Wed, Oct 11, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Boozy nights in post-Soviet Georgia

Georgians are proud of their viniculture history and believe the country was the place where man first conquered the grape


As a Georgian friend and I wandered into the vineyards on a bright late-September day, we were stepping into a new era of Georgian wine. Moscow's loss was our gain.

This is not to say that Kakheti has gone Napa. It has not. The valley remains impoverished, and there is little yet in the way of tourist infrastructure, with few hotels, scant amenities and very basic restaurants. Those seeking luxury should look elsewhere.

But it is possible to experience the region's wine trade as never before. And because so much is new, the visitor decides how deep the plunge. In the fall, you can pick alongside the work crews, or sit at a winery and have a fresh local meal to accompany samples from several bottles of the valley's specialties: from the blood-dark saperavi (pronounced sa-per-AV-ee) to the airy and golden light Tsinandali (pronounced t-sin-an-DAH-lee) and many in between.

There are two distinct ways to experience this valley's tradition of wine.

The first is to visit the wineries proper, some of which have begun to cater to tourists. Our first stop was at Shumi in the village of Tsinandali, where a Swiss and Georgian venture has built a winery that is making delicious, clean wines.

As we pulled in, the new press was mashing saperavi to purplish-black juice. A peek into the cool darkness of the cellar found the remnants of last year's vintage's aging in oak. The grounds include a tasting area and outdoor grill and patio, where staff members soon served freshly grilled beef, cheese and warm bread.


As the saperavi harvest kept streaming through the winery gate, wagon load by wagon load, Akaki Tsopurashvili, a manager, sat and ran us through a series of toasts. Toasting is a high Georgian tradition; visitors should be prepared. One man will be appointed as the tamada, or toast master, and offer thanks and bits of wisdom in a near-continuous performance. The event can last hours, even almost to morning.

Toasts will be made to peace, to the occasion that brought you together, to ancestors, to children, to families and to the women who have made your life possible — for this toast you must drain your glass — and to your hosts. You can expect to toast Georgia, and Georgia's allies (the US now ranks high among them) and wine, and perhaps the glories of battles won and the memories of the fallen in battles lost.

On this day, Tsopurashvili pressed on ambitiously, even though we all had work to do. It was a matter of pride, and tradition. “Always when we pick the grapes we must have a feast,” he said.

More bottles kept coming. The day before, he said, they had feasted on a goat, as harvest traditions can require.

As we managed to find our way back to the gate, into glowing late-afternoon light, we headed quickly for the second way to explore Kakheti's wine scene, by seeking out local growers and pickers. Kakheti is essentially one vast wine village, and almost every house seems to have its foundation laid over kvevri, the subterranean clay pots in which wine is fermented according to a millenniums-old technique.

A stop at one village, Shashiani, found a huge segment of the population engaged in the labor. Trucks lined the road, laden with the day's pick of saperavi grapes for sale to a nearby winery. A turn into the neighborhood found families busily pressing their own grapes.

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