Monday, April 30, 2012

Georgia – where “natural” is a way of life

A country bursting with tradition. One foot in another time and the other firmly in the present – it was hardly worth raising an eyebrow when a spanking new Mercedes passed a donkey-drawn cart on the way to the same farmers market. Bordering on Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey, this small country is rebuilding itself after years under Soviet rule.

Georgia has amazing bread and very good thick yoghurt
Here, wine is at the very heart of the vibrant cultural heritage, seeping into every bit of Georgian life.
During Soviet times, Georgian wine culture was crushed to pieces under a demand of bulk wines with alcohol as the only important component. Now, the Georgian wine industry is re-creating itself and finding the old roots of quality wine production, firmly placed in indigenous grape varieties and traditional, natural winemaking methods. With an 8000-year old history, Georgia is believed to be the birthplace of wine.

Opening of a buried Qvevri
What is special about the traditional wine making here is the use of clay vessels called Qvevri, buried into the earth. Big enough for a person to fit in (we tried), every Georgian family still seems to have at least one. Regardless of white or red, the wines are generally made with extensive skin contact. Juice, skins and stems all go in the vessel for months until they have separated naturally and the clear wine can be drawn off. The result is quite a different wine experience – extremely tannic, almost black Saperavi or orange Rkatsiteli with flavors few European drinkers have ever tasted. With time, the wines soften, and combining them with Georgian food is almost a must.
Luckily, there is no shortage of fantastic food, and the Georgians are happy to share.
Georgians see any guest as a gift from God, and will treat you as such. The pride in their wine and food culture is obvious; It is also more than justified. Going to the market in the capital of Tbilisi is an experience of pure love for every foodie. No-one speaks English, communication works with a genuine smile and sign language. The stall holders are proud of their wares – from fresh vegetables and herbs to honey, dried fruits, salty cheeses, fresh walnuts and beautiful piles of spices, and are happy to let you smell and taste. For the peckish, boat-shaped bread can be bought straight out of a brick oven and dipped in golden, intensely flavored virgin sunflower seed oil.

Niko, a natural wine maker and artist
The abundance of fresh produce and meats forms the base for the traditional dinner feasts called supra. Plate after plate of khachapuri (cheese bread), coal-grilled meats, tkmali (herb and fruit sauces) and pkhali (Georgian Meze) gets carried proudly to the table and devoured in the short breaks between speeches by the tamada (toastmaster) or the guests. The toasts, which turn into a competition of the most eloquent, moving performance, end by the draining of the glass, or traditionally a cow horn. For the inexperienced, this can be a very quick path to the floor. Or to the dance-floor. Amazing live music and harmonious singing spaces the talks, and no-one will complain if you get up to shake down dinner.
For a laugh, do take a look at this video with two members of the #RAWGeorgia team, breaking it down to traditional Georgian music. Gabriella Opaz, who heads the European
Wine Bloggers Conference and Donald Edwards, on the RAW team, definitely know how to shake some bootay!

Cheese bread! YUM!
In the shade of the impressive Caucasian mountains, this wonderful country is going through a slow and beautiful revolution. Dedicated wine growers are quite literally digging up their ancient traditions and bringing back quality grape varieties, traditional Qvevri winemaking and natural wines from organic grape growing. The strong link to the Georgian food culture and the warm, genuine view they have on guests makes this a country to visit for any adventurous wine lover. Until the day you can, do make sure to greet the Georgian wine makers coming to RAW and try their wines. If you are lucky, they might even have a stash of that addictive cheese bread…
2012. I’m not paid to promote them, but I do whenever I can. Why? Because there will be a plethora of small producers here who try to make the best, most expressive wine they can, in harmony with their soils, with traditional winemaking methods and their environment. That is a cause worth supporting.)
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