Georgia was destined for wine making. Their summers are warm, their winters are moderate with barely any frost and there are natural springs all over the place. The Black Sea keeps the air moist and the Caucusus drain mineral rich water into the valley. The Kakheti region is primo wine country and driving through brings you views of vineyards for as far as the eye can see. It is the proven site of wine making as far back as 9000 BC - making Georgia one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world. Some people say the oldest. It all started when grape juice was stored under the earth for the winter and turned up in spring as wine. People began to ferment juice in big clay pots, burying them in the ground for seasons or years. Shards of kveris, some from the 3rd millennium BC, fill Georgian ethnographic and history museums. Whole ones are on almost every front lawn or public park. Most "house wine," found on tap or served in recycled soda bottles in restaurants, is still made this way. I had heard a lot about Georgian wine and had been disappointed at how, well, awful I thought it was. It turns out, I just don't like homemade "black wine" (also known as "orange wine" outside of Georgia), which is made from white grapes, but fermented with the skins still in the mix.
While most families make their own wine, professional production is a large and growing field. There are about 400 different grapes in Georgia, around 38 of which are cultivated for wine. While the growing is still almost exclusively a small farmer affair, commercial wineries (who buy from those private vineyards) have popped up to deal with the production. We visited Teliani Valley, one of the biggest and most modern wineries. These barrels from the 90s were some of the first used, but shiny temperature-control stainless steel ones in the next room did most of the work nowadays.
They opened in 1997, just around a decade after Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign had destroyed 3/4 of all the vineyards in Georgia. They boomed for about ten years, before the 2006 Russian embargo on Georgian wine was put in place. Business is bouncing back steadily, though. An I Love Lucy-esque assembly line worked on bottling, corking (with only the finest Portuguese cork, something dear to my heart), labeling and boxing the bottles. Around 3 million are produced per year, including some special French/Georgian grape blends that are big in Austria.
Our tour guide had studied wine tourism in Seattle, Washington and the Tacoma Valley. Georgia (like the other leader in former Soviet wine production, Moldova) is hoping to excite visitors with winery visits and harvest-time festivities. While Teliani Valley may not have been the underground wine cave of Milestii-Mici, they are clearly on the right track. It was fun to visit, we were given delicious tastings and Nino even helped point us in the direction of our next sight-seeing venture.
Yes, our guide's name was Nino. Half the women we meet here are named after the saint who converted Georgia to Christianity - and is buried at recently visited Bodbe Monastery. She is also intertwined with the sacredness of wine in Georgia, conducting her missions with a cross wrapped up in grape vines. Anyway, Nino -guide not saint - advised us to wave down a marshrutka outside the winery and ask the driver to take us to the Aleksandre Chavchavadze House Museum in Tsinsandali.
There, we visited one of the biggest wine cellars in Khaketi (and had another "tasting" a.k.a. glass of Tsinindali wine). We weren't allowed to take photos inside, but the room of shelves filled with thousands of dusty, unlabelled bottles was awesome. At least 500 of them were from the 19th century. The old woman who had opened the cellar door for us laughed when we asked if she'd sampled any. "Vinegar," she responded and scrunched her face. So, it sounds like she had...?