The country of Georgia is, legit, the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. I mean, just look at these mountains, which are part of Europe’s tallest mountain range, the Caucuses:
We logged around 20 hours in the car in Georgia, a country of just 3.5 million people, which means we saw roughly a third the country. It didn’t matter which mile, though: what we saw out the window could have been the subject of an award-winning National Geographic photograph. Here’s another one from a totally different region of the country. This is Tbilisi, the country’s capital city:
And this is the cave city of Vardzia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a valley away from Turkey:
As if that weren’t enough, the view from the cave city looking across the valley:
I could put together a photo essay entirely about Georgia’s beauty, and if I were more humble that might be all I’d do as I’ve been writing this post for a week and still haven’t found the words that can appreciably describe my Georgia experience. However, since this is a wine blog I need to suck it up and put something out on Georgia’s wine, which they’ve been making for 8,000 years and longer than anyone else. It’s in their blood, their DNA. Average household daily wine consumption in the country is measured in liters. (Or so I was told, but I mean come on, right? I’m not printing the number I was given because it just can’t be right, even though I was assured that it is. Amazing. Anyways…) It’s routinely served with lunch and always with dinner. It’s a major percentage of their economy (likely around 10% if you include the considerable homemade and black market stuff), and it’s their sixth largest export. It’s also one of the major drivers of tourism.
Alice Feiring wrote what is probably the go-to text on Georgian wine in the English language, a book called For The Love of Wine, which focuses on the two central elements of Georgian wine: natural winemaking and aging in qvevri, a unique and very special ceramic vessel buried underground. When both are used, the wines’ flavors and textures are a Georgian signature that is unique in the wine world. She contextualized the wine within the Georgian culture, appropriately so as wine is a natural fit with what is an especially family-centric, gregarious and warm people. It is the fluid that lubes the country, and that is no exaggeration. I’ve spent time in Italy and France, and wine is far more central to the Georgian identity and lifestyle than it is in either of those two countries.
These factors put Georgia on the top of my travel wish list for years, and two weeks ago it finally happened. We explored the country and the wine over eight days, and I’ll write more about the broader experience in a future post. For now, I’m going to focus on one evening that illustrates Georgia’s special nexus between wine and people: a supra with Gia Togonidze, owner and winemaker of Togo Winery, and his family at their home in Telavi in the Kakheti region.
We met Gia on our first day of the trip at a wine festival in Tbilisi (more on that in the subsequent post). Gia doesn’t speak English, but some of his family does and were able to translate my questions while trying his wines. Of all wines I tried at the festival, Gia’s seemed the most honest, a trait that always appeals to me. And this is saying a lot because the boutique wineries at the festival weren’t trying to commercialize anything. Gia isn’t trading on Georgia’s reputation as a hip wine producer, and isn’t even trading on the country’s niche style as his wines get very little time in qvevri. He’s fully invested in his wine from vine to bottle and it’s an honest representation of what Gia seeks in wine. That’s wine to admire, even if it isn’t your style. Thankfully I liked it, too. After chatting with him and his family, we asked if we could visit the winery a few days later. Before we knew it we had invited ourselves to a Georgian traditional dinner called a “supra” that Gia and his family would prepare for us.
Gia’s Saperavi resting atop qvevri that will soon go into the ground.
When we arrived Gia took us on a tour of his home and winery, which is spread across a few small buildings on his property in the Kakheti Valley. The house is, as much as I can mean this word, incredible. Gia is an artist, and makes his money by working in the world of colors while producing artwork on the side. As we toured his home, each room was a revelation unto itself.
I have a hard time describing my design style, but at least now I know where to hire my interior designer. I don’t like conformity, consistency or straight lines in my interior if it can be helped. Show me a house decorated and outfitted with seemingly inconsistent and random objects, furniture and arrangements and it speaks to me. Compare the picture above of a spare bedroom to the one below of a sitting room. Nothing made to be a pair, nothing meant to highlight something else, yet all with individuality and in perfect harmony.
Gia and his family also do a wonderful job of using objects as art, and displaying them in compelling ways. The eclectic nature of this style is captivating. Go ahead, linger on the next few pictures.
Somehow the glass bottles and paintbrushes, which have nothing to do with each other, rest in harmony in what seems like the ideal pairing.
This wouldn’t look nearly as good if the frames were level.
I can’t begin to explain how this looks so good. With this kind of personality, attention to detail and artistry, it won’t be a surprise later when I rave about his wine.
Once we finished with the house and went out to the wine making area, Gia began by telling me about the vineyards he sourced from in the valley below. He supplies his growers with his own chemicals, none evasive and all used in moderation, and purchases the grapes at full market price to maintain quality relationships to ensure an adequate, reliable annual supply of high quality grapes (a hard thing to secure in Georgia). Recently, he found a different kind of Saperavi grape that is cylindrical in shape growing on a neighbor’s property, which he has purchased and will be planting himself.
Gia’s winery takes its name from the beginning of his last name: Togonidze
None of his grapes receive irrigation. Grape pressing is done by his wife’s feet(!). Aging is a combination of tank and qvevri as Gia aims to impart the classic footprint of the qvevri in the wine without moving the wine into a common flavor zone found in heavily qvevri’d wines where Earth flavors completely overwhelm fruit and tannins are overly astringent. Fermentation is done with native yeasts and takes up to three months to complete(!). Production is a family and neighbor affair, which many people participating in the bottling and labeling process, which is all done by hand.
Gia only started making wine five years ago, but from a much younger age it stung him that he hadn’t followed his family’s tradition of winemaking. It got under his skin. When I asked him why he finally started making wine, he response was that he should have started a lot sooner. ‘It’s a shame not to make wine [in Georgia],’ he told me, ‘I should be doing it.’ He wasn’t speaking in English, but even through translation it was clear that he meant that it was his duty. Gia was taught by his grandfather, who was the family’s most well-respected winemaker through the generations. ‘Now that I make wine,’ he said, ‘I have another child. My wine is my baby, and I like to show it off.’
The word supra means “table” in Georgian, but it’s a feast (and a half). Supras have a master of ceremony who is responsible for giving multiple toasts, and everything gets toasted. The mother. The mother’s mother. The mother’s mother’s neighbor’s daughter who babysat the mother’s daughter. Love gets a toast. Wine gets a toast. Guests each receive a toast. If anyone else wants to toast they must ask permission, and are not guaranteed a permissive response. The table is filled with traditional Georgian foods, most of them usually regional.
Gia, his wife, and the supra
In Kakheti that meant lamb in two ways: barbecued over a fire made of old grape vines, and a spicy herbed lamb stewed with greens. It also included about seventy-two local cheeses (only a slight exaggeration), the region’s bread (a salty bread not unlike ciabata, but better), and an arugula salad with ham. There was the local honey, which my friends from Seattle traveling with us ate by the spoonful and from which they will likely contract diabetes. There was also a traditional Georgian salad of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and a walnut paste that is to die for (as are the tomatoes, which burst with flavor in a way that makes American tomatoes taste like bitter water). A dish of fresh mountain strawberries nearly stole the show. And, of course, there was copious amounts of wine and, later in the evening after the meal, Georgia’s traditional liquor called chacha, a distilled spirit made of the pomace of the winemaking process (left over bits and pieces of grapes, stems, etc.) that tastes quite similar to grappa.
Gia offered many toasts, featuring both his Mtsvane and Saperavi wines, a white and red, respectively, that punched with some serious alcoholic weight (14.8% for the white and 14.6% for the red). Round after round of toast had our heads spinning for a long, long time. Gia toasted our group, each of us individually. His wife, who made the fantastic meal. Zaza, our friend, driver and interpreter (more on him in the subsequent post. If you want to travel to Georgia you must use him). He toasted to a bright future for the country, and for US-Georgian relations. The conviviality on display wasn’t forced, it wasn’t rehearsed, and it sure wasn’t contrived. It was genuine, it was fun, and it was authentic (in every way). For that night I felt genuinely Georgian and surrounded by old, close friends. That’s the power of the Georgian people, and their wine. I’ve visited many countries and have spent extended periods abroad, but unlike anywhere else Georgia was warm and caring to the core.
Given all the toasts, thank goodness the wine was fantastic. Georgian wines taste distinctly different from elsewhere, and that’s mostly t to do with the grapes and the winemaking. Georgia has a lot of native grapes that aren’t grown elsewhere, and like most Georgian winemakers Gia focuses on those. His 2015 Mtsvane was picked at 25.8 brix and finished at 14.8% ABV, which it wells extremely well. The word “mtsvane” means green (the color), and this particular source vine was found in a family plot that Gia is slowly bringing back. It is thin skinned and very difficult to grow because of its fragility in the region’s rainy climate. Nevertheless, the aromatics were gorgeous with mint, dulce de leche, sweet lemon and light tobacco. The palate was equally appealing and satisfying as it offered honeysuckle, apricot, ginger, vanilla, green apple and a big hit of mint. We had an amber wine (a white wine fermented with its skins, not unlike an orange wine but due to the particular skin pigment truly amber in color) made of Rkatsitelli that had an incredibly tropical nose of passion fruit, guava, papaya and strawberry, and also smelled of sweet vanilla bean and dried apricot. It was medium bodied with big skin tannin, and tasted of mellow honeyed melon, vanilla, baking spice, and trio of green, chamomile and jasmine teas. Another stunner. The Saperavi, a red grape, was picked at 25 brix and finished at 14.6% alcohol. It’s young nose was still a bit reticent, but the palate profile of hickory smoke, olives, bacon fat, strawberries and cherries spread across a lush and filling structure delivered by the meter.
I’m very glad Gia decided to show his wine off to us. I had over 30 wines while in Georgia, and Gia’s were among the very best. The only thing sad about the signed bottle he sent me home with is the understanding that it will be my last experience with his wine until I return for another visit, which will happen. Georgia is wild place, a country with only a recent history of democratic governance still advancing towards something we in America would recognize. It’s geography, it’s people, it’s food and its wine are all quite beautiful and distinctly Georgian, bound by a history of overcoming centuries of occupying forces, Soviet occupation, and a truly tough climate. Georgia is, at the same time, one of the longest-living cultures in the world and a people, held back by a Russian neighbor anything but keen on Georgian independence, persevering to build a rapidly modernizing and Westernizing home in the 21s Century. As I’ve meditated on the trip the ultimate realization I’ve had about my experience is that Georgia is its own place, its own beast, and it’s the differences that set it apart and the authenticity it doesn’t hesitate to ooze that make it such a special, wonderful place.
The story Georgians tell about the creation of their country is that when God was dividing up the world to different people, the Georgians were the last to arrive, late and drunk, and so God gave them the only plot of land that was left: the land he had intended to keep for himself, the very best. It’s a cute story, some people offer it as a joke, others with a wink and a nod. It seems entirely capable of being true.