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Georgia: Top three destinations for wine lovers

Discover wineries and gastronomy in the country's popular wine regions.

In 1947, the Nobel Prize-winning American author John Steinbeck wrote in his Russian Journal, ‘Wherever we had been in Russia… the magical name of Georgia came up constantly… And they spoke of the country… as a kind of second heaven.’

The best part of a century on, that sense remains. When in 2021 I travelled to Imereti in western Georgia to make wine, my impression was of somewhere almost Arcadian, of snowcapped mountains that skirted every horizon, of lush green hills and gentle valleys, of trees bejewelled with ochre-hued persimmons, fiery pink pomegranates – and, of course, vines heavy with grapes.

Georgia’s wine heritage and culture are like no other. Its language gave us the very word “wine” (from the Georgian “gvino”), while archaeological finds indicate that winemaking began there at least 8,000 years ago. It is also home to one of the largest number of indigenous grape varieties in the world.

Tied to its unique wine culture is an equally unique food culture. Practically everything I ate while I was in Georgia was a delicious discovery, revealing a rich variety of ingredients and recipes, often assimilated from empires that have tried (and failed) to conquer this warrior nation (NB: the often-heard Georgian word for cheers, “gaumarjos”, translates as “to your victory”).

For any gourmand planning a Georgian adventure, below is a selection of my favourite places to visit in my top three wine destinations: Kakheti, Imereti and the capital of Tbilisi.


1. Kakheti

Roughly an hour’s drive east from Tbilisi, Kakheti is Georgia’s biggest and best-known wine region, where you will find wines made from Georgia’s most-planted red and white grapes: Saperavi and Rkatsiteli. Owing to its warmer climate and easier ripening conditions, Kakheti is also the region where you will see more evidence of skin and stem-maceration, with white grapes and thus more of the deep, tannic amber wines with which Georgia is synonymous.

With its hilltop location overlooking the vast Alazani Valley, cobbled streets and elegant, terracotta-tiled historic buildings, Sighnaghi presents a convincing case for being the quaintest village in all of Georgia. It is the perfect place from which to explore local wineries and restaurants – most notably Pheasant’s Tears, the winery of “Georgianised” American winemaker and artist, John Wurdeman. A short drive away in Tibaani you will find the Pheasant’s Tears-owned Crazy Pomegranate restaurant. Overlooking the Pheasant’s Tears vineyards and with the Caucasus mountains as its backdrop, this is one of the loveliest dining settings in Georgia. Chef Ketevan Mindorashvili’s creatively prepared Georgian cuisine uses seasonal ingredients from the estate’s farm and the local area.

Another winery eminently worthy of attention, just half an hour’s drive north from Sighnaghi, in Kardenakhi, is Nikalas Marani. Owner Zurab Mgvdliashvili is one of Georgia’s most-respected natural winemakers, producing wines from the Kakhetian grape varieties Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Kisi, Saperavi and the rare but resurgent Khikhvi. These are wines of rare vitality and character, and to taste through the range is an experience you will not forget.

2. Imereti

Baia’s Wine – the dynamic young sibling trio of Baia, Gvantsa and Giorgi Abuladze are the poster models of a new generation of Georgian winemakers – entrepreneurial, outward-looking, but with a deep commitment to their winemaking heritage. Book a visit to their charming family winery – complete with 1,000-2,000-litre underground qvevris – in the bucolic village of Meore Obcha and you will be left in no doubt about Georgia’s famed hospitality.

Baia’s Wine. Credit: Darren Smith

Traditional home-cooked Georgian dishes such as tabaka (pan-fried chicken of the most more-ish kind), nigvziani badrijani (aubergine rolls stuffed with walnut paste), lobio (a soul-nourishing, coriander-spiced bean stew) and khachapuri (Georgia’s ubiquitous cheese-filled flatbread) will be served alongside the family’s delicious wines, made from lmereti’s principal grape varieties, Tsitska, Tsolikouri, Krakhuna (whites) and Otskhanuri Sapere (red). If you’re very lucky, the three siblings’ father might open a bottle of his locally famous chacha (a Georgian pomace brandy).

Another useful Imeretian name to note is Gaoiz Sopromadze. During the Soviet era, families who for many generations had made wines were forced to abandon their cellars and hand over their vineyards. When Georgia won its independence in 1991, Sopromadze was among a small group of traditional winemakers, along with the likes of Ramaz Nikoladze and Simon Chkheidze, who set about restoring the heritage that Soviet Russia had sought to destroy. A visit to Gaoiz Sopromadze Wine Cellar in rural Bagdati will be rewarded with some of the purest-tasting terroir wines Imereti has to offer. All the more special when enjoyed on the terrace, in front of the family’s open-air qvevri cellar.

3. Tbilisi

Start your tour of this ancient city at Tbilisi Wine Museum (8 Sioni St), located on the left bank of the Mtkvari river. Guided tours in English are available. Here, protected by a plastic case, you will find a very important clay pot – a qvevri, around 1,000l in volume, which is the foundation to Georgia’s claim to being the birthplace of wine. Grape pips and acid residue found in this vessel reveal that wine was being made in this part of the Caucasus 8,000 years ago.

Wine bars well worth a visit include the appropriately named 8,000 Vintages. This popular mini-chain of four wine shop//bars is a sign of just how quickly Georgian wine has grown commercially. It opened six years ago offering 250 wines from 50 different wineries. Now it sells more than 1,250 wines from around 400 producers. The flagship venue is at 60 Abashidze St, where you can browse the seemingly infinite walls of Georgian wine and taste with knowledgeable and enthusiastic young staff.

If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the natural wine scene of Georgia, one unassuming subterranean bar close to Freedom Square promises the motherlode, Vino Underground. This hallowed venue was opened in 2012 by a collective of eight Georgian winemakers to showcase local wines made naturally, without compromise. You may well find your mind and tastebuds blown as you taste through their flights of wine (four offered, the wines always changing depending on availability and the whim of whichever staff member is on duty). Many of them are micro-cuvées that you won’t find anywhere else.

‘Everything was delicious…’

Steinbeck got it exactly right when he wrote about Georgian food, ‘Everything was delicious. The flavours were all new, and we wanted to taste all of them.’ Like all great food nations, Georgia’s richness comes from its messy history. Thanks to its location on the Silk Route and to the empires that tried (and failed) to conquer it – Russian, Greek, Ottoman, Persian, Mongol (notably delicious are the broth-filled khinkali dumplings, so reminiscent of Chinese xiaolongbao) – it has absorbed a hugely diverse larder of ingredients and flavours. If you’re in search of food and refreshment in Tbilisi, these three venues may serve you well…

Fine Georgian dining

Stunning food, an impeccable wine list and beautiful décor, Ninia’s Garden in Old Tbilisi (97 Dimitri Uznadze St) has not been open long, but it has fast become the restaurant of choice for Tbilisi’s urban professionals. Laid-back and spacious, it’s perfect for relaxed lunches or intimate evening dining. Chef Meriko Gubeladze’s menu reinterprets the traditional flavours and recipes of Georgia, throwing in exotic hints of the Middle East. The restaurant’s name – and its elegant walled garden – was inspired by Ninia Zaridze, a Georgian merchant who, at a time when people had to pay to visit Tbilisi’s public gardens, invited them to enjoy hers gratis (for free).

Street food with style

For simpler but no less delicious sustenance, Tamtaki (22 Dimitri Bakradze St) will not disappoint. For several years chef-proprietor Tamta Kikaleishvili lived in London, working in fine dining restaurants including The Ritz and the Michelin-starred Pied à Terre. When she returned to her home country, she opened Tbilisi’s first “street food meets fine dining” venue, serving street food-style dishes with top-quality ingredients and the subtle flair you would expect from a chef used to working in world-class kitchens.

Riverside retreat

With its labyrinthine (and often perilously steep) streets and many places to sample wine, Old Tbilisi is can be a heady and disorientating place. If you lose your way or simply feel the need to retreat, head for the Corner on the River (Dedaena Park, Tbilisi 0105). This charming café perched on the bank of the Mtkvari river offers relative repose and one of the most privileged views in Tbilisi. If all that wine is becoming a bit too much, try a sobering coffee and the café’s absorbent and delicious honey cake.

Gaumarjos!


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