Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Heart and Soul of Georgia

Family vineyard in Kakheti region of Georgia. 
Georgians widely, one might even say universally, claim their homeland as the birthplace of winemaking. And there is strong evidence for their pride, particularly for the southern Caucuses region as a whole.

The earliest known winery was recently discovered in Armenia, with a wine press, fermentation vats, storage jars, grape seeds, and vines dating from the Copper Age. The oldest known evidence of wine was found in Iran’s Zagos Mountains dating back several thousand years earlier to the Neolithic period, although the site didn’t include such strong evidence of a winery. 

Where Georgia has its strongest case is in DNA studies of modern cultivated grape varieties, which have been traced to the mountains of Georgia, Armenia, and Eastern Turkey. In fact, a single Eurasian domesticated grape variety, known as Vitis vinifera L. subsp. sylvestris, has been found to be the source of 99% of the world’s wine today. Of course, it may be China that wins the winemaking archaeological prize, but the ancient Chinese used rice, while their use of grapes is not as clear, and it is the harvesting and cultivation of the grape that holds iconic status in Georgia. 

No matter where or how archaeology or DNA evidence eventually settles the matter, the cultural, spiritual, and historical importance of the grape, and the growing, harvesting, and production of wine will remain the heart and soul of Georgia. From their curly alphabet, which is said to be modeled after a grape vine, to the grape trellises draping every Georgian home, to their poetry, feasts, holidays, and religion, the grape is interwoven within almost every aspect of Georgian life. Even in their political tensions with Russia - the almighty grape came front and center when Russia embargoed Georgian wines in 2006.

Kakheti, the sun-dappled home to 70% of Georgia’s wine, is a spectacularly beautiful region, with the mighty Caucuses looming over its rolling vineyards, castles crumbling on every hill and mountainside. Kakheti is also the center of the grape harvest in Georgia, a centuries’ old tradition called rtveli, which marks the end of the agricultural season, start of the winemaking season, and always ends with a supra, a feast inseparably linked with wine. 

Giant kveri (clay) pot used to store and ferment wine.
It was in Kakheti where I was invited to my first supra. It is common for families to grow and make their own wine and the family hosting the supra was no exception. They’d installed traditional giant kveri (clay) pots, used to store and ferment wine, in their floors and even built a distillery to make chacha, a clear, strong liquor made from winemaking-grape residue. And outside, acres and acres of family vineyards. 

The Georgian supra is both a feast and a cultural tradition that can be anything from a small, impromptu family meal to a massive wedding feast. It is led by a tamada, or toastmaster, whose job is to lead each toast, keep the guests entertained with his wit and rhetorical skill, and consume vast amounts of wine without passing out. This last piece is critical because there is no sipping of wine in Georgia. It must be tossed back, like a shot with each toast, of which there are many. 

My first supra began sometime around 3 p.m. and didn’t end until near midnight and, even then, only because we had to drive back over a mountain range to Tbilisi. There were many supras to come as the Georgians are a hospitable people and will pull out their homemade wine during almost any occasion - while hiking, at breakfast, during a long bus ride, or even midday at work to honor a co-worker’s wife’s sister’s birthday. 

Georgian wine production has faced tough times in recent years, from the crumbling of the Soviet Union and restructuring of the entire Georgian agricultural economy to the Russian wine embargo. But Georgian wines, once highly prized within the Soviet Union, are making a comeback, this time on the international stage. Although primarily exported to the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Latvia, they are becoming available within the United States and other countries outside the region. Give them a try if you find one. The Tsinandali wines, a blend of Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane grapes from the Kakheti region, are my favorite.

6 comments:

  1. Fascinating story. I almost never associate wine with this part of the world! I'll be on the hunt for Tsinandali wines now. Love the video too -- what fun.

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  2. I hadn't either. But wine seems to be the first thing Russians think of when you mention Georgia.

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  3. I used to drink Georgian wine when I lived in East Germany. It was some of the best of what you could get there. I sipped it though. :) The supra sounds like a lot of fun. Do they sing as well or just play instruments like in the clip?

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  4. Some of the men at the party (not the musicians) were singing during that supra, and dancing too. But yeah, they do sing and have a lot of interesting folk songs and I LOVE Georgian dancing. A future post I think, I've got lots of video clips.

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  5. Oh boy, there were even songs about Tsinandali, and yes, Georgian wines were very popular. Georgians drink wine like water, and drive up and down the serpentine mountain-side roads afterwards. I’ve sat through a drive like that once, with my eyes wide-open and my heart diving into my stomach as we drove on the side of an abyss, while our seriously intoxicated Georgian friend sang songs as he steered. I kept wondering if we were going to make it back to Tbilisi alive, but he kept laughing at my fears, because, he said “he’s done it every week of his adult life.”

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  6. I had very similar experiences, Lina.

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