The Oldest Newest Wine Region in the World
The wine in the glass in my hand was the black-purple of a plum on a plate the color of night. It smelled of ripe plums, too, and had been made by a 9-year-old boy.
I was sitting at a table at Bina N37, a restaurant in Georgia’s capital city of Tbilisi located in a residential building (the name translates to “apartment number 37”). It’s owned by Zura Natroshvili, a former doctor, and his wife, Nino Baliashvili, who still is a doctor. Originally the apartment was going to be their family home, but after Natroshvili started making wine on the terrace outside, he decided, using logic that may be opaque to most people, that it made more sense to open a restaurant in it instead.
The terrace itself was originally supposed to have a pool for Natroshvili’s son, Irakli. But once Natroshvili added a raised platform of sand and pebbles and buried 42 qvevri on it—qvevri, pronounced “kwev-ree,” are the large, beeswax-lined earthenware jars used in traditional Georgian winemaking—the pool was a nonstarter.
“So I told Irakli, ‘Listen, instead of a pool, you can make your own wine and sell it.’ And he was like, ‘OK, sounds good!’ He’d saved up about 500 lari, so we bought a qvevri and some Saperavi grapes with that, and a year later he made 1,200 lari selling his wine.” Natroshvili told me all this over plates of qartuli salata, Georgia’s omnipresent cucumber-and-tomato salad; pkhali, a pâté-like dish of finely chopped greens and ground walnuts; and bowls of spicy, garlicky, entirely addictive marinated cherries. They were the first few courses of a meal that was going to last well into the night. Irakli, sitting next to him, looked shy but proud.
Whether or not he knew it, Irakli was carrying on a winemaking tradition stretching back more than 8,000 years. Based on archaeological evidence, it’s the oldest on earth. But it was nearly midnight. When you’re 9, even if you’re carrying a torch lit from a fire first kindled in the Neolithic era, that means it’s well past bedtime.
Tasting traditionally made wine in Georgia—which means wine fermented and aged in qvevri that have been buried in the earth, wine without industrial yeasts and without additives, wine as simple and mysterious as wine innately can be—is like taking a trip back through those eight millennia. Nestled between the Greater Caucasus and Lesser Caucasus mountains, Georgia forms a bridge between Asia and Europe. Over the centuries, invaders swept through it: Persian, Greek, Roman; Turks, Mongols, Russians. And through all that, Georgians have gone on making wine. (Cooking, too: Georgian cuisine balances Asian, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European traditions, and borrows, deliciously, from all of them.)
The day after my dinner at Bina N37, I headed north from Tbilisi to visit Iago, both the name of the winery and the man himself, Iago Bitarishvili. That’s characteristic of wine culture here. Most Georgians drink truly local wine, meaning wine that you get from the guy down the road who you’ve been getting wine from since, well, whenever. (It’s like recommendations for car mechanics used to be: “Transmission? Oh yeah, I know a guy. He’s great.”)
But about 15 years ago things started to change, and some of those down-the-road winemakers started bottling and selling their wine further afield, first in Tbilisi, and now throughout the world. Bitarishvili was in the vanguard of that revolution. Lean and bearded with penetrating green eyes, he tells me, “In 2003 I started to bottle and sell my wine. That’s the only thing I do different from my father, from my grandfather.” I ask him how long his family has made wine. He says he has no idea. But now he helps organize the yearly New Wine Festival held in Tbilisi. Another sign of changing times: In 2009, when he and his partners launched the event, they could only find 15 wineries to participate. In 2017, there were more than 400.
Bitarishvili pours me an amber-orange glass of his 2016 Chinuri. The wine’s aroma is lightly resinous; its flavor suggests apricots and dry herbs. The wine is complex, but the winemaking is deceptively simple. Grapes—their skins, pulp, seeds, and stems—go into the qvevri (a traditional Georgian winery looks like a room with circular holes in the floor, since the qvevri are buried up to their necks in the ground). The qvevri are sealed, the yeasts on the skins of the grapes do their work, and between three and six months later, the qvevri are opened. Skins, stems, and seeds are ladled out, and the wine is moved to another qvevri to age until it’s ready. Bitarishvili says, “You also have to be skinny to make wine in Georgia because you have to climb into the qvevri to clean them out.”
He adds: “I say to people, ‘Don’t say anything about our wine after one glass. Don’t judge it after one glass.’ If you take a wolf out of nature, it changes. Wine is the same.”
Later I'm at the wine bar Vino Underground back in Tbilisi, drinking a glass of the 2017 Kereselidze Wine Cellar Aleksandrouli-Mujuretuli. I’m thinking several things. First, that I like this intense, feral red very much. Second, I will never in my life know how to pronounce its name. And third, that the song playing on the speakers is by the Foo Fighters. Have you taken a Georgian wine out of nature if you’re drinking it to “My Hero”? I don’t know.
What I do know: It’s impossible to extract Georgian wine from Georgia’s history. At Papari Valley winery, owner Nukri Kurdadze tells me, “During the Soviet era, the qvevri tradition was almost extinguished.” That is also true of many of the more than 400 local Georgian grape varieties. “But Georgian grapes survived because of Georgian farmers. We’re rebellious.” Over a glass of his amber 2016 Rkatsiteli, a powerfully tannic white with a tangerine-like scent, he adds, “The only word I can use to describe how I felt when the U.S.S.R. fell is happiness. I could not imagine this monster could collapse. I can survive any kind of hardship, but my only dream is that what happened here during the Soviet era never happens again for me or for my children.”
Wine here feels woven into the fabric of life in a way that may once have been the case in Europe but isn’t really anymore. There’s wine everywhere: at every meal, in every home. Every village market, every gas station, every roadside stall selling random plastic buckets and boxes of Persil detergent also sells wine—usually in recycled plastic water bottles, label-less, made by this or that neighbor, as omnipresent as water and as necessary. At the Shavnabada Monastery outside Tbilisi, Brother Markus says, “Everything is special, but wine needs special care.”
He’s in his early thirties, with a lustrous black beard and a gentle manner. We’re in the cellar at Shavnabada, a Georgian Orthodox monastery originally built in the 12th century and rebuilt in the 17th, shut down again in the Soviet era and reopened after that. Eleven monks live and work here. All around the stone building the boxwoods are in bloom, and the air is filled with their scent. Brother Markus’ cell phone rings—the ringtone is the brrring, brrring of an old-fashioned rotary phone. He glances at it and puts it back in the pocket of his robe. As to why they started making wine again, he says, “Georgia is a country of hospitality. When someone comes to your home, you need to offer them bread and wine.”
A 2004 Mtsvane, a white wine that spent 13 years sealed in qvevri, is the color of burnished wood and tastes of nuts and smoke. A 2007 Saperavi is darkly currant-y, dry, and tart. He comments as I drink it, “We don’t filter our red wine or use any additives—that’s not a respectful thing to do to wine. It’s the blood of Jesus Christ.”
Typically, as a professional, I spit wines that I taste. At the moment that seems wildly inappropriate. Besides, the Saperavi is gorgeous. I drink it. Brother Markus adds, “Our purpose as monks is to make people happy. It’s not to make money. We put our soul and our heart into our wine, and that’s why it’s different. God is always present in this process.”
When I ask him if he ever thinks about people thousands of miles away, in Denver or Chicago or Seattle, drinking his wine, he says, “There is a God, and God is everywhere in the world. We don’t have to see each other to have that connection, so the U.S. is not that far, really.”
Supra: the word literally translatesas “tablecloth.” But, as I discover the next night at Pheasant’s Tears winery in the hilltop town of Sighnaghi, perched above the fertile Kakheti valley—what it really translates to is more like “massive, high-spirited feast involving endless plates of amazing food and enough wine to pickle an elephant.”
Pheasant’s Tears, founded in 2007 by an American expat and artist, John Wurdeman, and Gela Patalishvili, was one of the first Georgian wineries working in a traditional mode to send its wines to the U.S. (In many ways Wurdeman has functioned as an informal ambassador for Georgian wine as a whole.)
Supras are celebratory; they embody abundance and joy. They also require toasting—lots of it. As Natroshvili at Bina N37 had told me, “The first toast, at least in the west of the country, is always to God. In the east it’s to peace, since that part has always been at war. Then to people who passed on, to new life and to children, then to women, to love, friends, and on. At least 25. Usually more.” And with all those toasts, the food. At a supra, dishes arrive but are rarely removed when emptied. Soon the table lies under a sea of plates.
There are supras at weddings, supras at birthdays, supras at funerals, supras when your team wins or when your friends get together, supras because, what the hell, it’s Saturday. At Pheasant’s Tears that night the general reason was because Wurdeman was returning from a long trip, except his plane was delayed in Canada. His staff, who are all Georgian, decided to celebrate anyway.
Platters of foraged mushrooms with herbs; khachapuri, the buttery, cheese-filled flatbread; rolled thinly sliced eggplant with walnut sauce, or nigvziani badrijani; chakapuli, the country’s classic lamb stew with fresh tarragon; tender roast chicken in a milk-based garlic sauce, or shkmeruli—that was just the start. And with all that, the raised glasses: gaumarjos, or “victory,” the equivalent of our “cheers;” gagimarjos, or “here’s to you;” gadvimarjos, or “here’s to everyone.” I lost track. But late in the evening, fueled by several rounds of chacha—the Georgian version of grappa—we even ended up raising a toast to Freddie Mercury. The staff had decided karaoke was in order, resulting in an entire table of Georgians belting out “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” in something vaguely approximating the key of A major. In Georgia as in life, you come to understand, some things are universal: wine, food, friends, the human need for connection, and even “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Finding Georgian Wine
Georgian wines won’t be on the shelves in your supermarket, but they’re worth the hunt: Try using an app like Wine-Searcher. Here are five great ones to seek out.
2016 Papari Valley Chinuri Rkatsiteli Cuvee ($25) Amber-colored and lightly tannic, this blend of two of Georgia’s classic white grape varieties is toasty and savory.
2007 Shavnabada Saperavi ($35) Eight years in qvevri buried in the ground at the Shavnabada Monastery have given this powerful red layers of earthy complexity.
2016 Okro's Wines Rkatsiteli ($20) Orange-hued and with both tropical and tree-fruit notes, this traditionally made white comes from a small winery that also runs a very good restaurant in the hilltop town of Sighnaghi.
2014 Orgo Rkatsiteli ($20) Floral and apricot-y, this skin-fermented white comes from one of Georgia’s top winemakers, Gogi Dakishvili.
2015 Pheasant’s Tears Saperavi ($18) Inky-dark and plummy, this formidable red deserves some time in a decanter before pouring.