Georgians have been making wine for 8000 years, they say. They do it in clay pots called qvevri, buried in the ground. Grapes trodden in a log ‘canoe’ are fermented with skins. Nothing is added and nothing is taken out. Ghvino Underground in Tbilisi is the place to taste top natural wines of Georgia
REVIVING A LOST ART
During Soviet times, traditional Georgian winemaking was almost lost. The emphasis was on churning out vast quantities of cheap and nasty industrial plonk in factories to quench the Russian thirst. Since independence, a handful of committed Georgians are striving to revive the ancient art of qvevri winemaking. Ramaz Nikoladze of Ghvino Underground Wine Bar is one of them.
Murtaz drove us to Ghvino Underground on Galaktion Tabidze Street, near Freedom Square. The basement bar was dimly lit and cool. There were photographs of natural wine makers on the walls and bottles were stacked everywhere. We sat at a long wooden table with old sewing-machine stands for legs. Ramaz poured the first wine.
DIDIMI’S KRAKHUNA 2013
The label simply said “I am Didimi from Dimi and this is my Krakhuna.” Krakhuna, a white grape, is indigenous to the Imereti in the west of Georgia and is mostly found in the village of Dimi where seventy year old Didimi lives. Krakhuna makes fruity wines with fresh acidity. Didimi made only 800 bottles of this white in qvevri using natural yeasts, with little or no skin contact. He bottled it without filtration and added no sulphur. The nose is not floral but the wine has fine flavours of ripe pear and good acidity. I liked it.
KISI FROM NAOTARIS 2013
Kisi is indigenous to Kakheti in south-eastern Georgia. The Naotaris wine has had six months skin contact in the qvevri. At first, white wine with prolonged skin contact is a shock to the system. The tannins make you wince but there is plenty of fruit and flavours of dried apricot and orange and soon you get used to the taste. The wine was orange in colour and smelled actually of orange peel. “It is great with grilled leg of lamb and garlic” Ramaz said.
GOTSA’S MTSVANE 2012
Gotsa is a small winery run by the Godzadse family in the village of Kiketi, 25 kilometres from Tbilisi. Babaneuri is an ancient village in the foothills of the Greater Caucasus in northern Kakheti. Mtsvane makes high quality, crisp whites with tropical fruit aromas and relatively high acidity. The amber coloured Gotsa from the Babaneuri Valley takes some getting used to! The intense tannins and the oxidative style makes it a hard wine to swallow.
Rkatsiteli is one of the most ancient grape varieties in Georgia and today, is the most widely planted white. It is very close to local wild vines and Georgians are supposed to have found 3000 BC qvevri with Rkatsiteli seeds in them. It is supposed to be the first vine planted by Noah when he came out of the Ark. When vinified on skins in qvevri, the wine is often amber coloured and has flavours of apple skin. This one was almost brown, had fine fruit aromas and was full of flavour. The 14.5% alcohol was not felt. It was a lovely wine.
OTSKHANURI SAPERAVI 2013
Saperavi is the quintessential Georgian red grape with deep black skin and pink juice. It is an ancient variety from south-western Georgia which spread to Kartli and then to Kakheti where it is well established. It is the most planted red grape in Georgia and produces full bodied, age worthy wines with high colour, tannins and acidity. This is a fine, dark, extracted qvevri wine from organic grapes with already soft tannins. It is the only wine Amiran Vepkhvadze makes in his Otskhanuri winey in Imereti with about fifteen days of skin contact in the qvevri.
ARTANULI SAPERAVI 2013
This had the unmistakable aroma and flavour of a qvevri wine, was dark but had a lighter body than the Otskhanuri.
The last red was from the Jakeli family’s 6 ha organic vineyard in the famous saperavi village of Kashmi in Kakheti. It was the only wine of the evening that was not made in a qvevri. The grapes were vilified in stainless steel tanks and aged in French oak barrels for 30 months. It was soft, gentle and incredibly lovely and was a great finale to a fantastic evening of natural wine tasting.
Before we left, Ramaz poured us what he called Honey Brandy – a clear spirit with honey like smell and taste. Less said about it, the better!
There is a little tea shop next to Ghvino Underground and we stepped in to look and buy. Tea was first planted in the Guria region of Georgia in 1830 when Prince Miha Eristavi smuggled tea seeds from China in a bamboo cane. In recent years, over 2500 ha of tea has been planted in Ozurgeti region. Georgian black tea is fragrant and has a pleasant flavour.
DINNER AT KOPALA
Suddenly the sky darkened and it began to pour with rain. As we drove up the hill towards Kopala Restaurant for dinner, the torrential rain was too much for the old Tbilisi gutters and water was gushing downhill and submerging the pavements. We ate well at Kopala. There was the obligatory tomato and cucumber salad without dressing, pickled vegetables, cheese, corn and gorgeous flat Georgian bread, chicken in a spicy sauce, bean stew, bean pie, mushrooms with cheese, Georgian sausage and fruit & coffee at the end. We drank Mtsvane throughout.
Afterwards, we stood on the balcony and gazed at floodlit Narikala. The pianist inside was in full swing and jiving seemed the right thing to do. “They will throw you out” somebody murmured, but the pianist smiled and nodded as we danced.
As we walked towards the Old Tiflis, the rain had stopped and there was that strange earthy smell you get after rain following a dry spell. ‘Tomorrow should be a dry day’ I thought. We were to drive over the mountains to Kakheti in the morning.