Every culture lays claim to some gift they developed and gave to the world. But few countries can argue that their contribution is perhaps the most cherished delicacy of all time. In what is now Mexico chocolate was pioneered, and the origin of coffee can be traced back to regions in Ethiopia, but Georgia holds the royal flush in this global secret Santa, because Georgia gave us a truly magical beverage, Georgia gave us wine.
Of course the examples above are highly contested and the creation of wine is no different. A fierce, eight to nine thousand year debate has been going on between the Georgians and Armenians over who truly has the right to lay this claim, but with relics of the wine making process dating back to 6 or even 7000B.C. there is no doubt Georgia is as O.G. in the grape fermentation process as anyone.
As I sat, sweating, on a fairly uninteresting and stuffy bus ride I was suddenly startled. Around a quick bend dense foliage gave way and a massive drop-off revealed that not only had the journey been up a steady climb, but I was in fact atop a plateau below which rested the expansive Alazani Valley. Perched across the empty space of a bend in the cliff face, Sighnaghi emerged and my jaw dropped. The town looks like a slice of northern Italy gazing down into the fertile grape producing valley. Across the deep valley plain a gargantuan border wall built by eons of tectonic activity stands guard holding back Russian expansion. This initial glimpse, a sight I was wholly unprepared for, marked my entry into the Georgian wine country.
Sighnaghi is a sleepy, old, and delightfully relaxing town. Cobble stone streets are lined with antique stone buildings adorned with terracotta roofs. The small family operated wineries offer tasty food along with sampling’s of their fermented creations. From vine covered terraces a grand panorama enhances the sipping experience. In Sighnaghi, wine is still made in the traditional Georgian fashion. Mashed grape juice, along with all grape solids (skins, seeds, and stems), is transferred into egg shaped clay vessels called a qvevri. The qvevri is buried underground in a cellar type environment and natural yeast in the clay begins the fermentation process.
It is common in Georgian wine production to leave the grape solids in the fermenting wine for months, creating an extremely flavorful, complex, and totally unique character compared to what is found in the modern processes used to make French, Italian, or any other wine found on shelves. This also intensifies the wine coloring making whites more amber and reds that approach black. Going into my first wine tasting I was taken aback by just how different the wine was from styles I am familiar with and by how delicious it all was. The qvevri process of wine production is naturally limiting in the volume a winery can produce as each buried tank requires much more attention, and produces much less, than its modern stainless steel counterpart. The wine you taste in Sighnaghi is usually family made and small batch adding a personal note to each twirl and sip. This is not to say that Georgia does not have a more modern and large scale wine industry budding up, it just doesn’t happen to have the same shimmer that makes the traditional stuff drink so well.
Though the professional wineries make some fantastic vintages, no Georgian adventure could possibly be considered complete without having some homegrown vino. Everybody, and I mean everybody makes wine of some fashion in Georgia, and if you aren’t in the mood for a glass...too bad. Perhaps the number one past time in the country is sharing wine and ‘no’ is not an answer that will be taken. In Sighnaghi I had my first true run in with this as an old couple caught a glimpse of Abi and I wandering back to our guest house. An older woman ran out of her home, grabbed my arm, and insisted (in Georgian of course) that I come in for a drink. I tried to wiggle out of the situation as things like this generally trigger every awkward bone in my body to twitch, but there was no escaping. Before I knew it I was seated on their living room and wine was served along with homemade snacks including chuchkhela*, a string of walnuts coated in a sweetened grape jelly leftover from the wine making process. The wine was good, and the couple was excited to share all about their small vineyards in the valley where they harvest the grapes and about their children who live and work in Tbilisi. However, these events tend to take a dark turn when Cha-cha is presented. Like Greece or Italy, the liquid that can’t be used for wine is distilled into a brutal, lighter fluid type spirit that sends chills down my spine on thought. It’s awful, awful stuff but again ‘no thanks’ is not an accepted phrase and I had to channel every bit of college left in me to not vomit at the site of a glass poured in front of me. After a few days in this small town where few tourists stay longer than a night, I had to find back ways home in the evening to avoid all of my overly eager neighbors, lest I succumb to alcohol poisoning.
Beyond wine, this quaint town has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Two kilometers away an immaculately landscaped monastery is a perfect example of Georgians’ propensity to put churches in the loveliest locations possible. A few additional relics of times past: more churches, an epic view wielding city wall, etc... entertained me while I relaxed the days away in a gloriously comfortable guesthouse that provided equally magnificent home cooked food. As I took in all this rest and calm my mind was slowly beginning to drift ahead, across the valley, and into the higher altitude of the Caucasus.
*Chuchkhela: It’s made like a candle, dip and dry, dip and dry. It’s delicious, and makes a great hiking snack. Often it’s referred to as a Georgian Snickers