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Spirit of the Vine

Georgia’s 9,000-year love affair with the grape has produced many a spectacular wine. Here Kevin Gould continues his series on the wines of Turkey and the former dominions of the Ottoman Empire with a visit to the country that boasts 500 grape varieties. By Kevin Gould with photographs by Jason Lowe

  • Andrea Bakradzhe samples a new vintage

Georgia and Turkey are linked by a common heritage, as well as by a physical border. Saint Nino, Georgia’s patron saint, was from Anatolia, and Georgia’s modern republic continues to rely on Turkey for cross-border trade, as well as for access through the Sea of Marmara to her main port of Batumi.

Those who have visited both countries will have been struck by the similarities between the southern and coastal Georgians and the Laz people of Turkey’s Black Sea region °© from their dark hair and rich noses to a legendary reputation for business acumen and an unfailing sense of humour.

Georgia is a young republic with an ancient history. Sharing frontiers with her Chechen, Dagestani and Azerbaijani neighbours, and bordered by Russia to the north and Turkey and Armenia to the south, Georgia has one foot in the East of the Silk Road and the other in the West of the busy shipping lanes of the Black Sea. Her head is crowned by the thickly wooded mass of the Caucasus Mountains, whose snow-capped peaks water the fertile valleys of her heart. And it is the rich soil of these valleys that grows the defining symbol of Georgia’s spirit, the grape.

Georgia’s heart beats with a pride born of the knowledge that she is the oldest wine-making nation in the world. The roots of her viticulture stretch back to between 7000 and 5000BC, when Caucasian man discovered that wild grape juice turned into happy juice when it was left buried through the winter in a shallow pit. This knowledge was nourished by experience, and from 4000BC Georgians were cultivating grapes and burying clay vessels, kvevri, in which to store their wine ready for serving at perfect ground temperature.

When it came to expressing their unique language in written form, Georgians used the shapes of the vine to provide the sinuous, flowing alphabet that remains in use today. To European ears, spoken Georgian contains very few recognisable words, with the grand exception of ghvino, or wine, whose pronunciation was disseminated from here to the rest of the world by the Phoenicians and the Greeks.

This love affair with the grape was given further encouragement by the arrival of Saint Nino in the fourth century. Fleeing Roman persecution in Cappadocia, in what is now central Anatolia, and bearing a cross made of vine wood and bound with her own hair, Saint Nino was swept up in the warm embrace of the Georgians, who became early converts to Christianity. Thus cross and vine became inextricably linked, perhaps even interchangeable symbols in the Georgian psyche, and the advent of the new faith served to sanction the vinous practices of the old.

Not all visitors to Georgia, however, were welcomed as warmly as Saint Nino. Among the invaders who have tested the Georgians’ legendary hospitality were the Ottoman sultans, who peopled their harems with shapely, pale-skinned, dark-eyed, fertile Circassian girls (thus making almost every relative of the imperial family part-Georgian). Recent history witnessed the arrival of the Soviets, whose futile attempts at systematising and controlling this free-living race must have frustrated many a Motherland functionary.

The legacy of the great Soviet experiment °© which ended with Georgian liberation in 1992 °© is an appallingly messy infrastructure, although this burden has done nothing to dim the stupendously ironic Georgian sense of humour, which turns on self-deprecation and straight-faced stabs at authority figures.

When it comes to wine-making, though, Georgia is blessed. Extremes of weather are unusual; summers tend to be short-sleeve sunny, and winters mild and frost-free. Natural springs abound, and the Caucasian mountain streams drain mineral-rich water into the valleys. Together with luscious tomatoes, the sweetest white and red cherries, and any amount of wild mulberries, the Kakheti region in the east, which is one of Georgia’s five main wine regions, also produces what must be among the finest grapes in the world. Although there are nearly 500 varieties of grape to choose from, only thirty-eight are officially grown for commercial viticulture in Georgia.

Like most of his neighbours in the Napareuli area of Kakheti, Andrea Bakradzhe, a wise seventy-six-year-old of compassionate blue eyes and grey moustache, grows Rkatsiteli grapes for white wine and Saperavi for red, all of it destined for the winery of the Georgian Wine and Spirit Company (GWS), located further up the Alazani valley.

While Georgia was producing three-quarters of all the wine drunk in the Soviet Union, some twenty-five decilitres a year of indifferent plonk were churned out to service a guaranteed, subsidised market intent on taking a mental holiday from communism by way of some heavy drinking. Today, with some sensitive investment from the French drinks company Pernod Ricard, the sure hand of GWS’s chief wine-maker, Tamaz Kandelaki, and the youthful energy of the flying Australian wizard David Nelson are converting Bakradzhe’s grapes into astonishing limited-edition red and white wines of unusual character.

Wines such as Old Tbilisi, and the rich, honey-coloured Tamada, both made with Rkatsiteli grapes, marry the tradition of the old world with the verve of the new. The reds tend towards the tobacco or spice styles so beloved by the Californians °© the well-balanced Saperavi deserving particular praise. Most impressive, perhaps, are the semi-sweet wines. These shapely beauties, such as the red Pirosmani and the white Tvishi, made with Tolikauri grapes, manage to avoid the sticky oiliness of many a dessert wine, delivering instead an enchanting mouthful of complex, developing flavours. Pirosmani straddles a meal with ease, being equally at home as a chilled aperitif as it is with a dessert of fresh cherries and apricots.

Some of the wine made from Bakradzhe’s grapes will be ceremoniously returned to the ground. Just like his forefathers, Andrea has a consecrated place, a marani, dug out under his house, where he buries clay kvevris, and the wine matures courtesy of the cooling properties of underground streams. When filled with the juice of the harvest, the kvevris are topped with a wooden lid and then covered and sealed with earth. Some may remain entombed for up to fifty years.

Gathering his closest family around him, and wearing a black felt helmet, the family patriarch presides over the emotional moment when a kvevri’s lid is removed. Intoning a toast of thanks and praise, he scoops a shallow earthenware bowl into the surprised liquid, and with the salutation “Galmajous!” drinks it down in one.

As more bowls are filled, the menfolk chant the powerfully plangent song Mravalzhamier, “Many Years of Life”, in millennia-old polyphonic harmonies. Wiping away unembarrassed tears, the men then fill late twentieth-century plastic jerrycans by siphon to be borne triumphantly to the feast.

If Georgia’s spirit is her grape, her body is the feast, where all life is celebrated and thanks are offered to Saint Nino and to all Nature’s spirits. Georgians feast regularly and seriously, and Andrea’s ancestors have been feasting in the same secluded glade since the sixth century, when a priest named Abraham built a stone chapel in the forest to shelter his flock from the invading Persians.

A long wooden table for thirty, set next to a rushing river, groans under the weight of the banquet. Aubergines with walnuts and wild garlic sit next to piles of purple basil, green tarragon and flushed pink radishes. Salty cheeses and salads of wild mushrooms with dill-heavy green beans complement tasty misshapen loaves. Platters of fat sausages and bowls of corn-yellow chicken legs are passed around, and a fire of crackling vine cuttings is on the go. Chunks of seasoned lamb and marinated suckling pig are kebabed onto sharpened branches of green beech, and Andrea is elected tamada, or toastmaster.

All over Georgia, the tamada is respected for his ability to drink deeply and to propose the most touching, expressive toasts. The tamada’s guests listen respectfully and nod with sage delight as he heaps praise on the mothers of Georgia, or the cultures of all nations. Glasses are emphatically drained in one, as if drinkers are imbibing the very soul of the earth, and are refilled by the tamada’s assistant, the ever-sober merikipe. (The most famous merikipe was an on-the-make Joe Stalin °© the secrets he gleaned while revellers were in their cups hoisted him to the top of the political pole). Baskets of cherries and plums are brought out, and the tamada hums the first few bars of a melody.

Hearts full of the Georgian grape, the feasters fill their lungs and link arms. Looking into each other’s eyes, they raise their voices to harmonise and praise the moment where breath mingles with spirit and life is lived to the full. “Galmajous!”

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Issue 25, 2002 The Abstract Heart
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