Early 20th Century Georgian Winemaking

On the subject of Georgian winemaking, I recently found these incredible old photos depicting various aspects of wine making and drinking. I found the photos on the British Library’s Endangered Archives Project website, but they are  originally from the National Archives of Georgia. The first three were taken by the photographer, Constantine Zanis, probably in the late 19th or early 20th Century. The are of a man tending grapevines, Men crushing grapes, and a line of qvevri – the traditional vessel used for Georgian winemaking – along the side of a road.

Man Tending Grapevines
Man Tending Grapevines
Men Crushing Grapes
Men Crushing Grapes
Qvevri Along the Roadside
Qvevri Along the Roadside

The next is a photo of a fantastic pair of drinking horns set in silver. It was taken by the photographer, Dmitri Ivanovich Yermakov, and is dated 1880.

Drinking Horns Set in Silver, 1880 (Tblisi)
Drinking Horns Set in Silver, 1880 (Tblisi)

I’ve never enjoyed wine from a drinking horn, but imagine that it would somehow taste more . . . heroic.

The last photo is interesting because it shows men sampling wine out of a qvevri. The photograph is entitled Sampling Wine in Armenia. Although the oldest winemaking vessels are from Georgia, the practice was traditionally more widespread across the region – the term for qvevri in Armenian is karas. That said, it is not clear where this photograph was taken. I wonder whether it is in part of the territory that Georgia lost to Armenia during Sovietization, but clearly, the fashions seem to be Armenian. The photograph is by Gertrude Beasley, and is date 1923.

Sampling Wine out of a Qvevri or Karas in Armenia, 1923
Sampling Wine out of a Qvevri or Karas in Armenia, 1923

Food and Wine at Pheasants Tears

This is an essay that is long overdue. It’s been well more than a year since I ate delicious food paired with fantastic wines at Pheasants Tears tasting room in Sighnaghi, Georgia. The dishes and the wine were wonderful and remain vivid in my memory, but they were also matched by the hospitality shown to me by the people of Pheasants Tears. My apologies, Gia, Tamar, Alex, and all of the other great folks I met that day. I hope that this post expresses how grateful I am for the time we spent together.

Pheasant's Tears Entry
Pheasant’s Tears Entry

From the moment one steps through the elaborately carved doors of Pheasants Tears, you know that this isn’t just another tasting. You can feel the difference in the dusky pink stones and bricks that line the walls of the tasting room and you can see it in the smiling and laughing faces of the guests. There is LOVE here. You are surrounded by people who love what they do and who are anxious to share it with you.

Visits usually begin with a tour of the tasting room and its modest winemaking museum. A centuries-old carved, wooden basin for holding grapes for processing hints at old the art of vintning is in Georgia’s eastern Khaketi province. Sighnaghi is a few hundred miles from Areni-1 cave with its Copper-Age wine production site (dated 4223 – 3790 BCE). In between these two points lies Shulaveri, Georgia where the oldest domesticated grape pips have been dated to eight-thousand years ago. So clearly, viticulture, vintning, and wine drinking in Georgia are amongst the most ancient in the world.

Traditional Georgian winemaking is done underground. Large earthenware vessels called qvevri are coated with beeswax to make them less porous and to provide a near neutral pH surface for the wine to ferment in. The qvevri are then sunk into the ground or buried below a cellar in a wine-making facility, and usually left to season or age before first use. Then, the qvevri are filled with partially smashed grapes and their accompanying liquid, and pounded some more to fully macerate the grapes. The contents of the qvevri are stirred several times a day to push the skins of the grapes down into the wine The only yeasts used to ferment the grapes are the natural yeasts that come in on the grapes. After a week or two of stirring, the qvevri are sealed with stone caps and clay for months or years as the wines mature.

Traditional Qvevri and Winemaking Museum
Traditional Qvevri and Winemaking Museum

I was lucky enough to be greeted and toured around by the brilliant man who makes the food at Pheasant’s Tears tasting room as unique and as unforgettable as its wines – Chef Gia Rokashvili. His culinary creations meld the freshest Georgian herbs and produce with modern, healthy, preparation methods and deep knowledge of both traditional Georgian and French cuisine. He calls this his, “fusion,” style. I call it inspired and delicious.

A large party of Russian tourists were in mid-meal when I arrived, so after my tour, Gia gave me into the care of his wife, Tamar who is the maître d’hôtel and manager of the tasting room and a visiting American vintner named Alex Rodzianko. As Gia went to oversee the kitchen, Alex and I began tasting – and eating.

We started with a light white Chinuri – a great summer wine – with a floral aroma and a crisp finish, and moved on to an amber Rkatsiteli (my husband’s favorite), another light wine with a surprisingly full body given its color and aroma.  As we tasted, a parade of light dishes began to flow from Gia’s kitchen to our table.  A salad of tomatoes and cucumbers was first up, followed by some heavenly roasted eggplant with garlic, walnuts, and herbs.  Last up was a Georgian specialty called jonjoli which is a seed pod of a bladdernut (Staphylea colchica) that tastes something like a caper, only Georgian’s prepare them with the tender, young greens attached.  Lightly tossed in safflower oil and a bit of seasoning, its not to be missed.

Tomato and Cucumber Salad
Tomato and Cucumber Salad

 

Eggplant with Garlic, Walnuts and Herbs
Eggplant with Garlic, Walnuts and Herbs

 

Jonjoli
Jonjoli

After the Rkatsiteli, Alex offered me a delicious Tavkveri, a full bodied red with hints of cranberry and hibiscus. It has an incredible floral aroma that fills the senses and hints of the wonderful flavors to come. We closed with a glass of chacha to aid our digestion. Chacha is technically a grape brandy, but it is very strong (like grappa on steroids). It is a traditional homebrewed liquor that can also be made from other fruits such as figs, mulberries and tangerines, that is now being made by professional distillers. By the time we got to the chacha, my driver walked into the tasting room for the third time and began glowering at me with a smokiness that only a Georgian can muster. He also had his ample arms crossed across his chest. Subtle though he was, I got the message. Reluctantly, I had to leave. Thank yous and hugs all ’round and a few bottles to bring home and I was on my way.

If your own travels take you to Georgia, do pay a visit to the Pheasants Tears tasting room. It is a wonderful place with great wine, delicious food, and wonderful people. A great place to spend a day, or two, or three, and feel the love that they bring to their work. In the car ride back to the city, I began to understand why people return again and again, and some, never leave. (Words and all photos by Laura Kelley)

Pheasant’s Tears

Pheasants Tears Logo

Last week I had the honor and the pleasure of attending a wine tasting at the Georgian Embassy in Washington, DC. Already a fan of Georgian wines – especially of the robust red Mukuzani and the full-bodied, white Tvishi – I attended the tasting to discern the differences between the wines from the featured vintners from Khaketi and the Teliani Valley.

Georgia has some of the oldest viticulture practices in the west, with a history going back thousands of years before the common era (BCE). The traditional method of fermenting grapes – in beeswax lined clay amphora buried in the ground – is still used by some of the vintners. One vineyard represented at the Embassy that still makes wine this way is Pheasant’s Tears, which brought its Saperavi and Rkatsiteli to the tasting. The traditional method produces wines that are thin by today’s standards, but wines that are intriguing none the less. The Rkatsiteli was a rich amber color and had hints of walnut with a citrus bite and the Saperavi also has a citrus bite, but is richer wine that I found more complex.

From vintners using modern production methods, I sampled an unfiltered Saperavi which was very good, and my favorite Mukuzani – which is a dry red produced from Saperavi grapes. The Teliani vineyard version of this wine that I sampled was fabulous. It had a complex aroma with hints of black pepper and oak, robust plum overtones with a strong, but not overpowering finish. It was the scene stealer for me – along with a delicious Bagrationi extra dry sparkling wine with overtones of quince and melon.

Georgian Monk Stirring Wine in Amphora

The wine was delicious, but the surprise of the evening for me was the delightful informality of the Georgians present from the Embassy staff and cultural association representatives to the visiting dignitaries and even the caterers. Everyone was friendly, interesting to talk to and eager to share their knowledge of Georgian food and wine with me. The event was more like being an invited guest at a `friend’s family dinner than any other Embassy event I have ever attended. The Georgians spoke to their Ambassador to the U.S. as if to an old friend and addressed him by his first name. The husband of the caterer, Maya of The Georgian Feast, even asked me if I wanted to take some of his wife’s delicious food home with me. Ingrained manners forced me to decline, even though I really wanted some more of her amazing spinach balls with pomegranate seeds. Still, I was charmed by the invitation.

The event was sponsored by the Georgian House of Greater Washington and the wines provided by the Georgian Wine House. The Embassy is leading an effort to educate wine-lovers in the U.S. about the delicious, wide-variety of Georgian wines. I encourage those interested to seek out the wines in your own areas or to order them and experiment with food pairings – hopefully with dishes cooked from The Silk Road Gourmet. (Words by Laura Kelley.)