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Georgia: The Ancient Cradle of Viniculture

underground cellar for storing wineIn 2017, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology found traces of the vitis vinifera (the Eurasian grape, which is present in 99.9% of all the world’s wine) on shards of Georgian pottery that could be dated back to 6,000 B.C.E. These findings unseated Iran, previously believed to be the most ancient producer of wine, and established Georgia as the custodians of an 8000-year-old tradition from which all other winemaking in the ancient world developed.

And the Georgians?  No doubt they just shrugged knowingly, perhaps smiled their infectious smiles and got right back to picking the grapes. In this ancient sun-drenched land that bridges Europe and Asia, wine is as much a part of everyday life as expansive hospitality, haunting polyphonic music, and an embrace of the joy of life that has proved immutable to millennia of occupation and war.

Georgian wine was well known in the ancient world, when the country was known as Colchis, famous for its “fizzy and sweet-as-honey-wine” mentioned by historians such as Xenophon and Apollonius of Rhodes. The wines of Transcaucasia were prized for their quality, and as the country fell prey to invasion and occupation, wine often was used to pay tribute and taxes to their overlords.

Then, as now, Georgian wine was made in large, wax-lined clay amphora called “qveri” (kver-ee). Qveri can vary in size from a 3000-liter vat to a small jug used at table, but its oval shape tapering to a single point is designed to facilitate being buried underground where the container’s contours create a natural swirl of liquid that encourages fermentation. The shape of smaller table qveri ensures that wine must be savored to the last drop since it is impossible to balance a qveri upright.

From the cradle of viniculture in the Trans-Caucasus, both the knowledge and the grape spread across Asia Minor to the shores of the Mediterranean and into Europe and ultimately the New World. As Christianity made its way along similar routes, Georgia was an early adopter of the new faith, baptized by beloved St. Nino, who fastened a cross of grapevines with locks of her own hair and carried the signature drooping cross into the country. The grapevine cross is a popular symbol in Georgia to this day and often found carved in stone or stamped on bottles of wine.

While methods of winemaking evolved in other parts of the world, Georgians clung stubbornly to their qveri and the practice of making both red and white wine in them with the grapes including their pips, skins, and occasionally the vine stalks for completely natural fermentation. This gives Georgian wines their particular taste and texture, redolent with the flavors of the fertile land they come from: rich reds such as Saparavi capture the pungency of dusky plums from rich soil with an unforgettable burst of flavor in the mouth. Making white wine with the ancillary parts of the grape is almost unique to Georgia and gives these whites a very different flavor from their European equivalents. Georgian whites lack acidity and are notable for their golden color and heavy fruit accents: you can practically taste apricots and other fruits in Georgian whites such as Rkatsiteli and Kisi.

Georgia was absorbed into the vast Russian empire in the nineteenth century, where the wines of the prosperous southern province enjoyed great popularity amongst the wealthy Russian nobility, many of whom invested in their own Georgian vineyards. Soviet rule with its emphasis on collectivization was less kind to the winemakers, although Georgian wines continued to win international prizes for their quality. Gorbachev’s ill-advised and entirely ineffective anti alcohol campaign in the final years of the Soviet Union was a short set back, but once Georgia achieved independence in the 1990s winemakers began to reach across international borders to collaborate with their European, Middle Eastern, and American colleagues. Subsequent decades have seen a dynamic renaissance of Georgian wines that have helped catapult the country into the forefront of exciting emerging travel destinations.

Visiting Georgia’s wine regions which encircle the country is a treat! The verdant, vine-covered hills surround charming towns where innovative entrepreneurs are opening tasting rooms, cellars, and restaurants to accommodate a growing number of visitors. While modern marketing methods are helping get the word out, the most successful winemakers in Georgia cling stubbornly to the 8000-year-old method of fermenting their wines naturally in qveri; a tradition recognized in 2013 by the coveted designation of the process and the amphorae as an UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Wine flows freely throughout any visit to Georgia, be it at a formal “Supra” or banquet, or an informal bottle shared in the sunshine on the shores of the Black Sea. Wine is an enduring symbol of this ancient country’s obsession with hospitality and love of life. Georgian legend says that only the most extraordinary and delectable wine can make peasants cry tears of joy, a challenge the Georgians have risen to for eight millennia.

Join Alexander + Roberts on an unforgettable voyage of discovery into the ancient lands of Transcaucasia on our original itinerary Georgia and the Caucasus, which includes a private wine tasting at the 12th century Alaverdi Monastery Winery in Kakheti.

Posted: 12/7/2018 3:01:26 PM by Alexander + Roberts