A Wine Lover’s Diary, part 360: Munching through Georgia

Tuesday, September 13: Arrived in Toronto at 5:30 am. Air Canada apologised that there was no coffee aboard. There was also no running water in one of the toilet basins. When my bag arrived the outside compartment was ripped all along the zipper, and this was the first trip I had taken with this suitcase.

A taxi home to a wet, slobbery greeting from Pinot the Wonderdog, whose ruminations I have been following with interest as I travel. Recorded my 680News reviews and tried to sound upbeat on three hours’ sleep. Lunched with my son Guy and then home to catch up on emails and to sleep for a couple of hours after walking Pinot in the park.

Dinner: Deborah cooked shrimp in a spicy sauce served on a bed of salad with avocado. I opened a bottle of Ganton & Larsen Prospect Larch Tree Hill Riesling 2010, which went well with the spicy shrimp and even better with Dragon’s Breath blue cheese from Nova Scotia. (Pale straw colour with a lime tint; lime, honey and anise
nose; medium-bodied, off-dry with lively acidity. Good tension between sweetness and citrus acidity (88).) Deborah drove me to the airport to catch the 11:20 pm flight to London. From there to Munich and then on to Tbilisi. Glutton for punishment.

Wednesday, September 14: Very little sleep, didn’t bother to watch a movie. Arrived in London at 11:30 am and checked in to the lounge to wait for my flight to Munich. The food in the Air Canada lounge is very good – goat cheese and spinach gougeons, sandwiches and a selection of salad. Had a bottle of Guinness and sent some emails.

Arrived Munich at 6:15 pm. My flight to Tbilisi is scheduled for 9:20 pm and arrives there at 1:05 – it’s going to be a long day. My adapter broke when I tried to put it into a socket (managed to borrow one from the Lufthansa desk in the lounge in exchange for my boarding pass). Great food in the Lufthansa lounge – chicken wings (with a glass of Man Vintners Shiraz 2009), cream of onion soup, egg salad open sandwiches and lot of other choices. Curiously, pretzels as large as ashtrays.

A three-and-a-half-hour flight to Tbilisi. Arrive at 3:05 am local time. Lots of activity at the airport, as flights leave here at 4 am. Meet up with the group that is attending the Symposium on Georgian wine. About 20 of us from the US and Europe (five other Canadians from Alberta). Takes a while to herd us onto two buses and drive to four different hotels in the old part of the city with cobbled streets. I’m staying at the Sharden Hotel. My room is 12 feet by 9 feet with a tiny bathroom. There is a folded sheet under the bedspread but I’m too tired to put it on. Collapse into bed at 5:30 am after phoning Deborah. The line keeps breaking up but at least she knows I’ve arrived in one piece.

Tbilisi and its hilltop castle

Thursday, September 15: It took me an hour to fall asleep and am up at 9:30 am. Breakfast is a cold hard-boiled egg, tea and toast. Walked around the old town, which is pretty dilapidated but fascinating with its wrought-iron balconies and overhanging rooms above cobbled streets.

Jim Tresize and I went for lunch at Modi Mnakhe – Bio Café near the river. Served by a young woman who spoke very good English. She said she learned it at university. Delicious bean soup and a Greek salad large enough for three people, and Georgian bread, with a pint of Krušovice lager. The brewery was founded in 1581. Back to the hotel for a nap.

Tbilisi statue of a toastmaster

Bishop David of Alaverdi

In the evening, to the courtyard of the Georgian National Museum for the opening ceremonies of the symposium. We’re greeted by a group of singers performing traditional polyphonic music – a kind of local barbershop quartet times two. The symposium is underwritten by the United States. The US ambassador to Georgia John Ball says,
in his opening remarks, “Nothing important in Georgia happens without wine.” The Deputy Minister of Development tells us that there are more than 500 varieties of grapes. Next a tour of the museum before returning to the courtyard for a wine tasting and light meal. A long table with some thirty or so wines set out. Not the easiest introduction to Georgian wine. Met Bishop David of Alaveri, who will be speaking at the symposium tomorrow – he has a long beard and a British WWII fighter-pilot moustache, loves wine and has a twinkle in his eye.

Friday, September 16: Awoke a 3:15 am and couldn’t fall back to sleep. On the bus to Ikalto Monastery, a journey of over two hours along winding, hilly roads. We are greeted by Bishop David. He told us that the monastery was originally founded in the 6th century by St. Joseph of Alaverdi, who is buried in the chapel. The monastery was twice destroyed and rebuilt; its foundations are now 11th century with frescos from that period inside. Bishop David wants to create a wine academy here based on the traditional Georgian winemaking practice called qvevri (pronounced to rhyme with Gevrey) – fermentation in large clay amphorae buried in the ground. In the eleventh century there was a working winery in the monastery grounds with clay vessels that could ferment 2000 and 4000 litres. The idea is to restore the 11th-century wine cellar and make it operative again.

Investigating a qvevri

Alaverdi Monastery

Qvevri at Alaverdi winery

Following the visit we lunched at Niko’s Restaurant in the Shuamata forest – salad of tomato, cucumber and cheese, cheese dumplings, spicy ratatouille, honeycomb and Georgian bread. After lunch we drive to Alaverdi Monastery with its 11th-century wine cellar. The ancient qvevri process is augmented with a stainless-steel operation. The monastery produces 30,000 litres (in the 15th century 50,000 litres were produced). Bishop David says, “the monks prefer the qvevri wines to the modern wines.” We are offered three qvevri wines that are made without oak. First was Alaverdi Rkatsiteli 2010 (deeply coloured; spicy, dry austere with an apricot flavour and aggressive tannins), then Alaverdi Kisi 2010 (deep old gold colour; floral nose with a rich, spicy peach nose and a grapey flavour with tannins). At this point we are given little clay cups called piala which have a softening effect on the tannins. The best of the wines is the last: Alaverdi Saperavi 2010 (ruby colour with a nose of dried rose petals and a cherry flavour; dry, firmly structured and tannic – but mitigated
by the piala).

Punching down must in a qvevri

Following the tasting we file into the cathedral (which has wi-fi!) for the first session of the 1st International Qvevri Wine Symposium: “The influence of ecological and cultural factors on the development of wine culture and review of archaeological findings” delivered by David Lortkpanidze, General Director of the Georgian National Museum. This is followed by Patrick McGovern’s paper, “Qvevri Wine, an 8000-year-old Tradition in Georgia?” and then Jose Vouillamoz on “Grape domestication: where, when and why?” A break for coffee then David Maghradze and Roberto Bacilieri’s endless address on the “Importance and Investigation of Georgian Native Grapevine Varieties.” Archpriest Fr. Bidzinia Gunia ends the day’s symposium with a paper on “Symbolism of the Vine and Wine in Old and New Testaments.”

Ninety minutes later than scheduled we drive to the town of Telavi to check in to Hotel Old Telavi. The group is schedule to drive to the Schuchmann Winery in Kisiskhevi for a “wine tasting and Traditional Meal with Polyphonic Music.” Too tired to face the evening, which I know will go very late, I decide to opt out and have dinner at the hotel (tomato and cucumber salad, veal stew with a bottle of Badagoni Saperavi 2007) with Jim Trezise.

Saturday, September 17: The bus, at breakneck speed, drove to the Alaverdi Monastery. The symposium began at 9:15 am with a talk on “The Grape Bunch Skeleton (stem) and Kahetian Wine of Qvevri” by Dr. Teimuraz Glonti, Alaverdi Monastery’s winemaker. For thousands of years Georgians have been fermenting wine in clay vessels, he said. Always using grape stems. Stems are rich in free amino acids and act as an anti-oxidation agent, especially in red wines. Technical ripeness in the range of 18–21. The translator uses the term “boiling” for fermentation and “vodka” for pomace, which is very confusing.

Professor Robert Ferrarini, Dept. of Biotechnology, University of Verona, spoke in Italian on “Long Time Skin Contact (typical technique of qvevri wines); its effects on phenolic and aromatic wines’ composition’.” Unfortunately, no English translation.

Wood foot-treading press

Then “The Process of Fermentation in Qvevri,” delivered by George Dakishvili, Director and Winemaker, Schuchmann Wines. The qvevri vessel is not only for fermentation but for storing wine as well. Must be made from top-quality clay. The shape is like two cones connected. The firing is at 800 degrees to get a quality vessel. The outside of the vessel is sealed with limestone and stones before it is buried in the ground. The grapes are pressed by foot in a narrow stone or wood “lagar.” Spontaneous fermentation starts three days after crushing, lasting three to four days. During the fermentation process the pits and stems sink to the pointed end at the bottom of the qvevri. The temperature is kept constant without refrigeration, since the qvevris are buried. The wine is usually left on the skins for five or six months. Micro-oxidation happens through the clay. The difference between qvevri and amphorae? Amphorae were used for the transport of wine and for storing wines. Dr. Patrick McGovern,

who wrote the book Ancient Wine, disagrees; amphorae were used for fermentation in Canaanite times, he says. The only distinction is that qvevri are buried in the ground.

Next paper: “Qvevri Culture in Georgia, Past and Present” by George Barisashvili, winemaking and viticulture consultant. His theme, the history of clay vessel production and treatment with bees wax (to seal the inside walls of the qvevri): The qvevri is heated from the outside. The melted wax is applied to the porous inside surfaces. Any flavours disappear with time. The qvevri was traditionally covered and sealed with a flat stone “glued” with clay. In western Georgia they use a wooden cover with a special clay to seal the vessel. In the 18th century earthquakes damaged many qvevri. The oldest qvevri discovered in Georgia dates back 8,000 years. They can go up to 8000 litres. There is a tradition of decoration in spite of the fact the qvevris were buried in the ground.

Cecilia Diaz making walnut candy

After a coffee break, Cecilia Diaz, a Chilean PhD student at the Frauhofer Institute, spoke on “Studies in traditional winemaking methods based on spontaneous fermentation.” Wine composition: the grape + winemaking method + ageing. Spontaneous fermentation by wild (indigenous) yeast. High risk of failure. Identification of wild yeast by a device to find presence of the most successful yeasts and detect “the bad guys” before the fermentation starts. Qvevri wine has high anti-oxidant content and polyphenols. The local winemaker for the monastery says there are no “bad guys” in wild yeast (natural yeast) because God made the grape and gave everything good to it.

Darrel Corti on “Unusual Wines in a Homogenized World.” “There is a difference between a good wine and a fine wine.” What could be more unusual than an orange wine, particularly if it’s meant to be a white wine? Could be spoiled or off, oxidized, maderised. Does the consumer want a new wine? Chardonnay is the symbol of international white wine, often to its detriment. How to sell an unusual wine? Difference is an attraction. The move away from cement, glass-lined tanks in favour of stainless steel and barriques was a fashion statement; now California is going back to cement. Modern international consumers look for table-ready wines. Qvevri wines need ageing. And the term should be spelled Quevri, he concluded.

Finally, Jim Trezise, President of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, spoke on “Branding a wine region.” 309 wineries now in New York State. Bring people to the wine (wine tourism); wine to the people (urban). Wine country tourism is a gold mine.

Lunch in the bishop’s residence at the Alaverdi Monastery. Salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, bladder nuts (similar to capers), pickles, mushrooms, stuffed aubergine, sulguni (a pickled cheese), cold trout and mashed potatoes, with Alaverdi Monastery Rkatsiteli 2010. Much toasting (the Georgian term for cheers is gaumarjos).

Ecclesiastical oenophiles

Watched a film about Georgian wine. From the commentary, the following facts: in Georgia there are 25 names for the wild vine. In the Alaverdi monastery’s vineyards there are 77 grape varieties planted. A Georgian toast: “May there be grapes in your vineyard and leaves in the enemy’s.”

A two-hour drive to see John Wurdeman’s Pheasant’s Tears vineyard. In his small winery there are 16 qvevri sunk into the floor. Tasted his Saperavi that had been fermenting for 8 days. Bus to the hilltop town of Sighnaghi to the Pheasant’s Tears winery. An outdoor tasting of four wines: Pheasant’s Tears Mtsavane 2010 (smoky peach flavour with firm finish); Pheasant’s Tears Kisi 2010 (floral, anise, apricot flavour with a tannic finish), Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli 2008 (deep orange colour; butterscotch and peach flavours); Pheasant’s Tears Shavkapito 2010 (dry, plum flavour). Finally, chacha, Georgian grappa (very smooth).

Then we all sat down at a series of outdoor tables for a feast (supra) and folk music and dancing. A toast master gave a series of toasts throughout the meal, inviting guests to do likewise. His memorable phrase: “Wine is the rhythm of life in Georgia.” We drank Pheasant’s Tears Rkatsiteli 2010 from jugs poured into clay cups. The meal consisted of water buffalo yoghurt, roasted eggplant salad, bladder nut salad with crushed walnuts and pheasant stewed in tomatoes. Thanks to the free-flowing wine and the chacha that followed, I don’t remember much about the drive back to the hotel in Telavi.

Tony with qvevris and clay drinking cup

Sunday, September 18: Checked out of the hotel and put my luggage on the bus, as I’m leaving on a 4 am flight from Tbilisi airport tomorrow morning. Back to the Alaverdi Monastery for the last day of the symposium. Notes on Alice Fearing’s address on Natural Wine: Wine is my spirituality. People are getting bored with manipulated wines. We are celebrating wines here at the conference that are made with the wisdom of the grandfathers… A cidery in Virginia is making cider in qvevri. (Interlocutor: Qvevri in Georgian means “buried in the ground.”) Historically, qvevri were made from clay with additives such as silesium or naturally occurring silver.

Rusudan Gorgiladze spoke on “Wine and feasting culture traditions in Georgia.” If you want to know about Georgia, she says, go to Georgian cuisine. The basis of Georgian cuisine is walnuts, cilantro and aromatic spices.

A royal palace

The royal toilet

Fresco in the royal chapel

Lunch in the Twins Cellar in Napareuli overlooking the vines – pork shishkababs, salad, cheese. Watched a demonstration of bread-making in a traditional round oven and the production of a walnut and grape juice “fudge” dessert. Next a visit to a royal palace at the Gremi Monastery complex and the visitor’s centre (including the royal toilet) before an outdoor tasting at the Khoreba winery, near Kvareli, featuring a full range of qvevri wines made by Georgian producers as well as a tasting of other non-qvevri Georgian Wines. My favourites were Iago’s Wine Chinuri 2010, Vinoterra Kisi 2006, Dergy Saperavi 2007, and Jakeli Saperavi 2008.

Baking Georgian bread

Saperavi wine label

After the tasting we went into the Tsinindali winery with its 8 kilometres of cellars hewn by hand out of the mountainside. We tasted some wine here before walking up to the restaurant at the top of the hill (which used to be reserved for the Soviet elite) for the final feast, complete with many toasts, traditional Georgian polyphonic singing and folk dances. A series of dishes kept arriving to augment what was already on the table: cold pressed roast chicken, beef and cabbage stew, pork ribs, spicy sausage, stuffed aubergine, spinach and crushed walnut balls, aubergine and crushed walnut balls, salad and elargi as well as other cheeses. The wine: Tsinindali Rkatsiteli 2010 followed by fresh fruit.

Many of us leave from here at 11:30 pm to drive to Tbilisi Airport to catch the 4 am plane to Munich. I am routed from there to Frankfurt, where I catch the flight to Toronto. Thirty-six hours of travel.

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