Legend says that when God was apportioning land to people, the Georgians were late. By the time they arrived, all the land had been given away. So the Georgians made an appeal: they were late because they’d stopped along the way to drink a toast to God! Pleased and flattered, God gave the Georgians the land he had been reserving for himself. And that is how the country of Georgia (Sakartvelo) came to be.
It’s a short legend that says a lot about the country. First, Georgians tend to run late, with a different sense of time than much of the West. Second, they have some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, and their country is an oasis in the middle of barren, desert-y land in Turkey, Russia, and Azerbaijan. Third, and perhaps most important, wine and its attending features, such as singing, dancing, and making toasts, are central to Georgian culture. Wine is in their legends, their history, their art, their feasts, their daily life, and as Zaza the qvevri maker said, in their blood and their bones.
I have had tasting tours in three different wine regions in France, discovering a love for crémant alongside choucroute garnie in the Alsace region. I’ve had the best Cab Sauv of my life in Napa Valley (it had a little jalapeno spiciness). I have met some passionate and devoted winemakers, but I’ve never seen a love for wine like I saw in Georgia. My guess is that collecting expensive bottles to keep forever in climate-controlled cellars would be as strange to most Georgians as collecting beautiful forks but storing them in a closet and eating your food with your hands instead. Silly and pointless. Loving and drinking wine for most Georgians is not about snobbery or elitism, and it isn’t about getting drunk. Instead, it is part of the fabric of everyday society–something to be celebrated, shared, and enjoyed.
Georgia is known as the cradle of wine, and it is the world’s oldest known wine culture. Evidence of wine consumption in Georgia dates to 6000 BC, making it an 8,000-year-old beverage. That’s a full 1,500 years before wine came to Greece. There is a 400-year-old vine, one of the oldest grapevines in the world, growing in a picturesque field of flowers and fruit trees in the village of Chachkari, which means “grape-skin door.” And Georgians grow at least 526 varieties of grapes, which helps you understand how sad it was for them to be reduced to only producing 5 grape varieties during the Soviet era. To this day, the Georgians make wine as they did in ages past, using giant egg-shaped clay pots called qvevri, which are listed as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.
We visited qvevri maker Zaza in Kakheti to learn about how these vessels are made. Zaza makes 16 qvevri at a time, and he adds about 10 centimeters of clay to each one, each day. When they are shaped, he hauls them to a giant oven in groups of 8, stacks bricks over the entrance to the oven (just a small hole to keep the fire stoked), and bakes them for a week. The qvevri are shipped to winemakers, buried in the ground, and filled with crushed grapes. Qvevri are perfect vessels for natural, organic winemaking. The egg shape means that the sediment will collect perfectly in the bottom. The skins are kept with the juice for weeks or even months, and they act as a natural filter, so that the wine pulled out of qvevri is clear and pure. The clay contains limestone, a natural antiseptic, and the qvevri’s thick sides and burial in the ground keep the wine perfectly temperature-controlled. Georgia’s classic qvevri wine is a beautiful amber color because the skins are kept with the juice for so long. Zaza gave us some of his qvevri wine to taste.
I was surprised to discover that this golden wine was not sweet; I was expecting it to be syrupy, even cloying. Its taste was somewhere between a red and a white: dry, grippy, slightly nutty, with a hint of citrus and a very slight herb taste (thyme? oregano?). These wines, with names like Saperavi and Rkatsiteli, are completely different from the endless parade of cabernets and chardonnays, unique and delicious.
We asked Zaza, a third generation qvevri maker, if he had children to carry on the business. He smiled and yes, both his sons had shown interest. He showed us a small qvevri, holding just a few liters of wine, and he beamed with pride when he told us it was made by his 7-year-old son. Over the mounds of clay piled in the yard, we could see a child’s plastic toy truck. Growing up smelling the pots baking in brick ovens and feeling qvevri clay beneath your fingernails and watching your father’s impassioned toil would seem like enough to put this art into your blood and your bones.
As we traveled through Georgia, we saw, smelled, heard, and tasted the importance of wine to Georgian culture. According to traditional accounts, the Enlightener of Georgia is St. Nino, a woman from Cappadocia who, in the 4th century, received a vision from the Virgin Mary, who told her to go to Georgia and presented her with a cross made of grapevines. When St. Nino awoke from the vision, she had the grapevine cross in hand and secured it with a lock of her hair. St. Nino’s cross, with drooping arms to remind you that it is curvy, twisty grapevine wood, is everywhere in Georgia. Wine is already part of the Georgian Orthodox Church through the sacrament, but it is also present in the cross of St. Nino and in Georgian icons that depict Madonna and Child cheek to cheek, with the Virgin holding a cluster of grapes.
Wine is ubiquitous in Georgian culture, especially in their art. When we visited the region of Kakheti, we walked along the World War II memorial wall in the town of Sighnaghi. It is covered with the names of people from the region who died in the war, and it depicts scenes of everyday life. What did Kakhetian soldiers dream about while they were fighting and dying in foreign lands? A life that revolved around wine: cultivating vineyards, harvesting grapes, making toasts. If you go just up the hill from the WWII mural, you can visit the Sighnaghi museum, and on the second floor, you can see a collection of paintings from Niko Pirosmani. A brilliant Georgian artist and inspiration to Picasso, Pirosmani lived in poverty and died in obscurity, but still managed to produce hundreds of
groundbreaking works that depicted scenes from Georgian history, culture, and daily life. Pirosmani was born in Kakheti, so naturally, many of his paintings include wine and its accoutrements: depictions of the grape harvest, qvevri, baskets overflowing with grapes, singing, dancing, and long tables of feasting. In the capital city of Tbilisi stands the Mother of Georgia, a 20 meter white statue presiding watchfully over her people beside Narikala fortress. America’s Statue of Liberty has a torch and a tablet, but the Mother of Georgia has a wine bowl and a sword. The wine bowl is meant to welcome her friends with toasts, while the sword is intended to
“welcome” her enemies with destruction. These items speak to a long history of invasion and war, as well as an unfailingly hospitable and celebratory spirit, which comes through in the Georgian veneration of wine.
While the artwork helped us understand wine’s historical importance, it was attending celebratory events and dinners with Georgian people that helped us understand its deep personal importance. One of our first nights in Tbilisi, we went out to a traditional Georgian restaurant with Carolyn and her wonderful Georgian family (whom we loved!), Valeri and Maya, and their sons Luka, Beka, and Saba. We were celebrating the eldest son Luka’s birthday, and we had a feast: pkhali, khachapuri, badrijani nigvzit, a tower of shashlik, salads, cheeses, and Saperavi, an almost-black red wine that stains the skin
immediately and smells like fresh earth. I should mention, as a side note, that phkali (an herb and walnut paste) and wine, both of which were part of that night’s feast, were found in the stomachs of people buried 2,500 years ago; we soon learned that to eat and drink in Georgia is to participate in thousands of years of history. That night’s dinner was followed by the presentation of traditional Georgian dances and songs. It all went together harmoniously, and it all made sense: the wine, the food, the singing, the dancing. I appreciated each one more deeply in light of the others. During one of the most touching songs, Carolyn was overwhelmed: she teared up and declared how much she loved Georgia, which has been her home for the past nine years. At that point, I had only been in the country for a few hours, so I didn’t yet understand her emotion, but I thought there must be something a little magical about a small country that could exert such powerful influence.
And then there was our visit to Lamara, a woman who runs a silkworm farm. She had prepared dinner on a scale that would be unthinkable for most American hosts, myself included. I counted how many dishes were on the table: 22 in all. She served us golden wine and brought out plate after plate after plate, covering the white lace tablecloth. After she brought out the last of the dishes, she began the tradition of making toasts. The first toast is to peace, the second is to those who have died, and the third is to the next generation: in this way, Georgians bless the present, honor the past, and look toward the future with hope. After those three, many more toasts were made, as Lamara and each of us, her guests, picked up a variety of themes. That’s how it continued over the next few hours: make a toast, clink everyone’s glasses (say “gaumarjos!”), eat more food, discuss the thing that the toast was about. We lifted our glasses as part of the rhythm of the evening, clinked our connection to everyone around the table. Even our stoic driver Lasha relaxed and cracked a few smiles during that dinner. The food was all delicious (Georgian food post forthcoming!), but because there were so many things to choose from, all our plates looked different. The wine was what we shared; the wine was all the same. The toasts, the conversation, and our connection with each other were all mediated by wine.
After 8 days in Georgia, I was beginning to understand what wine means to the Georgians. It goes beyond the swirling/sniffing/sipping/spitting that we tend to associate with wine aficionados. Wine’s roots extend deeply into Georgia’s ancient past, its tendrils emerge in their artwork, and its earthy smell surrounds Georgian tables where people connect to each other and affirm their cultural heritage. It truly is in their blood and their bones.