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.

tourism - 35

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.

tourism - 36

tourism - 37

tourism - 38

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.

tourism - 40

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

tourism - 42

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

tourism - 41

tourism - 44

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.

tourism - 25

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.

tourism - 27

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…

tourism - 26

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

tourism - 30

tourism - 31

tourism - 29

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.

tourism - 33

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

tourism - 32

(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.)

tourism - 28

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.

Advertisements

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.

tourism - 23

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.

IMG_2119
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.

IMG_2116
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.

IMG_2122
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.

IMG_1213
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.

IMG_5667
Not perfect – a little runny and not smooth – but I’m happy with my first try!

Amazing.

Kheloba

In a small village outside of Telavi, the unofficial capital of Georgia’s eastern winemaking region of Kakheti, we pull up to an unassuming house from which an unassuming man emerges.

Our driver, the father of a Georgian friend, had simply stopped the car in front of the house and started honking the horn, notifying the man that we were there.

It turns out that the man wasn’t expecting us, even though I didn’t know it at the time. (I thought another friend was going to call him to let him know we were on our way, but I found out — later — that hadn’t happened in time.) But the man took us through the gate and led us around the side of the house to his backyard. This kind of thing happens all the time in Georgia.

But this was no ordinary backyard. We were standing in the qvevri factory of Remi Kbilashvili and his son, Zaza.

qvevri - 25

For more than 35 years, Remi has been building these large winemaking vessels, by hand, a few at a time. His father did it before him, as did his grandfather and great-grandfather. His son is continuing the tradition.

During Soviet times, he told us that sales mostly came from family vineyards seeking small qvevris. All commercial winemaking was controlled by the state, mass produced in factories that favored quantity over quality.

As a result, there was little use for the painstakingly slow method of qvevri winemaking. The 400+ indigenous grape varietals began to die off, and the wine produced from the few remaining grapes was reportedly little more than swill. Georgian wine was plentiful in the Soviet Union, but was borderline undrinkable.

(A friend in the wine business here told us that “Georgian wine” still faces this branding problem in Russia: even though the quality of Georgian wine is now much better, its reputation from Soviet times has carried over. He said that most Georgian wines sold in Russia are still considered below average. The same wines that are catching fire in western Europe, Japan and the US are rarely even for sale in Russia. Instead, cheap mass-produced, lower quality wines line the bottom shelves at supermarkets while their Italian, French and Australian cousins command higher shelves and prices.)

In the 20+ years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, sales of Remi’s qvevris have developed much like qvevri wine itself: slowly but surely. He and his son now make around 50 a year, most of them sold to larger producers. Some are even being shipped to winemakers in Italy and France, who are opening their minds and palates to the benefits of this centuries-old technique.

qvevri - 18

It takes two to three months for Remi to make a qvevri, starting by getting just the right kind of red clay-like soil, called tikha (თიხა).

qvevri - 19

The tikha is combined with water to create a thick, moldable clay. The qvevri begins by taking a 3-4″ strip of clay and shaping it into a ring. This is allowed to dry for a few days, then another strip is added on top. This is repeated, again and again, until the qvevri reaches the desired height.

qvevri - 20

The qvevris are then carefully transported down the hill to the brick oven, enclosed on only three sides. The oven can hold several 2,000-liter vessels, each one taller than me.

qvevri - 21

Once the oven is filled with qvevris, the fourth wall is built, brick by brick. A small opening is left at the bottom for the fire that will be built. For a week, the fire is continuously stoked. It starts small; too much heat too quickly can crack the qvevri, rendering it useless. By the end of the week, as the clay sets, the fire is much hotter.

The finished qvevris are laid out in the yard, then wrapped with steel cables to keep them from expanding or contracting too much underground, as the pressure from liquid and fermentation pushes on their walls.

qvevri - 23

Finally the qvevris are coated with beeswax on the inside, to act as a natural anti-bacterial sealant and to protect against seepage through the wall. Sometimes, the exterior is coated with a thin layer of cement for extra protection against tree roots or earthquakes.

qvevri - 22

It was a real treat to see first-hand how these giant vessels, so ubiquitous in Georgia, were painstakingly made by a master of the process. It’s more than manufacturing, more than utilitarian. It’s true craftsmanship, or kheloba (ხელობა). Art.

As with other pieces of art, the artist’s signature adorns the piece:

qvevri - 24

Later, in the midst of ruins from an ancient university, we spotted signatures of other craftsmen from other times, each doing their part to keep Georgia’s 8,000 year winemaking tradition alive and well.

qvevri - 16

qvevri - 17

Qvevri

You can’t talk about Georgia without talking about wine. And you can’t talk about Georgian wine without talking about qvevri.

qvevri - 1

Georgians have been making wine in qvevris for 8,000 continuous years. Some of the oldest winemaking artifacts in the world have been found in Georgia, leading many archaeologists to call Georgia “the birthplace of wine.”

More than 400 distinct varietals of grapes grow in fertile soil from the highlands of Racha to the flatlands of Alazani Valley. Think about that. Think of all the grape varieties you know: cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, pinot gris, shiraz, etc…. Now add hundreds more. Amazing.

We spent last week in Georgia’s most famous winemaking region, Kakheti. There, old qvevris dot the landscape. Underneath trees…

qvevri - 13

Against the walls of homes…

qvevri - 12

Buried in the ground next to centuries-old monasteries.

qvevri - 14

qvevri - 15

What is a qvevri? Simply put, it’s a large, oval-shaped terra-cotta vessel resembling an egg. Qvevris were always used to make wine, but in ancient times they were also used to store grains, cheese and perishable foods — usually to hide them from invaders.

qvevri - 11

Qvevris are always buried in the ground. They are usually coated on the inside with beeswax, a natural sealant designed to keep undesirable bacteria from seeping through the walls of the qvevri, affecting the wine. Some people claim this beeswax gives qvevri wine a honey-like quality, but there is no general agreement on this and I can’t personally make that claim. It’s purpose is protection, not flavor.

Once a year, after the fall grape harvest, pressed grapes — juice, skins & seeds alike — are poured in. Although commercial operations have industrial presses to do that work now, it is still common for smaller producers and families to throw the grapes in a hollowed out log or cement trough, drill a hole in the bottom, don a pair of rubber boats and jump in, stomping away. The resultant juice flows down a little channel into the qvevri.

qvevri - 3

The qvevri is sealed and the top covered with earth for insulation.

qvevri - 5

qvevri - 6

There, the grapes are allowed to ferment for a little less than a month. The skins, seeds and any stray stems sink to the bottom while the juice rises to the top, bubbling as it converts sugars into alcohol. One of the wineries we visited had a great visual presentation of an actual qvevri cut in half, showing the separation of juice from skins & seeds.

qvevri - 4

After being manually pressed down to squeeze the last little bit of juice out of the grapes, the wine is left in the qvevri. How long? This is up to the winemaker, to achieve the character he or she is going for, usually five or six months. Sometimes it is moved to another vessel instead, such as oak barrels (which are becoming more popular as Georgian winemakers try to emulate their European brethren) or steel tanks, like this one below.

qvevri - 2

Even though oak-finished qvevri wines are making their way onto menus in popular wine bars around the country, untouched qvevri wines are the most distinctly “Georgian,” in my opinion. They’re “wine,” sure, but most of them are probably unlike any wines you’ve had before. They smell and taste close to the earth. Complex. Tannic, because of the prolonged contact between the juice and the skins, but not in an off-putting way. The white wines are more orange in color, and the red ones are dark as night (actually referred to as shavi ghvino — black wine — by the locals). You want to be able to describe them better, but the words elude you. To me they’re just… Georgian.

Wines made completely in qvevris are also entirely organic, which means no chemicals or preservatives are added.  There is an additional benefit as well. In Kakheti, where the wine flows like water, it’s an important one: virtually no hangovers.

qvevri - 7

After the wine is removed from the qvevri (by a high-tech pump in large factories, and by a jug tied onto a pole everywhere else), the leftover “mash” of skins & seeds is distilled into an intensely strong concoction called “cha cha.” (Anthony Bourdain does a little piece on cha-cha here, previewing his upcoming Parts Unknown special.)

The hard part comes next: cleaning the qvevri. The traditional way of cleaning is still the method used today, even by the large producers: a man of slight build grabs a stick with a large bundle of cherry park attached to the end of it, climbs into the qvevri, and scrubs down the inside of it with plain water. For hours.

qvevri - 8

The manager at one of the largest qvevri wine producers in Georgia told us that when he was a boy, it was his job to clean the qvevri. Pointing to his rounded stomach, laughing, he said it was no longer his job because he couldn’t fit in the qvevri anymore. But he said it was long, grueling work. Scrub, scrub, scrub. Dirty water would collect at his feet and it would be scooped out and replaced with clean water. Scrub, scrub, scrub.

How would he know when he was finished? When he could drink a glass of the water that collected at the bottom. This is still the method he uses with his young qvevri cleaners today.

Finally, the qvevri is sterilized with lime, re-coated with beeswax and left to sit in the marani (wine cellar), ready for the next year’s harvest.

qvevri - 9

qvevri - 10

More about qvevris tomorrow…