Wine Tasting in Telavi, Kakheti, Georgia

Wine Tasting

Introduction by Don

Georgians are understandably proud that their country is often considered the birthplace of wine. The first confirmed evidence of wine production is clay fermentation vessels discovered in Georgia dating back over 8000 years. The Caucasus region is also home to over 500 indigenous grape varieties and the making and drinking of wine is deeply embedded in the Georgian culture. Georgians all over the country grow their own grapes and produce wines the traditional way; using large earthenware vessels called qvevri for the fermentation, storage and ageing of the wine.

Today the country has a growing commercial wine industry, producing high quality wines using both traditional and modern methods. Nearly all the wine is made from indigenous grape varieties, and is produced in a number of styles; red, white, dry, semi-sweet and sparkling. While Georgia is best known for naturally fermented wines produced in qvevri more and more is being produced using modern, higher-volume methods.

Qvevri wines are fermented with their skins and seeds in large clay jars buried in the ground to maintain constant temperature. Following roughly 6 weeks of fermentation, and after all of the solids have sunk to the bottom of the vessel, the wine is pumped out and either bottled or put into barrels for additional ageing. The whites made using this method take on an orange hue from the prolonged skin contact (the Georgian wine industry prefers to call them amber but orange wines are becoming a thing in the West) and end up more tannic than traditional whites. Both the reds and whites made this way often have a distinctive nose with a bit of earthy funk.

Kakheti in western Georgia is the most prominent wine making region with Telavi the largest urban center. It was therefore surprising how difficult it was to find and arrange a wine tasting tour out of Telavi. Every organized tour we found online was out of Tbilisi. In the end our hotel arranged a taxi to take us to 3 nearby wineries which turned out to be the perfect introduction to Georgian wine. On a Thursday afternoon starting about noon we arrived at the wineries without reservations and were give a private tour followed by a tasting that included snacks. At the first two wineries, Schuchmann and Shumi, we were given a choice of packages with how many wines you wanted to taste for a set fee. 4 wines was 30-35GEL/person with generous pours.

Schuchmann

Schuchmann is a large, slick operation that was started in 2008 by a retired German businessman. The tour of the old style traditional qvevri cellar and the new modern cellar was given in good English by a young German woman. Her detailed explanations were a great introduction to the Georgian wine making process. We tasted 4 wines, two whites and two reds, with a qvevri and a modern version of each for comparison. Schuchmann had the best snacks, serving a lovely tray of fresh bread, a wine cheese and 3 kinds of dips – a spicy sweet tomato, a Georgian pesto with coriander and walnut and sunflower oil.

Shumi

Shumi is Georgian owned and also has extensive grounds with a demonstration vineyard of many different varieties of grape from around the world and a large garden area for wine tasting. The private tour was given in great English by a young Georgian. The tour starts with a small wine focused ethnographic museum with locally found artifacts followed by a view of their qvevri and modern cellars. For the tasting we again chose the 4-wine package with 2 whites and 2 reds that included a qvevri and modern wine of each. The snack served with the wine was smaller but included traditional and experimental treats, such as churchkhela (a local sweet made with grape must and nuts), cheese, and a wine bread that they invented and dates.

Tsinandali

Tsinandali was the least organized tasting. They are a much smaller operation but also have both qvevri and modern wines. We were given a quick tour with a young Georgian that spoke OK English and happily answered questions but did not give detailed explanations. By this time we had already heard two explanations and did not need a third. This last winery gave us two very generous pours of their red and white qvevri wines with a snack of  churchkhela at no charge.

The taxi arranged by the hotel was efficient but the driver did not speak English. We didn’t need to communicate with him much as the hotel manager had explained our itinerary to him. On the road he either used the winery staff to communicate what he needed to tell us or we used a bit of Russian. He charged 70-80GEL ($27USD) for a 3 to 4 hour tour.

Chavchavadze Estate

For a diversion from wine tasting the Chavchavadze Estate located in Tsinandali, 10km east of Telavi, makes a pleasant break. The estate encompasses the former palace residence of Alexander Chavchavadze turned into a museum and the surrounding park grounds. While the residence/museum has no written explanations it’s visually appealing with many examples of household furnishings and paintings from the early 19th century. The grounds are quite extensive and  filled with mature trees and some interesting plantings of yucca, a boxwood maze, a bamboo stand and a lovers’ lane. The complex also includes a hotel and winery. The estate’s website boasts the importance of the Alexander Chavchavadze as an intellectual and rebel of the early to mid-1800s. If you are in the area and have the time it is definitely worth the stop.

Batonistsikhe Castle

Located in the center of Telavi, Batonistsikhe Castle, a 17th century fortress complex encompasses an ethnographic/art museum, a couple of churches and a 19th century Persian style palace.

The new museum has an interesting collection of artifacts – pottery, weaponry, architectural elements from churches, jewelry, a few furniture pieces, and couple exhibit rooms of mostly 19th century to contemporary art.

Behind the museum is the palace (included in the museum ticket) and churches (free). The palace, where Erekle II was born and died, is small and mostly unadorned except for stained glass lattice windows. The first two rooms have some furnishings but the rest of the palace has just a few paintings and artifacts of the time. Outside the palace is a small bath house along the fortress wall. If you are short on time you can see everything in under an hour.

Sleeping and Dining

Communal Hotel Telavi

The Communal Hotel Telavi is a delightful boutique hotel with tastefully cozy common areas and a small pool area with plenty of sunshine. We had a king suite with a balcony overlooking a quiet street without much traffic even during the day.

The large room is stylishly decorated and well appointed. The bed is firm but comfortable and dressed with soft linen sheets. Amenities include a Nespresso style coffee maker, safe, hairdryer, Netflix and a good Wi-Fi connection. The bathroom is moderately sized with a good shower, plenty of hot water and water pressure, and a small amount of counter space. Nina the manager also arranged a taxi for a wine tasting tour that worked perfectly for us. They have an excellent restaurant, Doli, whose tone oven is just outside of reception.

Breakfast at Communal Hotel

The breakfast buffet is a beautiful spread of breads, cheeses and spreads, cold cuts, whole fruits, cereals, dried fruits and nuts with a nice infusion of local tastes. Items are of good quality and artfully arranged. In addition they offer cooked to order eggs. Filtered coffee, tea, milk and juice are also available.

Doli Restaurant

Doli Restaurant, located in the Communal Hotel, is hands down the best restaurant we ate at in our 2 weeks in Georgia outside of Tbilisi. The short menu focuses on Georgian dishes, especially grilled meats, vegies, and breads prepared in their tone oven, which is essentially the same as an Indian tandoor. Over the course of our travels in Georgia we’ve found that while we generally like the food meats are often overcooked and dry, but not here.

The grilled pullet, a small chicken, and the pork neck were both perfectly seasoned and cooked and not the least bit dry. The bread, a flat bread style, was fresh out of the oven. We started with the Ghandzili salad, pickled wild garlic greens. While it was a bit tough the flavor was excellent. The dining room is a small casual yet nicely appointed space. Service was very friendly and efficient.

Kapiloni Restaurant

Located just across from the Bastonistsikhe Castle, Kapiloni Restaurant has a large outdoor terrace on two levels, perfect for summer dining. The extensive menu complete with pictures includes mostly Georgian specialties.

We ordered the cucumber and tomato salad, the potato ojakhuri, the veal pelmeni (dumplings in broth in a pot covered with dough and baked) and the barbeque chicken. All the dishes were well prepared. The salad had garden fresh flavorful tomatoes and cucumbers, the fried potatoes were perfectly done if a tad salty, the pelmeni was well seasoned with an herb spice blend and the barbeque chicken came out of the kitchen piping hot with the skin still crispy and the meat moist. Service is friendly and efficient. This is a popular restaurant in nice weather. Come early, 7-7:30, or make a reservation.

Drive from Stepantsminda to Telavi

From Stepantsminda we followed the Military Highway back down the mountains toward Tbilisi and then cut over on the Zhinvali Barisakho Shatili Rd, shown on the Google map, towards Telavi. We were hoping for another great back country road like the one we found to Gori from Svaneti, but this one was not as good. This road winds through lower mountains and forest with little traffic and no trucks but had frequent sections of rough track between sections of paved road. Not a terrible way to go if you know what to expect. The drive took about 4 hours.

For links to all the posts in this series see the Southern Caucasus – Georgia/Armenia page.

July 6-8, 2022

2 thoughts

Comments are closed.