Keipi 

We’ve said before that sometimes you don’t quite know what’s going to happen over here. Case in point: lunch in Racha the other day.

A group of friends drove up in the morning from Tbilisi to spend the weekend with us exploring the beautiful mountains, rivers and ancient churches in this breathtaking region. Before we set out for the day, we had to eat.

There are three restaurants in Ambrolauri, the small town where we stayed. One of them McKinze and I had been to the day before. It was less than impressive. Another one of them was a big hall for events and didn’t necessarily look like a place you just drop by to grab a bite.

The last option was this one, a small roadside establishment. The sign was promising, touting itself as a “Rachuli Kitchen,” featuring dishes like lori, lobiani and other specialties of the region.


Inside, the menu was thorough (updated with the latest prices), and the ambiance was “Georgian rustic.”




But on one end of the restaurant was a table with these guys…

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And on the other end, these guys.

A party was underway, and our table was literally in the middle of it.

The singer was good. Very, very loud — so loud that we couldn’t really carry on a conversation at our table — but good. The guys were toasting, laughing and generally having a great time.

We ordered some food, including lobio (bean stew) and lori (the salty, smoky & fatty ham that I can’t get enough of).

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And then the party, this celebration (keipi – ქეიფი), started to spread.

It’s not entirely uncommon to be in this situation. As you should know by now, Georgians are typically a lively and exuberant bunch who enjoy drinking, singing and dancing. They also enjoy sharing their festive mood with others who are around, especially foreigners.

One of our friends happens to be a very good traditional Georgian dancer, which is also not uncommon. In Georgia, most young girls and boys alike are raised learning the intricate footwork and hand movements of the many regional Georgian dances. Therefore, pretty much everyone knows how to perform them, at least a little bit. They’re done at weddings, supras and, in this case, at a restaurant in the middle of the afternoon.

Our friend hopped to her feet, and was soon joined by a few of the men.


In the States, older guys jumping in to dance with younger women at a restaurant might seem inappropriate or lewd, especially if the guys had been drinking. That’s not necessarily the case here. Traditional Georgian dance is a very precise art form, with specific roles for men and different roles for women. There’s virtually no touching or dancing together; the man and women more often dance around each other.

But there’s also the occasional slow song, which is perfect for the kind of dancing you might remember from middle school or from your cousin’s wedding reception.


As the only guy in our group, I had my own responsibilities to tend to: drinking wine. It was lunchtime and we had a whole day of exploring and hiking ahead of us, so I didn’t want to join the party, but it would have been rude not to accept a toast or two. After all, what’s more fun for a Georgian man at a party than drinking with a foreigner?

Actually, drinking with a foreigner who can speak Georgian is more fun. Which is why in this particular instance I pretended not to. Otherwise, I might still be there.



The gentlemen (and really, they were — very nice and respectful guys) sent a jug of homemade Khvanchkara wine over to our table for us to enjoy and went back to their party as we ate. Before we left, on our way out the door, there was time to squeeze in a few more dances.


And that was lunch. Our time in Racha was off to a great start.

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Khvanchkara 

When you arrive in Ambrolauri — the first and largest town (pop. 3000) in the northern region of Racha — you are greeted by perhaps the biggest bottle of wine you’ve ever seen.


Although the bottle is (presumably) empty, it’s a great advertisement for this region’s famous wine: Khvanchkara (ხვანჭკარა).

As with many types of wine in Georgia, Khvanchkara isn’t a grape; it’s a micro-climate (otherwise known as an appellation in the US and Western Europe). Khvanchkara wine is actually a blend of two grapes: Aleksandrouli and Mudzhuretuli. It’s usually semi-sweet, kind of rare and expensive (compared to other more well-known wines in Georgia) and has the added distinction of being the favorite wine of Ioseb Jugashvili (you might know him as Joseph Stalin).

Khvanchkara is also a village just a few kilometers west of Ambrolauri. One of our friends put us in touch with Aleko Sardanashvili, a young winemaker in the village who is slowly but surely trying to put Khvanchkara on the map for both tourism and winemaking.

Aleko and his friend picked us up, and a short time later we arrived at his home and guest house.


Aleko is someone who puts his energy into doing things The Right Way. For instance, the guest house in the photo above is a very old traditional Rachuli home that was found abandoned in another village. Aleko and his friends took it apart, hauled it to Khvanchkara on a truck, and reassembled it. That is dedication to authenticity.

The guesthouse sits on a piece of land that has been in his family for generations. As a younger man, during Georgia’s post-Soviet civil wars, Aleko took off for education and opportunities overseas, settling in Malta for eight years. After Misha Saakashvili restored order (and ignited hope) in Georgia, Aleko returned to Tbilisi and lived there for a few years before the lure of village life and winemaking beckoned him west.

Sadly, the population of Khvanchkara (and Racha in general) has been decreasing dramatically every year. Young people, facing a future with few jobs and opportunities, flee for Tbilisi and Batumi as soon as they can, leaving behind a sparse geriatric population.

In Racha, Aleko is definitely the exception, not the rule. He is young, motivated, smart and articulate, with a passion for wine and political discourse.

Aleko has a lovely setup for guests. In addition to the guest house, he has a “hut” for tourists to see barrels, grape crushers and a variety of other winemaking equipment.



It takes a long time to build a winemaking business. You need land, you need vines, and you need lots of patience as Mother Nature works her magic over the course of several years.

Right now, Aleko has three small vineyards that — when everything goes well — can produce around a thousand bottles. Sounds like a lot, but when you consider the amount you need for your guests and all of the Georgian holidays and celebrations both large and small, there isn’t enough left to bottle and sell as a business.

This year, unfortunately, a late freeze killed about 70-80% of his crop, making this fall’s harvest (and therefore next year’s output) considerably smaller.

Despite the bad news, Aleko perseveres. This year he is buying and planting two additional vineyards and remodeling a garage on his property, setting it up as his own bottling factory.


In a few years, if all goes according to plan, Aleko will be growing grapes, producing, bottling and selling his own wine, involved in every step of the process and shining a light on a winemaking region that is (so far) a little off the beaten path.

In the meantime, he works. He philosophizes. He graciously hosts curious travelers like us, sharing copious amounts of his own wine (not just Kvanchkara, but the white wine Tsolikouri) and real home-cooked Rachuli food.

Not his label, but his wine. Semi-sweet in just the right amount so that it’s not syrupy, but instead is velvety and smooth.
Real Rachuli ham: lori. Slowly smoked for 3-4 months and heavily salted. It’s like pork belly’s saltier cousin.
They cut up chunks of this beautiful lori and boil it with the lobio (bean stew), making it smoky and delicious.
Our thanks to Aleko and his friends for great wine, food and conversation about Georgia’s past, present and future.

Samto

Before reading this Atlantic article, I hadn’t even heard of Chiatura, a mining (სამთო – samto) town in the mountains of Imereti. I thought I had heard of, if not visited, all the relatively large towns and cities in Georgia. Little did I know Chiatura is bustling with nearly 20,000 people and, while one doesn’t just stumble into town, we found it worth the trip. 

View from above the city

We literally had less than two hours to visit (public transport set our schedule for us, sadly) but we were able to hit the highlights. 

Profiles of Lenin and Stalin still decorate this city building
Most of the workers in Chiatura mine manganese, an element that is used in metal alloys, especially stainless steel. The mines have been active since manganese was discovered in the late 1800s, although it’s not uncommon for the mines to be closed, like they were after the fall of the Soviet Union and as they have been for the last few months. 
Up, up, up!

There are 17 active cable cars in town, some which are free and others that cost a few tetri. The mining company owns the cable cars – they were installed mostly for the workers to use in the 1950s – but everyone in town uses them, as for some they are the only way to get to school​, work or home. 
Cable car mechanics

I am not good with heights (especially heights combined with moving vehicles) but the ride was smooth and uneventful. We were rewarded with great views of the valley from the top!

Compact Chiatura

Thanks to Hannah for (quickly!) showing us around! 

Mshvenieri 

It took a long time to get back from Armenia.

We hired a shared taxi that ended up being a private taxi when there were no other passengers — normally a good thing. But in this case, as our Georgian driver shuttled us foreigners from Yerevan to Tbilisi for half the money he would have gotten had there been the expected two additional fares in the car, his driving lacked, shall we say, urgency.

We stopped six times on the trip. Granted, two of them were because he got pulled over by Armenian police (yes – TWICE)…


…but the other four stops were for less official reasons. Shopping for fish. Shopping for fish again. Talking to friends.

We got back to Tbilisi late. We were tired. We were growly. We didn’t sleep well. We awoke late the next day.

That day, Saturday, was the Tbilisi New Wine Festival, a yearly celebration of the many outstanding winemakers, large and small, who are putting Georgia on the map as a world-class producer of extraordinary wines.

The festival was held on Mtatsminda, the top of the large hill/small mountain in the center of Tbilisi. There, you can find a restaurant, amusement park, TV tower and, on this particular Saturday, several thousand happy people with plastic tasting cups in hand.


Getting up to the top was brutal. There’s a funicular, but it was a mob scene. (I’m pretty sure smart people are already lining up there for next year’s festival.) There are buses. Well, a bus. No chance. You could drive, but even if we had a car, traffic was stopped dead at the bottom of the hill.

And there were stairs. Lots and lots of stairs. So up we climbed. And climbed, and climbed.

By the time we reached the top, the hot sun had left me soaked through my shirt and thirsting for an ice cold beer rather than wine.


Because we got moving so late and arrived later in the afternoon than we wanted, we only had an hour or so before we had to go back through the transportation gauntlet to the absolute opposite end of the city to drop in as guest speakers at our friend’s university class.

I know: first-world problems.

The frustrations of the previous 24 hours could have made a dark cloud hover above our heads for the rest of the afternoon. BUT — Georgian wine to the rescue.

It was an absolutely lovely event.


Milling around, bumping into friends (even those we’d met in other parts of the country)…




Talking to winemakers (and their kids – it was a family affair)…


Sampling family wines that had no bottle or label…


Sampling wines from established producers…


Sampling fruit brandies from our friends at Riravo Distillery…

There was food…


And did I mention wine?

All free, I might add. The appropriate thing to do is to bring home a few bottles, which we did — including one rkatsiteli that hooked us because it smelled just like pungent Georgian cheese. Perhaps we’ll share this bottle between the two of us.


We had a blast. (And we made it across town in plenty of time, if not a little bit tipsy.)


I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: something wonderful (mshvenieri – მშვენიერი) is happening here in Georgia. A Renaissance of sorts. Sure, there are problems, as there are everywhere. But the good things about this country seem to just be getting better. The potential is enormous.

Get here now, if you can. And if you can’t, well, Georgia — it’s food, wine and culture — will be coming your way sooner rather than later. I know it.

Tskhare

All bazaars (markets) in Georgia are fun for me to go to. I love the controlled chaos. The makeshift tables piled high with everything from produce to light bulbs. The sounds of bartering and commerce. The smells. The pickled everything.


The bazaar in Zugdidi, where we were a couple of weeks ago, was even more fun because of the preponderance of my favorite Georgian condiment: adjika.


This spicy, salty and savory treat — a mix of dried spices, garlic, salt and peppers — can be made dry, or with tomatoes as a sauce, or with tomato paste as, well, a paste.

It is said to come from Samegrelo, where Zugdidi is the largest city. In Samegrelo, the native Megrelians have their own language (linguistically related to Georgian, but not so much so that I could make out any words), their own special dishes, and a fondness for all things spicy (tskhare, ცხარე) — something not usually true in other parts of the country.

So it should have come as no surprise that at the Zugdidi bazaar, adjika was on display. Not just the red stuff that we all know and love (don’t we?), but lots of variations, some of which I’d never seen before, including green adjika with sour plums and with mint.

 


We also saw an adjika “factory,” where they were making huge batches of red adjika and green adjika (with fresh cilantro and dill) in meat grinders.





If you don’t know much about adjika yet, I think you will — eventually. Of course we sell the real deal (dry version), but otherwise it’s hard to find in the US. And the Russian versions seen in bottles at Eastern European grocery stores just aren’t the same, in my opinion.

Perhaps it’s time to make some room on the hot sauce shelf for something truly unique and different, alongside the Sriracha, Tabasco, Frank’s and 900 varieties of habanero sauce.

Mendzel

Sometimes the most fun and unexpected things happen here.  Such was the case when we visited Zugdidi, the largest city in the northwestern region of Samegrelo.

This was our first trip to Samegrelo.  We didn’t know many people in the area nor did we have many contacts, so we weren’t sure what to expect.  Sean had been communicating occasionally with a friend of a friend and experienced Georgian tour guide (Keti) who said we must meet with her friend Rusiko.  Never mind that we actually hadn’t met Keti in person; off we went to meet Rusiko at her office in central Zugdidi.

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Radio Atinati
As it turns out, Rusiko runs a long-standing and very successful non-profit called Atinati.  Along with running all sorts of youth outreach programs, Atinati has its own radio station, seeking to (among other things) build connections between the people in Samegrelo and the nearby breakaway region of Abkhazia.

Rusiko is a bundle of energy.  After sitting down, she ran her plan by us: we’d go to a local restaurant and learn a few regional specialties from their experienced kitchen staff.  Her team from Atinati would film it, giving some free press to the restaurant in exchange for hosting us.  Finally, we’d do a quick interview so her team could compile a short story for Atinati’s website.  Mutually beneficial for all.

Forty-five minutes later, we were in the kitchen of Mendzel (მენძელ), which means “host” – not in Georgian, but in the local language of Mingrelian, which is spoken in Samegrelo alongside Georgian.

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View from the second floor of Mendzel
Like we’ve found all Georgian cooks to be, the ladies working in Mendzel’s kitchen knew their stuff.  They slowed down their pace to teach us, but it was clear these ladies could churn out an incredible amount of food for their busy restaurant.

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Chopping cheese for elarji
We started by making elarji (ელარჯი).  We made two types:  Mingrelian, which is a mixture of cheese and cornmeal, and Svanetian, which is cheese and mashed potatoes. The cheese is mixed with either cornmeal or mashed potatoes over a hot stove.  Then comes the fun part.

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Sean learns to stretch his elarji alongside a seasoned pro
We also made gebjalia (გებჟალია), which came together so quickly we weren’t able to get any in-process pictures.  Sulguni cheese is heated in a pan until it’s flexible.  It’s rolled up with mint and sliced, then covered in matsoni.

Yum.

Of course, we had to have the local khachapuri.  Mingrelian khachapuri is the same is classic Imerulian khachapuri, with cheese inside a soft crust, except it adds more cheese on top. Why not? 
Cheese inside, cheese outside, then into the oven!

Kharcho (ხარჩო), a beef and walnut stew, is found all over Georgia, but the Mingrelian version is spicier and richer. (In general, Mingrelians are known for their love of spicy foods, especially adjika.)  Our hosts boiled chunks of beef and blended in ground walnuts, then added in a hefty portion of adjika and several other essential Georgian spices. They let it simmer on the stove before heating up individual clay jars in which to serve the hot kharcho. 

Clay jars called kotoni (ქოთონი)
Serving up hot, spicy and rich kharcho

A good Georgian restaurant wouldn’t be complete without khinkali. Mendzel’s khinkali were juicy and delicious, like other khinkali we have tried, except – you guessed it! – spicier. 

Sean impressing the ladies with his khinkali skills

After eating all this, we got to eat it! Not a bad way to (unexpectedly) spend an afternoon. 

A few members of thr Atinati team: Rusiko, Salome and Misha

We finished our day shooting extra footage for the Atinati piece and doing our best to answer their questions in Georgian. The finished piece is here.

They also created a video using some of the “B Roll” footage, which is pretty funny:

What an unexpected and fun day! We can’t say enough good things about Atinati and their great team. Our biggest thanks to Rusiko, Gia, Salome, Misha and the rest!

Somkheti

On a whim, Sean and I decided to take a quick trip to Armenia (called Somkheti or სომხეთი in Georgian).  We’ve lamented not visiting before; after all, Yerevan is just 5-6 hours from Tbilisi, depending on your mode of transportation.  Last week we were faced with a couple of free days in our schedule and, knowing it was likely our last chance for some time, decided to leave the next morning.

What a good decision!  We let ourselves be tourists and saw as much as possible during our 48 hour trip in and around Yerevan.  Photos from our short time in Armenia below:

 

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Republic Square in Yerevan.  We found the city to be surprisingly European and modern, but to us it lacked some of the charm we were used to finding in Tbilisi.  (We admit to being biased.)

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Ignorantly, we assumed Armenians were mostly Orthodox (like Georgians). I was surprised to enter this church – the largest we saw in Yerevan – and find it wasn’t Orthodox.  It felt Catholic, but we learned the next day it’s actually Armenian Apostolic, an unique type of Christianity of which Armenians are very proud.

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Originally we thought these Soviet-era steps were only for Yerevan views, but we happily discovered sculptures and a small indoor art museum on our way to the top.

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We had plenty of “moody clouds” during our time in Armenia.  On clear days, one can see Mt. Ararat (16,854 feet), a holy and special place for Armenians – and where Noah’s Ark landed!  It has been a part of Turkey since 1915.

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We went on a day-long tour that took us to Lake Sevan, the largest lake in the Caucasus.  At 6,200 feet above sea level, it was cold – it started hailing right after this picture – but beautiful.

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Our tour guide joked that God gave Georgians the forests, rivers and Black Sea, and all the Armenians got were mountains and rocks.  In our experience, Georgians and Armenians tend to be competitive and we traded jokes with our guide all day.  (For the record, we found Armenia to be stunningly beautiful.)

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We visited a medieval cemetery filled with these unique Armenian “cross stones,” some from as early as the 10th century. 

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This first century pagan temple (!!) was rebuilt by the Soviets in the 1970’s.  When the area became Christian, the temple was allowed to remain standing as long as a church was built next to it.  They built it – three centimeters away!

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My favorite stop on the tour was Geghard, a monastery built in 1215 that hasn’t been remodeled since.  Pictured is a chamber that has amazing acoustics; we heard many pilgrims taking advantage of this while exploring the complex.
Of course, seeking out good food was on our itinerary. Armenians are quite proud of their version of dolma – meat and spices wrapped in cabbage leaves.

Shaurma was also everywhere, and recommended by just about everyone we talked to. Although it isn’t uniquely Armenian, it is still tasty, filling — and cheap!

We even ran across Georgian food — especially khinkali.

It was interesting for us, with our knowledge of Georgia, to compare and contrast its very close neighbor.  Admittedly, we prefer Georgia – we are biased! – but we saw some extraordinary sights and were happy we finally visited, after six years of exploring here.

Turizmi, Part Two

In the middle of nowhere, outside the village of Gremi, which is itself down the road from the popular castle & tourist destination of the same name, sits an unlikely place where great wine is made.

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Temi Community is a non-profit organization dedicated to serving people with physical and mental disabilities, the homeless, orphans and other socially vulnerable groups living on the margins of Georgian society.

Established in 1989, Temi aims to provide opportunities for those people to live full and happy lives. The residents live on-site (currently, the facility is at capacity) and do what they can to contribute to a self-sustaining community. They prepare group meals. Learn carpentry skills. Tend to the garden or the cattle. Sing, dance and paint.

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For the last 18 years, they have also been making wine. Just a little at first, then a little more, and now quite a bit more. They currently have about 17 acres of vineyards and are producing some of the best all-natural organic qvevri wine in Georgia. You can find their wines in fine restaurants and shops in Tbilisi, and people are taking notice internationally as well. Said one Japanese wine professional:

Temi is the most beautiful tasting wine we have encountered. To my embarrassment , I cried in front of the producer. It was not only that I was moved by its beauty. I could not react but cry to the various things Temi wine reflected, like a spotless mirror.

Temi is currently in the process of building a large, modern facility on their land for tastings and dining. There you can also rent bicycles for your own self-guided bike tours through wine country.

We spent time in their marani (cellar), where several of the qvevris were still full of new wine, finishing its fermentation.

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We also enjoyed the company of the gentleman who is responsible for the community…

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And of course we had a few glasses of their wine.

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Again, Temi is still a little off the path (our driver had trouble finding it, even after stopping to ask a few people), but it’s worth it. Great project, great people.

On the more “conventional” side of wine tourism, you’ll have a hard time finding a more educational experience than the one you get at Twins Old Cellar in Nepareuli.

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Twins was started in 1997 by (you guessed it) twin brothers. Unlike most of the commercial producers we went to, everything they make at Twins is made in qvevris. Currently, they have 107 of them and are the largest qvevri-only producer in Georgia.

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They take advantage of every opportunity to share their expertise and enthusiasm for this winemaking technique with their guests, from the giant replica qvevri outside the facility…

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To the exceptional educational exhibits and displays at the museum, showcasing the history of qvevri winemaking in Georgia.

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The tasting was fantastic, and included chacha, the super-strong liquor distilled from the sediment left at the bottom of the qvevri. Pouring the wine from little glass pitchers was a nice touch.

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And in a stroke of marketing genius, Twins sells bulk quantities of their qvevri wines in custom made plastic qvevri-shaped bottles. Brilliant.

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(I was told yesterday that a 4-liter bottle of their wine — all-natural, organic — goes for 10-12 lari in Tbilisi wine shops. That’s around $5. For four liters. Or around $1 per standard-sized US bottle. Insane.)

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There’s so much more that happened during this excursion out east. So much more that we ate and drank, so many more people we met and so many more experiences that will not soon fade from our memory. It’s a magical place.

So please: come to Georgia. Experience all of this and more for yourself. I promise you won’t regret it.

Turizmi, Part One

Look at how beautiful this is:

A vineyard, tucked into a valley surrounded by mountains, blooming with lush green grapevines, and an ancient terra-cotta vessel just leaning casually against a rustic wooden pole…

This is Georgian wine country. Out here, a couple hours east of the capital of Tbilisi, there are picturesque scenes like this everywhere.

I’ve been to Napa, I’ve been around Italy and I live in Oregon, so I’m no stranger to wine tourism (turizmi – ტურიზმი) and marketing. Napa does it best; they are masters at enchanting you and pouring you just enough free wine so that you feel like you’re being pampered — and you leave each winery with your arms full of bottles.

Oregon makes good wine, but the places we visited seem to want you to spend all your money on the tastings, leaving little left for taking something home. Italy was what you imagine it to be: absolutely lovely.

Georgia is a little bit of all these things. Good at marketing? For the most part. Affordable? Shockingly so. Enchanting? Absolutely. In fact, with a legitimate claim to being the oldest winemaking region on earth, more grape varietals than anywhere else and a culture absolutely inseparable from making and drinking wine, “Georgian wine” has an aura around it that, in my opinion, other places can’t touch.

It’s easy to get to this part of the country from the capital. Public transportation leaves throughout the day to Telavi, the northern “hub” of wine country, and Sighnaghi, the “hub” in the south. (We’ll focus on the Telavi area, as that’s where we spent our time last week.)

Once there, many wineries are within a short drive. For around 50 Georgian Lari (about $23), you can have a taxi driver (of which there are many) drive you around all afternoon wherever you want to go. Many of them also have their own opinions about where you should go, which, if you’re the adventuresome sort, can lead you to places you never would have found on your own. There are also several guided tour companies that will take care of everything for you, if that’s more your thing.

We opted to take a shared taxi from Tbilisi to Telavi, making our ride a lot faster and more comfortable for about 40 cents more per person.

We could write a whole post about Telavi itself. We were here a couple of times several years ago, and it’s changed so much. What used to be dusty and in disrepair is now all fixed up, with a nice town center, great park with magnificent views, and even free public wi-fi in some places (with the signs in the shape of qvevris, of course).

Guest houses are popping up everywhere, which are essentially what we call “bed & breakfasts” in the States. Many of them can even be rented online at sites like Booking.com. Most of the time we prefer guest houses over hotels, because not only are they significantly more affordable (a lot of times you pay “western” prices in hotels), staying at a guest house is a great way to meet local people who love their community and are usually more than happy to help you have a great experience. Such was the case at Guest House Lilia.

They had a lovely garden in the back…

A comfortable bed with fancy-pants towels… 😉

Great views of the Caucasus mountains…

And a homemade breakfast every morning.

After filling up on food like homemade jams, eggplant rolls, fresh bread, veggies and eggs, you’re ready to hit the countryside.

Just outside of Telavi sits the grand estate of Chateau Mere. Here you can find a winery, hotel, restaurant and beautiful grounds all in a very grand European-style setting.


Turns out that the venue was booked for a private event on the day we came, which meant we weren’t able to do a traditional tour/tasting, but we were free to explore on our own.

There’s a marani (cellar) you can wander around in, where they make some of the qvevri wines (under the brand name Winiveria). Just watch your step so you don’t fall in.


There’s even a lovely pool overlooking the Caucasus Mountains, where we ran into some of the private party getting started early, hanging out in their underwear, drinking wine and listening to electronic dance music pumping through the impressive sound system.


Inside the restaurant, the decor was rustic and whimsical. Lots of pictures and objects on the walls.


Wine flows like water here, as it does everywhere in this part of the country. It’s good, it’s organic and it’s cheap. We had a liter of the house wine, a lush red Saperavi, for a whopping $1.50. It’s so affordable and tasty that you’re tempted to just order another liter!

So we did.


At Shumi Winery in Tsinandali, we ran into two fellow Americans who were with a Georgian guide they had hired on the street the day before. They kindly invited us to hang out with them. The guide waited outside while the four of us toured the facility and had a tasting.


Part of the experience at Shumi is visiting their small but well-curated museum, showcasing artifacts from Georgian winemaking history, including these metal binds – for grafting together different kinds of vines – from the third millennium BC.


Shumi is a big operation, but has the look-and-feel of something much more quaint. Their vineyards are spread out all over eastern Georgia, but the wine is made on site. Some of their production is in qvevris, but most of it is done in steel tanks, sometimes finished in oak barrels.


Their underground tasting room houses vintages dating back to 2001, when the winery was founded.

Outside there are several spots where guests can be led through wine tastings. It was quiet when we were there (only one other group of around 15 western Europeans), but during the summer we were told that they usually have groups of 40+ tourists, one after another.

Our guide did a great job of talking about the wines, the history of the company and the region.

After the tasting he made sure we knew that wines were for sale, but there was no pressure to buy. From our experiences at other wineries, this last step — asking for the sale — is something many of them fail to do. After spending hours touring, tasting, eating and drinking, there isn’t even a mention of buying something. No price list, nothing. Such a missed opportunity! It was good to see Shumi doing it right.

Chateau Schuchmann is a great story of Georgian winemaking meeting German efficiency. It began as a small family winery, but in 2008 a German industrialist who had fallen in love with Georgia after several trips here purchased it. He and the original Georgian owner are now partners in an operation that has grown significantly and continues to expand.


Many of their award-winning wines are still made in qvevris.

They also make thousands of bottles a year in stainless steel tanks.

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In this underground room, bottles of wine are inverted, allowing the sediment to collect in the neck before it is later vacuumed out.

Outside, on the deck of the restaurant, is a perfect place to spend the afternoon tasting really good wine and enjoying the view of the mountains. We felt very spoiled.

Tomorrow’s post: a visit to a very special winery well off the beaten path, plastic qvevri bottles and more.

Matsoni

I’ve shared my love for matsoni (მაცონი) – tangy Georgian yogurt – before.  What can I say?  Not only is it delicious on its own, it’s incredibly versatile.  Georgians use it everywhere:  in cakes, as a base for soups, in bread dough, mixed with garlic as a sauce…

One can imagine my joy, then, when our host took us to the Matsoni House, a new facility geared towards preserving Georgia’s dairy-based culinary traditions.

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Matsoni with local honey and walnuts

The original matsoni culture used here – called Mariami – is hundreds of years old.  During Soviet times, factory matsoni was encouraged, but nearby monks and home cooks kept this culture alive.

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Matsoni with blackberries, which our waitress encouraged we try, since the berries were “very tasty.”

They even had matsoni ice cream, which I’ve never seen before and had to experience. Matsoni isn’t sweet, it’s tangy – so I was intrigued.

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Still tangy and a little sour but surprisingly refreshing!  Almost like a sherbet.

Inspired by our trip to this matsoni heaven, I decided to make my own.  I used the matsoni from the ladies at the Sagarejo Municipality Youth House as my starter (or “deda,” which means “mother”) and bought whole milk from the dairy lady in our village.  Organic, unpasteurized and non-homogenized milk is cheap and readily available here.

Making matsoni is simple:  just heat the whole milk on the stove until it boils, then let it cool until it’s the proper temperature.  What’s the proper temperature?  Well, Georgian ladies I’ve met just know by sticking their pinky finger in the milk, but I needed Google. It’s about 75-80 degrees.

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Starter matsoni on the left, warm milk on the right

Then, stir in two heaping tablespoons of your starter matsoni and let it ferment in a warm place for at least six hours.  I did as the Georgians do, keeping my matsoni warm by wrapping it in our sweatshirts for the rest of the day.

And just like that…you have fresh, homemade, tangy matsoni.

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Not perfect – a little runny and not smooth – but I’m happy with my first try!

Amazing.