It is September. The wine harvest is in full swing in Georgia and I am back in Tbilisi for the third time in five years and am loving it
We drove to Manchester Airport and caught the mid-afternoon Turkish Airlines flight to Tbilisi via Istanbul. The three and a half hours transit time in Istanbul was spent drinking good Turkish beer in a small airport bar. Time passed quickly. We arrived in Tbilisi at 5.30 am to be met by our old friend Tamara Natenadze of Living Roots – our ground agent in Georgia. “I have a new guide for the day for you” Tamara said as we drove to Betsy’s Hotel.
(The ride to Manchester with AYS cost £95 for the group of six. Return air tickets bought in April cost £279 pp from Taprobane Travel. Turkish Airlines had a baggage allowance of 40 kg per person.)
Betsy’s sits on a hilltop overlooking Tbilisi. It had a small pool near the front entrance that nobody seemed to use. I hated my room in the old block. It was tiny, faded and faced the road in front. “Heck, it is only for one night” I thought and let it go. There was no time for sleep. I had breakfast on the terrace in the new block – Georgian yoghurt, melon, red pepper & mushroom omelette, grilled bacon and coffee and got ready for the morning walk.
A Morning Walk In Sololaki
Tbilisi – the capital of Georgia, stands on the banks of the Mtkvari River in a valley with hot springs and surrounded by hills. History places the founding of the city at the feet of king Gorgasali’s pheasant. Back in the fifth century the king, when out hawking, caught a pheasant on the wing that fell into one of the hot springs. By the time of retrieval, the bird had been cooked and was ready to serve. The king ordered a city to be built around the spring. The word Tbilisi derives from the Georgian ‘tbili’ meaning warm.
Sololaki is the quaint old part of Tbilisi with narrow, cobbled streets and crumbling old houses with their lattice-work balconies, extending from Freedom Square to the Mtatsminda hill. We drove to the old town with our new guide and walked up the hill to the little square with Metekhi church and the statue of king Vakhtang Gorgosali. Narikala Hill with its fortifications stood across the green waters of Mtkvari River.
We walked across the Metekhi Bridge and past kiosks selling freshly squeezed pomegranate and orange juice to the old underground sulphur baths with their brick domes and to the 17th century Orbeliani baths with the blue tiled facade and two short minarets, where Pushkin once had a soak.
We crossed the busy road and walked through the pedestrianised streets lined with restaurants with vine-covered patios, past a group of ageing Russian women embracing the statue of the Tamada (toastmaster) in the little square and taking selfies and the much loved Sioni Church where Saint Nino’s cross made of vine branches tied together with her own hair is kept. It was hot and sticky and restaurants and shops had their sprinklers on. We bordered our coach at the end of the street and drove to Vino Underground.
Sniffing & Slurping At Vino Underground
Vino Underground is Tbilisi’s brick-vaulted temple to natural wine next to a little tea museum and shop, owned and run by seven of the prominent natural winemakers of Georgia. Ramaz Nikoladze and Eneck Peterson were waiting for us, sitting on the front step of Vino Underground. Eneck came to Georgia from the United States two years ago to work at John Wurdaman’s Pheasant’s Tears winery in Signadhi. Now she knows her qvevri wines, speaks Georgian and runs Vino Underground with Ramaz.
We sat at a long table and Eneck poured and talked through the wines. Seven wines were tasted. Samples were generous and no spittoons were used.
We started with Didimi Maglakelidze’s Krakhuna 2015. He makes just 300-400 bottles each vintage in his tiny winery in the village of Dimi in Imereti. Zurab Topuridze’s 2015 dry amber Chkhaveri 2015 from Sakavistke, Guria was fruit laden and lovely and only 11% alcohol. Nebi’s 2015 Chenuri was poured next. Aleksi Tsikhelishvili’s qvevri Mtsvane 2014 from Alvani in Kakheti was less fruity and more tannic than the others but is a fine wine. The 2015 Dzelshavi Maradiuli dry red had an odd leafy finnish which I didn’t like. Archil Guniava’s Imereti Kvaliti 2015 – a dry red from Otskhanuri-Sapere-Tsolikouri was excellent. We finished with Alapiani’s herby, red – 2015 Shavkapito.
It was a delightful tasting and Vino Underground is a ‘must visit’ wine bar if you are ever in Tbilisi. Ramaz signed my copy of Alice Feirings new Georgian wine book “For The Love of Wine” and we drove to Cafe Littera for lunch.
Lunch At Cafe Littera
Cafe Littera in the shady back garden of the Writer’s House of Georgia is one of the excellent culinary ventures of leading Georgian chef Tekuna GacheChiladze. The setting is fantastic and the food – perfectly seasoned and presented, is out of this world. Cafe Littera is place not to be missed in Tbilisi.
Lunch finished, we drove back to Betsy’s for a much needed siesta.
An Evening At The Black Lion
That evening we dined at the cozy Tbilisi cellar restaurant – The Black Lion. First we sat by the pool at Betsy’s and sipped cold beer waiting for the guide and the coach to arrive. It is only a short drive to the Black Lion. We ate excellent Kachapuri (cheese pie) with mixed cheeses and spinach, salads (tomato & cucumber, beetroot and apple, cream cheese & mint), pickles, beans with walnuts and pomegranate, beef stew with mashed potatoes and corn bread, all wash down with an Amber Chinuri from Gotsa’s Family Winery, a 2014 Amber Rkatsiteli and a very good Saperavi. Chacha (Georgian grape brandy) followed.
Ia Tabagari, an old friend and co-founder of Living Roots joined us. “I am off to Germany in the morning and wanted to see you today” she said and gave me a copy of Keiko & Maika’s Georgian wine book “Gvino”. “I have a new guide for you from tomorrow – a professor of linguistics from Tbilisi university” Ia said. She has started to make wine in Racha province and is now a winemaker as well. I got her to sign my Alice Feiring book.
It was late when we got back to Betsy’s. It had been a very long day and tomorrow we will be on the road to Kutaisi.
The tour was arranged by Living Roots LLC, 3, Ingorokva st, Tbilis,i Georgia, +995 599 48 00 86 www.travellivingroots.com