John Okruashvili’s restaurant was not far from our hotel in Sighnaghi, but up a very steep cobbled street. My first encounter with the man himself was just before we entered the restaurant proper, when we were invited into his qvevri room. Immediately it was clear that this was a smaller winemaking operation than Pheasant’s Tears, but John is now increasing his production, with a new cellar located a few kilometres outside Sighnaghi. His vineyards are located in various places, but mainly above Sighnaghi at relatively high altitudes of around 800m – we passed this area as we drove from Tbilisi to Sighnaghi and stopped for fantastic views over our destination town and the Alazani Valley with the Caucasus mountain range in the distance. But he also has wine from Tibaani, a little below and to the South East of Sighnaghi, and from Imreti in Western Georgia.
Over dinner, on the top floor of the restaurant, we tasted six of Okro’s Wines, Okro being an abbreviation of John’s surname. There seemed to be a few places that used this style of branding, Iago’s Wine being another – it sounds so much more straightforward and friendly than, for example, Domaine or Château Okruashvili. Not all wines were made in the main style of the Kakheti region: with skin contact. And those did have skin contact were made with a lighter touch that I found very appealing. After dinner, the ladies decided it was a good thing to dance to dodgy pop music from the 70s and 80s, while we gentlemen retired to the balcony, where we could shut out the noise with a double-glazed door and continue drinking. Here I reinforced my original impression that, yes, I did like these wines a lot – see, all in the name of science. With dinner we had a no skin contact Tsitska varietal, Mtsvane wines with and without skin contact, and a skin contact Rkatsiteli. These were followed by two reds: a Saperavi Budeshuri – a variety which, unlike proper Saperavi, has white flesh – and a Saperavi. All from 2015. I vaguely remember that a sparkling wine also appeared while we were on the balcony, which even for me was by that time far too late for proper recording, but whatever it was I preferred the still wines. Quite possibly Chacha was being passed around too. Predictably from what I earlier said about my favourite Georgian variety, the Mtsvane wines were my favourites – both the rather vegetal (in a good way) no skin contact version, and the ginger spicy skin contact one. Those were the bottles that made it into my suitcase home.
John joined us out on the balcony. His path to wine and the restaurant business could hardly have been more different from John Wurdeman’s. Very much unlike the other John, with his hippy and artistic background, Okro was initially a scientist and software engineer, and Georgian of course. As a young man he worked at Southampton University writing computer programs for physics experiments. And through collaboration with scientists in Manchester, he was also familiar with the city where I now live. (I later read in Carla Capalbo’s book that he was subsequently a telecoms network consultant until his Baghdad hotel was blown up in 2004, after which he returned to Georgia and developed his interest in good wine.) Thus the fates weave their web.
Anyway, was that the time? We left the restaurant apologising for keeping the staff so late, and were in return told that it was a pleasure for them to see their guests enjoying themselves so much. Were we in Britain this would just have been out of politeness, but from what I know of Georgian hospitality I suspect the sentiment was genuine.