8,000 years ago, in a village a few miles south of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi, there was a small village with a large clay vessel buried in the yard, filled with grape juice and sealed until it turned into wine. The village is long gone. Things that came after include the founding of Ur, Sumer, and Babylon, Egypt’s oldest kingdom, and all the rest of recorded history. But that clay qvevri remained buried until just a few years ago. If there is an older piece of grape-stained pottery out there, it has not yet been found. As far as anyone knows, this small, relentlessly green valley between the Black and Caspian Seas is the birthplace of wine.
Of course, to Georgians, it’s perfectly natural that theirs is the true homeland of wine. Their small, ruggedly beautiful valley is tucked neatly between mountains ranges and inland seas, giving the country a nearly perfect Mediterranean climate. They have more than five hundred native grape varieties, and the very alphabet the Georgian language is written in is designed to look like trellised vines.
Traditional Georgian wine is still made in those buried Qvevris. Winemakers fill the vessels with fresh pressed wine and put in some portion of the skins for three to six months. The majority of Georgian wine is made from white grapes, and all that skin contact yields an amber (or orange) color, long, strong tannins, and an array of savory and spicy flavors not found anywhere else.
History has dealt Georgia a complicated hand. Georgians first show up in ancient records as Colchians, people in a land of wealth and plenty on the Black Sea coast about 3300 years ago. Jason and the Argonauts were going there to find the golden fleece. While Greeks did settle there, the unique Georgian language was already well established from the Black Sea to the Caspian, and the tradition of winemaking in Georgia was already four or five thousand years old by the time Greeks arrived. Through the centuries, Georgia has been flanked by some of the largest empires of the day. Georgian contains loan words from Assyrian, Greek, Farsi, Latin, and most recently Russian, evidence of extended periods of conquest. Yet the people never lost their language or their land, and there are surprisingly long periods of independence recorded for such a small place.
I recently had the chance to visit Georgia, a visit arranged by the Georgian National Wine Agency to introduce American wine professionals of every sort to the country locally called Sakartvelo. It was a wine trip, so we went to wineries throughout the eastern region of Kakheti and tastings in Tbilisi, but it was also a showcase of the country in general, its people, cuisine and culture. Our western perspective of Former Soviet Republics tends to be pretty sketchy, and guided by the heavy-handed narrative of Soviet history, so it was honestly a surprise to find such a vibrant cultural scene. The local cuisine guided by thousand-year-old recipes, wine bars on every corner filled with Georgians young and old, and an unshakable confidence in their sense of self. Georgia is about one-third the size of Oregon, with a slightly smaller population, but they have no plans to go anywhere soon.
There is a very old tradition in Georgia, the Supra feast, where the table groans under the weight of the food, and a Tameda is nominated, a Toastmaster who spends the entire meal leading toasts to peace, love, health, wine, happiness, family, and whatever else might come to mind. The toastmaster has a traditional script to follow, but they might also nominate another guest to make a toast, and anyone is encouraged to stand. We dorky American wine buyers tried it out. Led by Giuseppe from New Jersey and our Georgian guide Mari, it was a surprisingly moving experience that gave us some insight into a key aspect of Georgian culture, a certain openness, both to guests and to each other, that has helped this civilization endure for thousands of years.
I am sure the wine has also helped.
Sam Ekstrom Welch