Vine-garlanded greetings from Imereti in Georgia - the very birthplace of wine. I've been here for a few weeks now... (time slips away from me... is it three? Four?) After a couple of unusually rainy weeks, harvest is now well under way. But right now, in a brief respite from the rumbling of the old motorised wine press, with the sun still high and bright on a Sunday autumn afternoon, crickets trilling in the peaceful winery garden, and the Caucasus mountains all ineffable in the milky distance, I take a break to tell you something about this wonderful country and what I'm doing here.
The Abuladze family vineyards in Obcha, Imereti
Georgia, in the Transcaucasus region, with the Black Sea to the west, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan to the south, and the old foe Russia to the north, is a wine pilgrim's holiest of holies. With at least 8,000 years of unbroken winemaking tradition, more unique indigenous grape varieties than anywhere else in the world, it is a country which supposedly gave us the very word wine (ღვინო; gvino), whose alphabet script some say is modelled on the curlicue tendrils of the grapevine - where wine, hospitality and god intertwine. This is a place I've been fascinated by ever since I chanced upon a Georgian wine tasting in London about 10 years ago, right when I was starting out writing about wine. Finally this year, I've made it here to make a TFWATH wine - with three ambitious twenty-something siblings of an old Georgian winegrowing family, Baia, Gvantsa and Giorgi Abuladze.
Gvantsa and Baia Abuladze
This is two-thirds of the sibling winemaking trio: Gvantsa and Baia (younger brother Giorgi is pictured below). Their family has been farming vines and making wine for many generations, but only ever for family and friends, or to barter with during the hard post-soviet times of the 90s. It was Baia who, in 2015, while just 23, won a grant aimed at promoting rural businesses in Georgia (she went on to present a TEDx Talk and was even named in Forbes's '30 Under 30' list of budding entrepreneurs) and made the bold leap into commercial winemaking. The family label is called Baia's Wine, though all the siblings have an equal say in the business and the winemaking. Very quickly the wines - made from krakhuna, tsitksa, tsolikouri (whites), aladasturi and otskhanuri sapere (red), including qvevri, skin maceration and petnat styles - have earned them an international following.
The oldest qvevri of them all in the Tbilisi Wine Museum
What is a qvevri? A qvevri is a clay wine vessel traditionally used in Georgia for making wine. The one pictured above was excavated in the Kartli region of central Georgia some years ago and carbon-dated to c.6,000BCE. This qvevri (they're called 'churi' in Imereti) was found to contain not only traces of various organic acids associated with winemaking, but also grape seeds from domesticated grape vines. It also has a bunch of grapes sculpted into its surface - pretty conclusive evidence, if none other existed, that neolithic people from this region loved their fermented grape juice. This, then, is the earliest evidence of winemaking that has yet been unearthed, and gives Georgia (and more broadly, the Caucasus region of which it forms a small but beautiful part) a fair claim to being the birthplace of wine.
The Abuladze family marani (wine cellar)
The qvevri method of making wine - fermenting and ageing wine in clay pots buried underground - continues to this day. That’s an unbroken eight-millennia tradition. From Kakheti in the east to Imereti in the west, and further to the Black Sea coast in the west, small family cellars (maranis) will have a gravel floor with the rims of several qvevris poking out, as in the picture above. These qvevris can be anything from a few hundred to two or three thousand litres in volume. They are buried underground to maintain a constant temperature - advantageous for slow, steady fermentation and similarly for ageing. Grapes may be destemmed or not (in the warmer east, where the grape stems ripen more fully, it's more common to use whole bunches; in the west, historically, there would be no stems, but skins would be used to a greater or lesser degree. These days winemakers play around with qvevri with and without skins.
The benefit of a qvevri, in winemaking terms, is that it, assuming it hasn't been lined with beeswax (which some qvevri makers insist on doing), it offers the micro-oxygenating properties of a wooden barrel (which help in smoothing out, maturing and softening the wine, without imparting any of the woody, caramelly, smoky, vanilla-type flavours and aromas associated with barrel-fermenting and ageing. In other words, the pure character of the grapes and the land that bore them. Wine without makeup. The way it has been done for eight millennia.
Naturally, I'm going to be making a qvevri wine with Baia, Gvantsa and Giorgi. And because this is Imereti, I plan to use the white grape variety, tsolikouri.
First white grapes to be picked in Sveri
The principal white grape varieties in Imereti - and the ones Baia's Wine uses to make its wines - are tsolikauri, tsitska and krakhuna. They all have a certain something unique (tsolikouri gives body to a wine, tsitska gives acidity, krakhuna more aromatics), and all seem to complement one another. Separated from the hot, humid region of Kakheti in the east (where 70% of Georgian wine is made) by the Surami mountain range, which divided Georgia into two climatically distinct zones, Imereti is relatively cool - or, rather, it has cool autumns and very cold winters... The cooler climate, combined with the hillier terrain, produces wines with higher acidity and less alcohol than in Kakheti, say. The wines I’ve tasted so far from Imereti, mostly whites, are fresh, crisp, cool-climate in character - and more of a bridge to the European styles of wine most of us are used to than the deep amber wines of the east.
Giorgi on quality-control duty with the krakhuna
Above you see the first grapes of Baia's Wine's harvest, in Obcha. Overcast days and heavy rain have delayed picking here. These grapes are all krakhuna - which translates as ‘crunchy’. It’s always the first of the whites to be picked for Baia’s family (before tsitska and tsolikauri). Distinctly pear-fruited, to me it also seems to be the most aromatic of the three, and works well whether with skin contact or not. These grapes were destemmed and the juice - which tastes of zesty, fresh pears - were pumped directly into tank for fermentation. 30% of the skins were added to the juice.
Archil Guniava choosing bottles to taste
When I'm away making wine, my decisions about what to make are guided by the winemakers I collaborate with, and what I learn from being in the region, tasting grapes, tasting wines - and meeting other winemakers. During a hiatus last week, occasioned by the rain and overcast days, I went to meet a couple of special Imeretian natural winemakers. First there was an unforgettable tasting with Archil Guniava (pictured above) in the tiny village of Kvaliti in Zestaponi. Archil was just starting to process his first lot of 2021 grapes (the rare dondglabi white and mgaloblishvili red), but was still gracious enough to taste wine with me practically all evening.
Skin-contact tsolikouri after four or fine years of ageing
Archil works as traditionally as its possible for a Georgian winemaker to work, even down to cleaning his qvevris with traditional cherry bark brushes and a local shrub I haven’t yet identified - locally called ‘mouse scarer’. I asked if we could taste some stuff that was full of gunk, so he brought out several old bottles he clearly hadn’t paid any attention to for a while - a couple of skin-macerated tsolikouris, a co-ferment of tsolikouri and the red otskhanuri sapere, and another couple. All jaw-dropping wines. His tsolikouri (se below) is like a symphony of autumn, with the bloom of ripe orchard fruits, walnut oil and dried flowers. These wines are the real deal, and gave me some idea of the sense of ageing skin-macerated wines to get the best out of them.
A second trip, equally memorable, was to visit Ramaz Nikoladze - a man with the Midas touch whether it's making wine, beer or just spinning a yarn over a glass of wine. He is known all over the world thanks to his soulful wines, some made with skin maceration, some without, mainly using tsolikjouri, tsitska, plus the red dzelshavi. These wines are always small in number and always hard to find. After meeting Ramaz and tasting his wines, I have a clearer idea of what I’d like to make: I’m thinking tsolikouri with 30-50% of skin maceration in qvevri, maybe with a little tsitksa (higher acid) for added backbone. But let’s see. Best laid plans and all that…
Destemming tsolikouri at Zurab Gvaladze wine cellar
Yesterday was a busy harvest day. Picking tsolikouri grapes in Obcha and Sviri. Then it was off to the siblings' uncle Zurab’s winery - Zurab Gvaladze Wine Cellar - to destem and press. Their grandad is 84 but put in a full-day’s shift on the destemmer. There's a long way to go for this harvest. The last grapes to be picked, the red otskhanuri sapere, won't be ripe until early November. That's a lot of long days, working hard into the night to process grapes, to get the goodness of all that precious fruit - the result of many months of hard work in the vineyards - into tanks and qvevris. I'll be here for a couple of weeks yet, and I hope I can learn more from them and from others here, and help them to make a successful 2021 vintage.