There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 15 August 2014

Into Georgia, The Vineyards of Kakheti: Part 5 of From the Caspian to the Black Sea

In the morning we left our caravansary….

Leaving the Caravansary, Sheki

… under the stern but benign (?) gaze of Azerbaijan's late President Heydǝr Əliyev ….
Heydǝr Əliyev says 'Goodbye'

… and set off westwards towards Georgia. We travelled through flat agricultural land with the Caucasus to our right and behind them Dagestan and the rest of Russia. Away to our left behind lower hills lay Georgia. We would follow this plain jutting out between two ranges until Azerbaijan came to its end at the Lagodekhi border post.

The road was well made and smooth, as were all we encountered in the country. Zagatala and Balakǝn, the last two towns in Azerbaijan looked as neat and tidy as everywhere else, though here, for the first and only time in the Caucasus, we saw horses and carts on the roads, mainly moving loads of freshly dried hay. We passed the end of the road to the locally well-known mineral water producing town of Qax. I love the name, but ‘q’ is pronounced as a hard ‘g’ and ‘x’ as the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ so it sounds more like a Klingon’s favourite food than the vocalisation of a duck.
The next stage of the journey, Sheki to Telavi
At the border Yassim and Togrul were well enough known to be able to drive through the preliminary gate. We had our cases x-rayed and our passports stamped, then they drove us into no man's land. We made our farewells and trundled our cases across the invisible line into Georgia where we were welcomed by Dinara, our Georgian guide. It was like being handed over at the Glienicke Bridge in cold-war Berlin, if rather less tense.

The Georgian formalities were minimal. We met Alex our driver who deposited our cases in the back of a large black BMW four by four and we set off into a new country, not forgetting to set our watches back an hour because although both countries are in the same time zone Azerbaijan moves its clocks forward for summer and Georgia does not.

From the border post we drove through a series of contiguous villages which looked less prosperous than their Azeri neighbours. We were in now in the valley of the Alazani River in the eastern Georgian region of Kakheti. The valley can be described, without serious exaggeration, as a hundred kilometre long vineyard. Unsurprisingly our first stop was for a wine-tasting.

Khareba is one of Georgia’s largest wine producers. They have vineyards in Kakheti and in the western region of Imereti and own two wineries as well as the storage facility at Kvareli that we visited.

We had a false start, coming through the wrong gate, and having a lengthy walk to find the entrance to the cellars which occupy 8km of tunnels dug into the hillside.

Entrance to the tunnels, Khareba Winery,  Kvareli
The tunnels keep the wine at a steady 10º throughout the year and we walked past thousands of slumbering bottles on our way to the museum and tasting area.

Maturing wine, Khareba Winery,  Kvareli
The Georgians are convinced (and they may actually be right) that wine making was invented by Georgians; there is certainly solid evidence that they were at it 7,000 years ago. Their technique involves treading grapes in stone or wooden vats and then putting everything – juice, skins, stalks and pips - into a clay pot known as a qvervi. The qvervi is buried in the ground for temperature control and is covered but not sealed. The juice ferments on the skins and then stays on them for far longer than in the western European tradition. The resulting wines have a flavour from the clay pot and are heavily oxidized, the whites are brown - the colour of tea is deemed appropriate - and the taste is unfamiliar to the western European wine drinker, though much appreciated by Georgians. The reds are more mainstream but the best red grape, Saperavi, has so much colour - having red flesh and juice as well red skin - that it is as much a dye as a drink.

Vat for treading grapes, Khareba Winery, Kvareli

Georgia has over five hundred native grape varieties, but subtle differences are lost in the qvervi. In the past they would have also been transported in a goatskin and drunk from a cow’s horn - I doubt much of the character of the grape would have survived that! There are now wines made by 'the European method' too, though at some wineries that still involves the use of a qvervi. For an appreciation of the wines we tasted here and elsewhere see  the Tasting Georgian Wine post. At Khareba we tasted the produce of several different grape varieties vinified using both European and Georgian methods. The overall standard was high, and one or two were excellent.

About to start tasting, Khareba Winery, Kvareli
After our tasting we took the lift up to the roof - or ground level as we had been down a hole – to the restaurant and chose a table on the terrace overlooking the Alazani valley. Knowing we were eating in our guesthouse that evening and aware that Georgian tradition demands that the meal would be vast, we settled for a light lunch, ordering one green and one chicken salad. We expected the chicken salad to be slices of meat with some foliage, but it was just chicken, somewhat reminiscent of rillettes, or maybe a Lao meat salad. We washed this down with water, we had already drunk wine and there was another tasting to go, so restraint seemed wise.

Gremi, the Church of the Archangel (front) and the Tower Palace
Gremi, a little further up the valley, was the capital of Kakheti from 1466 to 1672. Georgian history is, to say the least, complicated. Separate eastern and western kingdoms in antiquity were united in the eleventh century leading to a Georgian golden age which lasted, despite intervention of the Mongols, until the start of the fifteenth century. Weakened by the Black Death and buffeted by repeated visits from Tamerlane and his hordes, Georgia fracturing into four petty kingdoms of which Kakheti was the easternmost. The tower palace, on a bluff above the road, is a small, modest palace as befits a small, modest kingdom.
Inside the Tower Palace, Gremi
The Church of the Archangels beside it was built by King Levan in 1565 and the frescoes painted shortly afterward.

Inside the Church of the Archangels, Gremi
There is also a winery within the main complex (well this is Georgia) ….

Old qvervi in the winery Gremi
…..while at the foot of the bluff are the remains of a caravansary, baths and market. What we saw was largely restoration; the originals were reduced to rubble by the Persian Shah Abbas in 1616. The eastern Georgian kingdoms were under constant pressure from the Persian Empire while the western kingdoms were harried by the Ottomans.
Lynne outside the restored caravansary, Gremi

At Napareuli we dropped in on the much smaller Twins Winery where they were kind enough to show us around. They have Georgia's, and hence the world's largest qvervi, but they use it for showing an introductory film rather than for wine making.

The world's biggest qvervi, Twins Winery, Napareuli

We saw the vineyards and inspected their brand new qvervis set in a concrete floor ready for this year's vintage.
Brand new qvervis ready for this year's harvest, Twins Winery, Napareuli

Less willing to compromise with western techniques, they even make their ‘European style’ wines in qvervis - which makes them semi-European at best. Whatever my western trained palate may say about qvervi wines, the Georgians love them, so much so that they have had ‘winemaking in qvervi’ inscribed on the UNESCO list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (see Tasting Georgian Wine).
The wines, Twins Winery, Napareuli
Saperavi, Georgian style white, European style white

From Gremi the capital of Kakhetti moved to Telavi which, with 20,000 inhabitants is still the region’s chief town. We arrived in the early evening and thought the town had a sad post-Soviet look, although we were to partly revise that opinion in the morning.

Telavi sits on the hills that are the southern boundary of the vineyard-filled Alazani Valley. Our guest house was at the top of the town so our room and the balcony on which we had dinner had superb views over the valley to the distant foothills of the Caucasus beyond.

Looking over Telavi and the Alazani Valley
Dinner was as vast as we had expected. Bread, tomato and cucumber salad, aubergine purée, pork stew, pancakes stuffed with a walnut paste, slabs of fried pork, flaky pastry stuffed with meat and finally our first khachapuri – the cheese pie that is ubiquitous through Georgia, though each region takes pride in its own variation on the basic theme of melted cheese.

The four of us, Lynne and I, Dinara the guide and Alex the driver, made a spirited effort but could eat less than half the food on the table. This, we discovered, is the Georgian way; they would hate a guest to go hungry - or thirsty, a litre jug of murky brown white wine was also plonked on the table. By the time we reached the bottom I was developing a taste for it.

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