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.
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.
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.