THE OLD­EST NEW­EST WINE RE­GION IN THE WORLD

IN GE­OR­GIA, WINE HAS BEEN MADE FOR MORE THAN 8,000 YEARS—AND PEO­PLE HAVE BEEN RAIS­ING THEIR GLASSES AND TOAST­ING ONE AN­OTHER OVER TA­BLES FILLED WITH EX­TRA­OR­DI­NARY FOOD FOR JUST AS LONG.

Food & Wine - - THE ODE - Pho­tog­ra­phy by CEDRIC AN­GE­LES Recipes by CARLA CA­PALBO By RAY ISLE

THE WINE IN THE GLASS IN MY HAND

was the black-pur­ple of a plum on a plate the color of night. It smelled of ripe plums, too, and had been made by a 9-year-old boy.

I was sit­ting at a ta­ble at Bina N37, a restau­rant in Ge­or­gia’s cap­i­tal city of Tbil­isi lo­cated in a res­i­den­tial build­ing (the name trans­lates to “apart­ment num­ber 37”). It’s owned by Zura Na­troshvili, a for­mer doc­tor, and his wife, Nino Baliashvili, who still is a doc­tor. Orig­i­nally the apart­ment was go­ing to be their fam­ily home, but af­ter Na­troshvili started mak­ing wine on the ter­race out­side, he de­cided, us­ing logic that may be opaque to most peo­ple, that it made more sense to open a restau­rant in it in­stead.

The ter­race it­self was orig­i­nally sup­posed to have a pool for Na­troshvili’s son, Irakli. But once Na­troshvili added a raised plat­form of sand and peb­bles and buried 42 qvevri on it—qvevri, pro­nounced “kwev-ree,” are the large, beeswax-lined earth­en­ware jars used in tra­di­tional Ge­or­gian wine­mak­ing—the pool was a non­starter.

“So I told Irakli, ‘Lis­ten, in­stead of a pool, you can make your own wine and sell it.’ And he was like, ‘OK, sounds good!’ He’d saved up about 500 lari, so we bought a qvevri and some Saper­avi grapes with that, and a year later he made 1,200 lari sell­ing his wine.” Na­troshvili told me all this over plates of qar­tuli salata, Ge­or­gia’s om­nipresent cu­cum­ber-and-tomato salad; pkhali, a pâté-like dish of finely chopped greens and ground wal­nuts; and bowls of spicy, gar­licky, en­tirely ad­dic­tive mar­i­nated cher­ries. They were the first few cour­ses of a meal that was go­ing to last well into the night. Irakli, sit­ting next to him, looked shy but proud.

Whether or not he knew it, Irakli was car­ry­ing on a wine­mak­ing tra­di­tion stretch­ing back more than 8,000 years. Based on ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence, it’s the old­est on earth. But it was nearly mid­night. When you’re 9, even if you’re car­ry­ing a torch lit from a fire first kin­dled in the Ne­olithic era, that means it’s well past bed­time.

TAST­ING TRA­DI­TION­ALLY MADE WINE in Ge­or­gia—which means wine fer­mented and aged in qvevri that have been buried in the earth, wine with­out in­dus­trial yeasts and with­out ad­di­tives, wine as sim­ple and mys­te­ri­ous as wine in­nately can be—is like tak­ing a trip back through those eight mil­len­nia. Nes­tled be­tween the Greater Cau­ca­sus and Lesser Cau­ca­sus moun­tains, Ge­or­gia forms a

bridge be­tween Asia and Europe.

Over the cen­turies, in­vaders swept through it: Per­sian, Greek, Ro­man;

Turks, Mon­gols, Rus­sians. And through all that, Ge­or­gians have gone on mak­ing wine. (Cooking, too: Ge­or­gian cui­sine bal­ances

Asian, Mid­dle Eastern, and Eastern

Euro­pean tra­di­tions, and bor­rows, de­li­ciously, from all of them.)

The day af­ter my din­ner at Bina N37, I headed north from Tbil­isi to visit Iago, both the name of the win­ery and the man him­self, Iago Bi­tar­ishvili. That’s char­ac­ter­is­tic of wine cul­ture here. Most Ge­or­gians drink truly lo­cal wine, mean­ing wine that you get from the guy down the road who you’ve been get­ting wine from since, well, when­ever. (It’s like rec­om­men­da­tions for car mechanics used to be: “Trans­mis­sion? Oh yeah, I know a guy. He’s great.”)

But about 15 years ago things started to change, and some of those down-the-road wine­mak­ers started bot­tling and sell­ing their wine fur­ther afield, first in Tbil­isi, and now through­out the world. Bi­tar­ishvili was in the van­guard of that rev­o­lu­tion. Lean and bearded with pen­e­trat­ing green eyes, he tells me, “In 2003 I started to bot­tle and sell my wine. That’s the only thing I do dif­fer­ent from my father, from my grand­fa­ther.” I ask him how long his fam­ily has made wine. He says he has no idea. But now he helps or­ga­nize the yearly New Wine Fes­ti­val held in Tbil­isi. An­other sign of chang­ing times: In 2009, when he and his part­ners launched the event, they could only find 15 winer­ies to par­tic­i­pate. In 2017, there were more than 400.

Bi­tar­ishvili pours me an am­ber-orange glass of his 2016 Chin­uri. The wine’s aroma is lightly resinous; its fla­vor sug­gests apri­cots and dry herbs. The wine is com­plex, but the wine­mak­ing is de­cep­tively sim­ple. Grapes—their skins, pulp, seeds, and stems—go into the qvevri (a tra­di­tional Ge­or­gian win­ery looks like a room with cir­cu­lar holes in the floor, since the qvevri are buried up to their necks in the ground). The qvevri are sealed, the yeasts on the skins of the grapes do their work, and be­tween three and six months later, the qvevri are opened. Skins, stems, and seeds are la­dled out, and the wine is moved to an­other qvevri to age un­til it’s ready. Bi­tar­ishvili says, “You also have to be skinny to make wine in Ge­or­gia be­cause you have to climb into the qvevri to clean them out.”

He adds: “I say to peo­ple, ‘Don’t say any­thing about our wine af­ter one glass. Don’t judge it af­ter one glass.’ If you take a wolf out of na­ture, it changes. Wine is the same.”

LATER, I’M AT THE WINE BAR Vino Un­der­ground back in Tbil­isi, drink­ing a glass of the 2017 Kere­selidze Wine Cel­lar Alek­san­drouli-Mu­jure­tuli. I’m think­ing sev­eral things. First, that I like this in­tense, feral red very much. Se­cond, I will never in my life know how to pro­nounce its name. And third, that the song play­ing on the speak­ers is by the Foo Fight­ers. Have you taken a Ge­or­gian wine out of na­ture if you’re drink­ing it to “My Hero”? I don’t know.

What I do know: It’s im­pos­si­ble to ex­tract Ge­or­gian wine from Ge­or­gia’s his­tory. At Papari Valley win­ery, owner Nukri Kur­dadze tells me, “Dur­ing the Soviet era, the qvevri tra­di­tion was al­most ex­tin­guished.” That is also true of many of the more than 400 lo­cal Ge­or­gian grape va­ri­eties. “But Ge­or­gian grapes sur­vived be­cause of Ge­or­gian farm­ers. We’re re­bel­lious.” Over a glass of his am­ber 2016 Rkatsiteli, a pow­er­fully tan­nic white with a tan­ger­ine-like scent, he adds, “The only word I can use to de­scribe how I felt when the U.S.S.R. fell is hap­pi­ness. I could not imag­ine this mon­ster could col­lapse. I can sur­vive any kind of hard­ship, but my only dream is that what happened here dur­ing the Soviet era never hap­pens again for me or for my chil­dren.”

Wine here feels wo­ven into the fab­ric of life in a way that may once have been the case in Europe but isn’t re­ally any­more. There’s wine ev­ery­where: at ev­ery meal, in ev­ery home. Ev­ery vil­lage mar­ket, ev­ery gas sta­tion, ev­ery road­side stall sell­ing ran­dom plas­tic buck­ets and boxes of Per­sil deter­gent also sells wine—usu­ally in re­cy­cled plas­tic wa­ter bot­tles, la­bel-less, made by this or that neigh­bor, as om­nipresent as wa­ter and as nec­es­sary. At the Shavnabada Monastery out­side Tbil­isi, Brother Markus says, “Every­thing is spe­cial, but wine needs spe­cial care.”

He’s in his early thir­ties, with a lus­trous black beard and a gen­tle man­ner. We’re in the cel­lar at Shavnabada, a

Ge­or­gian Ortho­dox monastery orig­i­nally built in the 12th cen­tury and re­built in the 17th, shut down again in the Soviet era and re­opened af­ter that. Eleven monks live and work here. All around the stone build­ing the box­woods are in bloom, and the air is filled with their scent. Brother Markus’ cell phone rings—the ring­tone is the br­rring, br­rring of an old-fash­ioned ro­tary phone. He glances at it and puts it back in the pocket of his robe. As to why they started mak­ing wine again, he says, “Ge­or­gia is a coun­try of hos­pi­tal­ity. When some­one comes to your home, you need to of­fer them bread and wine.”

A 2004 Mtsvane, a white wine that spent 13 years sealed in qvevri, is the color of bur­nished wood and tastes of nuts and smoke. A 2007 Saper­avi is darkly cur­rant-y, dry, and tart. He com­ments as I drink it, “We don’t fil­ter our red wine or use any ad­di­tives—that’s not a re­spect­ful thing to do to wine. It’s the blood of Je­sus Christ.”

Typ­i­cally, as a pro­fes­sional, I spit wines that I taste. At the mo­ment that seems wildly in­ap­pro­pri­ate. Be­sides, the Saper­avi is gor­geous. I drink it. Brother Markus adds, “Our pur­pose as monks is to make peo­ple happy. It’s not to make money. We put our soul and our heart into our wine, and that’s why it’s dif­fer­ent. God is al­ways present in this process.”

When I ask him if he ever thinks about peo­ple thou­sands of miles away, in Den­ver or Chicago or Seat­tle, drink­ing his wine, he says, “There is a God, and God is ev­ery­where in the world. We don’t have to see each other to have that con­nec­tion, so the U.S. is not that far, re­ally.”

SUPRA: THE WORD LIT­ER­ALLY TRANS­LATES as “table­cloth.” But, as I dis­cover the next night at Pheas­ant’s Tears win­ery in the hill­top town of Sigh­naghi, perched above the fer­tile Kakheti valley—what it re­ally trans­lates to is more like “mas­sive, high-spir­ited feast in­volv­ing end­less plates of amaz­ing food and enough wine to pickle an ele­phant.”

Pheas­ant’s Tears, founded in 2007 by an Amer­i­can ex­pat and artist, John Wur­de­man, and Gela Patal­ishvili, was one of the first Ge­or­gian winer­ies work­ing in a tra­di­tional mode to send its wines to the U.S. (In many ways Wur­de­man has func­tioned as an in­for­mal am­bas­sador for Ge­or­gian wine as a whole.)

Supras are cel­e­bra­tory; they em­body abun­dance and joy. They also re­quire toast­ing—lots of it. As Na­troshvili at Bina N37 had told me, “The first toast, at least in the west of the coun­try, is al­ways to God. In the east it’s to peace, since that part has al­ways been at war. Then to peo­ple who passed on, to new life and to chil­dren, then to women, to love, friends, and on. At least 25. Usu­ally more.” And with all those toasts, the food. At a supra, dishes ar­rive but are rarely re­moved when emp­tied. Soon the ta­ble lies un­der a sea of plates.

There are supras at wed­dings, supras at birth­days, supras at funer­als, supras when your team wins or when your friends get to­gether, supras be­cause, what the hell, it’s Satur­day. At Pheas­ant’s Tears that night the gen­eral rea­son was be­cause Wur­de­man was re­turn­ing from a long trip, ex­cept his plane was de­layed in Canada. His staff, who are all Ge­or­gian, de­cided to cel­e­brate any­way.

Plat­ters of for­aged mush­rooms with herbs; khacha­puri, the but­tery, cheese-filled flat­bread; rolled thinly sliced eg­g­plant with wal­nut sauce, or nigvziani badri­jani; chaka­puli, the coun­try’s clas­sic lamb stew with fresh tar­ragon; ten­der roast chicken in a milk-based gar­lic sauce, or shk­meruli— that was just the start. And with all that, the raised glasses: gau­mar­jos, or “vic­tory,” the equiv­a­lent of our “cheers;” gag­i­mar­jos, or “here’s to you;” gad­vi­mar­jos, or “here’s to everyone.” I lost track. But late in the evening, fueled by sev­eral rounds of chacha—the Ge­or­gian ver­sion of grappa—we even ended up rais­ing a toast to Fred­die Mer­cury. The staff had de­cided karaoke was in or­der, re­sult­ing in an en­tire ta­ble of Ge­or­gians belt­ing out “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fan­dango?” in some­thing vaguely ap­prox­i­mat­ing the key of A ma­jor. In Ge­or­gia as in life, you come to un­der­stand, some things are uni­ver­sal: wine, food, friends, the hu­man need for con­nec­tion, and even “Bo­hemian Rhap­sody.”

“WE PUT OUR SOUL AND OUR HEART INTO OUR WINE, AND THAT’S WHY IT’S DIF­FER­ENT. GOD IS AL­WAYS PRESENT IN THIS PROCESS.”

Newly madeqvevri cur­ing in the sun. Ge­or­gian wines are tra­di­tion­ally fer­mented and stored in the enor­mous clay ves­sels, which are buried up to their necks in the earth.

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