Window on Georgian winelands

Chasing a dream, strange foods, and ancient wines

Itchy feet can be a traveller's worst enemy. While they are telling you 'Go, go, go...' your cautious brain switches on and says 'Hmmm, but is it really safe?'. We faced this dilemma when we considered visiting Georgia, a country that had always tempted us - and here is what happened.

Some say the country is named for a saint. Others believe it means 'wolf'. With kings and dukes sprinkling its history, then a dark and dangerous era of Soviet rule, plus conflicting reports in recent years, Georgia still beckoned us, and we knew, quite simply, that we had to follow our dream. 

Crossing fingers, we flew to Tbilisi, Georgia's capital (above), staying a week in that fascinating, food-loving capital before meeting our tour group. Read more about that HERE....


So here we are, now leaving Tbilisi for a day trip to Russia. Well, almost!

Our itinerary, provided by Advantour, a highly recommended tour group, has planned a day-trip due north to the base of the 5000-metre Mount Kazbegi.

After an hour's drive north, the early morning light and the sheer beauty of the Jinvali reservoir, damming the river Aragvi, makes us stop. One of the largest hydroelectric power stations in Georgia, it was begun in the Soviet era.

And here, as we had already discovered in Tbilisi, there was again the seamless mix of old and new: high-tech engineering meets icons of simple faith.

This was not a random display, though. In previous times in Georgia, it was also common for castles and churches to merge. 

Presiding over this stunning view is the well preserved Ananuri complex, begun in the thirteenth century, and the former highly protected residence of the Argveti Dukes during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Despite its age, this church is remarkably well preserved and now carefully tended.

Ancient frescoes are a reminder of the antiquity of this place.

Interestingly, there are three churches in the complex. 

Above ground we readily find the Church of the Savior and the Assumption Church, but needed to look harder to find the Healer's Church, which is underground. 

Centuries later, the complex with those astounding views, is an easily accessible tourism drawcard. We could have stayed here all day, but Russia was calling!



A world of friendship

When our guide suggested that we could load up on some snacks at a small roadside market, there was no discussion. 'Let's do it,' we said.

It was small, but had the necessary things we needed - and then some. Already, travelling on the Georgian Military Highway, we had climbed quite high, so those caps and scarves were very appropriate.

What we had been looking for were these delicious snacks that we had already found in supermarkets in Tbilisi, and properly known as churchkhela. The name was a little hard to remember, so one of our group nicknamed them 'grapey stringy things' as they are made by threading walnut halves onto thin strings. Dipped in thickened grape juice, they are then allowed to hang until dry, and are truly delicious - and really quite healthy* - as a snack.

*Caveat: maybe buying from an outdoor stand (as opposed to a supermarket in the city) was not the safest decision. A couple of us suffered from 'iffy tummies' afterwards! 

Again, catering to the chilliness of the air, this Russian gluwein was also very popular...

...and so were these.



Peoples' Friendship

Of course the real reason our guide brought us to this place was not for nibbles, but to see one of the area's prime tourist spots.

Overlooking the Devil's Valley, a deep gorge of the Caucasus mountain range, and just beyond the Cross Pass, the Russia-Georgia Friendship Monument, built in 1983 during the Soviet era, is perfectly placed.

Central to this gargantuan mural (above) sits Queen Tomar, Georgia’s most important queen during the Golden Age of the fifth century.

The stunning mural, depicting scenes of Georgian and Russian history, spans the circumference of the structure. 

Even for those who do not understand all the cultural symbolism, it is still impressive. The craftsmanship and skills used to create this massive structure are definitely worth seeing and appreciating.

However, our trip to the border was not over, just yet. From this point, even in autumn, we could glimpse snow on the mountains, and could only guess how this region would be magically changed in winter when the whole Gudauri region becomes popular ski-fields.

There wasn't enough time (my excuse, anyway!) for us to take part in mountain para-gliding, however this video gave us the idea of what it was like. 


Stepantsminda - aka Kazbegi

You should respect a country that erects monuments and statues to its poets and writers. We had already seen some in Tbilisi and now, here in the town of Stepantsminda with a backdrop of our destination Mount Kazbegi, we found this one, to Georgian writer Alexander Kazbegi.

The town, less than 15 kilometres from the Russian border, is not large, but we could see how it would become very busy in winter. On the top of the hill in the very far distance is the tiny Gergeti Holy Trinity church that we planned to visit later.

We ate nearby at this cosy spot, sharing dishes.

In every country, I usually discover at least one dish that is unique and different to anything else I have eaten - and these 'corn balls' or elargi, served with baje, a walnut sauce, were just that. Deep-fried and breadcrumbed, filled with a tasty local cheese, they were like arancini, but with white corn standing in for the rice. 

And, just for fun, there's this. It appears that the cafe's rather 'local' toilet, was trying for a more upmarket vibe.


As far as we go

Around a dozen monks live in seclusion, never leaving Gergeti Holy Trinity Monastery with its endless mountain views. Supplies are brought to them from the three 'monastery villages' at the base of the mountain. 

Some hardy souls trek the entire distance from Stepantsminda to the monastery in about two hours, but we arrived by car, as obviously many others do as well.

The High Caucasus, these spectacular mountains surrounding mighty Mount Kazbek (a dormant volcano) attract year-round trekkers, climbers, photographers and tourists. Snow-capped Mount Kazbek (5047m) is in the distance here (above).

Want to know more?....

Apart from its spellbinding location, the simplicity of this 14th-century Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic church is part of its greatest charm.

While this is a drawcard to tourists, its homespun sincerity is best appreciated when there are fewer visitors.  Find out more...

Over that mountain lies Russia -  but that was not for us on this trip.


An aperitif

Finally, just one stop on the way back to the capital. One of our group was already a fan of at least one Georgian wine and the vineyard was conveniently located just north of the city. It could be an appetiser for our following days, we thought.

In Tbiisi we had already seen qvevri, the traditional pottery barrels used to make wines.

Iago winery, in Mtskheta village, is known for its organic viticulture. Here, all wines are produced in qvevri, using traditional methods, with grape skins as ferment. Iago was the first company in Georgia to receive in 2005, a Bio Certificate. 

Iago's wine cellar produces 6000 bottles of dried white natural wines annually, from two hectares of 65-year-old vineyards planted with the finest Georgian Chinuru grapes. We were most fortunate to be able to taste some of these wines, as nearly all of the wine produced by this winery is exported.

What better accompaniment for our wine tasting, than fresh white Georgian cheese and local fruits?



It was finally time to head back after a very full day and, just like these cows being herded home on the road, we were ready.

It had been a day packed with new sights, sounds and tastes that had, yet again, added to our appreciation of this complex country.

Although we had only seen a small part of the Georgian countryside, we now needed to return to Tbilisi and pack for another two exciting days - exploring the eastern wine-lands.



On Georgia's wine route - sipping and swilling in ancient vineyards

Next day, we departed for the Kakheti region, 'cradle of Georgian wine', to the east of the city. The early morning light on the countryside thrilled us even before we reached the first winery. We passed crops of corn, wooden beehives, orchards and tiny villages, and people busy with their day's work in gardens and fields.


Telavi - wine epicentre
After crossing the Gombori Mountains we had now officially reached the Wine Route, and Telavi, the region's administrative and historic centre. 

It was immediately apparent that wineries are of great importance to this city, and we arrived as the locals were preparing for a major wine festival. The place was buzzing with anticipation - but unfortunately we were a day early.

Dating back to the Bronze Age, Telavi is now a modern city with cafes and restaurants like this.

Batonis Tsikhe is a source of much interest to visitors. The residence of the Kakhetian kings between the 17th and 18 centuries, the castle grounds still hold the ruins of a bathhouse, two churches and King Erekle II's Persian-style palace.

That day when we visited, an open area in the castle grounds was being prepared for the wine festival, an event that the castle's long-ago residents probably would have greatly applauded.



Shumi Winery

This is said to be the true birthplace of wine in the Kakheti region of Georgia. Shumi Winery is not only a winery but also a cultural and wine tourism complex. 

This modern winery was established in 1997 in a location of historic significance in Tsinandali. This is one of the country’s most famous winemaking regions.

And when we say 'birthplace', we are talking about the history of the area that spans over 8000 years of winemaking tradition.

The winery founded the onsite Vazioni Museum with its three hundred or so grape varieties as well as outlining the ancient history of winemaking. This map, showing early trade routes, clearly illustrates why many agree that Georgia is the birthplace of the world's wine.

Ancient artefacts, like this decorated wine vessel believed to be from 3000BC, discovered in the vicinity, point to very early winemaking.

Yet, these bottles are stored in a similar way to French champagne in France.

Fortunately our visit coincided with lunchtime, so we had time to relax, eat and sample the wines before heading on again. Better still, there was a large outdoor area ideal for indulging in Georgian's twin passions: outdoor dining and grilled foods.

This was the perfect excuse to relax and enjoy our meal accompanied by some of the region's best red and white wines.

As the sommelier handed us this crisp white wine, he described it as 'dancing in your mouth'. What more could we have asked for? 

More details about Shumi Winery...



Tsinandali Estate

Tsinandali, a nearby village, is noted for a palace and historic winery-estate which once belonged to the 19th-century aristocratic poet Alexander Chavchavadze. Because of its historic importance and large grounds, it is an important tourist stop and is also the venue for the annual Tsinandali Festival

Visitors can taste several wines - and of course we did. Well, you can't miss an opportunity like that, can you?



Ahkasheni Wine Resort

The Akhasheni Resort is a very elegant 41-room spa-resort near Gurjaani. Surrounded by vineyards and with a large swimming pool and views towards the Caucasus Mountains, for us it was the ideal place to stay overnight, relaxing after a busy day.

Of course the restaurant's cuisine matched the elegance of the resort. By day, guests can participate in different culinary master classes such as making Georgian bread or churchkhela. I would certainly have liked to try the latter!

In fact, you have to love any country with 'carb-laden' menus. Georgia is like that, and yet most of the people we saw in Georgia's city and country areas did not appear to be overweight. Perhaps it is because the local dishes are so varied and colourful, making use of fresh vegetables and fruits, and whole grains.

Or maybe they work harder than others do!

More details...



Shilda Winery 

The next day we travelled north again to Shilda Winery. In these areas, you can smell the grapes across the flat plains of vineyards, and the qvevri on the cart at the gate here, confirms the area's major product.

This six-hectare winery was founded in 2015, but the story began many years ago when the company founders decided to expand their family winery and bring their winemaking tradition to a new level, producing 17 varieties of wine, brandy and grape vodka.

The winery is on the outskirts of the beautiful Shilda village at the foot of the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountain range and has been mentioned in historical sources since the 14th century. The special climate and diversity of the mineral-rich soil create unique natural conditions for grape growing. 

Archaeological excavations have unearthed clay and wine vessels that confirm wine and viticulture have taken place in this village for centuries.

Like most of the local wineries, Shilda has a range of French oak-barrel matured wines, including their elite Georgian brandy, and an ice wine.

Fortunately we were invited to a wine tasting in the winery's large hall that is often used for conferences and weddings. There was no rush, so we had a leisurely time, tasting wines, accompanied by delicious local cheeses and bread.

More details...


 Winery Khareba

One of the rarest wine cellars in the area is located in Kvareli, in the Alazani Valley. Originally created for military purposes, this 7.7-kilometre tunnel was carved inside the Caucasus Mountains and opened in 1962 for the OIV World Congress.

For decades, the best wines of the region have been stored and aged here, kept at the ideal natural temperature - 12-14C and 70 percent humidity.

Since 2011, Winery Khareba has developed a wine-tourist infrastructure around the tunnel, adding a large recreational park with river and old qvevris, a beautiful old Georgian-style water mill, a traditional Georgian bread bakery in tones (clay ovens), a trout-filled lake, patskhas lodges (small traditional houses), and a very large and typical stone-fire grill.

Of course these wines have received many awards as well.

 Guests are provided with the opportunity to taste more than 40 kinds of wines.

And, there are many other options here too - cookery classes, a fine restaurant, and views across the Alazani Valley and Kvareli vineyards.

Ideal for tourism, here visitors can see more than 25,000 bottles of Winery Khareba's aging premium wines, then, in the on-site shop, purchase the ones that have liked best when tasting.

More details...



Sighnaghi - city of love

We learned two names for Sighnaghi, located on the crossroads of the ancient Great Silk Route. It is the City of Love, but also known as the Royal Town.

Even today it is still popular for visitors and travellers and there is a lot to love about it too. With wide landscapes, pastel houses and narrow cobblestone streets it is postcard perfect and, because of one of its names - many couples visit it just to get married!

Also obvious is that the local ancient trading history has not entirely left this town. We were lucky to arrive on market day. A busker was playing at the entrance, providing a cheerful background for shoppers.

You can hear more of the music on the VIDEO:


Throughout Georgia, in every market we visited, lengths of cloth fluttered like so many gorgeous butterflies in the breeze. Every town has local dressmakers who can swiftly transform these materials into stylish garments.

These brightly ornamented caps, traditionally worn in the high mountains of Georgia, were also on sale, probably more often bought by tourists as souvenirs.

Colourful traditional fruit 'leathers' called tklapi, caught my eyeTo make them, various fruit purees are spread out thinly on sheets and sundried on a household's clothesline.

The leathers can be sour - made of Tkemali plums, which are often used for soups and stews - or sweet, using apricots or peaches. They can also be prepared with the juice that is used in making churchkhela.

Located on a steep hill, Sighnaghi overlooks the vast Alazani Valley, with the Caucasus Mountains visible in the distance.

This view (above) is from a hill overlooking the city.

Our rural escape had almost ended, but as we travelled back over country roads, my notebook records the constant local sights: grapevines growing in front gardens of every home, geese flapping off as our car startled them; cattle slowly obeying the 'Cows Crossing' sign, returning to the farm shed for the evening; a truck filled with white grapes, and a man carrying a bucket of tomatoes - all these reminding us of the hard work and bounteous produce in this small and very special region.



Back in Tbilisi

On our final evening in Georgia, we dined at Polyphonia restaurant, which describes itself as 'a natural wine restaurant serving wild, seasonal, and local ingredients'.

They explain that 'just as the harmonies created in polyphonic singing can be hair-raisingly electrifying, we try to reach that same balanced tension in the wines and cuisine served to you in our creative and informal dining rooms'.

As it is impossible to insert a hyperlink to bring up a taste, you will have to take our word for it, that this dish and the others we tasted that evening were truly represented Poliphonia's vision.



Leaving Tbilisi

Finally, it was sadly time to leave Georgia for good. After almost two weeks in the country we had grown to love Tblisi, the wine lands the mountains - and most of all the wonderful Georgian people who have a brand of bravery and patient stoicism that, over many generations, has become their core.

The friendliness and, yes, the love we had felt from these people was almost tangible.



Text and photos ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond


Sally and Gordon Hammond travelled independently to Georgia booking the tour with Advantour. All opinions are their own.



Our lovely, multi-lingual tour guide, Natali - with a 'friend' she met at one of our wine-stops.


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