The Inaugral Georgia Cradle of Winemaking Tour

It’s great to be back travelling again, isn’t it? I was delighted to be heading back to Georgia after a number of years, for our inaugural Cradle of Winemaking tour, which was supposed to kick off after the pandemic struck, and then the world subsequently shut down.

Our first day saw us explore the delightful old town of Tbilisi in warm October sunshine. Tbilisi sparkles with radiance in the sunshine, the verandas of beautiful houses steepling up the hill to the fortress are a delight. Other highlights are the Roman baths, and the interesting and ultra-gleaming Peace bridge, providing an interesting contemporary contrast to the many ancient wonders the city is blessed with.

The best way to explore Tbilisi is on foot, the streets are utterly charming, atmospheric, and buzzing with life, often late into the night. I’d recommend heading up to the Metekhi area and enjoy an evening sundowner overlooking the river Mtkvari and the impressive Nakirala fortress that dominates the old city. The afternoon saw us pay a visit to the quite amazing Sarajishvili Brandy Factory, where we enjoyed a tasting session and a tour of the old cellar. The aroma of the Brandy on entering the cellar was quite overwhelming, a welcoming assault on the senses.  Our first full evening culminated with a dish of tasty traditional Georgian Khinkali (mince filled dumplings with a gravy sauce) in the back streets of Tbilisi, whilst listening to a superbly talented duo playing a traditional 3 stringed instrument called the Panduri.

The next day we commenced our quest to learn about and experience the hugely culturally important subject of Georgian wine in the region of Kakheti in the east of this country, straddled between the crossroads of Europe and Asia.  Georgians could not be more proud of the fact that viticulture in their country dates back an astonishing 8000 years, making it the oldest wine civilization of all. It’s fair to say that there are few people who are overly familiar with wines from Georgia, but on this trip, it became soon apparent that there is no shortage of quality delicious vintages. Georgia has a mind boggling 500 plus varieties of grapes, many of which are endemic.

After a short stop at the picturesque Bodbe Monastery of St. Nina, we enjoyed our first wine tasting at Giuaani Winery. The array of Georgian grape varieties such as Khikhivi, Kisi, Mtsvane and the more well-known Saperavi were tasted. These indigenous grape varieties offer such a broad style of taste that refreshingly veer away from the more well-known international varieties.

The next stop was Sighnaghi, a wonderful hilltop town overlooking the beautiful Alazani Valley and across to Greater Caucasus range. We took a walk around the town and up onto the impressive fortifications for stunning vistas, culminating at Okro winery. Accompanied by traditional Georgian fare and a  sumptuous view, the wines impressed, particularly the Saperavi, a smooth deep red.  Our accommodation for the next few nights was the excellent Hotel Mosmieri with its onsite winery and restaurant.

It is notable for an attractive, somewhat Tuscan feel to the open spaces around the property, and vines of course surround the site. Rooms are well appointed with a modern feel, most with superb views towards the Caucasus range in one direction and the Gombori Mountains in the other. The breakfast spread was excellent.  The next day we visited the hugely important site of Gremi, dating from the 16th century and formerly the capital of Kakheti. It was a vital trading town on the Silk Road until its destruction by the Persians in the early 17th century.

Thereafter, we visit Kbilashvili family winery where generations of the family produce excellent wine by way of the traditional Qvevri production process (large clay vessels), maintaining and protecting this traditional and fascinating method dating back thousands of years.  We were also offered the potent Cha-cha here and indeed virtually wherever we go, a traditional Georgia grape pomace brandy, with an eye watering alcohol volume of between 50 – 70 percent!  Next up was a visit to the excellent Orgo Teleda winery producing 100% traditional Qvevri wine.

The wine produced from the endemic Rkatsiteli white grape variety is known as Amber or Orange wine, very different from white wine produced from the modern stainless steel fermentation methods. It is excellent, particularly paired with meat dishes such as barbecue pork, which is widely enjoyed in Georgia, usually cooked on an open wood burning fire.

During the evening we enjoyed the traditional Supra (feast) experience with a table full of delicious Georgian food, and of course plentiful wine! The Supra is at the very heart of Georgian culture, orchestrated professionally by the tamada or toastmaster who introduces each toast during the meal. The key to a good tamada is to deliver each toast with great character and verve, and to be able to consume large amounts of wine and Chacha without showing any signs of being worse for wear! Be sure to bellow a firm “gaumarjos” after each toast. The Supra can last anywhere between 2 to 6 hours so take your time!

The next morning we take a stroll in the atmospheric market in the bustling regional hub of Telavi. All manner of produce can be found, the fruit and veg all looking superbly vibrant, and also what stood out for me was the array of spices on offer,  and huge jars of pickles.

Our next stop is the beautiful Tsinandali Estate, the noble family home of Prince Alexander Chavchavadze, founder of Georgian romanticism. The landscape gardens are an absolute delight with Autumnal browns and oranges on full display. The house itself has a fascinating museum with some wonderful artefacts. It was also here that wine was first bottled in Georgia, and the amazing cellar consists of vintage wines dating back astonishingly to 1814!!

Salome Mosidze was the perfect guide to the history of Teliani Valley wines which dates back to the 19th Century (some of the older vintages are in the Tsinandali Palace wine cellar). We were shown their traditional and original winery which housed 10 Qvevri. It was also interesting to see the continued focus on traditional methods as well as some experimentation with indigenous grape varieties and European methods. We were able to compare and taste these different styles over a wonderful lunch which included amazing bean and beef stew as well as wonderful home-made bread.

Next stop was the very impressive Schuchmann Wines. We enjoyed an extremely polished and informative tour of the winery, where we were able to actually watch freshly harvested grapes  being loaded into the sorting machines, overseen by local workers picking out unwanted specimens at an almost mind boggling speed. Schuchmann wines follow sustainable wine making practices as well as maturing much of their wines in Qvevri as well as some maturing in French oak barrels.

We were not only able to help pump down the fermenting grapes in the Qvevri but learnt about the importance of cleaning Qvevri with traditional handmade tools made from cherry wood which has antiseptic qualities. The latter part of the day was spent enjoying the quite sensational Alaverdi Cathedral dating back to the 11th century, and part of a Georgian orthodox monastery that predates the cathedral to the 6th century.

The cathedral is the highest in Georgia at 50 metres. This is a place of genuine wonder, surrounded by vines at the very foot of the mighty Caucasus range. The monks make their own wine, and the site has a monastery cellar. Be sure to observe and marvel at the quite massive 11th century Qvevri which is on display. As late afternoon Autumnal sunshine illuminated the facade of the cathedral and the surrounding vines and orchards, I couldn’t help but feel like this place was a genuine slice of paradise.

Our day was topped off with a fascinating visit to a nearby Apiary where a local farmer has dedicated his life to mastering the delicate art of honey production and the fruits of his, and indeed the honey bees labour, were suitably delicious.  This evening we had some fun joining in with a bread making and churchkela (a Georgian sweet made from nuts and dipped in hot grape juice) masterclass.

The next day started with a visit to the exquisite Ikalto Monastery complex, historically home to a cultural scholastic centre, an academy training students in theology, philosophy and viticulture. We had the place to ourselves, wandering in warm sunshine as autumn leaves fell silently around us. The liberally scattered Qvevri vessels within the grounds make for excellent photography subjects with the beautiful church in the background.

It was a pleasure thereafter to visit the recently established winery of our local guide, a project borne out of love, and the lack of travellers during the pandemic, which provided the necessary time to move the project from dream status to reality. Our guide Zaza and his childhood friend have created an utterly charming establishment producing beautiful wines on a small scale.  The view from the terrace is achingly beautiful, and it was an absolute privilege to have the opportunity to gaze out towards the brooding Caucasus mountains while we imbibed rich ruby red Saperavi accompanied by local dishes.

We then left the fertile vine rich Alazani Valley behind and snaked our way up into the mountains. Via Tianeti it takes a few hours with stops to get to the frontier town of Stepsmanida (Kazbegi) situated just a stone’s throw from the Russian/Georgia border.

As we approached our accommodation the skies cleared and we enjoyed some magnificent late orangey and pink hues enveloping the snow-clad slopes of Mt. Shani. The Caucasus Mountains are extremely impressive, huge peaks soaring to over 5000 metres in elevation.

Excellent hiking country indeed, and nearby Gudauri also enjoys a burgeoning ski industry.  The weather was against us the next morning, our planned visit to the iconic Gergeti Trinity Church situated dramatically underneath Mt. Kazbegi could not go ahead as the visibility was so poor.

Luckily, I got a great view of it the previous evening from the hotel balcony.  The weather improved as we crossed the Jvari Pass and we stopped to drink in the rarefied air and marvel at the stunning and somewhat vertiginous scenery.  After a stop at Ananuri Fortress, we left the mountains behind, bound for a final wine tasting at the impressive Chateau Mukhrani and then on to the amazing mountain top Jvari Monastery complete with epic views across to Mtskheta (one of the oldest inhabited ancient cities of the world) and to the point that the Aragvi and Mtkvari rivers join in unison.

As the sunset on our journey, we visited the sacred and iconic Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some beautiful frescoes have thankfully survived the whitewashing of the galleries by the Russians in the 19th century.  How best to reflect on a wonderful journey immersed in superb history and such amazing cultural experiences?

Why not on the rooftop terrace of our hotel, accompanied by excellent travelling companions and a few bottles of Georgian wine, overlooking the fine city of Tbilisi. A fitting conclusion indeed.

Blog written by Mark Huggins of Undiscovered Destinations who travelled with our inaugural Cradle of Winemaking Georgia small group tour in early October 2022.

The tour was also accompanied by our excellent local guide Zaza,  and UK based wine expert Mike Sharman of Sharman Wines

Georgia is best visited between April to October, although mid Summer can be extremely hot at lower elevations. Spring and Autumn are in general delightful times to travel. The grape harvest in Georgia occurs from mid September to early October depending on local conditions.

Join us in 2023 to experience a fascinating and enjoyable food and wine experience in wonderfully hospitable Georgia (see the link to the tour below on our website where you can also see the dates and prices for 2023):

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