(with Ramaz Nikoladze and his wife Nestan, harvesting Tsolikouri at dusk in Imereti)
Autumn can arrive very swiftly in Georgia; after a hot and dry summer, with temperatures averaging between 90-100F (through September), the first week of October was refreshingly, suddenly mild, with cool evenings and hints of rain. Due to the nature of the summer and the speed of the change, grape harvest began earlier than usual in many regions. Our harvest tour began in western Georgia, following up with three locations we visited earlier in the year, for distinctly different reasons.
After years of stop and go negotiations with local authorities and his financial partners, Giorgi Natenadze finally found approval for his vine terrace project in Meskheti. We caught up with him there while, in the midst of harvest, he was also directing its rehabilitation.
(Giorgi, center-left in khaki vest, directing workers on an upper terrace)
These old stone vine terraces date back over 800 years, and describe a 30+ hectare southwest-facing amphitheater. Abandoned for centuries, they are the site for a multi-year, multi-stage project where ancient, largely forgotten Georgian/Meskhetian grape varietals will be replanted and showcased, both for commercial wine production and as a living nursery to supply the region as a whole. It's an exciting project to witness, not only because of its important potential - this is a physical reclamation of heritage - but also its sheer scale. The latter reason was driven home to us as we saw how the rehabilitation is taking place: all by hand, one stone at a time.
(layering stones at a lower terrace in Meskheti)
In Imereti, we were able to revisit Ramaz Nikoladze's 'Wild/Fukuoka' vineyard of Tsolikouri and Tsitska, and help him pick the grapes on the day of his harvest.
(Ramaz reaching through dense underbrush to gather a cluster)
It was easily the wildest, most overgrown vineyard I've ever helped work. At each step through the loose rows, we needed to push back tall bushes, flowers, weeds and herbs just to move ahead to the next vine. It took all day, from the afternoon through twilight, to gather the fruit from its less-than-a-hectare, and each bunch needed to be examined carefully. This vineyard was planted by Ramaz' great-grandfather, and has been known as one of the best in central Imereti; this year, it was his decision to let it go wild - 'brutal' - and to press it into qvevri along with its skins and stems, to get the fullest sense of the site in the finished wine as possible.
(pressing down 'Brutal''s thick cap of skins and stems, at the beginning of ferment)
It's an interesting decision, because Western Georgia as whole, including Imereti, is not known for skin-contact wines - that's more associated with the east, and Kakheti. Given that, I was curious to see how the native-yeast ferment would catch and progress. Shortly after pressing (just over a day), I was delighted to see that it would be healthy and vigorous.
(an extraordinarily healthy 2015 ferment in Ramaz' qvevri)
We tasted the wine together shortly after the fermentation began, and I think it will turn out to be one of the most original and arresting Tsolikouri wines bottled, its complicated textures already folded with quince and musk and verveine... Gaumarjos, Ramaz!
After a warm and memorable visit with Engus Natmeladze and his family in Racha earlier this year, we promised to return - we were thrilled to keep our promise during our stay in Imereti. Now in his 70's, Engus is well known for having one of the finest vineyards in the Khvanchkara zone; unusually, now, for the region, they are organic, untreated by systemic chemicals. Engus has always made wine (a white blend and a red blend) strictly for family and friends. This year, however, for the first time, he decided to sell a few hundred kilograms of his precious red grapes. We offered to purchase them ourselves, and craft our own qvevri wine from them, before they ended up in a factory - and he graciously agreed.
On a sunny autumn afternoon at the end of October's first week, we drove up to his village, near Ambrolauri, picking up harvest shears, gloves, and buckets on the way. During the drive, we checked the weather forecast, and saw that this would be the last fine day for over a week - 8 days of cool heavy rains were about to set in. Also, we recalled that the week before we had seen a full moon, a 'supermoon'; we were precisely in the center of the moon's waning cycle, a period which many growers know as fall's finest for harvesting. Upon arriving, and tasting the fruit on the vine (which was sweet and delicious), we knew that now, tonight, was the time for harvest. Time being short, the entire Natmeladze family (and a few others) came out to help us pick. We were deeply moved by the experience. Thanks to their help, we were able to harvest our entire crop in just over an hour, finishing at dusk.
(harvesting Racha fruit with Engus' son, grandson, and relative)
(Engus' daughter-in-law, bringing another bucket of grapes to the collection)
(Engus checking the fruit in the back of our rented Toyota)
Khvanchkara is technically a semi-sweet red wine. It is very famous, and has been for a long time. However, partially due to that fame, the great majority made today is either manipulated, blended on a gross scale in an industrial factory, or sourced from outside the zone. 'Real' Khvanchkara is something of a legend. From a blend of the three grapes we harvested at Engus' - Alexandrouli, Mujuretuli, and Kapistoni - we hope to bottle a naturally dry Khvanchkara, pressed entirely by hand and foot in a small batch.
(l-r: Alexandrouli, Kapistoni, Mujuretuli)
(crushing the fruit destined for qvevri)
In the weeks to come, we'll be visiting a host of destinations across Georgia, both new and old, as we continue to document, participate in, and celebrate the harvest season!