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Published: August 2nd 2019
My hotel set me up with a driver for the day, Soso, and he was perfect! He had worked in Ireland for a few years, so his English was pretty good. (Otherwise, the only people who spoke English in this area appeared to be young women). Soso took me to three nice wineries in the Khaketi area and we stopped at a few other places along the way.
Our first stop of the day was the Alaverdi Monastery, a Georgian Eastern Orthodox community. It is currently undergoing restoration with the help of the local Badagoni Wine Company. It is free to visit, though if you are visiting the church itself, you should probably leave a donation (and women cover their heads). The monks also make their own wine and you can see the vines within the compound. According to Wikipedia, parts of the monastery date back to the 6th century, while the cathedral goes back to the 11th century. It was also the tallest cathedral in the country until another in Tbilisi was consecrated in 2004.
The next stop was my first wine tasting of the day: Babaneuris Marani Winery. The boutique hotel / winery is located up on
a hill overlooking the valley, and accessed via unpaved roads through a small village. The tastings here seem to work a little differently than I'm used to; despite the many wineries and vineyards, it is still relatively untouched, so you generally book appointments to taste and even then, I don't think there are many. So, I waited while the winemaker finished cleaning out one of the pots in the floor that they use to make and store the wine, Qvevri. This is the "Georgian technique" and what makes the wines unique. Georgian wine making goes back 8,000 years, making it the oldest known in the world. This particular winery has it's original location, still functioning, in a nearby village and the Qvevri vary in size from 250 to 3,000 liters. There are apparently 525 grape varieties and I was going to try four of them: Kisi (dry white wine), Rkatsiteli (dry white wine), Mtsvane (amber dry wine), and Saperavi (dry red wine). All were delicious and I bought a bottle of the Rkatsiteli.
We made our way to the second winery, but was a long drive, back towards the other side of the hotel I was staying at. On
the way, I saw so many beautiful monasteries and churches in the mountains, but they were for away. Soon, I saw a large cathedral on a hill along the road and we decided to pull in there. It was the first place I saw a bunch of tourists, particularly tourists who did not appear to be local. I walked up to the still functioning monastery, Gremi, and was able to overlook the valley. When I came back to the car, we stopped at one of the nearby kiosks and Soso got me some churchkela, a string of hazelnuts or walnuts dipped into a sweet mixture of some of the byproducts of the wine making process and sugar. It is a common sweet and was pretty tasty.
The next tasting was at Khareba Winery, one of the largest in the country with distribution everywhere (I saw it at the airport). It was very commercialized, but tasteful as well. The tasting area is located in the tunnels, which cover approximately 7km overall and where they previously stored the wine since it was opened in the mid 19th century. There were about 16,000 bottles of wine in the first tunnel, not for
sale and part of their own collections. The temperature in the tunnels (and in the Qvevri parts in general) are typically 12-14 degrees celsius with 70% humidity. At this winery, they use 25 types of grapes with 40 varietals of wine. Fermentation takes about 10 days to 6 months, 4 months in the western region where they also make wines. After the first fermentation, the juice is kept for the second generation, and the leftovers are used to make the spirit chacha as well as the churchkela sweets as per above.
I had paid for the "classic" tasting, which included 4 tastings (2 European techniques and 2 Georgian techniques), chacha tasting and bread making. So, I joined a Swiss couple with our English speaking tour guide (a young woman of course), and after giving us plush blankets due to the cool temperatures underground, we walked thru the tunnels where she explained the extent of the winery and wines, she took us to the "museum" in the back to show us some of the equipment used to make the wines, like the Qvevri, and cleaning tools, and trough where they crush the grapes, often still with their feet. We then
did the tasting; the Swiss couple only got the Qvevri types, so I felt a little rushed. I tried the white wines first, comparing the two types, and then had the dry red Euro type, then finally the semi-sweet which was actually my favorite. I'm not usually a sweet wine fan, but there was so much body and flavor in the ones I've tasted here.
After the tasting, we walked back down the long tunnel to outside, returned our blankets, and then I went with our guide to try the chacha in a separate building. I was surprised when she gave me a small plate of pickles to take with the shot of chacha. I was even more surprised that they actually went together! It was nice and smooth. Next she took me to the outdoor bakery, where the woman quickly showed me how to roll the bread dough (a little too quickly), pick it up and take it to the large stone open oven / stove thing. She showed me (again, a little too quickly) to slap the dough against the interior wall of the oven without touch my arms to it - that part made me nervous,
so I was unsuccessful in my slapping technique and my bread fell into the ashes..... She was not happy. I felt bad, but oh well. The guide then showed me how to make the churchkela, the wine leftovers mixture cooking over a little pot, where we had a string of hazelnuts that you place in the cooking mixture and push down with a spoon to coat. Then you hang it up to dry, taking about 10 minutes to 1 week. The baker then gave me the bread she had made - it was warm and delicious and I quickly ran away in shame at having failed in the bread making.
The winery grounds themselves were beautiful. It was like a park setting, with the tasting room, hotel and associated buildings up against the mountain backdrop. Across from the buildings was a nice park, where they had many old Qvevri used as decoration. They started to play some music in a gazebo as I was leaving. It just seemed like a fun place to hang out for an afternoon.
While I had been enjoying my time, Soso had gone to town to take a break for about an hour,
but he was ready for me as I walked back to the parking lot. I shared some of the warm, delicious bread with him. We then turned back towards Telavi and headed to a Museum and Park area: House Museum of Alexander Chavchavadze. I really had no idea who this was, but I asked my driver to get me a ticket for the house museum and park area. First I went to the house and was able to get an English speaking tour of the upper level, which had great views of the park. I am still not quite sure what he is, but after a quick read through of wikipedia, Alexander was a famous Georgian poet from a noble family, though born in Russian and a godson of Catherine the Great. The house was nice, and actually, busy, but the grounds are what make the site great. I walked through the park towards the back, where there is a big concert hall and they plan to have a classical music festival held here in September. It was quite lovely, with a little outdoor cafe and possibly a nighttime restaurant. On the top of the hill is a large hotel
(Radisson?), looks quite fancy.
Just around the corner was the last winery of the day: Shumi. I love how all these wineries are so different. It honestly reminded me a lot of the Finger Lakes - cute boutique wineries that are just starting to become popular. I was getting a bit tired though, so I just asked for a glass and sat to enjoy the views. I bought a bottle of it, Kisi. As per my first night's tasting experience, the wines typically have the name of the grape (in this case, Kisi) with the name of the winery. The ones made in the Qvevri also have a little picture of it on the label.
I asked Soso to stop by an ATM for cash, but he forgot, so we turned around back towards Telavi and once there and I got my cash, he took me to the nearby main square where you could see the former fortress and impressive government buildings as well as a cute downtown buildings within the hills. He took me to an 800-year-old tree with excellent views of the valley. It was busy, with locals just hanging out, either along the walls by
the tree, or the cafe next to it, or even the two older men playing a game of chess. It was a great end to a fun day.
I had not eaten since breakfast, but was not too hungry. My friend recommend the Khachapuri to me. I saw pictures of it on google and it seemed perfect. It seemed like there were two versions of it, so I ordered the Khachapuri Adjaruli. This is baked bread shaped almost like a football and in the center is cheese, egg and butter. I ordered the small, but it was still huge. I was able to eat half, even though it was delicious, but I did not ask for leftovers because I could not see it being good for later. Then I went to my room and enjoyed the sunset from my balcony. While music was playing and people hanging out at the pool, it was a quite, fun, summer type of atmosphere and made me happy. I loved this area and highly recommend it to anyone!
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