Oh Georgia, sweet mother of wine!

Oh Georgia, sweet mother of wine!

posted in: Blog, Georgia, Journal | 20

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.

 

A great wine is the most sincere expression of the land and the people that give it life

 

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 …

 

Georgia, mother of wine - Journal of Nomads

 

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?!?

 

Georgia, mother of wine - Journal of Nomads

 

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?

 

Georgia, mother of wine - grapes - Journal of Nomads

 

 

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!

 

Georgia, mother of wine - Kartvlis Deda - Journal of Nomads

source FlickR/ Roberto Strauss

 

Traditional wine-making

 

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.

 

A home is a living place for a human being. Wine is like a human being, they have lots in common: birth, youth, oldness and death. That’s why wine also needs its own house – a marani.Sulkan – Saba Orbeliana (Georgian writer)

 

Georgia, mother of wine - marani - Journal of Nomads

Giorgi’s marani near Lisi Lake in Tbilisi

 

Georgia, mother of wine - marani - Journal of Nomads

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!

 

Georgia, mother of wine - Qveri winemaking method- Journal of Nomads

 

Georgia, mother of wine - Qveri winemaking method- Journal of Nomads

 

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.

 

Georgia, mother of wine - Qveri winemaking method- Journal of Nomads

qvevri’s

 

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…

 

Georgia, mother of wine - Qveri winemaking method- Journal of Nomads

Giorgi showing us how the qvevri gets sealed and buried in the ground.

 

Georgia, mother of wine - Qveri winemaking method- Journal of Nomads

 

Georgia, mother of wine - Qvevri method - Journal of Nomads

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!

 

 

 

Traditional wine-drinking

 

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.

 

Georgia, mother of wine- Saint Nina - Journal of Nomads

Saint Nina

 

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).

 

Georgia, mother of wine - Journal of Nomads

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!

 

Georgia, mother of wine - Tamada making a toast - Journal of Nomads

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 …”.

 

Georgia, mother of wine - toast - Journal of Nomads

Gaumarjos!

 

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.

 

Georgia, mother of wine - feasts - Journal of Nomads

 

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!

 

If you’ve had a drink and become sad – You’re not a man, you are not Georgian

 

 

* 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.

 

GAUMARJOS!

Georgia, mother of wine! The wine culture and traditions. Journal of Nomads

Follow Cynthia Bil:

Writer, photographer and co-founder at Journal of Nomads

I've got Belgian roots but the world has been my home for the past 6 years. I'm an artist at heart and often get lost in my thoughts. I like to create some-thing out of no-thing and once I'm feeling inspired, I'm unstoppable (except for when you offer me a glass of wine). I have a hard time getting out of my sleeping bag without a cup of coffee, I absolutely love chocolate (I'm from Belgium, what did you expect) and I have an extreme dislike for routine and vomit.

  • Alex

    What a beautiful country! I never knew Georgia was good with wines. I’ll have to visit it someday and maybe stay for a while.

    • We never knew about it either and it was a very pleasant discovery 😉 Georgia is a great country to visit and even live for a while + it’s super cheap here!

  • sophie

    I am already in love with this place! I visited the place in January and it was so lovely there, well a bit freezy as well! Haha! I didn’t know about this process though! but you have shown it so nicely here! Thanks for sharing this amazing Georgian piece! Cheers

    • Thank you Sophie! Yeah, it can be very cold in January 😀 We’re happy that the temperature has been going up in the past month! Which places did you visit in Georgia?

  • Pingback: Hitchhiking to Katskhi Pillar – the Most Incredible Cliff Church in the World - Journal of Nomads()

  • Nastja

    That’s great! Georgia is on my bucket list for a long time and i would love to try some of their wine. i never new this kind of wine making process even exist. We do a lot of wine making in Slovenia too so i saw this wooden hand presser but not any of the other clay qvevri. Reaally great article! 🙂

    • Thank you Nastja! The clay qvevri is typical for Georgia, I don’t even think they make it like this in any other country. That’s why the wine has such a unique taste. And you should definitely come to Georgia (and try the wine 😉 ) It’s such a beautiful and interesting country!

  • NowThatsAHoneymoon

    My husband and I love a good bottle of wine too. In fact we got married at a winery in Temecula, California! We’ll be in your home country soon and I look forward to your (bitter) beers!

    • Haha, awesome! Be careful with those beers though, as long as you sit down you might not feel tipsy but once you get up, the world might be spinning 😀 I’ve seen it happening a lot with foreigners who aren’t used to our beers 😀 Where and when will you visit Belgium?

      • NowThatsAHoneymoon

        We’ll be there for the weekend in May. We’re taking the Eurostar from here in London to Brussels, but we’ll also spend a day in Bruge! I’ll take your advice!

        • Oh, you’ll love Brugge 🙂 You definitely have to eat some waffles 😀 There’s plenty to do in Bruges, I would recommend you to the Half Moon Brewery for some beer tasting, visit the central Market, have a stroll along the canals and take a boat trip on the canals, visit the Beguinage (Begijnenhof) and walk around “Minnewaterpark” 🙂 You’ll love my hometown 🙂

  • I didn’t know anything about Georgian wine culture, so this has been a real education! I love wine and tasting varieties from new regions and places so I’d love to go and immerse myself in finding new wines, especially of the homemade kind!

    • If you love wine, you’ll love it here Sam 🙂 You would have a blast with trying out all these new wines!

  • Riely Mills

    I have never had Georgian wine before nor did I know the joys behind drinking it! I am not a beer drinker myself and I’m sure I would thoroughly enjoy this wine. I love that it is organically made without any additives; something all wines should be. And of course, the best part about drinking wine is usually the social activity that comes along with it. Thanks for sharing. I will love to try some Georgian wine one day.

    • I’m sure you would love this wine Riely!! 🙂 You can really taste that it’s organically made. We love the toasting ceremonies a lot, there’s always such a beautiful message that comes with it, we only have to watch out that we don’t toast too much 😉

  • Neha Verma

    Although I don’t drink wine (sigh!!) . But still I would love to participate in this process and journey of wine making. It’s really good to know that it is processed with all natural process , nothing harmful.

    • If you would visit Georgia, you might start liking wine 😉 The wine making process is a ceremony on its own and definitely very interesting to witness!

      • NowThatsAHoneymoon

        We’ll be there for the weekend in May. We’re taking the Eurostar from here in London to Brussels, but we’ll also spend a day in Bruge!

  • ლუკა ჩიტიშვილი

    Thank you very much. As a Georgian, i feel really proud when i read your articles. I have some additional tips for your readers, even though Kakheti (Eastern Georgia) is the most common place for wine making, you should search for some special places with special wine, for example: In Racha (North Georgia) there is a small village (Sorry, don’t remember the name) with one of the most extraordinary wine you could ever taste and it is special because grapes from which this wine is made, can be grown only in that small village (special climate), there are more such places and you should search them, believe me, you won’t be disappointed.

    Don’t think that we have only mountains, if you search well, you could find some of the oldest caves in the world, national parks that have unique flora and fauna, one of the highest placed lakes in the world, you could visit Dmanisi and see place where oldest Europeans were found and many more things.

    To say in short, have as much fun as you can, you won’t be disappointed by visit these places.

    • Hi, thank you so much for your recommendations! Georgia has so much to offer, even after spending 11 months here, we still have the feeling we haven’t seen it all. But one thing is for sure: we’ll never forget the great time we had in your beautiful country!