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.


 

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Buneba

Ah, Svaneti.  The famed, mystical, isolated region of high mountains, lush valleys and brave warriors.  We’ve been hearing people rave about it for years and finally were able to see for ourselves.

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Everyone was right.

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While the main town in Upper Svaneti – Mestia – has been developed into a tourist playground (truly, we only saw foreigners and Georgians serving the foreigners in the center of town), the natural beauty surrounding Mestia is incredible.

We hiked past a river and scrambled over rocks to a glacier.

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We walked along a mountain ridge and gazed at the Svaneti and Greater Caucusus ranges as the clouds rolled in.

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We visited a Svanetian tower, climbing up rickety ladders to the top.

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We bought Svanetian Salt straight from the lady that grew the herbs in the mountain behind her home and mixed the spice blend to her liking.

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The nature (buneba – ბუნება) in Upper Svaneti is deservedly famous.

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I’ll end with a quote from a famous Georgian photographer and alpinist, Guram Tikanadze, which we read at the Svaneti Museum in Mestia:

“Alpinists are often asked what they find interesting in mountains.  We leave this question unanswered considering it unreasonable.  Just some emotions can help the explanation.  We don’t talk to the mountains and don’t strengthen our love by conversation.  We know well that here under every stone and snowflake there can be a danger waiting.  Dense clouds disperse thunderstorm and snow on the mountain slopes, while the blazing sun sobers mountain ranges with rock falls and whirlwind of avalanches.  Always novelty, soberness, motion…we have much more in common with mountains and ice than with valleys and sea.”

PS:  If you’d like to try authentic Svanetian Salt, go to kargigogo.com and use Coupon Code SVANETI at checkout to save 20% off this delicious spice blend, found on almost every table in Svaneti, now through June 30th!

Potentsiali

We’ve been to Batumi, the rapidly-developing city on the Black Sea coast, many times.  In fact, we spent our first wedding anniversary at the luxurious Sheraton hotel in Batumi, basking in the hot showers, English-speaking television channels and outdoor swimming pool.

At that time, though, Batumi felt a little…strange.  Lacking cohesion.  Not quite “there” yet.  For example, we’d walk past a five-star hotel and next door would be crumbling Soviet-era street art.  Entire streets were flooded for days after heavy rains.  The beautifully paved sidewalk would disappear under muddy tire tracks before starting again 500 feet later.  We could kind of, sort of, see the potential (potentsiali – პოტენციალი) as a legitimate tourist destination, but it just wasn’t there yet.

Nearly six years later, we’re happy to say that Batumi – again, as a tourist destination, as the city itself is thousands of years old – seems to be coming into its own.  It’s like the city has outgrown its awkward teenage years and has emerged as a place with a ton of charm.

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Europe Square and the Medea Statue:  Medea helped Jason (leader of the Argonauts) find and steal the famous Golden Fleece, as legend has it.
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Art lining the boardwalk on the Black Sea
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The new Public Service Hall at sunset
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Yes, a McDonald’s!  Lauded as the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world, we have to admit it’s interesting. 
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A very impressive dancing fountain display
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View from the beach

The Batumi boardwalk was really lovely, and, unlike our first trip, very busy.  It’s great to see so many different types of people using a public space:  from tourists (like us) enjoying the view; to families, teaching their kids to ride bikes; to the elderly, exercising or just sitting on a bench, talking with friends.  With views like this, how can you not want to spend your time here?

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Black Sea sunset

Thank you, Batumi, for the lovely, relaxing, beautiful time.

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.

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.