The tower of Alaverdi Cathedral stands sentinel over
the monastery where wine has been made for 1,500 years.
Photo: Andrew Montgomery / BBC
23.10.2012. It’s midday in the vineyards above the Rioni River. There’s a sleepy hum of insects in the warm air. Murad Vatsadze is negotiating the steep mountain path in a pair of blue flip-flops. Above him, the cultivated slope thins out into alpine meadows, where the tinkling of cowbells can be heard on the freshening wind. We are high up in the foothills of Georgia’s Caucasus mountains. Beneath us lies the curling valley and mile upon mile of vineyards.
Murad is showing me the vines that his greatgrandfather planted here 100 years ago. This south-facing slope gets day-long sunshine, and even at 1,700 metres up, grapes still thrive. Vines strung out along wires are heavy with two local varieties: alexandrouli and mujuretuli. He then leads me into the cool darkness of the family’s marani, or wine cellar, which abuts their sprawling house. Murad’s family have been making wine for as long as anyone can remember. The wine press is a hollowed-out tree trunk. The grapes are trodden within it and the juice that flows out is channelled down wooden pipes into holes in the cellar floor.
Beneath these openings are qvevri – enormous wine vessels unique to Georgia. Made of red clay, they can be three metres deep and hold as many as 1,300 bottles’ worth of wine. They are shaped like vases, with wide shoulders tapering down towards a pointed bottom, and are buried beneath the ground with only their necks protruding. The floor is covered with slate lids where they have been sealed to let the wines age. Murad opens the lid of an empty qvevri. It echoes like the opening of a well. There’s a glint of liquid in the bottom and the faint smell of sour wine.
The Vatsadze family make wine in a way their most distant ancestors would recognise. Each year their seven qvevris are scraped clean by hand with a tool made of folded cherry bark. Neither chemicals nor yeast are added to the pressed grape juice. Murad scoops wine from them using a dipper made out of a pumpkin shell. The family lives a life of rural self-sufficiency that makes the River Cottage look like a microprocessor plant, raising pigs, keeping bees and growing tomatoes, corn, figs, beans, apples, medlars and pears.
As dusk falls, a dozen family members and friends assemble around a long table that’s been laid with a feast. There’s chicken in garlic sauce, salty white cheese, tomatoes, bread stuffed with cheese and beans, and a stew of what Murad tells me is braised bear meat. When I suggest that he’s pulling my leg, he swears on the health of his children and explains that the bear was shot a week earlier by a next-door neighbour. He serves homemade red and white wines. I’m eager to raise my glass and taste, but it’s not quite that simple.
The importance of wine to this nation of four million is hard to exaggerate. Above the capital, Tbilisi, a giant statue of Mother Georgia holds a sword to ward off enemies and a bowl of wine to welcome friends. Every house has a trellis of vines outside it, with grapes ripening for the yearly pressing. Wine is a badge of pride here, and a symbol of hospitality; it’s central to religious worship and family life. Wine production is a link to the past and an expression of national identity.
Virtually every Georgian I meet here makes their own wine – albeit on a more modest scale than the Vatsadze family. If they can’t grow their own vines, city-dwellers buy grapes from seasonal bazaars. Serving your own homemade wine to guests is a matter of pride, and the act of drinking it has been refined to an art form.
Drinking wine in Georgia is always a celebration, and whenever it takes place, a tamada, or toastmaster, will be selected to officiate. Not everyone has the skills to be a tamada: you have to be eloquent, funny and able to hold your drink. It’s quite normal for a Georgian man to sink two or three litres of wine at a sitting.
Today, in the Vatsadze house, Arto is the tamada. He’s a balding, thick-set man – like a more genial version of Tony Soprano. The first toast he proposes is, as always, to peace. The toasts that follow will vary and may honour guests, family, dead loved ones, the hosts, women and children. Georgians always include one to the ancestors who had the foresight to plant the grapevines.
After a few rounds, Murad brings out a drinking horn, which we take in turns to drain. Then his brother-in-law Levan leads the table in a song while two others improvise harmonies. This polyphonic style of singing is a Georgian tradition too. It’s a melancholy sound, but the message is upbeat, celebrating the glory of wine and long life.
Murad’s year-old red wine is ruby-coloured, cool, light and fresh, with a sweetness that is particular to this combination of grapes and the region, Racha, located in Georgia’s northwest. When this wine is bottled and sold, it’s known as khvanchkara. The name is meaningless and unpronounceable to most Europeans, but for 70 years, it was the drink of choice for the Soviet elite and, as Georgians will assure you, the favourite of their most notorious son: Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin.
It’s a jolting twenty-minute drive down an unsurfaced road and along the valley to a rickety wooden flour mill beside the Rioni River. The mill belongs to Nodar Ratiani. He wipes maize flour from a photo of Stalin that takes pride of place on the wall beside a print of the Mona Lisa. ‘He was magari,’ he says: ‘strong’. Magari is a favourite Georgian word and is applied approvingly to wine as well as people. ‘He fought the Germans and beat them. Millions of people died, but he was too smart for them.’
Nodar has a proud, hawklike face, and is wiry and whip-thin. The pulse of the engine that drives the millstone fills his shack. The place smells of ground corn. ‘I’m 74,’ he says. ‘I have no complaints. It’s because the air is so good.’ As tactfully as possible, I point out the tattoos on his hands. ‘I had them done in prison,’ he says. ‘When I was young, I wasn’t very calm. I used to fight a lot.’ He sweeps a few loose kernels from the grain bin. ‘Young men today hardly fight at all,’ he adds, with a trace of disappointment. ‘But sometimes you have to.’
The Georgian nation has seen its fair share of fighting over the years. It is an ancient place – Kolkheti on the Black Sea is the successor to legendary Colchis, where, in Greek mythology, Jason and the Argonauts went in search of the Golden Fleece – and it has been invaded many times, by Greeks, Romans, Persians and others. Its recent history has been dominated by relations with its enormous northern neighbour: Georgia was colonised first by the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union.
In Communist times, mountainous Georgia with its traditions of wine and good food was seen as a land of mythic abundance. Throughout the Soviet Union, the best restaurants were Georgian ones, and the most desirable wines were from Georgia. Each year, the quantity of Georgian wines sold in the USS R exceeded the amount produced: unscrupulous traders simply slapped Georgian labels on less desirable Moldavian and Russian wines.
The heart of Georgian wine making lies in the eastern province of Kakheti. It’s only 120 miles as the crow flies from the Vatsadzes’ house, but it’s a full day’s driving to get there, across twisting mountain roads and the rich agricultural flatlands of central Georgia. Here, the Alazani River waters a fertile valley between two dramatic ranges of the Caucasus. At the northern end, a distinctive turret-shaped spire soars 50 metres above the valley floor. It belongs to 11th-century Alaverdi Cathedral, part of a monastery complex where wine has been made for 1,500 years.
‘Wine-making is a sacred duty given to the Georgian people by God,’ says Father David Chrvitidze, the leader of the small community of monks at Alaverdi. An energetic man in his 50s, he walks through the courtyard of the monastery, pausing briefly to bless kneeling supplicants. ‘That’s why we have 550 native species of grape. That’s why all our invaders tried to destroy our vines.’
Archaeological evidence suggests that by the 12th century, Alaverdi was producing 70 tonnes of wine a year. The monks have recently restored one of the monastery’s ancient wine cellars, and the openings of qvevri are dotted around the floor like craters. The sound of scrubbing emerges from one of them. Deep inside, a man is brushing its walls clean in preparation for the latest vintage.
After a hiatus during Communist rule, wine is once more being produced at Alaverdi. Since 2006, the monastery has been making award-winning wines, some in qvevris, some using modern methods. Brother Gerasimi Otarashvili has a big chestnutcoloured beard, a black robe and a slightly incongruous mobile phone, which he puts to one side as he pours me a glass of the 2009 rkatsiteli. Rkatsiteli is one of the hundreds of grape varieties unique to Georgia. This is technically white wine, but its time in the qvevri, where it’s been in contact with grape skins, stems and pips, gives it a striking gold colour. It’s dry and citrussy, with a hint of raisins and dried fruit.
‘The Russians wanted to eradicate the tradition of qvevris,’ says Brother Gerasimi. Georgia’s winemaking offended the commissars as it smacked of nationalism and private enterprise. ‘They passed a strict law to abolish qvevri production. Thank God that families looked after them. It was the Lord’s wish to promote the rebirth of qvevri wines.’
Georgia is a proudly Christian country, and the significance of wine in religious worship is reinforced by superstition and custom. The mysterious process by which grape juice becomes wine is attributed by some to the work of the Holy Spirit. ‘The Bible says that God created man out of red clay,’ says Father David. ‘Red clay was blessed with the Holy Spirit. Then Adam made wine in pots of red clay.’
Although we’re supposed to be tasting the wines, Brother Gerasimi assumes the role of tamada, proposing toasts to the success of our work. He tells me that research into qvevri wine suggests that its effect is practically medicinal, with up to 10 times the level of antioxidants found in conventional wine. He pours the 2010 saperavi – a red. It’s a rich purple with a deep plum and blackberry flavour. We toast each other some more and swirl the wine around, watching the pectin leave trails on our glasses. This is the wine that the monks use in religious services. When we finish tasting, the sun has begun to set. The cathedral is bathed in golden light. A team of volunteers is using hand tools – scythes and pitchforks – to clear weeds from the monastery grounds.
Wine consumption may or may not have divine sanction in Georgia, but its production here goes back much earlier than the birth of Christ. There’s evidence to show that grapes were cultivated in the Shulaveri hills here 8,000 years ago, giving the country a plausible claim to being the birthplace of wine.
This is a matter of considerable pride to the nation. Georgia is still visibly poor and developing. The roads are generally in terrible condition, and the hardship of life in rural Georgia comes as a shock. The mountains, the ripening crops, the thickly wooded hills and golden light: these are all beautiful. But the faces of Georgia’s young farmers look prematurely aged. Georgia has also struggled to emerge from Russia’s shadow since gaining independence in 1991. Moscow can’t break the habit of meddling in Georgian politics, encouraging separatist movements in the provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As Georgia has moved closer towards NATO and the EU, Russia has tried to bring it to heel by turning off its oil and gas supplies. In 2006, Moscow imposed sanctions, banning, of all things, imports of wine in a attempt to deal Georgia’s economy a crippling blow.
At the Khareba winery in the Alazani Valley, the harvest is under way. The scene is like something from Soviet propaganda: a brigade of women working quickly along acres of vines, snipping bunches of grapes with secateurs. I’m standing in a lookout tower with the vineyard’s owner, Alexander Khareba. ‘In 2005, Georgia exported 52 million bottles of wine to Russia,’ he sighs. ‘Everything I produced, I sold to Russia. Now I have to find new markets.’ Alexander, like other Georgian wine producers, is bullish about the embargo. Throughout Kakheti, you hear the same story: this is Georgia’s Gloria Gaynor moment, when its wine is set to break out of its abusive relationship with Russia. Georgian wine-makers say that their rightful place is among the great wine-producing nations. And in the ancient technology of the qvevri, they feel they have a secret weapon.
In his wine cellar in Napareuli, six miles down the road from the Alaverdi Cathedral, Gela Gamtikulashvili crosses himself and prises the cover of a qvevri from its airtight clay seal. I am struck by the sense of occasion and a slight feeling of anxiety. This, after all, is the culmination of 8,000 years of work. Will the natural yeasts have done their work? Will the wine be drinkable? As the lid comes off, a sweet aroma fills the air and all doubts vanish.
When Gela closed the qvevri last autumn, it was full of cloudy rkatsiteli grape juice. Now, a magical transformation has taken place. Gela scoops out the wine in clay cups for the first toast. It’s perfectly clear, the colour of straw, and the first sip is as bright and pure as sunshine.