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Friday, July 20, 2012

Tsinandali: Radisson rejuvenates a wine destination in Kakheti

by Robert Linkous

20.07.2012. The first time visitor to Tsinandali, reaching its outskirts from the southeast, may doubt its eminence as a wine town. On the right, a sprawling, rather unkempt cemetery. Just beyond, a bridge over the dried out, refuse strewn Doliauriskhevi River, an objectionable eyesore beyond which one must look across the Alazani Plain and even further east, to the haughtily unperturbed Caucasus Mountains, for relief.

The town itself: sleepy, dusty, seemingly careless of appearances, not even tackily touristy. Another Kakhetian village seeming to face the world with its backside.

At the center a handful of shops purvey goods and essentials in limited variety. Still, at high noon on a cloudless Saturday in June, the roaring trade in shoti at one tiny establishment suggested the presence of a master baker and the need for a drive-thru window.

What’s more, at the other end of town is the handsome Alexander Chavchavadze Museum and resort complex (read also Georgia is reconstructing ancient wine distillery - with Radisson hotel and wine museum), whose manager, Nika Mumlauri, confidently estimates that 90% of the local residents are occupied with winemaking to one degree or another, often including the ownership of vineyard land and their own equipment.

Tsinandali may not be tidy and tourist friendly like Bernkastel-Kues or Calistoga, for example, but the locals are busy tending grapes and making the wine called “Tsinandali,” customarily a blend of Rkatsiteli (85%) and Mtsvane Kakhuri.

Built in the 1820’s, the museum itself was originally the two story summer home of Alexander Chavchavadze, aristocrat, military man, translator and poet (Georgian Romanticist).

But he also found time to spare for wine. He built a cavernous underground cellar, pulled together a modest collection (17,000 bottles is the round number), produced wine in qvevris or wooden barrels which were made on the premises, and put the name “Tsinandali” on the world map of wine in prominent letters.

Edifying, entertaining tours of the upstairs floor of the house are available, before or after which, on the ground floor, activities more specifically related to wine are at hand. There is a coffee shop with desserts and a small but surprisingly worthwhile wine library.

Such volumes as Hugh Johnson’s annual pocket guides, Oz Clarke’s The Essential Wine Book, or Virginia Wine Country III may not be of recent vintages, but there is plenty about regions, grapes and techniques that is as up-to-date now as it was the day the ink dried. In a country where English language books can be hard to come by, budding students of wine should take note.

Those scholars in quest of liquid subject matter may carry on to a tasting room, where wines by the bottle or glass are there for the buying and drinking; service takes place at a wide and commodious bar. The wines of Schuchmann, Kakhuri, and Teliani Valley were featured recently.

Just beyond the door a glass or two of wine can also be appreciated on a long, shady porch, at one end of which six wooden wine barrels are stacked to promote the spirit of it all.

Even the tipsiest of tasters should welcome the invitation to stroll the grounds, along meandering paths beneath towering, stately trees in arboretum-like variety.

Besides, it is no trek to a nearby underground restaurant, suitably darbazi in architectural style, where walls fashioned from hefty blocks of stone are adorned with large carvings depicting the harvesting of grapes, the pressing of them by foot, and the thirsty savoring of the finished product: a visual lesson in a cyclical and honored tradition.

Containing a total of 21 rooms, usually filled with business and governmental folks out from Tbilisi for meetings and confabulations, there are two small hotels … for the present. But at the top of the hill Radisson has sprung into action, and by mid-June the bright yellow skeleton of a 100 room hotel to be had already climbed into view.

In harmony with regional architecture, the buildings of the facility will be of stone, and 40 hectares of vineyard land are already in preparation, where the Silk Road Group can make its own wine, and around which there will even be small houses for individual winemakers.

Alongside all this the cellar and an old winery are also being renovated, until the completion of which they remain closed to the public. But a private tour, amidst rubble and grit, revealed an unmistakable grandeur.

Above ground are long vaulted halls that just might serve as railway tunnels; they open out to congenial views of the leafy grounds spread below. But to descend to cellar level on a hot day is to turn a corner on a stone stairwell and be met with a rush of chill air almost intoxicating.

All at once it is 10-12 degrees Celsius, “the ultimate temperature,” promised Mumlauri, “for storing wine.” Of a workday the racket of hammers and power tools is rarely abated, but the storage rooms are sealed, and there is no doubting that in Room 3 the oldest wine in the collection, an 1841 Saperavi made by Chavchavadze himself, sleeps soundly, even if its sonorous snores do not quite reach the level of audibility.

Thus a walking tour of Tsinandali might end in a crypt, even if it did not necessarily begin in a cemetery.But the real sight for sore eyes may be the vineyards themselves,from which comes the wine called “Tsinandali,”year in and year out a wine as reliable as any to be found in Georgia.

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