Saotsari

If you’ve been following this blog, you know about some of the experiences we’ve had eating, cooking and drinking our way through this culinary playground of a country: salty and rich smoked pork in Racha; spicy adjika sauces in Samegrelo; grape desserts (and wine, of course), in Kakheti; and so many more.

But what we haven’t written about much are restaurants. Specifically, Tbilisi restaurants.

Over the last three months, we’ve been able to explore the culinary scene in Tbilisi like never before. Living in the city for the first time gave us ready access to dozens of restaurants that have been on our must-try list for years as well as new recommendations from friends.

We’ve been to the highly acclaimed restaurants like Culinarium, Cafe Littera and Black Lion. Chain restaurants like Machekhela/Samikitno and Shemoikhede Genatsvale. Cozy and stylish cafes like Ezo and Cafe Leila. Places named after beer brands, like Stella Artois and Hofbrauhaus. Places without any distinguishable name at all. European/American places like Pipe’s Burger Joint and Mukha. And dozens more, including, yes, even Wendy’s and Subway (which was exactly the same as in the US, if you’re curious).

We’ve also clinked glasses at some of the best wine bars in the city. Vino Underground is excellent, as are gVino, Rooms Hotel and the beautiful Vinotel.

We were ready for some amazing (საოცსარი – saotsari) experiences.

But the truth is, the word “amazing” gets thoughtlessly tossed around a lot, especially when talking about food and wine. This pizza is amazing, their pasta is amazing, the bacon tastes amazing, it was an amazing bagel…

But I think it is actually very rare to find a dish, a meal or a glass of wine that instills within me a sense of amazement. As in, “I am astonished by this khinkali,” or “these beans are startlingly impressive,” or “I am experiencing feelings of surprise and wonder over the taste of this khachapuri.”

More often than not, in Georgia (as in the US and, in my experience, everywhere else), the food is usually “fine.” Sometimes “good,” and even rarer still, “great.” “Amazing” takes something special.

It is also, of course, entirely subjective. So here are ten Tbilisi dining/drinking experiences that we found to be far better than “fine” and “good,” unquestionably “great,” and perhaps even treading near that elusive “amazing.”


 

Everything at Barbarestan
Using recipes borrowed from and inspired by Barbare Jordadze (a 19th-century Georgian duchess who had assembled a cookbook, which was discovered in recent times at a flea market), Chef Levan Kobiashvili and his team have created, in our opinion, one of the top dining experiences in Tbilisi. Every time we’ve been there, it has been a delight. The food is well-executed: pkhalis made out of pumpkin and even kohlrabi; a savory warm cherry soup; tender roast beef in red wine sauce; beet salad with plums… The list goes on. The interior is rustic and charming, the wine list stocks some of our favorite all-natural qvevri-made wines, the service is impeccable and Chef Levan himself is as friendly and gracious as they come.

 

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Everything at Azarphesha
This is the other gem that, in my opinion, is one of the most exceptional dining experiences in the capital city. Partly owned by wineman, artist & entrepreneur John Wurdeman (whose wife is at the helm in the kitchen), Azarphesha sources only local, seasonal and organic ingredients. From the best kupati (Georgian sausage) and chivistari (Georgian cornmeal & cheese) we’ve had, to fusion dishes like a baked corn casserole with green chilies and Georgian cheese, everything we’ve had is completely alive with flavor. Of course the wine list is impeccable, and its location just a few blocks from Freedom Square means it’s always bustling.

 

The Value at Samikitno
Value is the intersection of price and quality, and in our opinion, no other restaurant in Georgia consistently offers a better value than Samikitno. The menu is huge, they do everything well, and two people can feast there (including drinks and plenty of leftovers) for under $20. But consistency is the key: Samikitno is a chain restaurant. While some people have no love for chains, I appreciate (and in fact admire) the ability to consistently produce good food and experiences at more than one location (and there are several throughout Tbilisi). It doesn’t happen by accident. It takes systems, training, monitoring and management. Samikitno gets it right most of the time. Is the food chef-driven? Absolutely not. But it doesn’t claim to be. It’s just good, solid food. And even though it’s definitely a draw for tourists, most of the time it’s packed with locals. As an added bonus, they brew their own brand of beer (some of the best in Georgia) and fruit sodas, and push the envelope a little by stuffing Georgian stews inside breads traditionally filled with cheese.

 

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Lobio with Rachuli Ham at Paulaner Fan Club
I love lori, the intensely rich ham that comes from the highlands of Racha. While spending a long weekend up there, I ate several clay pots full of lobio — Georgian bean stew — with big chunks of this smokey & fatty deliciousness swimming about. I also ate it at a few places in Tbilisi. My very favorite? At a small soccer bar in Saburtalo on Nutsubidze’s Plateau, within walking distance of our apartment. Perfect seasoning, perfect consistency, the perfect amount of meat… perfect.  One of my favorite dishes, period.

 

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Lobiani at Keria
Keria, also in Saburtalo, has taken everything I love about lobio with Rachuli ham and stuffed it inside bread. Their lobiani shebolili (smoked bean bread) is wafer thin but still decadently rich, and perhaps the best in the city.

 

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Chicken Chkmeruli at Tabla
Take a whole chicken, spatchcock it, fry it in a clay pan, and then pour over a thin sauce made out of milk and garlic. That’s it. It’s called chicken chkmeruli, it’s as simple as can be, and it is flat out delicious. We ate it in restaurants all over the country and even made it at home, but our favorite may be the very first one we had: at a restaurant in the upscale Vake district called Tabla. Everything at Tabla was excellent, and the ambiance is cozy and warm. But the crispy chicken skin and mountain of fresh garlic in their chkmeruli makes it downright addictive. We had to order extra bread to soak up every last drop of sauce.

 

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Acharuli Khachapuri at Retro
Ask anyone where to get the best Acharuli khachapuri — the one with the egg in the middle — and Retro is bound to come up. An institution in Batumi (where we ate as well), the chef has also opened an outpost in the Saburtalo district. Nobody does it better. From the soft crust (which can be hollowed out for those of you on a diet but unwilling to give up all your vices), to the not-too-salty cheese, to the huge creamy egg, it’s everything that you want in this sinfully luxurious dish.

 

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Mountain-style Khinkali at Amo Rame
Next door to Azarphesha, a few streets up from Freedom Square, is a cozy cafe that serves a small selection of mostly European-inspired dishes. Except on weekends. On Saturdays and Sundays, those who know come here for the khinkali. You won’t find them on the menu, but get yourself a liter of house wine, put in your order and settle in for some of the best you’ve ever had. They’re small (maybe two bites), not very juicy and simply seasoned, but somehow they’re addictive. We ordered twenty, and within a few minutes had sent back an order for twenty more.

 

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Achma at Sakhachapure No. 1
Seemingly every place and everyone makes khachapuri in Georgia. Fewer make achma, a style that comes from Adjara and Abkhazia and is actually closer to lasagna than to khachapuri. Sakhachapure No. 1, on Rustaveli Avenue behind the movie theater, nails it. Layers and layers of thin noodles, Georgian cheese and butter, baked to perfection. Unstoppable.

 

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Wine at 8000 Vintages
Unlike most other Tbilisi wine shops, 8000 Vintages caters not to tourists but to Georgians. None of the signs are in English, and it’s in a part of town that you don’t just stumble into. The selection is solid and ever-growing, made up of both natural qvevri and factory-made wines. There are meat and cheese boards if you’re hungry, and you can get many wines by the glass or just pick up a bottle to enjoy inside or outside, or to take home. They even deliver. But perhaps what they do better than any other wine shop or wine bar in the city (and we’ve made the rounds, believe me) comes down to the service. Every time we went, the staff greeted us with smiles. It sounds simple, but it’s rarer than you might think. They were knowledgeable, helpful and happy to help us discover new favorites. The owner is young, motivated and incredibly generous with both his wines and his time.


 

Did you know that Kargi Gogo has the largest selection of Georgian spices in the United States? From hard-to-find essentials like blue fenugreek and crushed marigold flowers, to flavorful seasonings like adjika and Svanetian salt, to ready-to-cook mixes & recipes like khinkali and lobio, our spices are 100% authentic, only the finest quality and FDA-approved. Shop now at kargigogo.com/spices. (Bulk sizes also available for restaurants — contact us for details!)  

Damoukidebloba

May 26th was/is Independence Day in Georgia, officially commemorating the day in 1918 when the Democratic Republic of Georgia was established in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.

It’s a major national holiday filled with parades, fireworks, fairs and an outpouring of national pride.

This year was even more special, because it also marks 25 years since Georgia’s independence (damoukidebloba -დამოუკიდებლობა) from the Soviet Union.

Even though we’ve lived in Georgia in the past, this year was actually our first year spending Independence Day in the capital of Tbilisi. How did we celebrate? By eating and drinking, of course.

We had an afternoon lunch date with John Wurdeman, founder and co-owner of Pheasant’s Tears winery and one of the vanguards of Georgia’s natural wine movement. If you’ve spent any amount of time in Georgia or are into its food and wine, chances are good that you’ve heard of “Georgian Johnny.”

John is an American, has lived in Georgia for more than 20 years, and is as deeply in love with this country, its people, traditions, cuisine and wines as anybody I know. In addition to running the winery, John is an artist & polyphonic singer and co-owner of four restaurants as well as a tour company. (I would highly recommend reading more about him and other winemakers in Alice Feiring’s excellent new book, “For The Love of Wine.”)

We were meeting him at Azarphesha, one of his excellent restaurants (and in my opinion one of the best in Tbilisi) located in the Sololaki district of Tbilisi, right behind Freedom Square. It being Independence Day, Freedom Square was closed to traffic for parades, presentations and displays of military equipment.

So it took awhile to get there.

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Once we got there and sat down, John brought out a case of wine that he was sampling, putting together recommendations for a wine list at a friend’s restaurant overseas. A few years ago, there were only around a dozen all-natural wine producers in Georgia. Now there are around 40, and that number continues to grow as winemakers embrace the history and techniques that truly make Georgian wine special.

It was a treat to taste so many all-natural qvevri-made wines, some so new they didn’t even have labels.

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John ordered a half-dozen or so dishes to the table, all of them either contemporary takes on Georgian classics or new dishes that highlight the best local, seasonal and organic ingredients.

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A simple salad of greens, goat cheese, cherries, nuts and sunflower oil.
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Roasted banana peppers with sunflower oil.
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A take on kupati — Georgian sausage — on top of a white bean mash.
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I can’t quite remember what all was in this other than spinach and cheese, but it was light, crispy and delicious.
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John was born in New Mexico. This dish is an homage to his roots, with corn, green chilies and Georgian sulguni cheese.

Many times during this trip it has crossed my mind that Georgia and America are moving in different directions when it comes to buying food. In America, most people get their food from grocery store chains, and buying fresh/local/organic food is (usually) more expensive and harder to find. “Slow food” and “organic” are the buzzwords of the day, as more people aspire to move their pantries in that direction. But in Georgia, eating fresh/local/organic is just the way of life for most people. Only in larger cities are there grocery store chains, and usually only the affluent can afford to go there. Packaged & frozen foods and imported products are becoming more desirable in some circles, not less so.

I digress.

After lunch we walked off our huge meal on Rustaveli Street, the main artery running through central Tbilisi, which was also closed to traffic due to the Independence Day celebrations.

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Up close and personal with ferocious-looking military vehicles.
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There is an American military unit in Georgia, helping train the Georgian armed forces. This soldier was from Florida.
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Everyone loved getting their pictures taken with the tanks!
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The street was alive with people of all ages.
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Feats of strength…
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Face painting…
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Free wine (of course)…
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Product booths and displays…
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Stages (four of them, actually) with music and dancing…
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Miniature Svanetian towers…
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Good beer “with the friends”…
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And even a futuristic Jetsons-style informational booth about Georgia’s 112 service (the equivalent of 911 in the US).

It was an impressive and fun event! Great to see so many Tbilisians out enjoying themselves on the very street that not even 20 years ago was filled with flying bullets, gangsters and darkness.

Later that night we reconvened with John at Vino Underground, Tbilisi’s first wine bar featuring only all-natural qvevri wines. When it first opened a few years ago, natural wine was hard to find in Tbilisi. Most wine stores wouldn’t carry it and restaurants wouldn’t sell it. They wanted what they were used to: factory wine from the Soviet area.

So, John and a small handful of like-minded souls pooled their resources and opened their own bar. Vino Underground became a place where natural wine producers could sell their wine and also hold tastings, create food menus to pair with their wines, etc. Today it is thee place in Tbilisi to learn about and enjoy some of Georgia’s best wines, and regularly welcomes visitors and dignitaries from all over the world.

That evening was a benefit dinner for a friend of theirs who had gotten injured. A young chef used the impossibly small kitchen to create a six-course meal, with wine pairings to match.

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My favorite dish of the night: rare beef tenderloin in a cherry sauce.

I’ve been to wine pairing dinners in the States before. At most of them, you get a few sips of a few wines. But these were not sips or even small pours. These were full glasses. And when your glass was empty? They poured you more. I shouldn’t have expected any less.

At one point, even a bottle of absinthe was opened.

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Absinthe mixed with a sugar-infused ice cube that melts in the glass. Strong.

As the night went on, more and more bottles of wine were opened and enjoyed. Tired from a long journey back from making tea in Guria the day before (more on that tomorrow), we finally had to bow out at 1 AM. I’m told the party continued for a few more hours. I’m not surprised.

These guys (and women) love what they do. They love their wines. They love each other. Their independence from old ways of thinking has gotten them this far. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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With Mamuka, the owner/winemaker of DoReMi, an up-and-coming producer of natural Georgian wines. 
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Toasting to new friends.
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Thanks, John!

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.

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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Qvevri

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

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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…

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Against the walls of homes…

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Buried in the ground next to centuries-old monasteries.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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More about qvevris tomorrow…