Another Georgia: resort on the Black Sea
Want to learn about the origins of winemaking? You’ll have to go about 2,000 miles east of Bordeaux, France, to the Republic of Georgia, in the Caucasus Mountains.
After being part of the Soviet Union for decades, Georgia declared independence in 1991, and the country has embraced tourism and development.
This beautiful and affordable country has many attractions for both budget and sophisticated travelers. There are 1,000-year-old churches, wild mountains offering winter and summer splendor, and coastal resorts on the Black Sea.
While visiting Georgia to research a book about the origins of wine, I kept having to choose between wine experiences and other tempting options.
Georgian architecture, food, wine and music is a multi-ethnic mix of East and West. Romans, Persians, Mongols, Arabs and Russians all fought to control the country over the last 2,000-plus years. Now the people are overwhelmingly Christian, yet street food and Georgian chants have a Middle Eastern or even Asian tinge.
8,000 years of winemaking
For wine lovers, a trip to Georgia is like going back to a vineyard Garden of Eden. Archaeological sites show that Georgians began making wine at least 5,000 years before the French.
Patrick McGovern, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has examined 8,000-year-old Georgian pottery that is decorated with “grape clusters and jubilant stick-figures, with arms raised high, under grape arbors.” Burial mounds contain ornate gold and silver goblets with depictions of ancient drinking ceremonies.
The classic Georgian chant “Shen Khar Venakhi” (“Thou Art a Vineyard”) was reputedly written by King Demetrius I in the 12th century. It is still popular at weddings.
You can experience and taste some of the wine history throughout the Georgian countryside. Small wineries and many, many families still ferment grapes in oval clay containers called qvevri, which may have inspired the later amphora of Greece and Rome.
Georgia has hundreds of native wine grape varieties, including kisi, mtsvane, rkatsiteli and saperavi. Try the unfiltered and natural golden (or orange) wine style for a sense of how wine was first made thousands of years ago.
A “Game of Thrones” episode could be filmed in the eastern Kakheti region, which has numerous vineyards. The Alaverdi monastery and winery, which dates to the year 1011, features a 170-foot tower and high stone walls, with beautiful icons inside the church.
Father Gerasim, bearded and dressed in a traditional long black cassock, said the Alaverdi monks are carrying on a tradition passed down through generations. “I remember when I was about 3 or 4 years old, my grandfather and father took me to the wine cellar every time they went,” Gerasim recalled. “Wine ties, and tied, the human being to his community, to his land.”
For outdoor pursuits, the Caucasus Mountains rise to more than 15,000 feet, with glacial lakes and semi-tropical valleys hidden throughout.
It is untamed land, but also a botanical and human crossroads for Central Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East that is home to Anatolian leopards, bears, wolves, lynx and golden eagles.
In the capital city
Back in Tbilisi, the capital, you’ll find a mix of quaint old world neighborhoods and trendy new riverfront areas. The Georgian State Museum has a fine range of cultural and historical exhibits.
Small bakeries make chewy, crisp, khachapuri bread, shaped like a small alien spacecraft. Try it with the traditional melted cheese and egg in the center.
There are also Georgian flatbreads — like pitas — stuffed with savory mixes of chopped meat and spices, and a wide variety of dumplings.
There are upscale restaurants, too. PurPur combines local dishes with classic French-style cooking in a 19th century atmosphere. Try the pkhali appetizer, which is a sort of pate made from ground walnuts and different vegetables, such as beets or spinach.
For a darker experience you can also visit the Joseph Stalin Museum in Gori, his birthplace. Tour groups offer it as a day trip from Tbilisi.
Finally, you can go for a swim or spa visit at numerous Black Sea resorts.
More information on Georgia and wine history can be found at www.kevinbegos.com.