Forget France – this Eurasian country is ideal for a post-lockdown wine holiday

Mark Stratton
·8-min read
Sighnaghi’s eighth-century Bodbe Monastery - Maksim Ozerov
Sighnaghi’s eighth-century Bodbe Monastery - Maksim Ozerov

Crossing himself after the earthenware qvevri is unsealed, winemaker Gia Gamtkitsulashvili ladles the fresh rkatsiteli wine into a pitcher to a round of applause from an expectant gathering. His qvevri wine is amber, like sap that has frozen in aspic, from vineyards flourishing in the sun-kissed valleys between the snowy Caucasus Mountains.

“I’m happy,” he says. “It’s been in the qvevri for six months, the acidity is balanced, the colour is light. This is how the oldest wine in the world looks.” If one word finagles its way into the lexis of travel this summer, it might be “qvevri”. These lemon-shaped clay vessels have been used to ferment Georgian wines since the sixth millennia BC – and if Covid-19 continues to disrupt major wine tourism destinations such as France, Georgia is waiting in the wings, well-placed after becoming one of the first countries to accept fully vaccinated passengers, without test or quarantine.

Some restrictions remain (including a 9pm-5am curfew), yet the Georgian embassy in London expects these to lift soon as their vaccination programme gets under way. “British travellers can come now to enjoy Georgian hospitality and learn about our distinctive culture and wine,” says ambassador Sophie Katsarava. She notes that interest in Georgian wine was already on the rise, with exports to the UK growing 155 per cent during 2020 to a tremendous half a million bottles.

A sculpture atop the old fortifications in Sighnaghi, the capital of the Kakheti wine region  - Ruslan Kalnitsky/Alamy
A sculpture atop the old fortifications in Sighnaghi, the capital of the Kakheti wine region - Ruslan Kalnitsky/Alamy

I arrived in Tbilisi from Armenia in early April, evading travel restrictions with the help of a BBC exemption to cover the aftermath of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. I intended to stay only a few days, but – while exploring my Airbnb’s bohemian locale near Aghmashenebeli Avenue – sought an introduction to Georgian wines at a vintner called Wine Gallery... and promptly extended my stay.

Wine Gallery’s Victoria Ponomarenko says Georgia possesses 525 grape varieties, of which the white grapes manifest amber under their qvevri technique. This amber colouration is due to the contact of juices fermenting alongside unremoved skins, stems and pips – the tannins remaining high while the natural skin yeast converts sugar into alcohol. But this colour troubles me: it looks like sherry, which I detest, and on my first tasting the amber tannins are overpoweringly bitter.

Amber rkatsiteli wine is pumped out of qvevri into containers - Mark Stratton
Amber rkatsiteli wine is pumped out of qvevri into containers - Mark Stratton

Yet Ponomarenko persists, urging me to visit the mountainous eastern region of Kakheti, bordering Russia and Azerbaijan, Georgia’s cradle of winemaking, where 75 per cent of wines are produced. Thus I arrange a three-day tour with Levan Chalauri, who hasn’t guided for a year. “Allowing vaccinated travellers will help our economy to return to normal, as in 2019 we had 6 million visitors, almost twice the Georgian population,” he explains.

Driving east, vineyards and marani (cellars) dominate farmlands where Chalauri says every household makes its own wine. And upon reaching Kakheti’s wine capital, Sighnaghi, a fortified town overlooking the Alazani Valley, there is little doubt in my mind that wine permeates not just Georgia’s geography, but its spiritual fabric too, transcending a hazy continuum between paganism and Christianity. At Sighnaghi’s 8th-century Bodbe Monastery, where black-robed nuns light crackling candles, are the remains of St Nino, who arrived from Turkey in the 4th century to evangelise the Georgians. She curried favour by hauling a cross made from grape-wood, and her white marble tomb is embellished with a grape motif.

Her Saintliness probably meant she abstained from partaking in Georgia’s amber nectar, but I didn’t. Wine-tasting is widespread and sessions typically offer flights of five qvevri wines: likely an ubiquitous amber rkatsiteli, a dry saperavi red, and perhaps its semi-sweet cousin, kindzmarauli (enjoyed by Georgia’s most notorious son, the sweet-toothed Stalin). Tastings end – alongside all reasoning – with chacha, a grappa-like spirit with an alcohol content upwards of 50 per cent, distilled from the qvevri pomace.

I’m already sold on saperavi, but at our first winery in Sighnaghi, Pheasant’s Tears, I undergo a Damascene conversion to the amber side, thunderstruck by a 2018 rkatsiteli: bitter yet minerally, sharply refreshing, and hued like liquid sun. The qvevri they are fashioned in are made by Zaza Kbilashvili, a fourth-generation potter. He is busy making eight 2,500-litre qvevri in his studio nearby, which is open to visitors, hand-building 10cm of clay every three days, before wood-firing them in a brick kiln, the whole process a painstaking three months per jar.

Babaneuris vinyard and owner Vakhtang Idoidze - Mark Stratton
Babaneuris vinyard and owner Vakhtang Idoidze - Mark Stratton

He coats the interior with beeswax (easier for cleaning with a cherry-bark brush) and applies exterior lime concrete, a natural antiseptic. “Qvevri allow the wines to breathe, and when buried they draw positive energy from the soil and solar system,” he says. Beyond the 11th-century Alaverdi Monastery, radiant in bubblegum-pink peach blossom and where monks ferment a cheeky little semi-sweet red, the seven-room Hotel Babaneuris Winery demonstrates that Georgia has the accommodation to match its wine-tourism ambitions. My room has a Chateau Lafitte view into the Caucasus, framed by lime and elm woodland. The restaurant serves vine-leaf wrapped dolma and allows diners to peer through a glass wall into their production marani where 24 qvevri have disgorged their 2020 vintage.

“You can watch the harvest and maceration of grapes in September while having breakfast,” says Babaneuris-owner Vakhtang Idoidze, an earnest mountain man from Tusheti, near Chechnya, who learned winemaking from his father and took over this vineyard in 2005. We enter the marani after a breakfast buffet featuring salty mountain cheese and home-made bread.

“For the first weeks before the qvevri are sealed I stir the wine every three or four hours, or it will end up as vinegar,” says Idoidze. “I am with the qvevri all day long. My wife hates me then.” The grape material that floats upwards must be pushed down into the qvevri depths so it – in his words – can be “reborn”.

“People think our qvevri technique is unsophisticated, but it’s a technology created over 8,000 years. Who knows how it began? Maybe just wild grapes in a pot that fermented, and the locals got drunk eating them.” We leave late morning to explore ancient Christian sites where wine production features. Kakheti was a kingdom in its own right until incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1801. Archaeologists found evidence at the old capital, Gremi, of winepresses and storage, and when sacked in 1616 by Shah Abbas, the Persian invaders cut out the vines.

Zaza Kbilashvili holds a vessel of potent chacha made with tarragon  - Mark Stratton
Zaza Kbilashvili holds a vessel of potent chacha made with tarragon - Mark Stratton

“Throughout history invaders have cut our vines; it’s like they wanted to cut out the Georgian soul,” says Chalauri. Likewise, a marani exists at the 6th-century hilltop Nekresi Monastery, founded by an injudicious Assyrian apostle who doused the local Zoroastrians’ fire with holy water and was promptly stoned to death.

The profoundest impact on Georgia’s wine industry came, however, during Soviet domination. Nuna Kardenakhilishvili, a grandmotherly figure in flowing skirts, remembers it well: her marani in the Velitrikhe Valley uses qvevri she unearthed from the 16th-century. “Qvevri are like us. They are born, they live, and die,” she eulogises. Still, her wines are rustic, indigestibly acidic, although I dare not say anything while she rails against the “snobbish” European winemakers and their fancy vintages. “I say to them my wines are vintage, influenced by the 16th century. They don’t taste of ‘almonds’ or ‘cherries’, just grapes.” She explains that, during Soviet times, villagers – somewhat surprisingly – sold wine to the US. “It was a wild time trying to get it out of the USSR, especially after Gorbachev introduced anti-alcohol prohibition in 1985. The Soviets never cared about quality, only quantity, so grape varieties with low yields like Kisi disappeared.” Then, she laughs. “To up the Soviets’ quota, people were processing grapes in the same tanks as pesticide. Although the Kremlin only got the best wines.”

By contrast, I found old-world sophistication that evening on Vazisubani Estate, where a serene nobleman’s mansion from 1891 lies amid chestnut and sycamore parkland and 35 hectares of vines. This hotel’s rooms have big bathtubs and parquet flooring, and the wines are smooth and balanced. I love the velvety, appley hint of their 2018 rkhatsiteli and the refinement of a saperavi matured for 10 months post-qvevri in a steel tank, inducing a rioja-like spiciness. Their creator is 11th-generation winemaker Lado Uzunashvili, whose ancestors’ wines were lauded by tsar Nicholas II. He started in wine by cleaning out the qvevri aged 11. “I fell in love with the labour of winemaking, watching the pruning and crushing the grapes,” he says.

Returning to Tbilisi, my final act entails visiting the National Museum. On its third floor is something profound: the wine equivalent of Lucy the hominin skeleton: a clay-baked qvevri embossed with grapes in which organic and chemical analysis dates Georgian winemaking back 8,000 years. A nascence, either chance or otherwise, that triggered the fermentation of our liquid lust for the ripening grape.

Regent Holidays (020 7666 1244; regent-holidays.co.uk) are Georgia specialists. The eight-day “Cultural Landscapes of Georgia” tour, which takes in Kakheti and can be tailor-made to those with an interest in wine, costs from £2,100 per person (based on two sharing), and includes return flights to Tbilisi, half-board accommo-dation, transfers, and an English-speaking guide. At time of publishing, overseas holidays were subject to restrictions. Check the relevant guidance before booking and travelling.