They have been making wine at Alaverdi for over a thousand years. Today, some of the best qvevri wines of Georgia come from this monastery
It is only a short drive through the vineyards from Ikalto to Alaverdi Monastery on the banks of the Alazani River. The pickers were out and open trucks laden with white and red grapes, mostly Rkatsiteli and Saperavi, were on their way to the wineries. No crates were in use and the fruit at the bottom was already crushed and probably fermenting in the hot sun. Yet, this exposure of juice to oxygen did not seem to bother the winemakers. Unless the wine is made deliberately in an oxidised style, one rarely encounters oxidised qvevri wine. They say it is the healthy fruit from healthy vines from chemical free vineyards where the soil is full of microbial life. The qvevri winemaking technique itself with extensive and prolonged contact with skins and stems, is supposed to protect the wine from oxidation and Georgian winemakers, without any fear, bottle their unfiltered wine with little or no sulphur. (Nicolas Joly of Clos de la Coulée de Serrant in the Loire once showed me his biodynamic Chenin Blanc decanted three days earlier and left exposed to air. It had no signs of oxidation and was lovely to drink. He too attributed it to organic viticulture and winemaking.)
The monastery was founded by one of the 13 Assyrian Fathers* Joseph Alaverdeli who arrived from Mesopotamia to strengthen Christianity in Georgia in the 6th century. The village then was a pagan religious centre dedicated to the Moon.
Ketevan, pale, slim and soft spoken, met us at the massive gate tower of the monastery and led us to the cathedral built in the early 11th century to replace the small church of St. George that the Assyrian Father constructed. At one time, it was the highest church in Georgia with the dome rising 50m from the ground. The remarkable frescoes inside from the 11th century were whitewashed by the Russians in the 19th, but are now being restored. The massive Virgin and Child over the altar, curving and spreading upwards to the dome, is a breathtaking fresco.
THE OLD CELLARS
There is not much left of the 8th century cellar in the monastery yard. It once contained over 50 qvevri of different sizes. Some of these are stacked against the wall of the new cellar.
THE NEW CELLAR
Since 2006, Alaverdi Monastery has been making wine in the new cellar. Father Gerasime, with sleepy eyes and in black wool robes, makes the wine. His family, like most in Georgia, always made wine at home.
Father Gerasime met us in the winery. We peered at the marani (cellar) with rows of buried qvevri. He pointed at an ancient lime wood ‘canoe’ for crushing grapes and said “Lime wood is best for this. It keeps its shape well and imparts no aroma or flavour to the wine.” Six varietal wines are made at Alaverdi – Rkatsiteli, Khikhvi, Kisi, Mtsvane Khakhui, Rose Rkatsiteli and Saperavi. “This wine embraces the climate, air and the earthen flavour of this place that gives it a special aroma, velvety taste, high anti-oxidant content and other healing properties. Since ancient times, Alaverdi Monastery wine carries praise to God, heals soul and flesh, gives strength to thank the Creator and brightens your mood.”
A study at the University of Tbilisi has shown that the phenolic content and the rate of phenolic extraction from grapes in qvevri made wines are significantly greater than in ‘international’ wines.
TASTING WITH FATHER GERASIME
The table was already laid. There was wine and water, bread, cheese and walnuts. We sat on benches on either side of the table. Father Gerasime spoke in his soft, shy voice. “The chemical composition of the qvevri wines prevents oxidation without the need to add sulphur” he said. Ketevan translated and poured the wine. We tasted three.
Rkatsiteli 2011: “Rkatsiteli grapes from 40 year old vines are bought from, or are donated by, organic and natural growers from within Monastery’s congregation.” The wine is made in qvevri and matured in bottle for eight months before release. It is orange in colour, dry and full of fruit. Tannins are evident but not overwhelming. A lovely wine, I thought.
Khikhvi 2011: Khikhvi is a rare white grape found mainly in Kakheti capable of achieving high sugar levels maintaining acidity. This was my first taste of the varietal and I fell in love with it. The 1011 on the label refers to the millennium of winemaking at Alaverdi that was celebrated in 2011. The wine was still cloudy, orange in colour, aromatic and full of fruit. It was long and tannins were not obvious. A fabulous wine!
Before we left, Ketevan poured us a glass of Alaverdi Chacha – a clear brandy distilled from grape residue left after making wine. Georgians claim chacha has medicinal properties. The Alaverdi chacha was amazingly good and the wines were some of the best I tasted in Georgia.
We bought a few bottles of Alaverdi wine at the little shop in the monastery and as we drove to lunch through the vineyards to Nikalas Forest Restaurat, founded by a local chef called Niko with the aim of serving only fresh food from Kakheti, the grape pickers were already sitting under trees, having theirs.
*THIRTEEN SYRIAN FATHERS – see also:
- http://wp.me/pZGnF-JS “Road To David Gareja”
- http://wp.me/pZGnF-1U6 “The Ancient Wine Academy Of Ikalto”
I will be presenting a selection of Georgian wines to members of the Harrogate Medical Wine Society in January 2015 and the three Alaverdi wines above will be on the tasting list.
My visit to Alaverdi Monastery was arranged by Ia Tabagari & Tamara Natenadze of Living Roots, Tbilisi.
WHERE TO BUY ALAVERDI WINES IN THE UK
Les Caves De Pyrene Ltd, Pew Corner, Old Portsmouth Road, Artington, Guildford, GU3 1LP, UK. Tel. +44 (0)1483 554764 (2010 RKATSITELI £17.88, 2011 KHIKHVI £24.42, 2011 SAPERAVI £30.90)