The country of Georgia is probably the birthplace of wine. The most recent archaeological evidence suggests that 8,000 years ago, winemakers were already at work in a village 20 miles south of Tbilisi. Amazingly, the Neolithic pots in which scientists discovered the wine residue resemble qvevri (kway-vree), large, beeswax-lined clay vessels still used by many Georgian wineries to this day.
Over the millennia, numerous invading armies trampled vineyards and tore up vines, and within living memory, the Soviets suppressed traditional winemaking techniques in favor of factory-scale production. Yet the ancient traditions survive, giving Georgians (and anyone who drinks their wines) a tangible link to their deep history.
Most menus here will include wines fermented in qvevri, as well as those produced by the familiar method to which non-Georgians are accustomed. I recommend opting for the former at any opportunity, as these wines are Georgia’s most exciting and unusual. Even white wines produced in this manner tend to be startlingly tannic, ending on that dry, rasping note usually associated with big reds.
Georgia also has some 500 indigenous grape varieties, though only a few appear on wine lists with any regularity.
Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane are two of the most common and reliable whites, and inky-dark Saperavi is by far the most popular red. But I’m also a fan of Tavkveri and the lighter Shavkapito.
Of Georgia’s several wine-growing regions, Kakheti, east of Tbilisi, best serves the traveler interested in comfortable accommodations, sophisticated restaurants and welcoming tasting rooms. In addition, Kakheti occupies a broad valley up against the Caucasus Mountains, giving it more than its fair share of scenic splendor. The Hotel Kabadoni, in the beautifully restored hill town of Sighnaghi, is the best base.
In addition to the wineries below, I recommend visiting Okro’s Wines in downtown Sighnaghi. Okro’s makes delicious natural, qvevri-fermented wines, and I regretted not leaving time to stop by.
The magnificent gardens and early-19th-century palace of this estate have been beautifully restored, and they merit a visit whether one drinks wine or not. The guided tour of the palace was fascinating. Prince Alexander Chavchavadze introduced European-style winemaking to Georgia, and the wines produced by his label are delicious to this day. The palace’s basement tasting bar provides a surprisingly contemporary and stylish space in which to try them.
Village Tsinandali. Tel. (995) 57-070-1212
Orgo’s winemaker, Temur Dakishvili, is the son of Giorgi Dakishvili, acclaimed winemaker at Schuchmann (see below) and an early adopter of qvevri in commercial wine production following the breakup of the Soviet Union. We met Orgo’s friendly director, Vano Khmiadashvili, who showed us some of the qvevri as well as the cellars, where Orgo hand-riddles bottles of sparkling Mtsvane. I loved the exotic wines we sampled in the cozy tasting room, which we had entirely to ourselves. The rich and juicy Rkatsiteli developed slowly and deliberately, the sensual Tsolikouri’s peach blossom and spice notes mingled with zesty acids and hefty tannins, and the Saperavi from 50-year-old vineyards had superb balance, with ripe black currant fruit, pink peppercorn spice and refined tannins.
Village Kisiskhevi, Telavi. Tel. (995) 57-750-8870
I liked the Schuchmann Hotel, but I loved Schuchmann’s wines. Winemaker Giorgi Dakishvili is one of the most important figures in Georgian wine, and Schuchmann’s bottlings reflect his talent. We took a tour with the restaurant’s engaging sommelier, Luka Bakhsoliani, who had a startling knowledge of wine, considering he was 20 years old when we met. Schuchmann makes excellent European-style bottlings, but I asked Bakhsoliani to give us samples from the winery’s qvevri-fermented Vinoterra label. The captivating Mtsvane burst with ripe stone fruit, and its tannins proved surprisingly supple. The Kisi was also big, fruity and tannic, but unlike many Kisis, it maintained careful balance. And the luscious Saperavi, fermented in qvevri and aged in oak, would feel right at home on the wine list of an expensive steakhouse.
Village Kisiskhevi, Telavi. Tel. (995) 79-055-7045
One of Kakheti’s most famous wineries, Khareba is no stranger to tourists. It still merits a visit, however, because the tastings take place in tunnels, built in 1959 for aging wine, that penetrate deep into a mountainside. The winery thoughtfully provides private guides and blankets to wrap around your shoulders — the tunnels are naturally at cellar temperature. Mariami put together a fascinating tasting comparing three wines produced in the European method with three fermented in qvevri. Cooking classes are also available.
Kvareli. Tel. (995) 32-249-7770
No list of top Georgian wineries dares to exclude this curiously named venture (the name refers to a Georgian folk tale). Georgian winemaker Gela Patalishvili persuaded an American expat artist, John Wurdeman, to found this winery in 2007. It has become perhaps the most famous in the country, notable for its dedication to and promotion of natural wine (made in qvevri organically and with minimal intervention). Its homey restaurant in Sighnaghi is an ideal place to try its excellent wines together with superb local cuisine. To pair with a salad of smoked cauliflower with currants and cilantro, a bowl of wild mushrooms with chile flakes and onion, and a plate of khachapuri (cheese bread), Wurdeman’s gracious assistant, Jean-Paul, poured six wines. All were delicious. Standouts included a peachy and almondy Chinuri, a rare Shavkapito redolent of plums and violets, and the unique “Poliphonia,” a field blend of some 417 grape varieties.
18 Baratashvili Street, Sighnaghi. Tel. (995) 59-872-2848
We met Paul Rodzianko, the American chairman and director of this Sighnaghi winery near Pheasant’s Tears, during a power outage. He poured us some “contraband” Ukrainian wine from Crimea while we waited for electricity to return and gave us a tour of his qvevri-filled cellar. With power restored, we settled on the winery’s valley-view terrace with some cheese and fresh shoti bread. Rodzianko’s wines tended toward the savory and nutty, which won’t please all palates. But tasting with Rodzianko is great fun. He’s a charming curmudgeon with a wry sense of humor who “invented the Georgian wine tasting” (tasting a wine both from a glass and from a clay bowl). Don’t miss the taut and well-integrated Gogi’s Wine blend of Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane and Chinuri, or the sherry-like Field Blend.
Cradle of Wine Marani
41 Baratashvili Street, Sighnaghi. Tel. (995) 59-564-1755