Story by Valentina Phillips
Photos courtesy of the Georgian Wine Association
Have you ever wondered which country holds the title of the oldest wine-producing nation? If you're guessing France, Spain, or perhaps Italy, prepare for a delightful surprise. Nestled at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, Georgia proudly wears the crown as the "Cradle of Wine."
Beyond its winemaking heritage, Georgia is a hidden gem for travelers. It seamlessly blends the rugged Caucasus Mountains, pristine Black Sea coastlines, and the quaint cobbled streets of Tbilisi, the capital city.
With an unmatched 8,000-year winemaking legacy and the distinctive use of clay qvevris (large earthenware vessels) for fermentation and aging, Georgia proudly stands as the birthplace of wine. The qvevri tradition, coupled with the nation's diverse climate and fertile soil, yields a wide variety of unique and flavorful wines.
The qvevri, also known as a churi in western Georgia, is a sizable, egg-shaped clay container, traditionally buried, with only its rim visible. These vessels, ranging from 100 to 3,500 liters, continue to be meticulously handcrafted from local clay, some even large enough for a person to enter.
In traditional Qvevri winemaking, grapes are processed, and their juice is combined with the so-called "Chacha" mixture (skins, stalks, and pips). This blend is carefully poured into the Qvevri for fermentation, allowing the wine to meld with the grape marc for about six months. The underground temperature and micro-oxidation in clay vessels soften the tannins, resulting in a delicate, velvety structure. The wines are highly complex and known for their unique colors—red wines with a deep ruby hue and white wines with a golden amber shade.
As evidence of its importance and uniqueness, UNESCO recognized the age-old Georgian practice of qvevri winemaking as an intangible cultural heritage in 2013, underscoring its significance within Georgia's wine country.
The best place to explore the Qvevri winemaking process is the Kakheti wine region, housing most of the country's vineyards (65%) and 15 of the 20 PDOs (Protected Designation of Origin). A short drive from the capital, Tbilisi, takes you to this region, offering a picturesque route with vineyard views and opportunities for a spontaneous stroll. Georgia boasts around 530 indigenous grape varieties, and we'll explore some of the favorites.
Saperavi, the leading red grape of Kakheti, crafts various wines (dry, semi-sweet, sweet, fortified) through Qvevri and conventional methods. They are distinguished by high quality and great aging potential. Notable Saperavi wines include the dry, full-bodied, pomegranate-colored Mukuzani and the aromatic, semi-sweet Kindzmarauli.
For white wine enthusiasts, Rkatsiteli, the country's main grape variety, covering 43% of the country's vineyard plantings, is a must-try. It offers floral notes with citrus, quince, and apple hints when vinified in the European style. Made in Qvevri, it turns powerful and moderately tannic, displaying flavors of honey, dried orange peel, spices, apricots, and stone fruits due to oxidative handling.
Georgian wines seamlessly complement the delightful local cuisine, a fusion of rich flavors, spices, and fresh ingredients. Staples include khachapuri, a savory cheese-filled bread, and khinkali, spiced meat dumplings. Georgian cuisine is abundant in fresh vegetables, herbs, and nuts, with dishes like pkhali (vegetable paste), lobio (bean stew), and mtsvadi (grilled meat) showcasing diverse culinary traditions.
Whether you adore wine, revel in nature's beauty, or delight in culinary adventures, Georgia promises an unforgettable journey through the "Cradle of Wine."