Flying into The Republic of Georgia over the Caucasus Minor Mountains we got a sense of rugged independence and a sense of place. Georgians are a people who have been here for centuries and have a strong identity with their land. As we landed at the airport, the expectation was to see the birthplace of winemaking with an aged airport. Instead we found a modern and efficient airport that was friendly to foreigners. Exiting the airport a huge grape suspended in the air, over the parkway, greeted us. It was like a friend in wine welcoming us.
The journey into town was a mix of countryside, modern structures and traditional buildings. Not far from Freedom Square was our hotel, the Palace Marriot. It is a historical hotel with modern conveniences. The rooms are large and spacious, the staff kind and courteous. The main street where the hotel sits rivals main streets from major cities like Dallas or Houston. The traffic is aggressive.
Our dear friends Terry and Kathy Sullivan invited us to join them at the home of Eko, a cardiovascular surgeon turned winemaker. He practiced surgery in Moscow and the wonderful art displayed in his home reflected his renaissance soul. His home was an open door to people from all walks of life, nationalities, and interests. The conversation was stimulating and multiple philosophies flowed like wine. In addition, he treated us to traditional Georgian cuisine including Chvishtari (fried patty of polenta, corn, and cheese – reminiscent of a potato knish) Nigrziani Badrijani (thinly sliced eggplant with the skin intact rolled around a walnut stuffing) Kombostos Mtsnili (Pickled Red Cabbage) Guda Cheese, sautéed spinach, and Chashushuli (slow cooked stew). There is a saying in Georgia that “a guest is a gift from God”. They certainly treated us in this way.
In his winemaking, Eko uses the ancient qvevri (also known as lagvinari in Western Georgia) underground fermentations utilizing indigenous grapes from the Republic of Georgia. His pursuit of the exploration of many indigenous grapes utilizes natural yeasts and qvevri small batch fermentation. Qvevri are terracotta pots resembling ancient Roman amphorae that are sealed with bees wax and buried in the ground for temperature control. Once covered with terracotta lids, modern qvevri lids are now glass. The opening is large enough for a man to enter. The sizes of qvevri vary greatly.
The grapes are grown in the Republic of Georgia and have been grown in the same regions for thousands of years. We have tasted at least a dozen Georgian wines that we purchased in the USA – none of them tasted like these. The wines in the US were sweet. This night we tasted real Georgian wine and it was like experiencing Georgian Wine 101.
Red Wines: Handpicked and the grapes are crushed with stems into the qvevri. The skin, juice, and stems are fermented up to 45 days. Then the skins are pressed and the fermented wines are transferred to another qvevri. Eko does not utilize oak aging. The wine is settled in the second qvevri after being racked. The second Q is filled to the top and a sulfur paper is burned at the top after which the lid is sealed. After a period of weeks and months, the wine settles and clears. He does not utilize filtration or fining as the wines clear on their own. Many of the grapes that he is using are teinturier as they flow red juice. The grapes are picked 23-25 brix and the alcohol is 12-14 ½.
Aladasturi which means “Allah Approved”. It reminded us of Pinot Noir. After 45 days of skin maceration, the color was a rose’ color from a light pigment. The flavor was of cherry and spices.
Atskhanuri Sapere was black in color and from a teinturier grape. Harvested on my birthday 10-28, it was on skins 60 days. Yet there was floral nose, hints of licorice, and tannins were not harsh at all.
Saperavi was harvested 9-28 and was on skins until 10-14. It is a teinturier grape that achieves extremely high sugars. After discussing the grape and tasting it, it is very similar to Lenoir. It has a big leaf, produces high sugar, a red flow free run and tasted like a Lenoir cousin. Another characteristic of Lenoir is that this wine tastes like it has been in oak when it has not.
White Wines: Usually made with minimal skin contact (hours, a day or two maybe) these wines had 10 to 45 days of skin contact. There was no sign of oxidation and the wines were clear and fresh. Several of them picked in October were still in stages of clarification in March of the following year.
Chinuri – light, delicate and crisp reminded of a dry Chenin Blanc that would be a good cuvee for a sparkling wine.
Tsitska – light, delicate and has a hint of almond flavor.
Tsolikouri – the first one smelled like ruby grapefruit but rounder in the mouth. A second sample of the same grape but from a different region (10 kilometers apart) tasted like a light lemon/lime – cello
Krakhuna – the lightest and most delicate with hints of pear and white peach.
Goruli Mtsvane – has a big nose of orange blossoms and hint of sandalwood.
Wine brings people together. Tonight was a great example of people from Russia, England, Wales, Denmark, US coming together sharing good times and great wines. Thank you so much, Eko, for a lovely evening and for making us feel like we were a gift from God.