Mark Epchteine
Mark Epchteine
Head of Hospitality

Tipsy Travels: Low Intervention Wine in Georgia

Posted at 
Tipsy Travels: Low Intervention Wine in Georgia

For a long time, Georgia has stayed under the radar in the global world view. It wasn’t until some geopolitical news involving military involvement with Russia, that Georgia had appeared in international headlines. After 3 months - radio silence again. However, over time, Georgia made a comeback due to the rise of digital nomads, remote work, and unique travel destinations falling outside the usual pick of Rome, Barcelona, and Paris. This time around, Georgia has been highlighted for its renowned cuisine and 8000-year-old winemaking traditions. Internally, the Georgian F&B scene has seen a renaissance due to its growing popularity amongst travelers. However, its winemaking traditions have been ingrained in Georgian culture, and global culture for thousands of years and people like you and I are only beginning to learn about them now.

A trip to Georgia has been on my bucket list since 2016, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2021 that I dove deep into the regions of the Sakartvelo (Georgian for, Georgia). I found myself finishing a creative project that had taken me to Central Asia and had one month of time to go anywhere on that side of the world before my best friend’s wedding back in New York City. I had spent a couple of weeks navigating challenging mountains and valleys in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and had probably burned more calories in one month, than in the prior year. With a breath of exhaustion, I decided on living in Georgia for a month. I knew it had the digital nomad infrastructure to support getting some work done and networking, with great food and wine as a reward. I just didn’t expect to fall in love with Georgian wine. 

Prior to Georgia, my knowledge of Georgian wine was minimal. I have faint memories in my late teens of my mother saying that she enjoys Georgian wine here and there, but she must be in the mood for it. I remember she was going to a friends’ birthday and had asked me to stop by the local wine shop and grab a bottle for her. I walk into the bottle shop in suburban New Jersey, ask the clerk where I can find the Georgian wine. I'm directed to a corner that feels neglected. A couple countries' wines are all bunched together on three shelves. I have three Georgian labels from one producer in front of me. Thinking back, I have no idea which wines they were, but most likely Saperavi, Rkatsiteli, and Kindzmarauli. Three words that 18-year-old me wouldn’t dare to try to pronounce. Fast forward about a decade later, and a lot of my interest in viniculture and appreciation for low intervention wine stems from four, calorie-dense, vino filled weeks in the ancient lands of Georgia.

The winemaking culture of Georgia dates back over 8,000 years. The inhabitants of Georgia had found grape juice buried in the soil, and realized after a cold winter, that it had transformed into alcohol – and so was born Georgian winemaking. (The full history is a tad bit more complex than that.)

For thousands of years, wine has been made in tradition Qveris, large earthenware vessels typically made from clay. The vines are carefully tended to, with the grapes manually picked off, then pressed, poured into a vessel, typically accompanied by the skins, stems, and all. It runs through a round of fermentation, before being transferred into a Qveri, and buried below the soil for additional fermentation for a longer period.

The culture of wine is found across the entire country, with traditions ranging from region to region. It is common for families to grow their own grapes and make their own wine all through a very low intervention process. Traditional winemaking, especially productions at scale, rely on many additives to create the exact tastes and flavors consumers have come to expect out of brands. For Georgian wine, the natural yeast of the grapes kickstart the fermentation process, and flavors are aligned with that of the grapes’ harvest from that year. Different methods such as letting the wine sit on the grape skins for a varied amount of time, combining grape varietals, and different methods of fermentation results in a unique bottle of wine. No two years of vintages would ever taste the same.

Through my time spent with the families at different vineyards & wineries through Georgia, I’d learn more about how winemaking is such an important facet to families and communities across the country, and the culture of Georgia as a whole.

My trip in Georgia started in Kutaisi in central Georgia, as from where I was flying, it was easier to fly into the country’s third largest city (which I wouldn’t exactly call large). From the first day, it became prevalent to me that wine was important. I checked into a local hotel/guesthouse hybrid accommodation and was told by the front desk that if I’d like wine at any time, it's free of charge, just make sure I return the glass bottles. They mentioned that the hotel owner makes his own wine, just down the road. I strolled into the main part of town and tried to get acquainted with the country the best way I could – a hearty meal. After coming across a pleasant ambiance in a café, I sat down and was presented with a food menu and a wine menu, and, wow, they were both thicker than expected for a lunchtime café. Food was the priority as I was starving, so I quickly ordered Shkmeruli, baked chicken covered in a garlic milk sauce, and proceeded to dive into the wine options. Quickly, I realized I had no idea what I’m looking for and instead walked up to the bar to have a chat with the waiter. It was about 37 degrees (Celsius) outside, so a crisp glass of Rose was what I was feeling – “Do they have that here?” I thought to myself. My conversation only confirmed it, and the waiter recommended I try Gvantsa’s Aladasturi Rose. “Only sold by the bottle” Well… when in Georgia. This Rose had been my first real foray into Georgian wine, and the flavors and notes were atypical of a standard rose. More acidity, less tannins, more depth of flavor. I’m in for a treat in Georgia, I remember thinking to myself.

After picking the bartender’s brain about Gvantsa’s wine, I learned it was part of Baia’s Winery, which was one of the more “buzzier” producers in Georgia at the time. They are only a small family operation, but Baia’s wine had reached the hands of people like Michelle Obama, found its way to headlines in Forbes magazine, and made a name for themselves as a quality representation of Georgian Wine.

I’d made a few friends with other travelers in town, and quickly a plan to visit the winery fell into place. Located forty minutes outside of the city of Kutaisi in Meore Obcha, Baia’s Winery feels like a cozy family’s home before you even arrive. Driving through the village, everyone knows if a taxi is passing through, it’s to get to Baia’s. Baia’s Winery consists of Baia, her sister Gvansta, her brother Georgi, and her mother and father. Baia and Gvansta were out and about at the moment we arrived, so we were greeted by their father who only spoke Russian (and Georgian which I unfortunately do not speak), and I quickly became the translator for my new friends. He told us a little history about winemaking in the history of the family, and since they were little, all the kids loved being involved at every step of the process. It wasn’t until 2015 with some government grants did they decide to take it to the next level, create a brand, and produce beautiful wines year after year. At the time they started producing in the realm of 8,000 bottles a year, while in 2021 that ramped up to over 30,000 bottles per year. Traveling around the country, it was hard not to see the presence of Baia’s Wine at some of the best food & beverage venues.

As we explored, I learned that every grape used for their wine is picked by hand, a sort of “QA” to ensure only the best grapes are used in the wines. As I visited other wineries on this trip, I learned this is common practice in Georgia – regardless of the scale of vineyard. Certainly not the case at all wineries around the world. Not before long, we’re sitting behind a traditional Georgian feast, ready for our degustation of the different Georgian varietals. The first wine we tried was the Tsolikouri, a dry, earthy amber wine with an herbal backbone. This initial taste showed me just how interesting the flavors and balances of Georgian varietals will be. Prior to Georgia I was never too knowledgeable about amber wines (also commonly referred to as orange wines.) The main difference is they are wines made with white grapes but fermented including the grape skins and sometimes seeds still in place, giving it that amber hue. 

We moved on to our second pour among the feast, the Tsitska. Also, an amber wine – this one was fuller bodied, and had a great balance between dryness and the fruity notes. We move on to the Gvantsa’s Otskhanuri Sapere, a dry, dark red with high tannins, and a rich cherry/fruit profile. The father interjects and shares a tradition that their family follows to this day. Every night before everyone goes to bed, they all meet in the living room and drink 50mL of this red wine. It’s longstanding in Georgian tradition that this keeps the individual healthy and their vitality strong. Given that it was August 2021, the Covid era we can call it, I was told it was an additional protective measure at the time as well!

Dinner wrapped up with an introduction into a Georgian spirit – chacha. A more honest name for this liquid would be grape vodka. Similar to distilling vodka, chacha is made by fermenting grape must, and then distilling it. The resulting beverage has a surprisingly smooth earthy flavor, with a subtle 50-85% alcohol content. In some ways it reminds me of tequila, in other ways grappa. My experience at Baia’s Winery showed me firsthand what Georgian wine would entail, and what customs and practices I should expect out of the culture and people of Georgia. For example, I learned that as a male it will be close to impossible getting out of a round of chacha as you part goodbyes with a Georgian. A debilitating heart condition may be the only way out. You have COVID? You’ll still be expected to take it.

I made my way over to Tbilisi for a full dive into the culinary scene and to explore some more wine before heading to the Georgian countryside. I’d previously received a recommendation to stop by Au Ble d’or by Jean-Jacques, a small bakery run by a Frenchman not too far from my Airbnb. I popped in to purchase some bread and spreads for later, and noticed they had some wine for sale – however only from one producer. I asked the woman at the counter, who was the owner’s wife, and she told me that they’ve lived in Georgia for a long time. She mentioned her favorite wine is from Ruispiri Biodynamic Vineyards, the only wine available in the bakery. I grabbed the beautiful, abstract labeled bottle of a Kisi, and took note on Google Maps to mark down the vineyard.

In a couple of days’ time, I found myself at Vino Underground. This underground wine bar is the epitome of Georgia’s natural wine scene. It is owned by a collective of some of the most renowned and prevalent winemakers in the country and features only low-intervention wines. I was able to sample a variety of different producers and varietals, and chat to the staff that were at the very least experts on all these wines. This place was really the result of a community of passionate individuals. I tried a variety of producer’s Tsitska, Rkatsiteli, and Saperavi wines.

Equipped with my newfound appreciation for Georgian wine, and some knowledge between the different offerings, I made my way to the Georgian wine countryside of Kakheti to visit some producers. In the town of Sighnaghi, I paid a visit to Pheasant’s Tears, which had been featured on Parts Unknown when Bourdain visited Georgia in 2016. Pheasant’s Tears was the product of an American painter moving to Georgia and falling in love with the country’s traditional winemaking culture. The restaurant had a wonderful menu that focused less on the meat, and more on the varied produce found in this part of the country. Georgian food is very meat and carb heavy, so it was a nice change of scenery both physically and mentally. After a brief lunch and wine tasting, I had one more place which was recommended to me from Vino Underground, Cradle of Wine. Cradle of Wine was founded in the last decade, by an American with Georgian roots who had sold his long-standing concrete business stateside and made a move to the Georgian countryside. With a focus on biodynamic practices, and low-intervention winemaking, it serves as a beautiful location to sip wine & stare off into the valleys of Kakheti.

My time in Georgia had begun winding down, and it was almost time to fly back to New York for my best friend’s wedding, but I had just enough time to visit Telavi, the other region of Kakheti. Here is where I would find Ruispiri Biodynamic Vineyard that I had discovered in that French bakery. On my way to Ruispiri, based on the suggestion of someone else from Vino Underground, I decided to stop by Chona’s Marani. I met Michael, who with his father and the rest of the family runs the family business. We began talking about wine, and wine business, and it was pleasing to hear that the demand for Georgian wine has been growing worldwide. Export trends to countries like America, Germany, the UK, Russia, and even China have been showing an increasing demand for their wine. A quick taste of their Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane, and it was time to head to Ruispiri.

I arrived at the vineyard and met one of the founders who gave me a tour of the beautiful grounds. At Ruispiri, their focus on biodynamic elements was prevalent. The soil is taken care of only by natural elements, and harvests follow along with the cycles of the moon. The vineyard as a whole pays homage to the nature around it, and the land that it’s on. I really believe you can taste this through the wine, and it quickly became my favorite Georgian wine. I had a five-hour drive to Tbilisi coming up, so I soaked in the surrounding nature as I tried the Khikhvi, Rkatsiteli, and Kisi – all dry amber wines. I mentioned to the hosts that I was flying back for a wedding, and at that moment, it clicked to me. “This is the gift I need to bring back home!” I bought half a case to share with family and friends back at home, and to this day Ruispiris’ is still my favorite Georgian wine. I remember trying a bottle with my mother, and her first reaction “Oh wow, this is much better than any of the Georgian wine I’ve bought here.”

Well.. that’s a full travelogue on me drinking wine around Georgia. Looking back, I think I began to value some things more after my trip. It was incredible to see how families and communities are unified by more than a drink, but by an 8000 year old tradition. They plan their days around getting everyone together and sharing their time over wine. Everyone in the family plays an important role from tending to the grapes, picking them, pressing, fermentation, bottling, label design, branding. It was incredible to see this familial synergy everywhere you go. Maybe I should start getting my friends or neighbors together and having 50mL of red wine before bedtime... for health, you know?

I’ve been living in Bali (where there is not a single place to buy a bottle of Georgian wine) and have really focused on those elements of community and aligning my values with others. I think low-intervention wines are a perfect vehicle for storytelling, explaining both the land it comes from, and the process by which the winemaker transforms flora into a bottled product that brings a group of people together. Bali has a region, Bedugul, which is known for its strawberry farms. Recently, I’ve decided to try making my own wine, and making a low-intervention homemade strawberry wine will be my first take at it. If it brings even half the enjoyment that a bottle of Georgian amber wine will, I’ll consider it a success. Navigating Indonesian customs to import grape must might be a challenge, but hey, maybe one day I’ll be able to vinify some Georgian/Balinese hybrid wine, with minimal intervention winemaking practices of course.

Cross Icon