Kakheti, Ancient Wine Region

Performers demonstrate traditional Georgian dancing in a program for travel agents in Brooklyn, N.Y., in advance of a travel agent familiarization trip for agents.

Performers demonstrate traditional Georgian dancing in a program for travel agents in Brooklyn, N.Y., in advance of a travel agent familiarization trip for agents.

VARDISUBANI, Georgia — When I came through Immigration at Georgia’s Tbilisi Airport, the agent who stamped my passport handed me a gift. It was a small bottle of red wine.

Immigration agents were gifting all arriving foreign-passport holders in this way.

Why wine? Georgia claims to be the place where winemaking was born around 8,000 years ago — although some scholars credit other locations in the vicinity.

Maybe the true origins of winemaking can never be proved, but it is certain Georgians are still making wine using millennia-old methods, and they are making a tourism business out of it, too, particularly in Kakheti, the country’s top winemaking region to the east of Tbilisi.

The modern Public Service Hall recently opened in Gurjaani, in Georgia’s wine country. Such service halls are being constructed in cities across the country to facilitate the deliverance of government services to the public.

The modern Public Service Hall recently opened in Gurjaani, in Georgia’s wine country. Such service halls are being constructed in cities across the country to facilitate the deliverance of government services to the public.

I visited this wine country during a late-2012 tour of Georgia, traveling with journalists and travel agents.

The country counts more than 500 indigenous grape varieties, mostly with unpronounceable names unknown in the West. Some popular European varietals have been imported recently, and today, selected local wines are made using European techniques.

But traditional methods remain common. They involve aging the crushed grapes with their seeds and skins in clay jars buried in the ground. The end product is called kvevri wine.

Traditional production yields more tannin than in modern winemaking. The reds are so dark Georgians call them black.

I found the taste of traditional wines varied widely, from the dry and smooth tastes that westerners appreciate to something that was indescribably odd.

We visited three wine businesses. Two were small operations — called Wine House Gurjaani and Kakhetis Ezo — where the tasting rooms included displays to illustrate how the grapes are crushed and how the underground jars are positioned.

Locals use grapes for a dessert, too. They combine grape juice and wheat flour to make a cooked dough, called pelamushi. They then put walnuts on a string and dip them into the goo. When this combination is dry, the dough-covered walnuts are sliced and served as a dessert called churchela.

A display of equipment used in traditional Georgian winemaking, seen at Wine House Gurjaani. Grapes are crushed in a wooden vat, seen against the wall, then drained into buried clay pots. The pots here are under a brick floor with only lids visible.

A display of equipment used in traditional Georgian winemaking, seen at Wine House Gurjaani. Grapes are crushed in a wooden vat, seen against the wall, then drained into buried clay pots. The pots here are under a brick floor with only lids visible.

Churchela was one of the nibbles offered with the wines at Wine House Gurjaani. It was pleasant but a little tasteless.

Our third destination was a much larger winemaking operation called Khareba Winery located in Kvareli. We

The Khareba Winery identified on this label is one of many winemakers in Kakheti, Georgia’s biggest wine region, east of Tbilisi.

The Khareba Winery identified on this label is one of many winemakers in Kakheti, Georgia’s biggest wine region, east of Tbilisi.

tasted wine here, too, but the most interesting part of this winery tour was the storage tunnels.

A display of tools needed to make wine the traditional way in Georgia, seen at the Khareba Winery. The large wooden vat in the background is used for crushing the grapes.

A display of tools needed to make wine the traditional way in Georgia, seen at the Khareba Winery. The large wooden vat in the background is used for crushing the grapes.

Khareba has come into possession of 15 tunnels, which were cut into the stone of the Caucasian Mountains before 1962, when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union, for military purposes.

Now, the tunnels comprise Europe’s second-largest wine cellar after one in Moldova, our on-site guide said. She said Khareba stores 25,000 bottles of wine here.

Our trip handouts said the tunnels extend for almost five miles. Tourists see only one tunnel, which is enough to get the idea!

In addition, it seemed a natural extension to a Georgian wine tour to pay some attention to bread.

Our itinerary included a home visit to see a local bread maker — apparently the family matriarch — in action.

She shaped balls of dough into long strips and placed them, one at a time into an “oven.”

That meant pressing each bread strip against the inside of a huge clay cauldron that had a wood fire burning at the bottom. The bread would take its flavor from the wood, and the baker has some choices about what type of wood to use.

Pages: 1 2