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Caves and Terraces

(with Giorgi Natenadze at ancient wine terraces in southern Georgia)

I can't imagine trying to understand Georgia's history as a nation without a visit to the southwest region of Meskheti (Samstkhe-Javakheti). It was here that Queen Tamar defended the Georgian state at the zenith of its power and cultural sophistication, at the turn of the 13th c.AD; it was here that Georgia's remarkable national poet, Shota Rustaveli, was born and composed verses; here rises the early medieval cave city/military base/religious center of Vardzia, where, it is said 50,000 people once lived, in thousands of rooms, hidden from invaders by an immense stone barrier; and it is here, on either side of the Mtkvari River which flows on through Tbilisi toward the Caspian Sea, that kilometer after kilometer of millenia-old wine terraces, in various states of disrepair, remain carved in the surrounding hills. Looking at the land, it's astonishing to think about how much wine was once produced here. We were privileged to gain an intimate view of them with our host, native Meskhetian and young winemaker Giorgi Natenadze. He lamented their lack of current production, and spoke of ambitious and exciting plans to rehabilitate them.

We had a special appreciation for the mountainous terrain after reaching the region by a long road via Guria, and the Black Sea coast city of Batumi.

(sunset on the Batumi boardwalk)

While very affable, and a consummate host, Giorgi has a heavy weight of history hanging over his plans: winemaking languished here for 400 years before him (during 300 years of Turkish/Ottoman occupation, and again during the 20th c. Soviet rule). It is said that, fleeing to other regions of Georgia to evade the Ottomans, Meskhetians took local grape cuttings with them, which then adapted to their new environments under modified names; Georgia is often referred to as the 'cradle of wine', and Meskheti as the modern vine's motherland.

(a view of Akhaltsikhe, the region's capital city; mosque and reflective pools in the foreground)

Giorgi has a unique and fascinating approach, however (for Georgia), which reminded me of several negociant-style winemaking friends in California and France - he's actively seeking out the fruit of old forgotten grapevines and bottling them in tiny quantities every year. (Saving them, in effect.) How old are they? The oldest I've ever seen, and they hardly qualify as vines: 250-400 years old, they predate America, and, almost trees themselves, climb to astonishing heights... Sometimes the bunches ripen at greater heights than he can safely harvest.

(Giorgi showing us a 250+ year red grapevine called 'Bird's Egg', which grows as tall...)

( the top of the tree at left, alongside its trunk and branches.)

His home village is called Chachkari ('grape-skin door'), and is tucked in the hills just behind the ancient cave city of Vardzia. While Vardzia was inhabited by the nobles, priests, and the military, farmers and winegrowers lived in Chachkari, and supplied the upper classes with food and wine via a long stone tunnel. Wine presses intended for foot-treading, carved out of the chalky cliffs surrounding Chachkari, can still be seen; the wine itself was carried to the city above in animal skins, by carts, and then aged there, in special rooms, in clay qvevri.


I was happy to closely inspect several of the rooms pictured above, including a still-intact qvevri chamber, which, during the city's habitation, seemed to have been closely sealed.

As always, we're grateful for the friends we made along the way, and look forward to the week to come, which will take us to the high northern hills of Racha.


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