One thing I've learned about Georgia is that you can't visit this country without having a taste of its homemade wine. The wine is a significant part of the culture and history and if you haven't shared at least one glass of wine with a local, then you just haven't experienced the real Georgian culture. The winemaking and drinking traditions are inseparable from the country's national identity.
I'll be honest, before I entered Georgia I knew nothing about the wine culture. Heck, I didn't even know a thing about this country and that's why I like to travel slowly. After living here for six months I got a real taste of its culture and in this case, of its wine. And it hasn't been disappointing …
I've always loved a good glass of wine. Despite being from Belgium, I'm not a beer-drinker. It's too bitter for my taste. Instead I enjoy a good glass of semi-sweet red or white wine. Niko and I even have a little tradition that we started in Ireland. Once a week, no matter where we are, we treat ourselves to a bottle of wine. We tasted good wine from Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, … and once in a while, because we always got the cheapest bottle we could find, we had a few bad ones too. But never on our travels did we come across Georgian wine. I didn't even know they produced wine in Georgia. It's a shame, because since I've had a taste of this sweet fermented Georgian grape juice, I'm hooked! Georgian wine, where have you been all my life?!?
Mother of Wine
Georgia is one of the oldest wine regions in the world, way before Rome or Greece even started making wine! Many people believe that the word 'wine' comes from the Georgian word 'ghvino'. The country has a continuous winemaking and drinking tradition of more than 8000 years. The earliest traces of the Georgian viticulture were found in the Neolithic settlements (6000BC) in the valleys of the South Caucasus. These days there are about 575 grape varieties in Georgia, more than anywhere else in the world. But then how come we've never heard about Georgian wine before?
One of the reasons why the wine isn't known worldwide is probably because the country has had its fair share of conquests and wars. The Georgians often lived an isolated life high up in the mountains where they could more easily defend their land. They probably didn't have much time to think about exporting their wine while fighting off enemies. One thing is for sure: the Georgians still remember their ancestors as fierce warriors and winemakers, who knew how to fight and celebrate their victories with a good cup of wine!
The perfect representation for the Georgian national character is the 20-meter- aluminium statue of Kartvlis Deda in Tbilisi. This monumental “Mother of Georgia” is holding a cup of wine in one hand, which stands for hospitality and a sword in the other, which represents the Georgian's love of freedom and fierceness to fight for their liberty. She is the protector and the definition of what Georgia was, is and will be: friends will be welcomed with wine, enemies with a sword!
source FlickR/ Roberto Strauss
A lot of Georgian families still grow their own grapes and produce homemade wine. They often use the traditional qvevri winemaking method, which has existed for at least 8000 years and is one of the country's cultural achievements and treasures. When we were living in Tbilisi, we were lucky to meet Giorgi Andriadze, a traditional winemaker, who invited us to his “marani” - the ancient Georgian word for wine cellar - where he showed and explained to us how the wine is traditionally made.
Giorgi's marani near Lisi Lake in Tbilisi
Inside the marani
The process starts with pressing the grapes in a “satsnakheli “(a wine press), which is made from wood. Some people still stomp the grapes by foot!
After the grapes are pressed, the juice and the Chacha (the skins, stalks and pips of the grapes) are poured into a qvevri. A qvevri - this is where the method got its name from - is a large wine vessel made out of clay and used for storing wine underground.
The mixture fills the vessel to around 80 – 85%. As the fermentation progresses, the mixture is stirred 4 to 5 times daily. When the fermentation has finished, the qvevri is sealed and buried in the ground for about 5 to 6 months. This guarantees an optimal temperature for the aging of the wine: the clay provides a natural temperature control and a little oxygen exposure. The alcoholic fermentation process is organic, using natural yeasts without any additives. That is why the wine has such a fresh, fruity and unique taste and is of high quality. You won't have any headaches after drinking too much of this wine - and I'm talking out of experience...
Giorgi showing us how the qvevri gets sealed and buried in the ground.
The qvevri is now sealed and will only be opened in about six months
After six months the qvevri is excavated and the wine and chacha are separated. The wine is poured into bottles and the chacha will be distilled into a very strong spirit, which is also called Chacha. Unlike the wine, which won't cause you a bad hangover, you have to be careful with this 'vine-vodka'. It has an alcohol content of 80% ABV and if you're not a seasoned drinker (even then...), you might not feel very good the day after. Read this story from our friends from Lost with Purpose, I bet they will never lay hands on one glass of this infamous Georgian drink!
Not everybody has a marani or a qvevri to make the wine in this traditional way. When we were living in Tbilisi our landlord Zaza showed us how he makes his wine. After hand-pressing the grapes in a satsnakheli, he collects the grape juice in a bucket which he then pours into big plastic barrels. When the barrels are full, he seals them off and stores them in a cool space in his house where the wine also undergoes a natural fermentation process. We tasted his wine (and chacha!) and although it has a slightly different taste of the one made by the qvevri method, it was a very fruity wine as well!
After witnessing how the wine is made in Georgia, we understood why it isn't sold world-wide. The traditional wine-making method isn't really fit for mass-production. The Georgian wine tastes so fresh and pure because of organic fermentation processes. If the wine would be bottled and exported, it would need some additives, which would take away the unique taste. So if you want to enjoy a good glass of Georgian wine, you'll have to come over for a visit!
Another reason why I love the wine here so much (and why you should visit Georgia to have a glass) is the spiritual and social meaning behind the wine-drinking tradition.
The grapevines and its fruit have a strong religious significance. Wine is part of the Georgian heritage and is associated with celebrations, holidays, rituals and the Christian Orthodox Church. According to the legends, when St Nina introduced Christianity in Georgia in the 4th century, she was always carrying a cross made from vine wood that was intertwined with her hair while she was preaching. This grapevine cross is a major symbol for the Georgian Orthodox Church. The wine is still an important part of the sacraments and plays an essential part during the Christmas and Eastern celebrations.
Another central pillar of the Georgian culture is hospitality. The Georgians believe that guests are godsend so it's customary to receive them with open arms and unfeasible quantities of their beloved wine. The wine is poured as a symbol of good energy and love and the more the wine flows, the more love and energy will be given to the guests. During our first month in Georgia I started hiding my glass under the table to avoid another refill because I just couldn't handle all this love. It was hard to keep up with the amount of toasts but I was afraid it would be impolite not to drink along. Later I found out that it isn't mandatory to drink every time a toast is made. The host will always refill your glass as a sign of respect, not because you're expected to drink it. If only I had known this, it would have saved me a few dizzy nights in bed (you can thank me later for this tip).
Keeping up with all the toasts can be very exhausting...
Let me make something clear though. The wine-drinking tradition isn't meant for people to become drunk (although it's sometimes inevitable). The tradition is said to derive from the academy of Ikalto where the abbot would invite students for a philosophical discussion in the form of a toast. To this day drinking wine while having a meal is used as a means to discuss the deeper questions in life, God, childhood, love, ancestors and beauty. The toast is made by a “tamada”, a toast master. He is chosen by the group of people that is having a meal together or by the host. A successful tamada has to be able to create a nice speech and at the same time drink a great deal of alcohol, which is not as easy as it sounds, I'm talking about real skills here!
Whenever the tamara makes a toast, the attending guests give him their full atttention
First there are ten basic toasts in following order: to God and peace, to Georgia, to the ancestors and the deceased (the past), to the children and life (the future), to a special celebration (a birthday, graduation, achieving a goal), to parents, to women, to friends, to love and beauty and to the family who's hosting the feast. After that there are many more toasts, in fact more than 150 but it's often hard to reach that amount – imagine drinking 150 glasses of wine!! We haven't learned much of the Georgian language – it's a tough one to learn, even for a language master as Niko – but we do know the most important word: “gaumarjos”, which means “This is a toast to ...”.
Also don't be surprised when people suddenly burst into polyphonic singing between the toasts. These songs are believed to be over 2000 years old and are sung with three partially improvised parts. It's hard to explain how it sounds like, instead I'll just let you listen to it:
Add to all this festivity a delicious cuisine full of roasted meats, freshly baked bread, delicious vegetables from the garden and homemade sauces (more about the food in our 10 favorite dishes from the traditional Georgian Cuisine) and you'll know that an invitation to a Georgian feast will be an unforgettable experience in which the wine, “the Nectar of the Sun” plays a central role.
Oh Georgia, sweet and fierce mother of wine! I will miss you and your dry and semi-sweet white and red juice from heaven when I'll have to leave you to continue my hitchhiking journey towards Thailand. Never will I betray you. I might have a little affair with an Italian, French, South-African or Chilean but know that you're my true love!
* Special thanks to Giorgi Andriadze and his beautiful family for enriching us with his knowledge of the Georgian wine traditions while sharing countless wonderful meals and liters of his delicious homemade wine with us. Also a word of thanks to our landlord Zaza Enukidze for the many cozy wine nights and feasts in his garden (and that liter of chacha he gave us as a goodbye present – which we still aren't able to finish)!
** If you're interested to know which wines are produced in Georgia, here's a list of the most popular Georgian wines.