Georgian wine has captured the world’s attention with its explosive growth in recent years. Travel + Leisure India & South Asia’s contributor travels to the Kakheti wine region in Georgia to understand what makes the country’s reds and whites stand out.
The small country of Georgia, which shares the Caucasus region with Azerbaijan and Armenia, proudly lays claim to being the cradle of wine. Indeed, archaeologists have found traces of winemaking on shards of earthen amphora dating back to eight thousand years! Today, it is only a minnow among global wine producers with 180 million litres coming from 55,000 hectares of Vineland in 2021, but wine culture is taking hold as Georgians are training as professional sommeliers, winemakers, and winery tour guides, and there are increasing numbers of wine education classes for consumers.
Georgia’s Booming Wine Industry
What explains this recent transformation of the Georgian wine industry? Before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Georgia had over 500 grape varietals and hundreds of small family-run vineyards. But the Soviets who prized quantity over quality crushed this wine culture by uprooting indigenous grape varietals and forced Georgian producers to focus almost entirely on the high-yielding red Saperavi and white Rkatsiteli grapes for the Russian market. Viniculture was industrialised and Georgia became solely a mass producer of cheap, poor-quality plonk for Russian consumers.
This continued even after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 but then came the short-lived war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia in August 2008. Two years prior to this Putin had punished Georgia with a blanket ban on exports of wine which meant an immediate loss of 95 per cent of their export market. This staggering loss sent the wine industry reeling, but in adversity, there can also be an opportunity, and the Georgians realised it. The government removed restrictions on varietals, tightened up on quality controls, spearheaded technological upgradation, and explored new markets in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China. Small family winemakers jumped back into the fray and began making and bottling wine for sale.
What is qvevri wine?
The thing that makes wine in Georgia stand out among the hordes of new wine producers around the world is their classical way of making wine in qvevris. While the reality is that currently only a small fraction of Georgian wine is made this way (about 10 per cent), it has captured the world’s attention. Qvevris are egg-shaped clay vessels designed to store wine and look a lot like Greek amphoras, but they are used during the process of fermentation and not for storing the finished product. Today, qvevris are crafted in less than 10 villages in all of Georgia and can range from a tiny two to three litres in size to a staggering 6,000-8,000 litres. The vast majority have been handed down from generation to generation as each family makes its own wine in its own backyard.
The art of qvevri winemaking consists of three stages: Maceration, where the grapes are crushed and the grape juice, along with the pomace of grape skins, stems, and pips (otherwise known as chacha), is poured into clean qvevri lined with beeswax for fermentation; alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, where after the initial maceration period, the mixture undergoes both alcoholic fermentation (starch is converted to alcohol) and malolactic fermentation (malic acid is converted into lactic acid and carbon dioxide); and ageing and decanting where the qvevri are covered with lids and sealed with clay or beeswax and buried underground. After about six months, the wine is ready and is decanted for bottling.
Georgian wines come in a bewildering profusion of varieties with hard-to-pronounce names. The dominant white varietal is Rkatsiteli while Saperavi is the major red. Saperavi (which translates in English as dye) is the backbone of the dry Georgian reds and is sometimes referred to as “black wine” because of its red pulp and dark skin which give it a wonderful deep purple colour and an intense flavour. Its high alcohol levels make it amenable for mixing with other lesser types like Usakhelauri and Khvanchkara to produce sweet and semi-sweet red wines, very popular in the dominant Slavic market.
Kakheti: The Heartland of Georgian Wine
We were invited to spend a weekend in the heartland of Georgian wine–this is Kakheti, its easternmost region with 41,500 hectares which account for about 70 per cent of vineyard land and over 90 per cent of all production. Protected by the high Caucasus mountains to the north, Kakheti enjoys a continental climate with warm summers and ice-free winters conducive to wine cultivation. We started at the Vazisubani Estate, which used to be the home of Sulkhan Chavchavadze, a Georgian nobleman and pioneer in wine cultivation.
The grand old mansion has been remade into a charming boutique hotel with 19 rooms and suites, each of which has its unique character and design, and is adorned with Victorian-era furniture bought on auction in the UK. The mansion is surrounded by a rich parkland comprising flourishing acacia, oak, and ash trees, and many more exotic species, some older than 100 years.
The estate specialises in qvevri wines and you can sample a wide selection in the refurbished cellar accessed through a stylish brick entrance on the grounds. There is a restaurant that specialises in regional Kakhetian cuisine, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that afford spectacular views of the Caucasian mountains. My abiding memory of the estate will be the afternoon I spent lounging in the infinity pool gazing at these magnificent mountains that ran right across the horizon in an unbroken line, topped off with clouds that seemed to emerge as puffs of smoke from a distant steam engine.
A visit to Kakheti would be incomplete without a visit to Tsinandali Estate, a storied name in Georgian wine production and where Georgian wine was first bottled in 1814. The estate used to be the home of Prince Alexander Chavchavadze, a famous Georgian romantic poet who turned Tsinandali into a leading cultural and intellectual hub of its time. You can walk through the stately home, which has been turned into a museum with books, lithographs, paintings, musical instruments, and period furniture.
The mansion is set in a decorative park that covers 18 hectares; it is the first European-style landscape garden of its kind in Georgia with many exotic species of plants and trees. The active winery produces a wide range of white, amber, and red Georgian wines available for tasting and houses the prince’s personal collection of vintage wines consisting of over 15,000 bottles.
We end our visit to Kakheti with a dinner visit to Chateau Beura, a relatively new boutique winery that is part of the Lopota Lake Resort and Spa. Spread over five hectares of vineyard, this winery was created in 2018 by Goga Maisuradze, the founder of Lopota and a dedicated wine entrepreneur.
The winery itself is housed in a small but impressive Renaissance-style palace and produces wine in both the qvevri and the classical European style with stainless steel tanks. We attend the tasting of a flight of Chateau Beura premium wine conducted by the extremely competent and knowledgeable sommelier Gabrieli Menabde and then get a chance to examine the new brick cellar with its evenly spaced circular holes through which the necks of the qvevri fit and into which a man must climb to clean them out!
By the end of the trail, I realise why the names of Georgian wines roll off the lips of wine lovers worldwide. It is not because of the superior quality of the wine or some incredible value-for-money proposition. It is the story behind the wine, the long history of Georgian wine deeply intertwined with the country’s culture and history, and the struggle in the face of Russian-created adversity that is driving consumers. Secondly, the environmentally friendly back-to-nature aspect of qvevri production, with no chemical additives or extra technology, appeals strongly to the conscious consumer who wants to make a statement about the wine that they drink. Both are compelling reasons for the continued resurgence of Georgia as a wine producer.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Answer: Emirates and Qatar Airways operate regular connecting flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Tbilisi.
Answer: Vazisubani Estate is a delightful boutique wine hotel in a beautiful leafy setting with 19 rooms and a qvevri wine cellar and gourmet restaurant on the premises. Doubles from INR 10,000. Tsinandali Estate has tied up with the Radisson Group to create one of the few four-star hotels in Kakheti. Guests can do a tasting in the winery, stroll through the decorative parkland and visit the house museum of the founder. Doubles from INR 17,000. The Lopota Lake Resort and Spa caters to a wide range of travellers. For wine lovers, the USP is the elegant Chateau Beura where you can experience wine tasting and visit the modern cellars. Doubles from INR 14,000.