Georgia is a fascinating country that can justifiably assert to be the cradle of winemaking. Until recently this claim was contested by next-door Armenia, but new archaeological finds this year have put its history in Georgia as going back 7,000-8,000 years. The country is the same size as Andalucía, with fewer than five million inhabitants, unrelated to Russians, Turks or Persians. Actually the Georgians have more in common genetically with the Basques and Corsicans than with any other race. The religion is orthodox Christian and traditions include a sense of hospitality and a unique code of honour.
A person is judged by the strength of his friendships. Marbella is twinned with Georgia’s prime Black Sea resort, Batumi, and when the then minister to the presidency, Andro Barnovi, spent a few days in the town a couple of years ago he took time out to visit nearby Ronda wineries. Wine plays an important part in Georgian culture. Most houses make wine for private consumption from home-grown grapes, and what are known as qvevris play a central role. These are clay plots, holding hundreds of litres, built into the floor of the house with only the top being accessible. Grapes are crushed by foot in primitive wooden vessels, and the resulting mush is poured into the qvevri and sealed in for anything from one year to 50 years.
The qvevri pot itself take three months to manufacture by hand – if you can find a craftsman to make one. Every year there are fewer, and winemaking in qvevris is classed as a World Heritage item (ICH) by UNESCO. On my last visit to Georgia it was obvious that this centuries-old style of winemaking was not in danger of dying out. Hardly a house I visited did not proffer its homemade wine, admittedly some more drinkable than others. Bearing in mind that most European winemaking countries have around 30-40 native grape varieties, Georgia is calculated to have nearly 600, and there is an ongoing official project to recover them all. There are some excellent products made commercially for export, although it is clear that there is still some way to go before they will compete with Spanish and Italian wines.
The brandy is another matter, and Georgian coñac and Armagnac is justly famous worldwide. The frequent wine wars with Russia always make news and, since this is the country’s main export to its northern neighbour. Russia can exert pressure by limiting or stopping imports, such action having a disastrous effect on a large part of the Georgian economy. During Soviet times the vineyard acreage actually increased, unlike other satellites, as it was Moscow’s favourite wine. For wine-lovers the country has a lot to offer, and bears no similarity to Spain or Italy. There are several commercial producers that make excellent wines by traditional methods, one of the leaders being John Wurdeman, an American who went there in 1996 and stayed.
He speaks fluent Georgian, has a Georgian wife and makes organic “Pheasant’s Tears”, using the qvevri technique but filtered and bottled for export to many countries. Georgia has much to offer the visitor, from attractive Black Sea resorts in the west to staggering mountain scenery in the east. But there is no motorway network or regional airports and the trains are slow. There are few direct flights from European destinations but the richness of the country as distinguished by its people, the landscape and the gastronomy makes it incomparable and exciting. Even the cuisine is unique. Walnuts and pomegranates play a big part in many dishes, and the crowning culinary glory, khachapuri, has been described as a molten canoe of carbohydrates and dairy. The oval-shaped loaf is baked with cheese, and just before serving an egg is broken into the top and left to cook in butter. At the table it is for sharing by spoon-wielding devotees. And while the typical Georgian feast is an orgy of eating, drinking and dancing the truth is that the average Georgian is a hard worker not given to lingering over his wine.
(Georgian wine can be acquired in Spain online at Uvinum.)