Georgia has a very legitimate claim to having the oldest wine region in the world, with earthenware jars containing residual wine compounds found in the country dating back 8,000 years. The importance of wine to Gerogia was noted by Stephen Batiuk, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto who stated that "Wine is central to civilisation as we know it in the West. As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopoeias, cuisines, economies and society in the ancient Near East."
Given we’re in Georgia’s premier wine region of Kakheti and that the ancient traditional Georgian winemaking method using Kvevri clay jars was added by UNESCO to their Intangible Cultural Heritage List, we thought it’d be rude not to do a wine tour, in the name of our own research of course.
We’re still keeping it in the family and have engaged the services of Nana’s other grandson, Levani, to take us on our tour, beginning at the beautiful Bodbe Monastery. Located only 2km from Signaghi, the Monastery of Saint Nino at Bodbe, as it is more formally known, is nestled amongst Cypress trees overlooking the Alazani Valley. In addition to still functioning as a nunnery today, it is also a major pilgrimage site due to its association with Saint Nino, who brought Christianity to the ancient Georgian Kingdom of Iberia (not to be confused with the Spanish Iberia) from the south around 320 AD. The present cathedral was built sometime around 850 AD on the original site of Saint Nino’s Church and contains the grave of Saint Nino.
Competing for attention at the Monastery, with its own grandeur, is the the free-standing bell tower which was built much later in the 19th century.
Our religious duties pretty much done for the day, it was time to do some serious wine hunting. Our first stop was at a traditional, organic winery, which has used the same earthenware (clay) jugs for the past 500 years! A total of 28 of these Kvevri jugs have been buried below ground, in traditional style, with each capable of holding between 500 and 3,000 litres. It’s hard to believe that this one room (and the subterranean cavities below) hold more than the equivalent of 44,000 bottles of wine!
No yeast or pasteurisation is used during wine production and even cleaning the jugs is done organically with a St Johns Wort cleaning brush that has natural antiseptic properties.
Of course, only taste will tell whether or not all this effort is worth it and we’re happy to report that the both wines we tried were superb. So good that Veronica immediately rushed out and bought a bottle. Another positive was that the pours were more than generous - in fact they ended up leaving the carafes with us, which was much appreciated, even if it was only 10.30am! At 10GEL each (about NZ$5.50) for an informative tour, a glass of red and white wine and another glass of Chacha, it was definitely good value for money.
As for the kids? They seemed to be taking today’s lesson on self sufficiency in their stride!
Next up was the famous “Winery Khareba”. The kids had decided that we shouldn’t really keep knocking back wine all day (spoilsports), so instead we opted to do the tour sans drinking at the magnificent complex in Kvareli. Near the entrance to the tour we got to see examples of the massive earthenware jugs that are used.
Then, having paid 5GEL each, we were attached to a guide and give our own private tour. With 15 tunnels, each measuring between 500 metre and 800 metres and covering a massive 7.7 kilometres in length, this place was seriously impressive.
The tunnels have a natural temperature of 12-14 degrees and humidity of 70% which is ideal for the 26,000 bottles that they have in storage.
As this was our second tour in the Kakheti region, we were old hands and very knowledgeable in what our guide was telling us, from the implements used, to wine making methods and ideal storage conditions. As such, Veronica started taking over the tour guide duties.
Khareba also had some very attractive grounds outside and a whole range of other touristic things to do such as baking your own bread, participating in harvest and foot pressing of grapes and Chacha making. There is also a high end restaurant located in the mountain which is connected to the tunnels. That one was a bit above our budge though. With a peaceful waterfall situated not far from the stone fire grill, Khareba certainly knows how to do things right.
Last up on the winery part of the tour was a visit to Kindzmarauli, which was also situated in Kvareli. This winery dates back to 1533 when it produced wine for the royal family of Kakheli.
The kids had graciously allowed us back on the vino wagon, but before we could kick off our group was serenaded by an Old Timey Georgian band. Somehow I managed to stop Veronica from buying the CD (who knew these were still produced?) and we were able to get down to the serious wine tasting experience.
It was noted that the pours from this winery weren’t nearly as generous as those at our first visit. It was also noted that the Sowerbys tend to deal in quantity, not quality.
As we’d joined mid way through a wine tour, we did our tour after the tasting.Kindzmarauli was a lot more modern and the tour was much more akin to what you’d find in New Zealand. This actually was quite cool as it meant that each of the three wineries we visited were quite different from one another. They still had the traditional wine making room but this was supplemented by a lot of wine that was produced in stainless steel tanks.
With a nice glow on, we were nearing the end of our tour. The last stop was to Gremi Citadel and the Church of the Archangels, which was a short drive from Kvarli and near the modern day town of Gremi.
Built in the 16th century when Gremi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kakheti, the Citadel is a real architectural gem. The entire complex consists of the Church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. a three-story castle, a bell tower and, most importantly, a wine cellar.
The beautiful splendour of the Gremi Citadel and Archangels Church complex was a fitting way to end what was a brilliant day. Having finally secured our luggage our restful time in Signaghi was also coming to an end. From here all roads lead to Tbilisi which we’re checking out for three days before revisiting in four weeks or so time for a prearranged catch up with friends of ours from Abu Dhabi.