And I am at it. In Georgia. My new favourite place in the world. By Kate
In some places, poetry is inherent. I do not know why this is so and I couldn’t begin to list factors which make one country or city implicitly poetic while another is singularly lacking in it. This is just how it is.
Georgia is suffused with poetry. It is a place to fall in love with, easily and totally. I am spending 4 days here, attending the First International Qvevri Symposium and that fact alone is immensely exciting. That it has turned out to be in a place I already know I love makes this one of my best wine trips for a very long time.
Mind you, Georgian bewitchery was not immediately apparent on arrival. At 3.30am on Thursday morning, our large group was met at the airport by one of the organisers. We come from all over but mainly, it seems, North America.
Tblisi at 4am was unremarkable, all that was discernable through the pre-dawn darkness was a mishmash of glitteringly new (and mainly unspeakably ugly) glass buildings interspersed with four square communist structures. There is a George W Bush boulevard, complete with a portrait of the man himself which was surreal and not a little disconcerting.
Later, in daylight, most of it was magnificent. A wide, black river snakes through a city of fountains, squares and delicately ramshackle buildings with filigree balconies (which put the American’s in mind of New Orleans or Louisana) contrasting with thickset stone castles and official edifices, grand and graceful enough to offset the communist blocks.
Lunch the next day is just outside Tblisi, at a place called The Bean Restaurant. Also known as (in Georgian) “The place where you clink glasses”. It is vast. A central building flanked by rambling veranda’s on either side where long metal tables with low benches stand in the shade of trees. Mainly, groups of men sit and eat from an array of plates, washed down with cold beers.
This is apparently an entirely democratic eating place. Those with a lot of money and those with almost none come here. The food is ridiculously cheap, very traditional and incredibly good. We stand while a small army of ladies bring cutlery, plates and bottles of water and then a flock of full plates. There are round discs of dense corn bread which must be crumbled into the clay pots of thick, savoury bean soup; Spinach with walnut paste, oyster mushrooms, tomato salad, sweet, only slightly peppery radish and fronds of fresh parsley which are eaten straight up. Then aubergine with garlic and more walnut and sweet red peppers also with walnut paste, both served cold.
It is a feast.
A veteran of Georgian hospitality confirms that at the truly epic meals which this culture is famous for, the food will keep coming and coming.
“You must eat to keep up with all the wine and spirit being poured down your throat”.
Back to the cars for the drive to the Saguramo experimental vineyard. I am in one with John, an American expat who is instrumental in the current drive to not only preserve but also promote the extraordinary wine making heritage of this country. His life is sterling example of how the beguiling magic of this place can hook a person for ever.
As a teenager in Virginia, he had, by chance, picked up a recording of Georgian Folk Music in his local record shop. Listening to it would determine his destiny which is a pretty impressive outcome for what was an impulse buy. Completely entranced, he decided that one day, he had to visit the people and the place capable of producing such sounds.
Later, as an art student in Moscow, he began visiting here and eventually, bought a house in a place near Tblisi where he spent his vacations. This was in the time before relative prosperity began to return. A time of desperate deprivation after and between wars and skirmishes when the Georgian mafia ran riot, electricity was almost non existent and people barely survived.
One dark night, he heard women singing, so exquisitely and proficiently that he got up from his bed, dressed and ventured out into the black to find them. One of them became his wife 9 months later.
With her, he has worked tirelessly at the promotion and preservation of the extraordinary heritage that is Georgian folk music and through this, began to be drawn into wine.
Here, the two are so intertwined so as to be indivisible. They come bound inextricably together; a thick tangle of ancient and intriguing culture that, when experienced simultaneously, will reach straight in and wrap around your soul.
Some time later, he was painting in a vineyard one day when a man drove up on a tractor seeming held together by bits of string and a lot of faith. This man told him that what he was doing for Georgian folk music was exactly what needed to be done for Georgian wine.
The ancient methods and styles were in danger of being lost and eroded as international varietals and the creeping menace of ubiquitous new oak started to slowly take over.
In any wine making culture this is a sad state of affairs. In a place such as Georgia, it is practically a crime against humanity.
John struggled to hear the man over the tractor and asked him to turn if off so that he could hear his story more clearly. This was impossible. On flat ground, the machine would never start again.
“Tonight, you come to my house for dinner. We drink wine and we talk”.
And so it began. John now makes a remarkable range of Qvevri wines himself as well as being instrumental in the drive to preserve and promote this tradition which is what this Symposium is all about. As we drive, he explains.
The Georgian wineries were starting to create something that wasn’t unique. Wines made to recipes from badly grown grapes that tasted like everything else you find in the world. This alongside a tradition which produces wines that taste completely unlike anything else in the world.
In 2006, Russia imposed a ban on Georgian wine. A considerable blow and a blessing at the same time. The Russian market had been huge but entirely undiscerning, thirsty only for cheap alcohol in any form. Suddenly, Georgian producers had to find new buyers for this stuff but their initial forays into the Western markets soon revealed that against a tide of similar sewage from far more established exporters, they had almost no takers.
At the same time, some much smaller, more traditional producers were starting to get far more attention with their Qvevri wines from indigenous varietals. The big producers took notice and now a lot of big wineries still make entry level ‘technical’ wines for markets like Poland along side smaller quantities of the much more traditional.
One of the vice presidents of Constellation Brands visited Georgia recently. Constellation are one of the Dark Stars of the world; a vast, multinational company involved in the entire range of alcohols including processed, heavily branded wines. Depending on where you are with wine, such a man will either be venerated or stand for all that is amiss but the point is that at a talk he gave for local wine makers, he said that there only reason why the outside world would be interested in Georgian wine is because of the Qvevri fermentation.
Now that is really something.
And he is of course, completely right.
Which brings us to exactly what the Qvevri is and what it does. Believe me; this is a fantastic story – post to follow shortly.
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