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Drinking in Georgia: Wine

This will be start of a new series, aptly named "Drinking in Georgia." My aim is to do the same thing I have done and am still doing with food; showcase unique Georgian beverages and some of the stories surrounding them.

"In Vino Veritas" - Pliny the Elder, 1st Century AD

Wine in Georgia is inseparable from the country's identity, both historically and in modernity. The drink is synonymous with family, friends, and the home. It is a part of the very people that have produced it for at over 8,000 years. Additionally, it has an interesting history in the life of the ancient nation.

From the neolithic period, the concept of burying vessels with the juice of these grapes through the winter produced an interesting and fascinatingly intoxicating result. After generations of perfecting the craftsmanship of these subterranean vessels, the inhabitants of the southern slopes of the Caucasus began to produce the iconic Qvevri.

While not the only vessel wine was made in, it quickly became the most prolific. This large amphora-shaped clay vessel would be filled with the juice and parts of these grapes. With an inner coating of beeswax and covered with a lid and earth, the wine fermented, sometimes for up to 50 years.

A vineyard, with grape branches in late winter, pruned in preparation for the spring growing season. (MR Photo)

Throughout the ancient and medieval ages, Georgian wine further welded itself to the region's identity. In high art, royal drinking vessels were specifically designed for the beverage. The commoner would always have a form of wine cup, b it a wooden bowl or polished horn. Throughout these formative years for the country, engravings and metalwork were adorned with the Qvevri, grapevines, and other wine-related imagery.

Naturally, religion and wine became intertwined. Saint Nino, famed for bringing Christianity to Georgia, has her iconic cross traditionally made from bound grapevine branches. Many monasteries to this day still maintain their own vineyards with the monks assigned to work the fields and produce the wine, selling it to help with church upkeep. As commerce and trade expanded, Georgian wine became prized for its unique flavor profiles when compared to other European variants.

The Qvevri in the ground, with just the top neck portion above the ground. (Photo by Terry Sullivan.)

In the modern era, little has changed. When touring the rural village and towns of Georgia’s most popular winemaking region this point is evident. Khaketi has a special place in Georgian wine making tradition. Even for locals, there’s a special place for the wines of the Alazani valley. Virtually every home is its own wine production facility.

The number of the varieties of these grapes in Georgia is estimated to be over 500, a staggering number for the small but diverse microclimate. For many homes, even the most modest, there are at least a few rows of a local vareity of grape. These grapevines are generally adjacent to the family dwelling, but can be on other expansive plots of land.

When these grapes are cut from the vine and into buckets, a “runner boy” of sorts will come, take the full buckets and deliver an empty one. After a full load of grapes are ready, they must be pressed to release their juice. While many still keep the old method of stamping on them barefoot in a hollowed-out log, some opt for the slightly more modern hand-cranked press.

The vast expanses of vineyards in the Alazani valley in the eastern Georgian province of Kakheti, famous for its excellent winemaking. (MR Photo)

The juice, along with skins and other “imperfections,” runs into an interim container. This container is then brought to the emblematic subterranean Qvevri. With only the very top of its neck protruding, the juice fills these containers to the very top. While some Qvevri are for small personal use, others seem bottomless when empty due to their depth and breadth. Once filled, they are sealed with a specially fitted lid and left to ferment.

When made at home, this wine is drawn out with any sort of homemade or machined tools. From a hollowed out and dried gourd to a special syringe-like device, the wine is removed when ready and fills the glasses and vases that litter the family table. As is tradition, a specially designated Tamada, or toastmaster, calls the attendees to a toast that ranges in topics such as family, country, God, and peace.

As the author can attest, these warm family-oriented events can draw long into the night. These events bring family, song, and an immense amount of homemade food together around the historical and iconic drink. The hallowed liquid is cultivated, harvested, processed, and shared through thousands of generations of Georgians and the guests they so love to be with. For locals, it is a way of common life and a key to their past. For the guest and tourist, it is a vital part of experiencing Georgia in its most natural state.

Cover photo from DW via picture alliance/S. Orlov

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