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.