(L-R: Archeologists Steven Batiuk (CAN), Mikhael Abramishvili (GEO), and JQ,
at an ancient qvevri pit.
Mikhael shows how tall the original vessel would have stood under the earth.)
You don't have to travel far from Tbilisi to find an historical record of ancient wines; in fact, you don't need to leave the city at all. Before exploring the wine villages near Khvanchkara in northern Racha this week, we drove 20 minutes from our apartment to join archeologists Steven and Mikho (pictured above) at a hilltop site within the city limits, where remnants of wine qvevris still remain from the 3rd c. BC. While far older qvevris have been discovered elsewhere nearby, it is believed that these represent the first authentically Georgian vessels - the earliest evidence of the wine enjoyed by a people who could be identified as 'Georgian'.
Kartli is the modern name for the region where Tbilisi sits, but in Greco-Roman geography, it was known as Caucasian Iberia. In the 3rd c. BC, a semi-legendary chieftain named Prince Pharnavaz succeeded in becoming the first King of a united Caucasian Iberia, and his citizens formed the seeds for the medieval Kingdom of Georgia. According to one leading narrative, he discovered Scythian treasure in a cave, and used it to create a loyal army and restore his capital. On the hill in which this cave was dug, it is said, he constructed a building/temple of thanks to his god (likely Mithras), complete with a qvevri wine cellar. (That very hill is pictured above; what may have been the cave is pictured below.)
(In what may have been Pharnavaz' cave, discussing the current historical evidence)
The site was leveled by the Soviets, and used as a military outlook. Mikho led the site's' first archeological dig in September 2010, which discovered the qvevri and an outline of the building/temple's foundations. The next exploration of the site is scheduled for October of this year, when it is also hoped that a first analysis of the residue in the vessels will be concluded. The results could provide a powerful connection between the wines we enjoy today and those of the very first Georgians.
(With Steve and Mikho at a nearby live dig, reopened just a few days before)
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Among other subjects, we're exploring the forces of change and inertia, and their dual, direct effect upon those very wines we enjoy today. Few areas of Georgia exhibit that effect as clearly as the northwest mountain region of Racha, where the famous Khvanchkara wine is produced in a close-knit collection of 8 villages on either side of the Rioni river valley.
(High Rachian vineyards as seen from the southern bank of the Rioni)
Together with our friend Mariam Iosebidze, we toured these villages for several days. We met winemaking families who bottle their wines in small quantities, others who have yet to begin, and others who haven't yet considered it. The great majority are made from local red grapes Alexandrouli and Mujuretuli, and the wines can be semi-sweet or fully dry, depending on the vintage. It was exciting to visit the vineyards just now, in mid-August, just when the grapes are starting to change color.
(With Mariam, in the Racha hills at evening)
(Examining a ripening bunch of Mujuretuli grapes)
Khvanchkara is one of the most famous of Georgian wines, both domestically and for export. Its grapes demand prices 8 times as high as others from Kakheti, and the profits from a year's harvest, even from a small plot of land, can support an entire family through the year; large industrial cooperatives have dominated production for decades. The motivation for a family farmer to value quality over quantity, and all the extra work which that entails, is lacking. Some of the wines we sampled were heady, bland, and/or too semi-sweet... Which made an afternoon visit with winegrower Engus N. and his family, just outside of Ambrolauri, all that more exciting.
Engus' family has been making wine for many generations. He currently crafts only two wines, which he doesn't bottle for sale - but what wines! The white is a hazy/tart/dry blend of Tsolikouri and Mtsvane, and the red, a field blend of five different grapes, shows a lean, incisive drive on the palate I've never encountered in Georgia before. They're foot-pressed, and fermented without skin contact in a set of qvevri which were buried in 1880, the year of his great-grandfather's birth.
(With Mariam [L] and Engus [R], marveling at Engus' white wine)
During the next two weeks, before following up with Engus in autumn, we look forward to participating with a number of winegrowers in eastern Georgia as they prepare for harvest, and documenting the process!