivered: out came Gia’s take on kuchmachi, small pieces of chicken liver and ground walnuts tossed in a piquant pomegranate sauce. It’s very easy to overcook liver, which results in tough and unappetizing chunks of iron-flavored flesh. Thankfully, whoever cooked ours hit the sweet spot where the outside of each piece turns crisp and brown while the inside stays soft and creamy. We finished off the meal with a shot of chacha (Georgian grappa) aged in oak, which turns it a dark amber color and helps smooth off any rough edges. We ambled back to the van where our trusty (and sober) driver Beso awaited, stuffed and drunk and sleepy and content, a feeling I was getting increasingly accustomed to after just two weeks of travel.

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: How to Make a Kvevri

Zaza Kbiliashvili’s family has been making kvevris (clay vessels for fermenting and storing wine) for six generations. He is carrying on the tradition in Vardisubani, a village in eastern Kakheti, Georgia’s most prolific grape-growing region. A short, attractive guy with salt and pepper hair and a rugged face, Zaza has a predilection for uttering cryptic statements like “The kvevri raises the wine like a mother does a child.” He says he’d be happy to pass his knowledge on to his own son, but notes with a shrug that “the boy is still young, so who knows what path he will choose.”

Zaza Kbiliashvili explains kvevri-making

Zaza makes up to 30 kvevris of varying sizes each year, all by special order for both Georgian and European vintners. There are eight huge unfired kvevris drying in his workshop when we visit. He stands next to one of them, which dwarfs him, as he tells us about the process. These kvevris took him three months to make. The clay goes on in eight layers, from the conical bottom up to the lip at the top. He uses a potters’ wheel to form the pointed base so that the kvevri will be stable and even, but layers on the clay by hand after that.

Once the clay has dried sufficiently (which may take a couple of months, give or take: “When you are meant for this work, the kvevri itself tells you what it needs and when it’s done,” Zaza says), the kvevris are loaded one by one onto a horsecart and carried into the firing “room,” a three-sided brick structure out in the backyard. The fourth wall is then built up with bricks and a wood fire is made just in front of it. The firing process takes a full week and requires three truckloads of wood to keep the fire going constantly. It grows in size and heat over the course of the course of the week. By the end of the seventh day, the temperature inside the “kiln” has grown to approximately 2,200 degrees F (1,200 degrees C) and flames spit out from the vents in the back of the firing room.

kvevri firing room

The fired kvevris cool over the course of two days, as the fourth wall of the firing room is gradually dismantled. The kvevri maker coats the inside of each one with a layer of beeswax while the clay is still warm enough to absorb it. This seals the clay and helps prevent bacteria from entering the wine during fermentation and storage. Finally, most qvevris are coated with a thin layer of cement to protect them from indignities they may suffer once they are buried underground, like earthquakes and encroaching tree roots.

Zaza and Beso pontificate

A group of European filmmakers visited Zaza shortly before we did to capture parts of this process for a documentary they are working on about kvevri wine in Georgia. See photos from their visit here. You can follow the film on Facebook for updates on its progress and related stories.

A Cooking Journey through Georgia: Iago’s Wine

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.

Our driver Beso takes a break next to a full-size kvevri in Kakheti.

Our driver Beso takes a break next to a full-size kvevri in Kakheti.

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 Bitarishvili explains the process of fermentation at his marani in Chardakhi, Kartli region, Georgia

Iago Bitarishvili explains the process of fermentation at his marani in Chardakhi, Kartli region, Georgia

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:

  1. 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.
The kvevri is covered with mesh during the first stage of fermentation to keep bugs out and let Co2 escape.

The kvevri is covered with mesh during the first stage of fermentation to keep bugs out and let Co2 escape. The kvevris in the background are decorative and not representative of the size of those buried.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Sealed qvevris

  1. 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.

Iago's Wine