In an austere sixth-century Georgian monastery in the south Caucasus surrounded by vineyards, bearded monks sing in soaring harmony over a hole in the ground. An oenologist in a white cape and carrying a ceremonial sword joins in, while a Russian film crew looks on with hushed awe. The monks unseal a huge clay amphora of new wine, buried up to its neck, in an ancient ceremony both sacred and festive. Poured into plain earthenware drinking bowls by a brother on one knee, the amber wine has a fresh, bounteous earthiness – cause, indeed, for song.
The Alaverdi monastery in the Alazani Valley boasts the country’s oldest working marani (wine hall), dating from the 11th century. Less than two hours’ drive from the Georgian capital Tbilisi, it stands in Kakheti, the easternmost region of forested mountains and meadows, bordered by Russia and Azerbaijan, where three-quarters of Georgian wine is produced. The ancient hilltop churches and modest houses, with donkey carts and sheep sharing the roads, might suggest rustic neglect. But Kakheti is a window on a resurgent industry.
Georgian wine was to Russians what French wine was to other parts of Europe. “Kakhetian and Karabakhi are worth several burgundies,” wrote Alexander Pushkin in 1829. Journeying through the Caucasus, the poet noted how Georgians kept wine in “huge jars buried in the ground. These are opened with great ceremony. Recently, a Russian dragoon secretly unearthed one of these jars, fell inside and drowned in Kakhetian wine, like the unfortunate Clarence in the butt of malmsey.” The love affair continued in the Soviet era. In 1945, the Georgian-born Stalin toasted Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta with his favourite Khvanchkara semi-sweet red.
Russia is still the biggest market. Producers were stunned when Moscow banned imports of Georgian wine and mineral water in 2006, citing quality concerns. The more likely cause was rising tensions after Georgia’s 2003 Rose revolution, which led to the downfall of president Eduard Shevardnadze, before the 2008 war over South Ossetia. The seven-year embargo was lifted last year. Though crippling, it forced Georgian winemakers, already adapting to the post-Soviet era, to compete for markets in Europe, the US and China. Marks and Spencer in the UK added Georgian wines to its retail list last autumn.
Georgia is rediscovering its vine-growing heritage amid rising international support for its claims to be the cradle of wine. It has the oldest continuous viticulture in the world, dating back 8,000 years. A ceramic wine vessel decorated with grape motifs from about 6,000 BC was found near the village of Shulaveri. With 525 indigenous grape varieties, from Abistazh to Zerdagi, the country is also impressing global wine connoisseurs who have become jaded by growing conformity. As wine lovers enthuse over dry white Rkatsiteli – one of the world’s oldest known grape varieties – and red Saperavi, there is a tourism benefit in burgeoning wine trails.
The writer Guram Odisharia was present as culture minister at the ceremony in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku last December at which Georgia’s unique method of winemaking in a qvevri (red clay, egg-shaped jars buried to maintain temperature) was anointed by Unesco as an intangible cultural heritage. It was Georgia’s second such listing after its polyphonic choral singing (also demonstrated by the monks) in 2008. “We only have two; Azerbaijan has seven,” Odisharia notes with regret. “We’re trying to catch up with our neighbours.”
I met the then minister – now adviser to prime minister Irakli Garibashvili – shortly after the anniversary of Georgia’s declaration of independence on May 26 1918 from Russian rule since 1801 – a freedom curtailed by Soviet reconquest in 1921 and reclaimed only in April 1991. After 70 years behind the Iron Curtain, “we’re just learning how to communicate with the outside world”, Odisharia tells me. “When the doors opened, we discovered we had something we did not value. Our winemaking is precious and we should take care of it, and learn to protect it.”
Preserving cultural heritage – from Tbilisi’s old town to ancient gold mines – is a source of fierce disputes in post-Soviet Georgia. Yet wine is a national rallying cry, almost as potent as the mother tongue, and fermenting grapes is tantamount to a civil right. Many householders have amarani – less a cellar than a ground-floor reception room – with qvevri in the floor. A qvevri filled at the birth of a child might be opened on his or her wedding day. In an elaborate culture of feasting and hospitality, the tamada, or toastmaster, is king. Viticulture shapes the cuisine, frommtsvadi (kebabs skewered on vine wood) to churchkhela (candle-like strings of nuts in sun-dried grape syrup that were food for warriors). Vines thread through Georgian art, from the Dionysian cult in The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, the 12th-century national epic by Shota Rustaveli – Georgia’s Dante – to the naive-art harvest banquets of Kakheti-born painter Niko Pirosmani.
“For us Georgians, wine is not just alcohol,” says Konstantine Natsvlishvili of the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia. Wine was chosen by popular poll for the Unesco bid, which was delayed by the 2008 war. “The roots go deep into our culture. It’s a basis for rituals that unite people,” says Natsvlishvili. Some honour ancestors and, despite their “Christianised form”, hark back to a pagan and Zoroastrian past. At funerals, wine is a “mediator between the living and the dead”.
The Unesco nomination, Natsvlishvili stresses, was for “common people making wine for themselves – not for retail”. Family winemakers were central to resisting commercial threats to traditional methods from Russian-influenced nobility and Soviet collectivisation. Winemaking came to symbolise national resistance – a defiance echoed after the 2006 Russian embargo. “You can’t prevent people making wine. It would be like telling them not to go to the cemetery to honour their ancestors.”
Though the clergy, like the nobility, was purged by the Bolsheviks, monks helped keep the methods alive. In Soviet times, “monasteries were destroyed”, says the worldly bishop David of Amba Alaverdi, a trained architect who heads the Georgian Patriarchate’s restoration programme. Born Irakli Makharadze in Tbilisi, he became a priest in 1988. He says, in the 1960s, “the Soviet government ordered the destruction of all qvevri in the factories. Scientists were forced to say they were bad. Yet the method – and people’s love of it – was preserved. The war against qvevri as part of Georgian national identity is still going on today.”
The bishop, aged 54, spoke to me at the Georgian Wine Culture Centre in Tbilisi’s Saburtalo district, over deep-orange, vintage wine from Alaverdi. The next day, we reconvened at the monastery in the walled compound of the 11th-century St George Cathedral, the tallest medieval church in Georgia. Damaged by battles and earthquakes, its frescoed icons, whitewashed during 19th-century Russian rule, are gradually being restored. The Church and wine are intertwined, he says, because “you can’t conduct a service without wine – a symbol of Christ’s blood”. After Christianity arrived in the fourth century, monasteries were sited in land fertile for grapes, and monks took their knowledge to the Holy Land. Yet even in antiquity, he says, Georgian wine was prized as pure.
The 11th-century marani had 25 qvevri, each holding 1,600 bottles. The bishop renovated it with help from a Georgian-Italian company, Badagoni, and co-production began in 2006. Since then 60,000 bottles have been produced, with five monks working there. White qvevri wine, as well as red, is made with the grape skin, stalks and pips, and is decanted several times – here, for between 18 months and 12 years – making it rich in minerals and antioxidants. The bishop, who recalls helping his grandfather make qvevri wine, aims to integrate new and old, also using oak caskets and steel vats.
In a little plot beside the cathedral, samples of an astonishing 102 grape varieties grow “like a museum”. Three years after hosting the first symposium on qvevri winemaking, with support from USAID, the development agency, the monastery is to hold its first wine festival on September 22-24, as part of the Alaverdoba harvest festival. Up to 6,000 bottles of qvevri-only wine have been sold since 2011 to private buyers, “famous individuals and wine lovers”, the bishop says. “We sell it as a message to the world that the monastery exists.”
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Beside the mountains bordering Dagestan, the Eniseli Bagrationi wine factory is at the other end of the scale, accounting for 5 per cent of Georgian wine production. In 2003, Sandro Bagrationi and his wife, Mary Gomelauri, bought back a winery established in 1887 by his ancestor Zakaria Jorjadze. Its Saperavi had won gold at a show in Brussels in 1888. Confiscated in the Soviet era, the factory became a renowned source of Soviet wine and brandy, but fell into ruin in the 1990s.
The renovated 19th-century marani has 120 clay qvevri, each holding two tonnes. Jorjadze gathered grapes from peasant smallholders; Bagrationi too buys up grapes from the area (“I don’t own land – I shop and I buy”). Wine stays in the qvevri for eight months before being moved to tanks in a factory that employs 70 people and makes sparkling wine and chacha (grappa). On the marani walls are first-world-war photographs by Jorjadze’s daughter Nina, a nurse who tended English and Russian troops in Manchuria.
“Ninety per cent of my wine goes to Russia,” Bagrationi tells me. Minor markets are in Poland, Belarus and Germany. “The embargo created a crisis,” he says, but its lifting, he believes, has boosted the industry, while pushing up the slumped price of Saperavi grapes threefold. He cites a national sales figure of 15m bottles from the 2013 harvest – the first after the ban ended. “In six months they sold what usually takes five years to sell.”
In Alaverdi, the bishop is as confident in his resolve to “preserve and adapt”. Despite the Russian embargo, demand held. The gap was plugged in part, he scoffs, by “Moldova producing wine using this method and calling it Georgian”.
For him, “the best weapon against counterfeit wine is to maintain quality. If you want something good, you need to give it time.”
For drinking or investing in?
Georgian fine wines are a sound investment for the palate, not the purse. Bruce Aston, director of Aston Lovell, a London-based wine investment company, says “while Georgia produces much good wine, and has done so for possibly longer than anywhere else in the world”, there is “no investment market currently in these wines, and no market budding”.
Yet what of the future? Wine writer Andrew Jefford thinks the best of Georgian wines could “prove to be some of the most influential produced anywhere around the world over the next decade”. A renaissance in Georgian winemaking owes much to investment in improved techniques as well as joint ventures with foreign winemakers – some spurred by the Russian embargo imposed in 2006 that forced the closure of many wineries. Jeneve Williams, a winemaker for Marks and Spencer, feels the country holds its place in an emerging “eastern Mediterranean”. Yet the future may lie not only in unusual grape varieties but in respecting ancient methods. Partly made in 0.00, her blend with the Georgian company Tbilvino of quince-flavoured “orange wine” was a surprise sellout.