Before arriving in the Georgian wine region of Kakheti, we'd imagined rolling hills and old vines. Throw in some looming mountain ranges, medieval churches, bad roads, small villages full of crumbling houses, beautiful rose gardens, donkeys, old Russian cars and large gasoline jugs filled with murky wine and you’ve got Kakheti. And while the region is full of mysterious churches and historical sites, our best experiences always seemed to happen along the way.
We stayed at a friend’s house and vineyard in the village of Kisiskhevi, several kilometers from the regional capital of Telavi. (Note: while you say the name of the village, be sure to cough up a lung while pronouncing the “kh”, otherwise locals will not understand.)
Lali, the caretaker and winemaker, escorted us into the hills for an orientation of the surrounding mountains, rivers and villages. Pastoral distractions were plentiful – Lali scolds a donkey tied up outside the gate, a grandma cuts Audrey a bouquet of giant roses, cows fill the road upon their return for milking, half-wild/half-domesticated pigs dot our peripheral vision, and time passes in our search for the best fresh matsoni (Georgian yoghurt). We're even invited to an evening picnic and toast with Misha and Shota at the church ruins. Like all Georgian adventures, our opening evening in Kisiskhevi saw no shortage of unexpected countryside excitement.
A Detour into a Temporary Abkhazia
After recovering from our adventure with Misha and Shota, we spent the remainder of our days enjoying Kakheti at a more leisurely pace. In search of great views of Telavi and the surrounding countryside, we found ourselves climbing the crumbling steps of the Hotel Telavi, a once-desired address now inhabited by Abkhazian refugees driven from their homes more than ten years ago.
The entire structure is in shambles. Common rooms on the ground floor are gutted and scattered with trash and rusted Brezhnev-era remains. Extended families are squeezed into old, decaying Soviet hotel rooms. Children have turned the grand ballroom into a velodrome and cycle the long hours of uncertain days away while their parents hang out of the windows, drawing smoke from cheap cigarettes as they watch time drift by. Uncertainty seems certain here; no one knows when or if he'll ever be able to return home.
While Telavi also has some pleasant churches, museums and other historical sites, the highlight of our visit was the main market. Scruffy and dingy around the edges (like any good market should be), it offered the usual suspects – cheese, meat, mushrooms, spices, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and coffee – often in great quantities bursting out of the trunks of Soviet era automobiles like Ladas and Volgas. The region's ethnic diversity also displays itself here. We later found out that the Georgians tend to sell fruit, cheeses, meat and mushrooms while the ethnic Azerbaijanis deal in vegetables and herbs.
Apparently, tourists rarely pay visits to the market, as our appearance was a visible and audible novelty. This is what rock stars must feel like, minus the swooning fans falling at their feet. With few exceptions, everyone wanted to talk to us, to know where we were from, to shake our hands, to know what we thought of Georgia, and to understand why we didn’t have children (a common topic of conversation). In a reversal, shopkeepers asked *us* to take their photos. When we finally exited the market, we were sent off with waves and smiles; our visit would likely be the talk of the market for days to come.
Exploring Kakheti: A Day in a Volga
We took a day and a driver (with an old Soviet-era Volga) to see the main sites – Alaverdi, Tetris Giorgi, Ikalto Academy, Shuamta (old and new) and Gremi. The time of our visit coincided with the end of the school year, so we shared the sites with minivans full of school kids. When these young excursion-goers would find out we were American, they took copious pictures of us as proof of their close encounter. Again, it was fascinating to be on the other end of the shutter.
Sites were loaded with history, often in 100 and 500 year chunks and the surrounding countryside was scattered with grazing cows and sheep. Our personal favorite, Ikalto Academy, was not particularly impressive in size or in history. But its peaceful grounds – loaded with flowers and outfitted with a quaint stone priest’s house that fell out of a Mediterranean countryside – had a special feel.
Set in and amongst the hills of Kakheti, the monasteries of Alaverdi and Gremi appear dramatic, particularly from afar. We didn’t make it to Nekresi monastery nor Sighnaghi, but both are supposed to be worthy of a visit.
Georgian Wine Tasting: A Different Wine Culture
Our driver took us off-road past his vineyards and reminisced about how things used to be (i.e., in Soviet times) when he worked at the now shuttered wine cooperative. In the old days, tourists would fly directly from Russia to Telavi, the wine industry boomed, and life was good.
Now, the wine industry is attempting a comeback. But it’s difficult when many of the old vines were destroyed, the main export market (Russia) has been closed off, and the capital and interest required to revive it are in short supply. Every family seems to have enough grapes to make wine for themselves. A few corporate wineries also bottle and sell wines for export and for sale locally. Compared to the growing list of competitors from around the world, the prices seemed high ($12-$15 and up for a decent bottle). Considering that $8-10 and a little effort can fetch you an imminently drinkable bottle at the Independent Vintner’s Salon in Strasbourg, the Georgian wine industry has a long road ahead.
The essence of the wine culture in Kakheti is different than what you would find in other European wine centers such as France, Italy or Spain. Combined with the Georgian Tamada (toastmaster) tradition, wine can seem more about the consumption of large quantities than thoughtful appreciation. Red wines made with saperavi “black” grapes are a better, tastier bet and seem to earn a more deserved appreciation.
Wine tasting at the vineyard in Tsinandali offers a bit of the unexpected, too. After the caretakers kindly opened the facility just for us, we were escorted into a room that seemed just smaller than a football pitch. We paid a small fee ($3 per person) to taste a white wine and two reds (one sweet, one dry). The tasting proved disappointing, especially since the dry red had obviously oxidized. Afterwards, when it was time to purchase bottles ($12-$20), we were told that the wine for purchase is much better than what we'd been given to taste. She explained that the bottles used for tasting sit open in the refrigerator. Hence, they slowly spoil through the trickle of tourist traffic. A bizarre approach for promoting and selling wine, by any measure.
It was not exactly what we were expecting from a premier winery in a region that, according to some, “invented wine” several thousands of years ago. In other words, you don't come to Kakheti exclusively for the wine, but rather for the experience…and there is no shortage of those.
Georgian Hospitality: The end of one meal is the start of the next
The remainder of our time in Kakheti was spent eating. We kid you not. Lali is a fantastic cook and when we showed interest in food and Georgian cooking, she sought to introduce us to the “best of” Georgian cuisine in a round-the-clock eating marathon squeezed into a few days. We returned to Tbilisi perhaps several kilos heavier, but much better equipped to navigate the variety and complexity of Georgian cuisine.
How to Explore Kakheti and the Georgian Wine Region
- How to get there: Take the Tbilisi metro to Isani station and exit to the left. Taxis will be lined up with their drivers yelling “Telavi” when they see you. Look for the car with the most people in it (i.e., leaving soon). Cost is 7 GEL/person. Depending upon whether or not the driver took his insanity medicine that day, you’ll get to Telavi in up to 2.5 hours. Minivans also depart from there for around the same price. Driver for a day to sites listed above was 40 GEL.
- Where to stay: We stayed at a friend’s place in Kisiskhevi, but Telavi is supposed to have a good network of home stays. If you don’t have contacts in advance, stop by the friendly tourist office in Telavi for a list of home stay and accommodation recommendations.
- Where to eat: There are a couple of cafes and restaurants in Telavi, but the best food will likely come from your home stay family.
- What to do: See above for the main sites. Women wearing pants are provided a complimentary tie-around burlap sack at Alaverdi and New Shuamta.