While France and Chile are classics when it comes to wine, expand your horizons in Georgia and you’ll know what all the buzz is about!
WHY: October is Ghvinobistve (“month of winemaking”) in the republic of Georgia, where the wine heritage has been rooted in the soil for thousands of years. Traditional Georgian wine is skin-fermented and stored underground in egg-shaped clay jars called qvevri. The winemaking method was added to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013, and it is being promoted by a new crop of artisanal winemakers. In wine regions, such as Kakheti in the east and Imereti in the west, you can tour qvevri cellars and taste buzz-worthy qvevri-aged varietals, such as the ruby red Otskhanuri Sapere and the smoky Rkatsiteli Tsarapi. “No trip to Georgia would be complete without visiting a winemaker who uses the traditional qvevri vessel to make wine,” says Sarah Grunwald, co-founder and owner of Taste Georgia, a wine-and-food tour company based in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. “Georgians have been making wine for well over 8,000 years in the same way. Wine is essential to the Georgian identity, so expect to be offered a lot and expect to drink it.”
WHERE: Georgia’s primary wine region is the easternmost province of Kakheti, which borders Russia to the northeast and Azerbaijan to the south. Kakheti contains the municipalities of Telavi and Kvareli. The remaining wine regions are Kartli and Meskheti (east), Imereti and Racha-Lechkhumi (central), and the Black Sea Coastal Area (west). The closest international airport is Tbilisi.
HOW: Taxis are an affordable way to get around Georgia, even between cities. From the airport, take a taxi to your hotel in Tbilisi. Book day trips (including transportation) with wine tourism operators such as Taste Georgia or Living Roots. Or, create your own itinerary using the Georgian Wine Association’s online Trip Planner to locate vineyards, wine cellars, and wine-themed excursions.
STAY: Vinotel is a 13-room wine-centric hotel, located on a cobblestone street in Old Tbilisi. Opened in 2015 in a restored 19th-century villa, the stylish hotel has a brick wine cellar offering Georgian varietals, such as Lagvinari qvevri wines from Kakheti. Staff sommeliers conduct tastings around the cellar’s oval oak bar, and they will help with food and wine pairings in the hotel’s main restaurant hall, covered outdoor terrace, and cozy cellar lounge.
EAT: Two traditional Georgian dishes to try are khinkali (hat-shaped dumplings) stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, or a spicy pork-and-beef mixture and khachapuri (cheese bread). The rowboat-shaped khachapuriis similar in size to a personal pan pizza and is topped with a runny egg. Both dishes pair well with a Georgian “orange wine” (a skin-fermented white wine that looks more like iced tea), such as a Pheasant’s TearsRkatsiteli.
CULTURAL TIP: Georgia is a conservative country and also an extremely hospitable one, says Taste Georgia’s Sarah Grunwald. “As a guest you will be treated well, almost embarrassingly so. Dress conservatively and ladies should bring a scarf to use to cover their heads if they intend to enter churches.”
INSIDE TIP: In October 2016, Taste Georgia is offering a seven-day Harvest Experience for guests. Scheduled activities include wine tastings, grape stomping, winery tours, and participating in the ancient qvevri winemaking process. This is a small-group tour limited to 12 people.
FUN FACT: During the latter half of the Soviet period (1956-1991), Georgian winemaking in state-run vineyards was limited to big-volume varietals and blends that could be made cheaply and sold quickly. This assembly line approach decimated Georgia’s native grapevine varieties. Since 2009, the National Center for Grapevine and Fruits Planting Material Propagation in the village of Saguramo has been working to reestablish the republic’s repository of indigenous grapes. The center’s grapevine collection currently includes some 465 varieties discovered in Georgia.