So today was a little different. Virtually the entire day was devoted to learning about Georgian wine and wine techniques. Our first stop of the day was to the Wine Cellar Museum Numsi. We were the first visitors of the day arriving just after 10:30 a.m. Now I kind of expected that the “museum” would be a museum featuring the history of wine in the Kakheti region of Georgia. Uh, that would be a big fat no. Instead, the museum featured a number of old artifacts and household goods from the past few hundred years. There were old irons, typewriters, televisions, bowls, sheepskin wine flasks, wooden cradles, carpets, pottery and on and on.
Now all of this stuff was placed around the winery where they were actually making wine using qvevri, an ancient Georgian wine technique. And this is where the visit actually became interesting. The young man taking us around the museum explained that a qvevri is an egg-shaped earthenware vessel used for making, aging and storing the wine. The size of the qvevri can vary and hold anywhere from 20 liters to 1,000 liters.
The traditional Georgian wine-making process involves pressing the grapes manually by stomping on the grapes in a long wooden boat like structure, which has a pipe connected to the structure. The liquid flows through the pipe into the qvevri which is buried in the ground. Once the liquid is pressed out and in the qvevri, the remaining grape skins, stalks and pits are also placed into the qvevri. During the first two weeks, the qvevri is periodically opened and a long three pronged stick made of walnut is used to stir the mixture. At the end of two weeks, the qvevri is sealed so that the wine can ferment for five to six months before being drunk. At the end of the fermentation process the wine has risen to the top and the skins etc. are left on the bottom of the qvevri. The wine is then removed and the remaining grape skins, stalks and pits are taken out of the qvevri and used to make a form of grappa called chacha (pronounced jaja).
And what was really incredible is that this technique has been used in Georgia for thousands of years in villages all over Georgia. In fact, in 2017 pottery jars similar to the qvevri were discovered in two Neolithic villages 50km south of Tbilisi with chemical traces of wine found inside dating back 8,000 years. It is believed this is the oldest evidence of wine in the world.
After the wine lesson, we were led downstairs to the wine cellar that dates to the 16th century. The room was made of stone and had natural cooling properties. In addition to the amazing wine cellar there were earthen jars in the cellar dating back several hundred years. So cool!
I was then offered the chance to stir the mixture in the qvevri, which had only been in the vessel about a week. We went back upstairs to where a number of qvevri were sealed and a couple that were not yet sealed. The young man lifted the lid on one of the qvevri that was note sealed, and I could immediately smell wine. And what was really incredible was that the mixture was already bubbling evidencing the natural fermentation process.
Once I was shown how to push the stick into the mixture and push through the thick mash to reach the bottom, I was given the stick and told to try and stir the mixture. I can tell you that I would never need to work out if my job was the qvevri mixer. It was pretty challenging to stir.
We were then offered a chance to taste the wine and chacha. Cool. It was barely 11:00 a.m. and we were already drinking. Anyway, we sat down and were offered a red, a white and a shot of chacha. Uh oh. Now chacha, contains about 45% alcohol and unfortunately, I knew I could not refuse. So … bottoms up. And I am here to tell you I will not be having another drink of chacha again. The burn lasted all the way down into the pit of my stomach. My God!
We then tasted the red and the white wines, And unlike wine tastings in the U.S., these folks do not believe in light pours. Both wine glasses were filled close to the top. Unfortunately, the red was far too sweet for me so I ended up only having a couple sips. However, the white was actually not too bad. I had about half the glass and decided that given the hour of the day, I should probably walk away since we were going to two other wineries.
So we left the museum winery and drove about a half hour to Khareba Winery, one of the more well known wineries in Georgia, which has won numerous medals for its outstanding wines. The drive to the winery took us past vineyards, little villages and of course, truck after truck loaded with grapes since it is harvest season.
The Khareba Winery was located at the base of the Caucus Mountains in the town of Karelia.
The winery was surrounded by beautiful gardens, had lovely buildings, including a restaurant, and clearly had its act together. The cool part of our visit was that the winery also has a wine cellar/tunnel carved into the mountainside and we were gong to visit the tunnel and taste some wines.
Once we reached the winery, we met our guide and were given blankets to wrap around ourselves. Since the cellar/tunnel is carved into the mountains, the tunnel is a natural 12-14° Celsius with a humidity rate of 70%, which we were told, was ideal conditions for wine preservation. And once we started walking in the tunnels, I was rather glad to have the blanket. It was definitely wine refrigerator temperature.
As we walked, we learned that the cellar/tunnel is 7.7 kilometers long (you read that right) and consists of 2 main and 13 500 meter tunnels connecting to the main tunnels. We were going to be walking through the two main tunnels, and as we wandered through the first tunnel, we passed oak barrels containing wine as well as some of the the 25,000 bottles of Khareba premium wines aging in there. And one interesting fact I learned was that Khareba Winery uses the traditional Georgian wine making techniques, but also uses what it calls “European” wine making techniques with machines processing the grapes and steel drums used for fermentation.
Anyway, we turned into the second tunnel which contained some of the traditional wine making (and wine drinking) materials used by Georgians. We saw a goat horn that is used at weddings and special ceremonies from which people drink wine. And the big problem (or maybe not) that I saw with the horn is that you can never put it down. You either drink all the wine or you spill the wine. No option 3.
We also saw the wooden structure used in stomping grapes and a long “testers” (at least that is what I would call them) that are used to scoop wine from a qvevri to test whether the wine is ready. The testers were made from gourds and each had a hole in one end from which the retrieved wine could be poured. Pretty clever.
After the tour, we were provided with some tasty bread and cheese, and I was offered tastings of grape seed oil (yummy with the bread) and a red blend from 2012 and a white blend from 2012. Both wines were superb, but the red was far and away the best Georgian wine I had drank to date. I debated about buying a bottle of the red, but given that I have almost two months of travel left, I could not figure out how I could ensure the wine would still taste OK without being properly stored. I regrettably opted out of buying and told our guide to get on it with the importing to the U.S.
After the lovely tour of the Khareba Winery and the fabulous wine tasting, we drove to our last winery of the day, Twins Wine Cellar in Napareuli. Now this winery actually had the “museum” that I had anticipated at the beginning of the day. We were able to walk from exhibit to exhibit following the complete traditional wine making techniques, but the best part of the exhibit was being able to see inside a qvevri as the wine was fermenting. The winery had cleverly cut a small portion of the qvevri and installed glass so that you could see what was going on inside the qvevri.
Unfortunately, the wines at this cellar were horrid to be polite. We were served bread and cheese with the wine and while the bread was fabulous, the cheese was far to pungent to mix properly with the wine. And the white wine had an almost bitter taste, while the first red we tried was like drinking sugar it was so sweet. The second red was actually passable, but it was far too young (only two years aged) and was served far too cold. Oh well. At least I enjoyed the museum.
Our last stop of the day was not to a winery, but to the Alaverdi cathedral and monastery. I know it’s a little strange visiting a monastery after all the wine, but the problem was that tomorrow (when I was supposed to visit) there is going to be a celebration of the founding of the cathedral and it was going to filled to the brim with Georgians So if I wanted to see the church and monastery (which was close to the Twins Wine Cellar), it was going to be better to do it today.
Anyway, after passing more wineries, vineyards and trucks packed with grapes, we reached the beautiful cathedral and monastery. And this turned out to be far and away my most favourite site in Georgia to date. Unfortunately, I could not take any pictures inside, but I can tell you this place was amazing. (I did actually find one picture on the internet that shows a portion of the interior so I have co-opted the picture so you can see this beautiful cathedral’s magnificence. No idea who took the picture, but I certainly did not.)
The cathedral is apparently the third largest church in Georgia. Parts of the monastery and cathedral date back to 6th century, but the majority of the the present day cathedral was built in the 11th century. While the outside of the cathedral was attractive, the entry way really gave me an indication that the inside would be special.
As we approached the entrance, ancient frescos were visible above the doorway and surrounding the entrance. These frescoes have not been retouched since the 11th century and were simply magnificent. (Fortunately, I could take pictures of these.). Once inside, I was blown away. The interior was made of stone and marble walls with massive arches to the front and sides of the cathedral. The ceiling over the nave contained the remains of a fresco featuring Mary and Jesus. To the sides, portions of frescoes were also visible. I absolutely loved this building. It was ancient and well preserved and had not been dressed up to look new. It was perfect.
Anyway, we left the gorgeous cathedral and headed back to Telavi driving along the narrow roads through little villages and past numerous wineries and vineyards. I was ready for a bit of siesta after all the wine. Tomorrow we would begin our drive back to Tbilisi.