Georgian Wines: A Round of Toasts
With more than 8,000 years of history, Georgia is recognized as the cradle of wine, a country deeply proud of its eno-gastronomic traditions and culture, which vinifies underground in small terracotta containers called kvevri, which toasts life and exports wines very easy to understand and love.
In the cabin of the plane it was dark. Only the wing lights tinkled and a cavernous snoring resounded that prevented me from closing my eyes and resting. I resigned myself and began to read an article about Georgia that warns me of three things: the colossal amount of food, wine and toasts. But I was prepared. I had written down in my notebook some ideas for toasts, an unavoidable ritual in a country with a history as heroic as it is fierce, forged with fire, blood and wine.
In the so-called supra -feasts, literally- the succulent traditional Georgian dishes are served, all at once, while the corks fly through the air and the marathon ritual of toasting begins, always led by the tamada, usually the man (yes, man) most respected at the table: gagimarjos for God, for life, for the country, for peace, for freedom, for ancestors, for women, for the vineyards, for the fruits, for survival.
It is that Georgia is a story of survival, a saga of a people made up of a melting pot of cultures that form an original nation and deeply proud of its traditions. It has been invaded by Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Persians, Mongols, Arabs and Turks. At the foot of the Caucasus, and flirting with the Black Sea, it also represents the origin of wine history. In 2015, in the southeast of the country, they discovered vessels with trails of wine that date back to the Neolithic era, more than 8,000 years ago.
THE GENEROUS GIANT
We arrived at our hotel, located in the magnificent historical center of Tbilisi, at the beginning of dawn. Immediately, we started the trip towards Kakheti, the most important and vast Georgian wine region, located in the extreme East of its territory, on the very foothills of the imposing Caucasus. With an area of 2,400 planted hectares, the region is characterized by its mature and full-bodied wines, dominated by two vines: the white Rkatsiteli and the red Saperavi. Both grapes, rustic and productive, resistant to pests and summer heat, were chosen by the Soviets to increase production and sweeten their bitter revolution.
At Askaneli’s winery, one of Georgia’s biggest players, a glorious sunset awaited us and a tour of his cellars, tasting samples from tanks and barrels. The company was founded in 1998 by the Chkhaidze brothers, continuing a tradition dating back to the 19th century, when their ancestor Antimoz built the first winery in Askana, in the beautiful Guria region. Today Askaneli has two wineries, restaurants, wineshops and event centers in Tbilisi and the cosmopolitan coastal Batumi.
Askaneli’s portfolio is deep and versatile, from fine sparkling wines made using the traditional method to complex kvevri wines that pay homage to the tradition of their ancestors. Its wines seduce for their frank and juicy fruit, with certain notes reminiscent of the New World.
I was surprised by a fabulous mix of Rkatsiteli and Chardonnay -Rkatsiteli cries out for reinforcements or a good time in kvevri to gain body and new flavor layers-, a delicious Kisi in its entry lines, its complex Muza Qvevri -Rkatsiteli, Kakhuri, Mtsvane, Kisi, Krakhuna and Mtsvivani- and the premium based on Saperavi, Mukuzani.
I was also surprised by the arrival of Salome Zourabichvili, the first female president of Georgia, a woman of Franco-Georgian origin who has been leading the country since December 2018, who conquered the Georgians by promising to maintain the country’s unity and independence.
The evening continued with a banquet in the cellar and an endless series of toasts. The president of the winery, the charismatic founder Gocha Chhaidze, picked up his guitar to offer a veritable recital of Georgian and international classics, while generous bottles of Saperavi were uncorked -the Russians were not wrong here- which perfectly accompanied many traditional dishes not suitable for vegans.
I sensed that it would be the turn of the guests for the toast and I decided to escape. The winery workers performed the kosher wine ritual, filling and emptying a giant stainless steel vat. Suddenly, the epoxy cement floor became a stormy sea that battered me up to my knees. I returned to the banquet with my snickers on, while my Polish colleague Mariusz Kapczynski was already finishing his toast and presenting some T-shirts with a kvevri print to the president and our hosts.
The next day, we started the trip to the other end of the country, towards the Black Sea, through a rough road. The traffic was slow. Works on the road. A Chinese consortium is in charge of building a new highway with numerous tunnels that connect the different Georgian dimensions. We pass by the territories occupied by the Russians. I can’t imagine living with this open wound. I can’t imagine living under permanent threat. No, I can’t imagine.
Russia has always been in the way of Georgia’s history. It was annexed by the tsarist empire in 1799 and in 1921 by the hierarchs of the USSR. The cradle of wine became the great communist winery. His famous wines, appreciated by the palates of royalty, were diluted and lost their character. In 1991, Georgia declared its independence, but the problems continued. Once again Russia appeared in his path: a civil war, the embargo on its wines decreed by Vladimir Putin in 2006, the loss of its territory in Ossetia and an acute economic crisis, endangered its long winemaking tradition.
The quality of its wines is based on its mild climate, on its strategic geographical position -a meeting point between Europe, Asia and the Middle East- and on an oenological tradition that has remained intact for generations. Georgia supplied the mythical civilizations of Babylonia and Ur. The Assyrian kings, who demanded tributes in gold from their subjects, made an exception of the Georgians: their contribution had to be paid in wine. Today, after the Soviet obscurantism, the civil war and Putin’s attacks, its wine culture is reborn with unusual strength and conviction, rescuing the vines and techniques of the past, which shaped and kept its prestige alive.
But rather than give up, it was a turning point for Georgians, an opportunity to revalue a glorious past, to recapture their ancient winemaking techniques and to rescue many of their 500 indigenous vines. Today Georgia is experiencing a new revolution, but this time it is a wine revolution. An emblematic example is Amiran Vephadze, who cultivates a vineyard of only three hectares in the heart of Imereti, a region with a more temperate and humid climate than Kakheti, where the wines are more delicate and juicy.
A wide variety of indigenous strains are grown here, such as Tsolikouri, Krakhuna, Tsitska and Otskhanuri Sapere. Amiran’s wines, made in kvevri, have a depth that moves to tears. His work embodies the appreciation of the past, the vindication of a viticulture as diverse as it is unique.
After visiting the Askaneli family’s tea and chacha -a distillate similar to Italian grappa- factories, we traveled to a small winery called Mirianis Marani. Its winemaker and owner is only 25 years old and has just finished his eighth vintage. The wines were still inside their kvevri, finishing their fermentation process. The fruity aroma and the murmur of carbon dioxide offered a sensual and fascinating spectacle. While the guests sat at the table to enjoy a new banquet, I stayed alone for a long time in the cellar, enjoying this fermentative symphony that awakens all my senses.
The toasts were repeated one after the other, while we uncorked more and more bottles. I asked Mirianis why he only leaves 10% of the grape skins in the kvevri. Perhaps, I said to myself, his wines could gain in structure if he increased that percentage, as many of his compatriots do. His response was blunt: “Because that’s how my grandfather taught me,” he expressed somewhat moved. Nothing to discuss. Respect for history and ancestors is not compromised in Georgia.
The evening dragged on and it was our turn to stammer a few words. This time, without the presence of the president of Georgia, I was encouraged to speak. I don’t remember what I said. I surely praised the wines and the generosity of the hosts. Like a good Chilean, splashed with Neruda’s green ink, praises flow like wine from the vessel: Vino color de día, vino color de noche, vino con pies de púrpura, o sangre de topacio, vino, estrellado hijo de la tierra, vino, liso como una espada de oro… like the statue of the beloved mother of Georgia, who watches over the city of Tbilisi from on high, carrying a sword in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.
We had just enough time to reach Kutaisi airport. It was almost dark. But immediately we felt something strange. The departure lounge was deserted and without giving us notice our flight was rescheduled to Tbilisi. It was impossible to arrive on time, especially because of the tribulations of the road. There were no other flights available and we were already thinking of settling in Georgia. However, thanks to the efforts of the people of Askaneli, especially our guide -the prestigious sommelier Giorgi Dartsimelia-, we were able to embark the next day and finally land in Warsaw. Georgian hospitality seems boundless, but I suspect they also wanted a break from us.
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