An 8000-Year-Old Harvest
The country of Georgia has been popping up in headlines quite often these days. Whether it is articles from various publications hailing the small country nestled in the Caucasus as the latest ‘undiscovered’ travel destination, or the June 21st protests that made waves in international coverage as the country thumbed its nose at Putin’s imperialism earlier this year, Georgia has been garnering more attention than in years past. A lot of the attraction from the traveling community is well-deserved: all things considered, it’s an all-around great travel destination. Whether it’s the unique, hospitable culture, delicious food and wine, or the numerous opportunities for outdoor activities within the towering Caucasus, Georgia is a great place for any kind of traveler to spend their holiday.
Typically, one of the first things mentioned when discussing the country’s culture is wine. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of wine production extending back eight thousand years at a dig site just twenty miles south of Tbilisi, Georgia’s increasingly-bustling capital. This means that the Georgians have been honing their craft for a long, long time. Although places like France and Sonoma still have the big-name recognition in terms of wine production, it is Georgia where one can go to get a real sense of just how much wine is an intrinsic part of the culture. While Georgia was indeed the major wine-producing region of the Soviet Union, this should be considered just a minor footnote in Georgia’s overall winemaking history. Emphasis on mass-production saw traditional winemaking methods fall to the wayside as many of Georgia’s 526 grape varieties were eschewed in favor of just a handful of high-yielding, hardier species of grapes.
It’s straightforward enough to get a taste of this tradition at many of Tbilisi’s restaurants and wine bars, but to really get a feel for what wine in Georgia is all about, it is better to head straight to the source. There’s a lot of options, to say the least. Georgia has numerous wine regions including Imereti and Racha in the western part of the country. However, Kakheti, the largest region of the wine-producing regions, tends to be the most well-known and possesses sixty percent of Georgia’s vineyards. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better in this case, there are some fantastic things happening anywhere Georgian wine is being produced. However, it was Kakheti where I found myself heading to participate in the last days of the grape harvest with a local family.
To earn the requisite traveler street-cred, I originally wanted to stretch the truth a bit and claim that this all happened spontaneously. However, that isn’t exactly true. I’ve been living in Georgia since May, and ever since I arrived, I have been harassing nearly every local that I’ve come across who was unwise enough to try to befriend me if they knew anyone who’s family happened to produce wine and how I could join them in the act once harvest time came around. Despite all of my searching, nothing materialized and I was left with little choice besides hitching the two-hour ride from Tbilisi to Kakheti and knocking on village front doors until someone felt brave enough to risk the quality of their wines by letting an unskilled foreigner fumble around with their grapes.
Months passed, and I still hadn’t had much luck. Fall began to wander its way into the country, gently ushering away a mild summer. I was beginning to panic. I still hadn’t found anything, and I knew indirectly that the two-ton Soviet-era Kamaz trucks were already firing up to make their runs to and from vineyard to wine factory. However, through a random stroke of luck, I received a message on Instagram from a friend of a friend who had heard secondhand information about my plight. Her family was originally from a village in Kakheti, and there was going to be a gathering for the last day of the harvest. I didn’t hesitate for a second, and soon I was stuffed in a full car, speeding on my way out of the city towards the city of Sighnaghi.
Although Georgia is a fairly small country that can be crossed in as little as five or six hours depending on the gumption of your particular driver, there is still an impressive amount of regional diversity. Despite the fact that there’s little to indicate when you’ve crossed the border from one region to the next, it is often, visually at least, apparent enough. Heading east from Tbilisi, one can assume they have passed into Kakheti based on the presence of increasingly dense vineyards. Pork is a big part of Kakhetian cuisine, and this is reflected by the butchers seen displaying their wares on the sides of the main highway.
Side note: if you find yourself taking this road yourself. I recommend making a stop-off at the roadside town of Sagarejo. There are numerous bread and cheese vendors alongside the main drag, and based on the number of stopped cars alongside the road (all Georgian, I might add) it can be assumed that this is, in fact, some good stuff. Maybe its something in the water. I’m certainly no expert, but I single-handedly completely devoured a toddler-sized loaf of piping-hot Georgian bread and half a wheel of salty cheese before our hour and a half commute had finished Pick up some local cheese and tonis puri yourself and see what you think. You won’t be disappointed, and you certainly won’t have to worry about traveling on an empty stomach.
After picking up a half a bakery’s worth of bread, a few more wheels of aforementioned-cheese, and a couple of kilos of ax-chopped-to-order pork ribs, it seemed like we had loaded up on all the necessities required to make up our contribution towards the evening’s feast. We arrived in the village of Vakiri, nestled under the shadow of the scenic red-tiled town of Sighnaghi. There are some similarities with harvest season no matter which part of the world you’re in, and our hosts in Vakiri were certainly no exception. Orderly chaos prevailed throughout the house, with barrels of new homemade wine taking up more than their fair share of space on the patio and cellar, jars of pelamushi, condensed grape juiced, arranged in an orderly yet tiptoe-inducing pattern taking up most of the space in the atrium, and various garden products, most of them grapes, waiting to be processed into forms more conducive for winter storage.
After a short coffee break, we all piled into the car again and made our way to the family vineyard. Only a select few vineyards seem to be located directly off of the main road. What seems to be the usual case is a surprising amount of off-roading being required to get to your particular vineyard of choice. This is usually accomplished by a vehicle that was not manufactured with the intent of ever leaving a paved road, and the drive is often enhanced by the constant curses being muttered by whoever pulled the short straw and has to make the drive in their car.
After doing some probably irreparable damage to the bottom of the car, we parked the car and quickly got to work. The usual system, at least from what I’ve seen, is a fairly egalitarian working party consisting of whoever happens to be available for work in the villages proximal to the vineyard. You have your designated pickers, armed with a pair of pliers and two buckets each, and a team of runners, usually younger boys. One the pickers have filled their buckets, they holler down the vine to one of the boys, who collects the full bucket and empties it into any number of possible vessels at a predetermined pickup point. In my relatively short harvest tenure, I saw everything from large plastic bags, to tarps, to more ‘sophisticated’ harvest boxes being utilized. However, since we were just the cleanup crew, we did all of the picking and bucket-running ourselves.
There’s a lot of tough field jobs out there, but in comparison, grape harvesting is relatively relaxing. The vines are (usually) waist-to-chest height, meaning there’s little need for reaching or stooping. Additionally, the working parties of Kakhetians make it hardly seem like work at all. They bring energy and boisterousness to their work, hooting and hollering and cracking jokes at each other’s expense. Time passes quickly in the vineyard, and before you know it, you’ve collected more grapes than it seems possible to drive back home.
Next, the grapes need to be transported back to where they are going to be processed. Our smaller-scale operations only necessitate a shuddering forty-year-old Lada with a dinky wagon attached to the rear. Larger operations typically make use of the aforementioned Kamaz trucks, which can carry up to four tons of grapes a time. For other wineries, anything in between is fair game as long as it gets the grapes from Point A to Point B.
We arrive back at the house and take another short break before the next phase of work begins. The juice must be separated from the grapes that contain them. There’s a number of ways to accomplish this. Even those most philistine to the world of wine (read: me before coming to Georgia) generally can conjure up an image of people stomping grapes for hours at a time in order to displace liquid from solid. For ages, this was the technique used in Georgia, called satsnakheli, done by men in a hollowed-out half of a log. It is assumed that some form related to the human foot, does an efficient job of pressing the juice outwards without getting too much leftover grape particulate matter in the end product. Now, as far as actual wineries are concerned, the work is usually handled by surprisingly well-functioning Italian destemming machines, which keep juice, skins, seeds, and pulp all together, which is a crucial element for producing Georgian-style wine. Some traditionalists might wag their finger at this, but honestly, I prefer less farm-worker foot-funk in my wines. Of course, you’re more than welcome to have your own opinion on this.
Our smaller family operation utilizes an ancient-looking hand-cranked pulverizing machine. I tried to get the name for it, but I was just told the same general word for pressing grapes (Satsnakheli). Either way, this thing was damn heavy and had probably been seeing action for the duration of several Soviet premierships. The grapes are lifted into a basket, and the rusty handle is cranked as the grapes are pulverized and sent to the plastic drum which will be their home for the next few months. I take a few attempts at cranking the handle of myself, but I’m unable to figure out the intricacies of the gear-system, and I’m soon gently ushered back to heaving bags of grapes from the trailer. After doing this in a few different settings, this seems to be the most difficult part of the process, as you’re already pretty worn out from picking grapes in the heat all day, only to have to turn around and proceed to lift and dump every gram of the surprisingly heavy boxes of grapes that you’ve picked thus far into your processing contraption of choice.
Also, it should be noted that while we were using plastic drums to ferment our wine, the traditional Georgian method utilizes qvevri, which are clay amphora of various sizes, some of which can sometimes be up to two meters tall and contain up to 15,000 liters of wine.
Finally, the day’s work is finished and it is time to celebrate the end of the harvest. While the pulverizing team has been busy, the rest of the household set to work assembling a table spread worthy of a lord. An important dish to mention is what happened to the aforementioned pork. The Kakhetian tradition requires them to be grilled over dried grape twigs and stems, which are first burned to size in a comically huge fire before they are reduced to coals and suitable for grilling the meat. The result is exactly as delicious as it seems. I’m all for using as much seasoning as possible no matter which cut of meat is being utilized or which animal it happens to come from, but the fresh pork here is flavorful enough to stand almost completely on its own, aside from a small dash of salt that’s applied prior to grilling, and the pomegranate seeds and juice that are added as a garnish directly before serving.
The sizzling meat is pried off of the skewers with a handy piece of bread, it seems like the rest of the work in the kitchen has finished up, and now the only thing left to do is eat. In accordance with yet another Georgian tradition of supra, or feast, we start the meal with the first of many toasts. Allegedly, there’s a specific order to how these toasts ought to be made, but each time that I’ve been told this, the order never seems to be the same. The usual candidates tend to be to family, to the guests, to Georgia, to women, to God, and so on, followed by an exclamation of “Gaurmarjos!”, and draining your glass of wine to the bottom.
Eventually, the homemade wine that I’ve been nursing ever since we returned from the fields begins to take its toll. Despite my stubborn insistence to not be the first one to turn in for the night, I simply can’t keep up with the heroic alcohol tolerance of the Georgians. Counting my losses, I figure it better to admit defeat relatively early on rather than potentially humiliate myself from trying to maintain the same pace as those I find myself sharing a table with. I slip away from the festivities, leaving the revelers to continue their festivities until the wee hours of the morning.