Origins of Wine, Past and Present
(JQ with Mindia Jalabadze from the National Museum, at a Neolithic-era [5900BC]
archeological site where ancient clay wine vessels were discovered,
nearly identical to those still in use today)
Near the town of Marneuli, about an hour south of Tbilisi on the way to Armenia, you can see a nondescript hill of brown earth at a close distance. Take a sharp right through an off-road jungle of heat-scorched sunflower fields, and as you approach, it begins to take on something of a shape: two long trenches fronting a pair of shallow pits, perched on a ledge along a riverbed. Cicadas sing in the surrounding wheatfields, distant rock formations above the mesa echo the calls of passing cowherds, but otherwise, silence. This site is known as Gadachrili Gora, a stone's throw from Shulaveri, where, before writing or the wheel, our hunter-gatherer ancestors overlapped with the first agrarian societies, where generations of Neolithic-era families made tools, harvested crops, worshipped unknown gods, and, signally, made wine.
(Mindia Jalabadze, head archeologist of the Gadachrili site, at the Georgian National Museum)
During the last week, Mindia (pictured above), kindly gave us an entire day of his time; together, we toured the National Museum's oldest qvevri discoveries, shared an extensive interview on the history of Georgian winemaking and ceramics, and visited the Gadachrili site. He's proven to be a great friend and historical advisor.
(Together at the Gadachrili site)
The above image shows an arid, desert-like setting - a far cry from workable vineyard land - but 8,000 years ago, during the first agricultural/winegrowing efforts here, the climate was much different. At the place where we're standing, Mindia described a wet, thickly forested subtropical zone, rich with rivers, fertile earth, and a great diversity of flora and fauna. Etchings of reindeer and hares have been found on the earliest shards of pottery. We know that the vine was domesticated here, but don't yet know what type of wine was made, only that it likely had a rosy/reddish hue. In the year to come, further research will reveal more.
Very near to this site, about 20 minutes away, we also shared a day with winegrower Zaza Darsavelidze in his village of Tamarisi. He makes wine from about a hectare of Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Tavkveri, and Khikhvi grapes, without chemicals, in old clay qvevri from his grandfather's time. We tasted through a delicious set of his new and old vintages, and also explored a new plot of land which is difficult, really, to call a vineyard - it's a 'permaculture-style' site, where Saperavi grapevines, corn, and beans are planted in equal measure. I commented that this was exactly how native American Iroquois complanted their fields, for the land's optimal health, and he nodded in enthusiastic agreement. (I like to think that, in a way, he's continuing a spirit of cohabitation with the earth first discovered by the earliest members of our species.)
(Zaza pointing out a Saperavi vine in his 'Iroquois' corn and bean field)
Once back in Tbilisi, we had a few more days of filming, during which we visited with a pair of dear friends who are passionate about organic Georgian village wine, Nincho Shonia and Giorgi Korganov. Still in their mid-twenties, they recently opened one of the capital's very few real wine bars, named Bottle Shock, above the Metekhi Church. As they discover great village wines, bottle them themselves, and share them with Tbilisians and travellers, their energy will be a key to the future of the Georgian wine scene.
(Nincho and Giorgi, sharing a laugh)
The week to come will be adventurous and challenging, as we travel some of the world's most dangerous roads to pagan villages in the high Caucasus, and to ancient cave cities near the Turkish border, continuing to connect the current traces of former times - joined by our intrepid Georgian crew (pictured below)! Stay tuned!
(L-R: Levan, Johnny, and Elene)