Oda Family Winery and Vino Martville

As another stop on our tour of South and West Georgia, we visited Oda, the family home of Keto Ninidze. Beneath the living-quarters of the house is the family winery managed by Keto, and there is also a restaurant business there. The restaurant is where we had lunch, except we were the only guests at the time, and Keto stayed with us at the table after showing us around her cellar and vineyards. So where does Vino Martville come into the picture? Well, Keto is married to Zaza Gagua who is a partner in that winery. (It is sometimes styled as M’artville with the “art” bit in another font and/or colour, I shall stick with Martville!) Vino Martville is currently better established than Oda Family Winery, so you are more likely to have heard of it, and the wines drank with lunch were Vino Martville.

Oda Family Winery lies in the village of Martvili, in the region of Samegrelo. Not only is Oda the name of this house and winery, but the word also describes this style of traditional Megrelian house, with pillars to keep out the damp and a shady veranda. Zaza and Keto moved here from Tbilisi, but the house belonged to Zaza’s great-grandfather, who built it around 100 years ago.

As is sometimes the case with oda houses, part of the ground floor has been walled-off to create a cellar space, and here the cellar contains qvevri and other winemaking equipment. I didn’t notice it when we were visiting, but that wooden thing to the left under the house, looks like a trough for treading grapes. Inside the cellar there is one small 50 li and few 500 li qvevri, along with a small basket press and stainless steel tank, and a storage room for bottled wine. Keto is shown here with one of her qvevri. Close to the house is a vineyard recently planted with the Ojalashi and Chviriluri varieties, but it is still too young to produce grapes for wine, so the first couple of vintages of Oda were made from grapes brought in.

In front of the house across the grass is a separate building for the kitchen, which I think is a traditional arrangement in Samegrelo but this was over-sized to cater for the restaurant, and a wooden canopy to shelter the restaurant tables.

The food was amazing – quite possibly the best we have had in Georgia, though some of that enthusiasm may be due to my love of spice, which is one of the defining features of Megrelian food. We started with pickled jonjoli flowers in a corn bread tart-casing, which was a great combination. Also show below, looking like a tomato-free pizza, is Megrelian khachapuri. Unlike the perhaps more common Imeretian style of khachapuri, here the bread is not only filled with cheese but is also covered with toasted cheese. Mmmm, cheese – if I wanted to invest in a street food business in the UK, it would specialise in khachapuri. Also shown are pieces of chicken with a light brown walnut(?) sauce and, just visible bottom right, two types of adjika, which is a paste of chili and other spices.

I believe the rolls shown below are gebjalia, which is also mainly cheese, the structural bit being heated cheese and milk rolled out when it has acquired the correct elastic texture, with a herby filling, and a soft cheese on the side and in the sauce. Cheese too is an important ingredient in the elarji, another Megrelian speciality, being pulled out of the pot to demonstrate that it has the right consistency. The basis is ghomi, which is a sort of porridge very similar to a soft polenta, and can be eaten as it is as the carbohydrate part of a meal. But if you stir in a type of cheese, and keep stirring and stir some more, you get a delicious cheesy stodge, which was served with an equally delicious and spicy stew. I think the meat was veal, and it was in a thick and slightly grainy sauce that I suspect got its consistency from nuts. Whatever it was it was good, and worked well with the elarji.

Was there something else? Ah, yes, the wines. Sorry, but again I have very brief descriptions and very enthusiastic ratings. I am not sure if the paucity of description is just a weakness on my part, or if there is something about these wines that discourages verbiage – as in many ways the appeal of these wines lies in their immediacy and simplicity. It may be some sort of vinous heresy, but in my opinion complexity is overrated. Philosophy aside, here are my tasting notes:

Vino Martville, Krakhuna, 2017
Medium greenish gold. Slightly cloudy. Intense, fresh, orange aromas. High acid. Medium high tannin. Mouthwatering. As nose. Drink now ******

Vino Martville, Aladasturi, 2017
Medium purple. Intense, sweet, dark berry fruit on the nose. Medium high acid. Medium low tannin. Drink now *****

Finally, a few words about Keto. She was a philologist in Tbilisi and, in addition to making wine and looking after her family, intends to continue writing – about wine, and life at Oda. Judging by our conversations I am sure she will write from a thoughtful and interesting perspective, and I look forward to reading anything that might appear in English.

Gotsa Family Wines

Like all the producers we visited on this trip, the location of Gotsa Family Wines  is rural and idyllic. Unlike the other locations however, it is readily accessible from Tbilisi by car – under an hour’s drive to the south, in the Asureti Valley. On arrival, we met the winemaker Beka Gotsadze and took a tour of his cellars, but first let’s take a look at the three wines we drank with lunch. Here they are with pre-lunch nibbles.All three were 2016 wines from Asureti Valley vineyards. Below I have identified all the wines by their grapes, but I think the one with five grapes might just be called Asureti White or something similar. My ratings may seem very high, but no claim of objectivity is made, and that is what you get when drinking outside in the shade with a great lunch and in a beautiful environment. Nevertheless, the Chinuri was my clear favourite, even if tasting note could have been more eloquent, and I was more than happy to fill the final 4 remaining bottle-shaped holes in our suitcases with wines purchased from Beka.

Chinuri
Medium gold. Intense, fresh, apricot. Phenolic. Medium high acid. Medium low tannin. As nose. Drink now ******

Mtsvane, Khikhvi, Kisi, Mtsviani, Chitisvala Bodburi
Darker brownish amber. Intense, fig, raisins. Probably a little oxidised. Medium acid. High tannin. Refreshing, despite all the dried fruit flavours. Drink now *****

Tavkveri
This is labelled as a rosé wine, but I would rather describe it as a lightish red wine, like a less-serious red Beaujolais for example. Medium pale purple. Intense, soft strawberry aromas. Medium acid. Off-dry effect, but that could be from ripe fruit aromas. Low but noticeable tannin. Drink now ****
Beka was fun company, over lunch and during the tour. He was opinionated, but didn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and was willing to listen to other ideas too. He is definitely in the natural camp of winemakers, with certified-organic vineyards and low-intervention winemaking, and he is traditional to the extent that he uses qvevri and Georgian grape varieties. However, that is really where tradition ends and his desire to tinker and innovate kicks in.

Rather than using wood or stone to seal the neck of the qvevri, Beka prefers stainless steel. That is now quite a common thing in Georgia, but he has also devised a large insulating cap for the qvevri that hold maturing wine, to help keep the temperature constant. He also dangles electric heating elements in his qvevri to sterilise them before use. The insulating cap and sterilisation device are illustrated above. The long baskety thing, also illustrated, is a coarse filter that you drop into the qvevri to remove the heaviest crud from the wine you take out from within the basket.

But perhaps the most impressive innovation is that the fermentation qvevri have tubing coiled around them underground, enabling Beka to cool or heat the wine in the qvevri by pumping water through the tubing. The alcoholic fermentation produces heat, so to keep the temperature lower Beka pumps through cold spring water, and the resulting warm water goes into his swimming pool. And to encourage malolactic fermentation by warming the wine, the direction of flow is reversed, taking warm water from the pool. Beka shows us the controls for this temperature control system in the above image. Before becoming a winemaker, Beka used to be an architect, and his company designed heating systems for buildings – presumably this was the inspiration for his qvevri temperature-control ideas. The usual story you get in Georgia is that the qvevri is an ideal winemaking vessel perfected over millennia, and that the earth around the qvevri works perfectly to moderate its temperature.  So I am sure Beka’s ideas are not without controversy, but how do you know how perfect the basic qvevri is until you explore alternatives?

Another practice frowned on in some Georgian circles is that Beka matures his red wines in flavour-neutral old oak barrels to allow small amounts of oxygen into the wine. The frowns are because traditionally, i.e. before the 19th century, wood was not used to hold wine in Georgia winemaking, everything being in qvevri. Regardless of the vessel used, it is noteworthy that Beka sees fit to age his wine for up to two years before release, as he thinks is important for the wines to stabilise, especially if they are to be exported and experience less-than-ideal conditions in transit.

Overall, a great visit – certainly something to consider if you are a wine-lover staying in Tbilisi for a while.

An Amazing Mtsvane and a Cracking Krakhuna

The Mtsvane and Krakhuna were served to us at g.Vino in Tbilisi, and Sapere in Kutaisi. We enjoyed evening meals there, but equally I have seen both places described as wine bars. Certainly you can pop into g.Vino for just a drink, and I presume the same applies to Sapere. They both focus on artisanal, natural, qvevri wine, g.Vino’s selection being pretty impressive, while Sapere is a smaller place with more limited choice. Actually, when we were at Sapere it was even more limited than normal – I asked for an orange wine and was offered only one option as they had used up most of their stock and were waiting for the 2017 harvest. Nevertheless, that wine turned out to be excellent, and Sapere had the edge over g.Vino when it came to food. Nowhere in Georgia did I eat badly, but Sapere was particularly good. Anyway, more on the two specific wines…

At g.Vino I said I’d like a bottle of Mtsvane, and was given a taster of  Chona’s Marani Mtsvane 2016. Mtsvane simply means green, and actually there are a few different Mtsvane varieties in Georgia, the most common one coming from Kakheti, where Chona’s Marani is located. So this was the Kakhetian Mtsvane – Mtsvane Kakhuri in Georgian – which is what I am used to drinking. But this was different. I was expecting something bright, lively, phenolic, astringent and aromatic, but this was more soft and gentle. Its appearance was not pretty – a cloudy muddy brown colour, depicted well in the image above. But I was not planning to sit and look at it all evening, and the nose was a lot more attractive – intense, fresh, fruity and spicy – and on the palate it had moderate amounts of acidity and tannin, giving that lip-smacking quality that works so well with food, without being too dominant. On the palate I noticed a slight lactic character, which also tended to give it a more rounded impression. Overall I liked it a lot (*****), so we took the rest of the bottle for 50 GEL. As far as I can tell it is not available in the UK, but if it was I guess it would retail for around £20 – the price most Georgian natural qvervi wines seem to sell for.

The wine we were offered at Sapere was the Giorgi Shalamberidze Wine Cellar Krakhuna 2015. According to the back label, it comes from the “Zestafoni district of Imereti, in the village of Tskhratskaro”, but that is pretty much all I can find out about the producer. Krakhuna is the grape variety, which I had not tasted before, but this wine was one of two really stunningly good examples we came across on the trip. It was pale gold, with an intense nose – honeyed and mildly spiced. Immediately after opening it was very slightly fizzy. There was a slightly off dry effect on the palate, which together with the honey on the nose could indicate a small amount of botrytis. Sadly, I realise this tasting note fails to explain why, but the wine was absolutely delicious. It hit the spot, and I gave it a doubtless hyperbolic ******. You had to be there to understand!

A trip to South and West Georgia

My first visit to Georgia was mainly in Kakheti – the Eastern part of Georgia, where most of its wine is made. It made a big impression on me, and since then I have spent a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about Georgia. I had to return, and this time headed South and West from Tbilisi, spending one night near Vardzia and three in Kutaisi. The remaining three nights, immediately after and before our flights, were in Tbilisi. This time there was just the two of us in a car with a guide, on a private tour organised by Living Roots, which was a very much more intimate experience compared to the Arblaster and Clarke trip last time, and considerably cheaper. The number of wines we got to try was a considerably less, and we generally drank the wine, as God intended, rather than tasting it. But that was no bad thing. In addition to natural qvevri wines bottled for sale, we drank undocumented homemade restaurant house wines probably made the same way, and a couple of examples of cheap factory wines (as the Georgians sneeringly call them).

Just to be clear from a disclosure point of view for anything I might write about this trip –  we paid for everything we received. It was a holiday; not a press trip.

Some of the many highlights…

Part of the Vardzia cave-city to the right, overlooking its valley

In the South we visited the cave-city of Vardzia. Established in the 12th century as a place to hide from invading armies, it grew to a man-made cave complex on 13 levels suitable for permanent inhabitation. A series of earthquakes later exposed the cave-city in section, which is what we see now. Further North, and much close to Kutaisi, we visited the Gelati Monastery. It was founded in 1106, and became one of the most important cultural and intellectual centres in Georgia.

Gelati Monastery

Travelling North-West from Kutaisi, in the Samegrelo region of Georgia, we saw the beautiful Martvili Canyon, and rafted in a more gently flowing part of the river, also visiting the large limestone Prometheus Cave on our return journey.

The wine producers we visited were: Archil Guniava Wine Cellar, Nikoladzeebis Marani, Oda and Vino Martville, Nika Vacheishvili’s Marani, and Gotsa Family Wines. I’ll try to write more about them in later posts, but right now I would just like to say what wonderful lunches we had in those places. Our visit to Archil was late in the afternoon, and even there we were offered delicious khachapuri, tomato, cucumber and nuts.

Lunch at Nika Vacheishvili’s place in the Ateni Valley

Apart from lunches at winemakers, there were a few other foodie highlights. On our first evening we had great food and wine at g.Vino in Tbilisi. Here, there was a good selection of natural qvevri wine, and the staff were very friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. For lunch the next day we were in Poka Nunnery, in a cosy dining room with a wood stove. The whole meal was good, but I particularly remember the river trout, boned, and stuffed with onion, and the selection of hand-made nunnery cheeses to finish. Another meal that stood out was a dinner in the Kutaisi restaurant Sapere. The delicate spicing of the food was wonderful, and I also remember we drank a particularly good bottle of wine.

Barbare Jorjadze (left) at the Tbilisi restaurant Barbarestan. Clearly someone not to be messed with

The final meal of the trip was back in Tbilisi at the restaurant Barbarestan, which was significantly more up-market than any other place we visited in Georgia. All the recipes were taken from a 19th century cookbook written by Barbare Jorjadze, so every dish is traditionally Georgian, but not necessarily commonly eaten in modern Georgia. The decor and crockery is also perhaps how you might imagine things to have been back in 19th century Georgia. The food was good, and interesting, but I think the extra Lari we spend to eat in a place like this mainly went towards providing a very polished level of service. It was fun to try, but personally I prefer a more laid-back atmosphere.

Falling Leaves – Georgian wine under the Soviets

The documentary Our Blood is Wine, mentioned in my previous post, has a couple of clips from the 1966 Georgian film Falling Leaves, showing scenes of winemaking in Soviet Georgia. I was motivated to find out more about this film, and discovered it on YouTube with English subtitles. Edit: If you search you may find it somewhere online, but its availability is rather sporadic. The most reliable location currently (April 2022) is here. But beware – it seems they use cookies to allow you only one free viewing, so you need to make the most of it.

At a simplistic level, Falling Leaves can be used to illustrate the way that Soviet industrial winemaking trampled over Georgian rural traditions, and that might be all that is required of it by a wine-lover with an interest in Georgia. However, the themes of the film run deeper, and if you are interested in exploring the extremes of those depths I can only refer you to the analysis given in an this essay. Or you could just watch the film and enjoy what you can.

Our Blood is Wine – film review

This recently released documentary is about the revival of ancient winemaking traditions in Georgia, traditions that never disappeared despite suppression by Georgia’s Soviet rulers in the last century. There is now something of a renaissance, riding the wave of enthusiasm for so-called natural wine, and the ancient is now hip.

Georgian winemakers rebuilding their wine cellar. ©EmilyRailsback c/o Music Box Films

The two key people associated with the making of the documentary are its director Emily Railsback, and sommelier Jeremy Quinn, who narrates and features on-screen. Neither Emily nor Jeremy stamp their egos on the project too hard, allowing their subjects plenty of space to take centre-stage. The action meanders across Georgia, introducing us to those involved with small-scale qvevri wine production one way or another, mainly the winemakers themselves and their families, but also potters who make the qvevri, and more-academic experts such as archaeologists and ethnographers.

But even if winemaking is overtly the subject of the documentary, the winemaking details are not delved into too deeply, and that is fair enough in a way I suppose – to concentrate on the technical would be to miss the most essential message of wine’s cultural significance in Georgia. To quote Emily Railsback from the press blurb: “Things don’t always make sense in Georgia, but the hospitality and love that people show each other through eating and drinking is transformative. Jeremy and I had worked in the restaurant industry for years, and never experienced anything remotely similar. My first meal in Tbilisi was at a traditional restaurant where Jeremy was the sommelier. When guests were moved by their food, or by the company of their friends, they would break into song; the deep, heart­‐felt polyphonic song of their ancestors. It brought me to tears. I had never been around a culture that felt their highs and lows so vividly, and in community over toasting and song.”

So far, so good, but I was still left wanting more detail. Was that a qvevri base we saw being made? I thought qvevri bases were thrown, but that one did not seem to be made like that? Where is that archaeological site we visited, where the Soviets sliced the tops off buried qvevri? How did all the wines taste? What, if any, are the links between the people we met? Etc, etc. But maybe those concerns are specific to me – someone who is a bit geeky and already knows a bit about the subject matter, and who is eager to know more. If you are less bothered about that sort of thing, and are prepared just allow the impressions wash over you, I am sure you will get on better with the documentary. Either way, it undeniably gives a good general feel for the country and its culture – wine culture in particular.

If you wish to see the documentary, and are based in the USA, for screenings click on theaters here. The documentary will also be available there on demand (iTunes etc) from 20th March 2018, and on DVD from 22nd May. For more details, and other countries, announcements will be made on the film’s website and Facebook page in the next few weeks.

I was given free access to see it online as a member of the press. More significantly, I must disclose that I am totally biased as, even before seeing the documentary, I was irredeemably enthusiastic about Georgia and these wines 🙂

Update 16/03/18: Here’s a trailer for the film, published as I was writing this post

Saperavi made in qvevri – examples of contrasting styles

A couple of months ago I organised a tasting of Georgian qvevri wines, and published the tasting notes here. I then reordered multiple bottles of some of my favourites from that tasting, so I could drink more substantial pours over the course of an evening, and write more-detailed tasting notes. The two Saperavi wines I reordered were very different, and made an interesting comparison.

Pheasant’s Tears, Saperavi, Kakheti, 2016, 14.0%, £20.35  from Les Caves de Pyrene
This has an almost opaque purple ruby colour, and an intense nose of dark fruit. The smell also reminds me of ink – the stuff I used in fountain pens at school. Already the fruit seems to have a hint of maturity. High acidity and medium-high astringency on the palate, and all aromatic elements noticed on the nose are still present. Excellent length. Good to drink now. I have no experience of how this wine might age, but if I had to decide I wouldn’t keep it for more than a few years further. However it might be fun to try. *****

I see this as a wine made in the tannic style typical of the Kakheti region, which is the main wine-producing region of Georgia, and in the East of the country. However you look at it, it is a big wine, with colour and tannins resulting from prolonged skin contact. It certainly makes its presence felt, and I think its vigour is what I like so much about the wine.

Zurab Topuridze, Saperavi, 2015, 13.0%, £23.55  from Les Caves de Pyrene
Pale ruby garnet in colour. On the nose, intense and fresh, with sharp red berry fruit. Cranberry and raspberry I think. Also some complex high-toned notes. My mouth waters just from the smell. High acidity, and low but detectable astringency in the mouth. Intense aromatically. Aromas on palate as on nose. Maybe a touch of Band-Aid brettiness as it warms slightly but, as with the high-toned notes, it is not obtrusive and adds to the complexity. There is sweetness from the fruit, giving a subtle underlying caramel nature. Excellent and delicious length. Drink now I think, but I would like to know how it ages. This wine is too sharp to be called balanced, but I don’t worry about that too much as I think balance is over-rated – drink with food. ******

Unlike the vast majority of red grape varieties, with Saperavi, not only is the skin coloured, but also its flesh. Following the French, we normally say these are teinturier varieties, and teinturier is practically a direct translation of the Georgian word saperavi – in English, the word is dye. So this Saperavi wine may have seen no skin contact at all, as it only had a pale red colour, and very little astringency. Both those factors are in marked contrast to the Pheasant’s Tears Saperavi. Note also that this wine comes from Guria in Western Georgia, where a lot of skin contact is less typical than it is in Kakheti. It is a lot more of a crowd-pleaser than the austere Kakhetian one with its hair-shirt manliness. On the whole, I too prefer it, for its delicate nature and its complexity. Yes, I know I also said I liked the vigour of the Pheasant’s Tears wine – it is possible to appreciate both styles.

So… two excellent wines, and an interesting comparison. Nevertheless, for me a there was a clear favourite. But you might feel differently, and I would encourage you to try both.

When and where did winemaking begin?

I starting getting engaged with this topic when reading the November 2017 press stories about new archaeological evidence for winemaking in Georgia 8,000 years ago. We were told that this pre-dates the winemaking remains previously accepted to be the oldest, which were discovered in northern Iran. That confused me because, for several years now, Georgians have been claiming an 8,000 year old unbroken winemaking tradition. And then, to make my confusion worse, I saw articles elsewhere saying that the remains of the oldest winery were in Armenia. It does not help that popular reporting occasionally fails to differentiate different between “BC” and “years ago”, as to most people a couple of millennia here and there does not seem to matter. In the face of all these claims and a smattering of misinformation, what seemed to be lacking was a recent overview of the evidence with no promotional agenda – which is what I aim to provide here.

Firstly, as some say there is archaeological evidence for wine in China in 7,000 BC, let’s take a quick look at that claim. And dismiss it. What was found in China was evidence of a fermented drink. Some people have suggested the drink may have been made partially from grapes, but that is speculation, and seems very unlikely. Even if true, we would normally expect our wine to be made of grapes exclusively.

While individual countries now lay claim to the oldest winemaking tradition, we must remember that modern-day boundaries did not of course apply back in Neolithic times. There was a largish region that included (to mix names from different eras) Northern Mesopotamia, Eastern Turkey, the Zagros mountains in Northern Iran, and the South Caucasus, in which there were many new developments: permanent human settlements, plant domestication for food, and crafts such as weaving, dying, stone working, woodwork and pottery. It was within this context that, not unsurprisingly perhaps, winemaking seems to have emerged.

Archaeological evidence can currently only point to the existence of early winemaking activity in a few isolated instances, each one in a particular place and time. While important, that evidence sadly can say little about the general picture. However, there is also supporting evidence that links this region with the origin of viticulture and winemaking. Genetic diversity in a plant is taken to be an indicator that it has existed for a long time – simply because it has had more time to mutate – and the Eurasian wild grape shows its greatest genetic diversity in the Near Eastern uplands, suggesting that grape vines in their wild form originated there. Also, Western European grape varieties are closer genetically to the wild vine of Anatolia than they are to more local wild vines, meaning that they probably originated close to Anatolia as domesticated forms, and later spread west. This is also consistent with the current indigenous Georgian grape varieties being closely related genetically to those of Western Europe, though by itself that fact does not indicate any particular direction of travel.

The oldest wine-related archaeological sites are in present-day Georgia, just 50km south of Tbilisi. They were two nearby villages, each around 1 ha in area – sites 2 and 3 on the above map – comprising circular mud huts of 1-5 m in diameter. Here sherds of fired-clay jars were found with residues that, when analysed, showed to be very likely to be of a grape product, and which were dated as 6,000-5,800 BC. The jars were up to 1 m high and 1 m in diameter, with a capacity of over 300 li. The jars had small unstable bases, so for stability could have been partly buried when used, but the decoration around the top of the jars suggested that they were not totally buried. Present day Georgian qvevris tend to be larger, and are totally buried, so these ancient jars are perhaps better seen as a forerunner of the Georgian qvevri rather than the first examples. In fact, no direct evidence of winemaking on those sites has yet come to light, but pollen samples indicate that there were grapes growing nearby, and considering the wine culture known to exist in that region at later dates, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that wine was actually made in those villages. These are the same sites where for several years Georgians have, with little justification, been claiming an 8,000 year old history of winemaking. But it was a lot more recently that the convincing evidence mentioned above was obtained, and published in November 2017 the PNAS article Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus. Unless credited elsewhere, this PNAS article is the source of pretty much all the information in this blog post, and the map is reproduced from that article, so if you want to chase up more detailed references that is where to go.

Prior to November 2017, the earliest known winemaking site was in the of Northern Iran, site 17 on the map, just south of Lake Urmia. As on the Georgian sites, jars were found in a domestic mud hut with traces of the tartrates that indicated they had contained wine. These remains were dated to around 5,400-5000 BC. There were six partially-buried jars found in one hut, each with a capacity of around 9 li.


This quantity was typical for a hut in the village and indicates winemaking on a sizable domestic scale, but we must go to the Areni-1 cave (site 15 on the map) of present-day Armenia for the earliest evidence of a proper winery. Unfortunately, because Armenia’s legitimate claim for the earliest known winery is sometimes made in isolation, this can easily give the impression that winemaking itself started here. While in actual fact the winery was dated to 4,000 BC – around two millennia later than the winemaking finds in Georgia. Nevertheless, the Areni-1 cave finds are significant and impressive. In addition to the tartrates, there were found grape-vine fragments, pips, and the red pigment malvidin. Also plaster pressing floors, arranged so the released grape juice would run into buried jars. To put these Armenian finds into a bit of perspective, they are roughly contemporary with early signs of winemaking in Northern Greece at Dikili Tash, yet still considerably earlier than anything in what is now Italy.

So if anyone asks when and where winemaking began, the only honest answer is that we don’t know. However, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that it was in or around the South Caucasus. And there is strong archaeological evidence for winemaking 8,000 years ago at a specific location in what is now Georgia, which is the oldest hard evidence we have at the moment.

More interesting than chronological one-upmanship is perhaps the details of how wine was made in the Neolithic period, and how winemaking evolved into what we see today – but that is another story.

A tasting of natural qvevri wines from Georgia

A couple of weeks ago we had a Georgian evening at our local tasting group, first tasting the wine, and later drinking it with Georgian food using recipes in the excellent book Tasting Georgia. All wines were purchased directly from Les Caves de Pyrene. Below I quote their standard retail prices, excluding the 10% discount I got for spending more than £200.

They were all natural qvevri wines which, as discussed in my previous post, make up a small percentage of Georgia’s total commercial wine production. They were also made using skin-contact to varying degrees. As this type of wine goes, I think the selection was fairly representative of what is produced in Georgia, with the emphasis on the Rkatsiteli and Saperavi varieties and the Kakheti region.

I thought the wines all showed very well. I have had some of them before, when I did not enjoy them nearly as much. Is this the fickleness of natural wine, or were the previous examples faulty or served at the wrong temperature, or was it just me? Or maybe it was a combination of all those factors? For example, I think I managed this time to hit on a good serving regime, which you might want to reproduce… they were all taken out of my 12°C wine fridge, double-decanted, and then left in my garage at 15°C for one or two hours before serving. On this occasion, they all got at least 5 stars, while Okro’s Rkatsiteli, Iago’s Chinuri and Zurab’s Saperavi particularly impressed with 6 stars. Yes, I know they are very high scores, but I do not pretend to be objective – it was a good evening and I enjoyed the wines. That is the important message to take away. It could be regarded as pay-back time for the occasions when I was not so impressed by the same wines.

Here are my rather sketchy tasting notes for what they are worth, in the order of tasting. Click on the image above for a hi-res view of the labels.

Pheasant’s Tears, Rkatsiteli, Kakheti, 2016, 12.5%, £18.30
From vineyards in Bodbiskhevi, around 3 km South-West of Sighnaghi, in the hills above the plains of the Alazani Valley.
Medium amber. Intense, fresh, phenolic. Honey. Medium low acid. Dry. Orange. Medium low astringency.

Pheasant’s Tears, Rkatsiteli, Kakheti, 2011, 12.3%, £18.20
Also from Bodbiskhevi.
Medium amber. Intense, mature. Medium low acid. Tad cheesy perhaps, but it didn’t put me off. Medium astringency.

Okro’s Wines, Rkatsiteli, 2015, 12.5%, £22.45
Vineyards in Nukriani. Around 3 km from Sighnaghi, but further up in the hills, to the West of the town.
Bright golden amber. Intense, fresh, fragrant. Medium acid. Dry. Gentle, subtle, rounded. Medium low astringency.

Ramaz Nikoladze, Tsitska-Tsolikouri, 2015, 13.0%, £23.55
Blend of two varieties, Tsitska and Tsolikouri. From Nakhshirghele, in Imereti
Medium orange. Slightly sulphurous. Medium high acid. Medium high astringency. Lemony.

Iago’s Wine, Chinuri, 2015, 12.5%, £19.20
Chinuri is the grape variety. 5,000 bottles, from 50 year old vines in the village of Chardakhi, around 20 km North-West of Tbilisi, in the southern part of Mtskheta-Mtianeti.
Medium yellow gold. Medium intense, fragrant. Medium acid. Medium high astringency.

Pheasant’s Tears, Saperavi, Kakheti, 2016, 14.0%, £20.35
This is from Tibaani, around 5 km South-West of Sighnaghi, just above the plains of the Alazani Valley. Tibaani is actually the name of a smallish appellation in Georgia but, as the name is not writ large on the label, I think the claimed appellation is the much larger Kakheti.
Opaque purple. Medium dark fruit. Medium high acid. Medium high astringency. Fresh. Sharp and refreshing.

Zurab Topuridze, Saperavi, 2015, 13.0%, £23.55
From the Guria region, which has a Black Sea coastline.
Medium pale purple. Intense, sweet berry fruit. Medium acid. Gentle, sweet. Subtle, spicy.

Okro’s Wines, Saperavi Budeshuri, 2015, 11.0%, £23.55
Most Saperavi grapes have red flesh, but Budeshuri is a white-fleshed clone. The vineyard is in Manavi, around 40 km West of Sighnaghi, high in the hills, and possibly facing away from the Alazani Valley.
Medium purple. Intense, fresh, sharp black fruit. High acid. Intense on palate too. Medium low tannin. Sharp and tangy.

Georgian winemaking starts at home

The Georgian wines the media likes to portray, and the ones sommeliers in hip restaurants and wine bars like to pour, are artisanal, natural, and made in qvevri. But if you look at all commercial winemaking in Georgia, this comprises only a few percent of total production. And this is reflected to a large extent in the Georgian wine available in the UK. Go to a specialist online Georgian merchant, select a bottle at random – the chances are that its contents have never seen the inside of a qvevri. Estimates for the percentage of qvevri wine vary, but are in the range 1-3% for commercial winemaking. A surprisingly low number perhaps, but that is not the biggest surprise.

In this pie chart you can clearly see what I reckon to be the biggest surprise. It is the vast quantity of homemade wine – something I became aware of only a few weeks ago. Estimates are all finger-in-the-air, but someone suggested 70% of wine consumed in Georgia is homemade. Another says home production is two to three times larger than the commercial sector. Regardless of the precise numbers, homemade wine is a huge proportion of the total. If it were twice the production of the commercial sector, that would put it at two-thirds of the overall total, and in my chart I have shown it as 70%.

But why should we care about this? One reason is that it was the home winemakers who carried the tradition of qvevri winemaking though the Soviet period, when all legal wine was made in large factories that paid no regard to the old methods. In this time many Georgians kept their home qvevri, and some must have quietly continued to use them as God intended. And this tradition of home winemaking led to the emergence of small-scale commercial qvevri wine production, and later to its increasing adoption by larger producers.

When we consider the scale of home production of wine in Georgia, that must challenge our ideas about the proportion of wine made in qvevri. Doubtless some home wine is made in large plastic containers these days, but I bet a significant amount is still in qvevri. So as a proportion of all Georgian wine, qvevri production must be a lot higher than the few percent that the commercial data suggest. [Update: A Georgian has estimated that on average 30% of home winemaking is done in qvevri – less than 30% in the cities, but more in Kakheti. If true, that means around 25% of total Georgian wine production is in qvevri.]

As a (rather large in terms of screen area) postscript, I would like to share a few videos about home wine production in a Georgian village. The videos are not the fastest-moving, but I think they are insightful, and I rather like the gentle pace and humour. How typical the methods are, I would not like to say in general, but the adding of kilos of sugar to the qvervi was unexpected for me, and you might like to check the YouTube comments on the matter. For completeness I also include videos by the same filmmaker on the making of chacha (the Georgian equivalent of marc or grappa) and bread. I wish I could credit the filmmaker properly, but I don’t know anything other than the information given on YouTube – they were uploaded in 2011 by the YouTube user omwuchi, who says he or she lived in the village with a host family.