Kakheti, Georgia: the cradle of wine
Summer 2017 is nearing its final stanza. Soon, the heat, sun and sea will give way to crisp, cool mornings and the orange hue of autumn’s leaves. In Georgia, the change of season is usually seamless, and as the country’s seaside resorts close one-by-one, Georgia’s wine regions become a beehive of activity.
Georgia’s harvest season – or Rtveli as it’s called – officially gets underway at the end of August. It is an intensive two-month period in which the year’s harvest of grapes are picked, bagged, processed and more often than not, placed into a kvevri – Georgia’s iconic egg-shaped clay vessel. It is there that they will be left to ferment – grape, skins, stalks, pips and all. Five to six months later, the wine is ready. The kvevri is then cleaned, and the process begins anew. It is a winemaking ritual in Georgia that has been practiced throughout millennia. In fact, depending on who you ask, Georgian winemaking can be traced back 8,000 years, and little has changed about the process today.
Though Georgian wine is well-known and well respected throughout the South Caucasus and the post-Soviet space, few people apart from oenologists and studious wine aficionado types know much about Georgian wine or its long history. That is beginning to change however. Georgia’s nascent but burgeoning tourism sector has brought with it a positive yet unintended consequence – greater awareness of Georgian wine. And while Georgian wine is still not widely ingrained into the consciousness of the global wine community, inroads have been made. As a brand, Georgian wine, with its unorthodox colors and unique grape varietals, has become an increasingly recognizable brand.
The country’s export markets have slowly begun to expand outside the former Soviet Union and onto larger markets. And while Russia remains the preeminent market for Georgian wine consumption, other markets are growing. In the first seven months of 2017 (January-July), Georgia exported nearly 24 million bottles of wine to Russia. No country imports more wine than Georgia’s northern neighbor. In fact, it’s not even close. China, which recently unseated Ukraine to become the second largest export market for Georgian wine, has imported 4.4 million bottles of Georgian wine thus far.
It will likely take decades of shrewd marketing and advertising campaigns for Georgian wines to reach parity with its more famous French, Italian, Chilean and even American wine producing competitors. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. Georgian wine remains both a novelty and an enigma for many wine connoisseurs. Because the country is home to as many as 525 indigenous grape varieties, Georgian wines have a unique flavor not familiar with most western pallets. The main Georgian grapes used today, which include white grapes like Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane Kakhuri, Goruli Mtsvane, Chinuri, Khikhvi, Kisi, Krakhuna, Tsitska, Tsolikauri, and red grapes like Saperavi, Tavkveri, Shavkapito, Chkhaveri, Ojaleshi, Aleksandrouli, Mujuretuli, Usakhelouri, and Aladasturi, offer wine lovers unfamiliar with Georgian wine, an intriguing range of flavors to explore.
Over the last few years, thousands of wine lovers have made the journey to Georgia to sample the country’s unique wines first hand. As a result, tourism officials have begun building up the country’s wine tourism infrastructure in an effort to accommodate the rising demand for wine-based tourism. While Georgia’s vast vineyards are growing popular among an increasing number of international tourists, they remain largely unspoiled and continue to offer those interested in wine and winemaking culture a very intimate, organic experience.
The Kakheti region in eastern Georgia represents the heart of the country’s wine culture. Today, visitors to Kakheti will discover what seems like an infinite number of boutique hotels and guesthouses situated on or near a wide range of vineyards. Intimate tour packages are available where guests can receive first-hand knowledge of Georgia’s winemaking culture, sample a range of unique but delicious wines, all the while relaxing in an environment steeped in natural splendor. Towns like Sighnaghi, Kvareli, Telavi, and the greater Alazani Valley offer the perfect mix of wine, food, nature and sightseeing. In addition to the immense winemaking culture that permeates nearly every square meter of this region, Kakheti is also home to some of the most majestic cultural and religious monuments in Georgia. Ancient monasteries and medieval castles are in abundance in this part of the country, where religion and wine are often inextricably linked to one another.
If you are interested in immersing yourself in an ancient winemaking culture set an environment steeped in natural beauty in close proximity to some of the country’s most revered cultural and religious monuments, Kakheti is a must-visit destination.
Video: Sighnaghi, Kakheti region of Georgia.