Thursday, April 25, 2013

Travel to Alaverdi in Georgia and enjoy a wine-tasting holiday with a difference

25.04.2013. Alaverdi Monestry produces 30,000 litres of wine a year using the old qvevri method. At my table are nine people. Eight have long beards and are strictly religious. They are priests and bishops. The other is me. All of us have a glass of yellow wine and are toasting… I am not sure what.

Inside the Alaverdi Monastery, in the heart of the Kakheti wine region, are bottles and bottles of wine that have been researched, studied and cultivated here since the 11th century. Bishop David stands up with the slightest of wobbles. He has engaging black eyes and a raw-boned frame. He is still youthful but this fact is disguised by a long, wispy beard.

Bishop David speaks eloquently about the monastery’s history, or so I’m told. I have no understanding of the language, so snippets are translated for me. Bishop David stands at the head of the table as the ‘tamada’ (toastmaster), elected to toast and maintain discipline. This ancient ritual of host has been preserved throughout Georgian history and continues here, as Bishop David delivers a lament on wine production and the responsibility of the monastery as a wine academy. ‘Wherever there are monks, there is wine being made,’ he says.

The recently excavated eighth-century cellar has been restored and the monastery produces more than 30,000 litres of wine a year under its own label using the qvevri method – which uses a large earthenware vessel to ferment wine – as well as modern methods that use stainless-steel fermentation containers.

The work of the Alaverdi monks is keeping alive traditions that date back more than 8,000 years. Wine has become so entwined with the Georgian identity that the tourist board has opted for the slogan ‘Georgia: Cradle of Wine’. Its wine heritage trumps any other country, yet it is widely unknown throughout the world.

Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is starting to attract oenophiles, eager to learn about – and taste – wine from the region. A lot of hope is resting on wine tourism, especially following the country’s 2008 conflict with Russia, which was a blow to the tourism industry.

The very first wine was cultivated in Georgia. Research shows – with the discovery by archaeologists of grape seeds in bricks – that it all began here on the cusp of the Black Sea. The original fermentation process saw crunched-up vines and grape dregs stored in underground qveries.

These large, tear-shaped vessels are made from clay. Lined with beeswax, they are buried under the earth where it’s cool and saves space. The wine is checked at various stages throughout the fermentation process, with some remaining entombed for up to 50 years. The result is an auburn, sometimes vibrant orange, coloured wine made without commercial yeasts or chemical additives.

During the tour of the grounds in the skin-cracking heat of a Georgian spring, Bishop David – wearing his dark aviator Ray-Bans to complete his righteous Blues Brother look – walks me around the arid estate and vineyards. The building dates back to the 11th century but there are ruins from an original monastery built in the sixth century.

As a wind skims off the backdrop mountains and blows through the grounds, Bishop David whips his beard with his right hand so that the tail-end almost rests on his shoulder, and we head back inside for dinner. Together we break khachapuri (cheese bread) with salted cheeses, walnuts and pork. For a country with such a fascination with wine, there is still work required in its culinary output.

Seated next to Bishop David are his long-bearded comrades. They knock back an impressive amount of orange wine. I hear it said that this ‘natural’ potion can be embraced without the repercussions of a hangover. Those people are wrong. I attempt to keep up with the zealous drinkers and, come morning, the effects kick like a mule. My future is not in the church; nor is it with drinking bishops.

Tours of Alaverdi Monastery Wine Cellar from £17. David flew to Tbilisi International with Lufthansa. Returns from London Heathrow currently start from £432. He stayed at Hotel Villa Rustaveli. Double rooms start from £65.


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