Qvevri Wines

One of the reasons I went to the Caucasus – and Georgia in particular – was because of the claims wine was ‘invented’ there in 6000 BCE, or 8000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. IMG_1726The Washington Post, National Geographic, The Daily Mail, the BBC, CNN, The New York Times and the ABC all ran fairly recent stories bruiting the news of radio-carbon dating of pot shards and bio-molecular and DNA archaeology of grape pips from the Stone Age accurately dating wine making to that period in Georgia.

Alvin Toffler in his seminal book The Third Wave claimed that humanity advanced in sudden ‘waves’ or periods of intense adaptation and progress. The third wave was the technological and communications one which swept the world within the last century. The second was the Industrial Revolution but the first – and probably the most important wave – was the adaption of farming and the domestication of animals by our Neolithic Stone Age ancestors. Without this first wave, Toffler claimed, nothing else could have been achieved, which brings me back to wine.

To my mind, there is no question that wine was ever invented. IMG_1685Just as no one can claim the invention of the wheel or the discoverer of fire, similarly, no one can claim to have invented wine. Nevertheless, legends lay easy claim to the latter. Noah, after he landed the ark on Mt. Ararat (on the borders of modern day Turkey and Armenia) disembarked the animals and planted a vineyard after which he got horribly drunk and made a disgrace of himself. All of which begs the question of where he originally came from because he must have brought the vine shoots or saplings with him in the ark!   Then there is the much older Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh which also details a deluge after which the eponymous hero sets out on a quest to discover wine and the immortality it can bestow. Another Persian legend describes how Jamshyd – a semi-mythical king – kept grapes to be eaten in jars. One of his handmaids, out of temper with the king and his court, attempted to top herself by drinking the juice from the foaming grapes in one jar, believing it to be poison. Instead she discovered the delights of alcoholic inebriation which she then passed on to the king who, according to the XVII Rubaiyát of Omar Khayyam (The Fitzgerald Translation 1859)

‘They say the Lion and the Lizard keep

the courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep

It must have been a joyous discovery when the first Neolithic farmers found that the grapes, hoarded for leaner times, had fermented and changed magically into a drink other than the contaminated and disease ridden water that they had been dependent upon all their lives.

Three factors independently appeared, more or less at the same time, that all combined to give us the wine that we know today. Firstly the widespread presence of vitis vinifera, the wild Eurasian grape vine in the valleys between the greater and lesser Caucasus mountains, secondly the cultivation of barley and wheat which allowed food reserves to be stored, and thirdly the invention of pottery for making and storing wine.IMG_1854

But back to Georgia where the most astonishing thing is that wine is still made in the same way that our prehistoric ancestors made it.IMG_1619

First the grapes are crushed – sometimes in large, hollowed out logs – before the juice, the skins, the grape pips and even the stalks are poured into qvevri, large earthenware jars, (several hundred to thousands of litres in size) often lined with beeswax, which are then buried in the ground. The juice ferments using wild yeast while the ground maintains a steady geothermal temperature and the conical shape of the qvevri allows the wine to circulate and clarify naturally.

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A glass of ‘white’ qvevri wine compared to ‘normal’ white wine

These qvevri wines – also known as ‘natural’ or ‘raw’ or unfiltered wines – have a distinct orange or amber coloured hue due to the skin contact during fermentation and taste quite different to European wines which are fermented without the pulp. Nevertheless, qvevri wines can differ in style with both sweet, semi sweet and dry wine all being made from the Saparavi grape.IMG_1707

Wine is such an integral part of Georgian life that wine is made by just about every family as grape vines are ubiquitous throughout the country. Roughly 500 of the world’s 2000 grape varieties hail from Georgia although less than 20 varieties are used in wine making.

Kakheti, in the eastern part of the country is probably the most famous wine producing area in the country and that is where I went to sample the Saparavi dry red and the white Tsinandali in the town of Sighnaghi.IMG_2166

Under the Soviet rule, the Russian taste was for strong, sweet wine with extra sugar added which led to a decline in quality but since Georgia’s independence in 1991, wine makers have upped their game and while still producing wine in the traditional qvevri fashion, now also produce high quality wines in the western style.

References

https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/earliest-evidence-of-wine-found-in-giant-8000-year…

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/…/oldest-winemaking-grapes-georgia-archaeolog…

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/…/Scientists-discover-8-000-year-old-wine-bottles-Ge…

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41977709

https://edition.cnn.com/2017/11/14/health/oldest-wine-georgia-study-trnd/index.html

http://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2017-11-14/oldest-wine-georgia…pottery…/9143874

The Story of Wine – Hugh Johnson New Illustrated Edition 2002

A History of the World in 6 Glasses – Tom Standage 2005

Uncorking the Caucasus – Dr. Matthew Horkey & Charine Tan 2016
 

Georgia Reconsidered

A big red M outside Tbilisi’s main station marked the entrance to the city metro – probably the longest, deepest and fastest escalator I have ever been on and, like the bus fare from the border to Batumi which cost something like 30 ct, the trip on the metro were priced similarly or even cheaper.

The Georgians I met – generally local punters in a bar or café or wait staff in the same places – were all terribly proud of being Georgian and were especially keen to distance themselves from anything Russian, having finally extracted themselves from the sphere of influence wielded by Imperial Russia, Soviet Russia and The Russian Federation. Armed only with red roses, protesters demonstrated for twenty-three days outside the Georgian parliament in November 2003 in order to bring about peaceful change and a new slant towards westernisation.

A waiter or waitress’ recommendation from the local menu invariably followed the same line, ‘this very, very good, this very good, this very good, this … Russian, this very, very good’.

This ‘turning away’ from their former rulers led to increased tensions with Russia, culminating in the brief 2008 war where the Federation forcibly backed two separatist revolts against the Georgian state. One night in a small bar half way up a hilly side street near the Opera, a fluent speaker of English confided in me that he hated the Russians. They killed his brother during the war in South Ossetia.IMG_1759

IMG_1760 2Popping up from the metro two stops away from the main station – again an incredible ascent – onto Shota Rushtavelli Ave I was amazed to see how fashionably modern Tbilisi was. I don’t know what I was expecting – perhaps something slightly less developed than a Western capital, perhaps something slightly shop worn – but what I got was an amazing melange of old and new.

Opposite the Opera house where I was staying, it was only a IMG_1732short walk past the parliament buildings and down to Liberty Sq. and from there to the old town where crumbling buildings and shaky balconies edged fashionable pedestrian areas and parks.

IMG_1752 2Flea markets selling Russian junk crowded the bridge before a maze of small streets leading back up to Liberty Square in which the centre plinth was so high that I couldn’t actually make out what stood on top. IMG_1632

And then, as if this wasn’t enough, there was a cable car connection to the old Persian fortress overlooking the city and the hot spring baths with fashionable wine-bars and restaurants spread out below in inviting pedestrian areas and squares.IMG_1642

Despite having lived in Milan for almost three years, to my shame I never once went to La Scala, one of the most famous opera houses in the world. This time, staying opposite the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet State Theatre House on broad Shota Rustavelli Avenue, all I had to do was take the underpass and the Opera house was right there.

IMG_1769 2I saw the premiere of one of Verdi’s little known (certainly to me anyway) operas – Simon Boccanegra – an opera with a prologue and three acts with one intermission, the brochure informed me. A Google search of the plot baffled me but the splendour, the lighting, the colour, the drama and the music and the voices had me entranced – although the only word I actually heard was ‘Maria’ – and I became an opera lover overnight!

IMG_1619But time to leave the capital and explore the Kaheti wine region, the major wine growing area in the southeast. After all, in this part of the world, Neolithic farmers were making, drinking, enjoying and worshipping vitis vinifera 8,000 years ago so I assumed they knew how to make a decent drop.

And then there was the idea of  hiking in the Sveneti – the mountains region up in the northeast, rubbing shoulders with the breakaway state of Abhazia.IMG_1825

More of that later.

 

2 Georgian Lari = about $1.15 Australian cents

3 Georgian Lari = about $1.70 Australian cents

 

 

 

Georgia – First Impressions

A mini bus from Trabzon, on the far north east of Turkey’s share of the Black Sea, snaked past a long line of trucks queuing up to ender Georgia, many of which were backed-up in one of a string of tunnels leading up to the Turkish exit border post at Hopa. The bus could only go so far before we all had to get down and walk across the border throughIMG_1569 creaking, makeshift corridors of bare plywood and on into a no-man’s land where a very impressive Georgian border post, sparkling white in the sunshine, waited. No visa is needed for Georgia but my passport was scrutinised lengthily by a serious faced official before being smudgily stamped.

Out into Georgia proper and there’s a waiting, but already packed, minibus on to Batumi, Georgia’s premier port that I decline clambering in with a backpack. I wait for another emptier mini bus to materialize. One does and I scramble in along with another horde of people crossing the border and off to Batumi, all for about thirty Australian cents!

Asia or Europe or Asia Minor or even Eurasia? I couldn’t tell. The people didn’t look Asian the way people in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Malaysia looked Asian – they all seemed fair-skinned with blue eyes and dark hair, although many girls dyed their hair blonde. Caucasian or Circassian?

I suppose Batumi, the bustling seaport where the mini bus from the border dropped me off, had a hint of Asia with its grubby street market where spices, fruit – cherries and raspberries – veg and cheese were loudly hawked from stalls and barrows. Grimy Thai massage parlours, decorated with twinkling fairy lights, were shoulder to shoulder with casinos and slot machine joints. The beckoning and giggling girls in the doorways were definitely Thai – I stopped to chat to some of them – but their business was mostly with Turkish men who come over the border for a bit of fun. Where in God’s name is there any border with a town on either side where one side always appears better / more attractive / cheaper /more appealing than the other (and where there are truckloads of cross border trade)?

Pick anywhere on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic (Irish butter was always cheaper over the border in N. Ireland), or the border towns north of Khota Bharu in Malaysia and Sungai Golok and Narathiwat on the Thai side, or Hong Kong and Shenzhen, or Tijuana in Mexico and some place in Texas, and Temungong in Brunei Darussalam and Limbang in Malaysia but you get the idea. Oh, let’s not forget the overland border crossing from Saigon into Cambodia. Border towns worldwide always seem a bit seedy but all have that same frísson of excitement on first arrival.IMG_1570

Anyway, away from the market area and into a beautiful cloister-like square (Georgia became a Christian country in 301 C.E.) with restaurants on three sides. A pretty red-IMG_1572 2haired waitress dressed like a flight attendant with a jaunty blue hat, served me my first and excellent Georgian beer. I don’t know the name of the beer because it was written in the Georgian alphabet, which, to my eye looked unintelligible, full of squiggles, radii and what looks like badly written numbers.IMG_1591

What I did like about Batumi in particular were the mosaic style cobbled streets, the Botanical Gardens overlooking a muddy and uninviting Black Sea, the Cable Car that went to nowhere – well, there was a cafe and below that there was an empty, church tower – IMG_1599the musical fountain near the Ukrainian restaurant that had a dress code (I was not allowed to eat up on the balcony) and the somewhat gaudy buildings, IMG_1602the impossibly tall column of Medea (of Jason and the Argonauts fame),IMG_1639the excellent craft beer – although I meant to drink Georgian wine IMG_1605specifically! But what really bowled me over was the certainty on the part of everyone I spoke to that the Georgian language was directly related to the Basque language and that in the past Georgia had been called Iberia and that just proves it! Fantastic.  Yes, I know this bottle does not say Iberia but then aagain I find it hard to believe Georgian and Basque languages are related.IMG_1685

 

The Black Sea Silk Road

Evocative, far away places and names like The Ho Chi Minh Trail and The Silk Road are, perhaps unintentionally, misleading, as they both seem to imply a single trail or route. In actual fact, as the Americans discovered, the Ho Chi Minh ‘trail,’ parts of which had once been primitive footpaths that had facilitated trade for centuries past, was a vast and complex network of routes and roads.

Similarly, I discovered, the ancient Silk Road was the first intercontinental pathway in history for facilitating the exchange of trade, science, art, cultures and ideas through a myriad of trade routes between its empires and kingdoms.

One obvious route into the fabled East must have been along the southern shore of the Black Sea (Kara Deniz), inhabited by ‘hostile tribes,’ not least among them being the Amazons, according to Homer. With that in mind, I decided to start in Istanbul and travel east along the Black Sea before heading into Georgia and its neighbours. Trabzon, on the far south east corner of the Black Sea, would be a major focal point where the overland, intercontinental Silk Road divided and extended eastwards to the ancient commercial centres of the Caucasus and the great oasis cities of the Central Asia and on into China proper.

Once I started to look at Google Maps, it began to seem a bit more complex. Istanbul looked a long way from Trabzon, almost on the border with Georgia. This was going to involve lengthy bus trips, sadly, no trains here along the edge of the Black Sea. But first I had get out of massive Istanbul and cross the Bosporus!

Following the curving tram tracks from Gulhane, the first ferry terminal I came to on the sea front was closed but a terminal IMG_1518further IMG_2180down had an old steamer crossing the Bosporus to the rather appealingly named bus station of Harem.

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From there, apparently, I could catch a shuttle bus to somewhere else from where I could get the other bus to some place further down the coast.

Well, that was as much as I could understand, given my knowledge of Turkish.

However it all turned out well, a shuttle bus arrived more or less promptly and wove a tortuous route out of the city to a massive Metro bus station on the eastern outskirts. Into a sleek and modern coach which, no sooner had it pulled out onto immaculate highways, IMG_1553than a conductor was pushing a trolley down the aisle offering tea, coffee, soft drinks and a choice of three snacks! Six hours later we rolled into Bartin only it wasn’t Bartin exactly as I was bustled off the coach and onto a waiting mini-bus that raced off in the opposite direction to another part of Bartin where another mini bus finally took me to Amasra.

 

IMG_1534According to Homer, warriors from Bartin fought on the side of Troy against the Greeks. Certainly Amasra, known as Sesamos when it was founded by the Miletians in the 6th century BCE, would be worth fighting for its elegance, beauty and location on a peninsula made up of two inlets joined by an ancient Roman bridge.IMG_1522

My hotel room overlooked the harbour where a few beers, a fried fish dinner, a bottle of wine (190 New Turkish Lira!), raki and a cup of coffee restored the inner man after the travels of the day.

Back to Bartin days later, only one mini bus this time, and another mini bus out to the bus station and off to Sinop, reputed to be the happiest town in Turkey. Dropped off suddenly from the coach, I was rushed across the road and into a mini bus (again), which eventually dropped me off on Sinop ‘neck,’ the birthplace of the 3rd century BCE philosopher, Diogenes the Cynic.

Apparently, some time like 335 BCE, Alexander the Great was intrigued by the philosopher’s eccentric habit of living in an empty wine barrel, paused on his conquest east to ask if Diogenes needed anything.

‘Yes,’ the philosopher replied. ‘Move away, you are blocking my sunlight.’ (Fairly brusque, I would have thought myself, given he was speaking to a proven conqueror.)

A solid castle, with a cafe on its top ramparts overlooking one of the most beautiful natural harbours of the Black Sea, served cold beer while a small quayside restaurant provided a magnificent feast of over 50 small dishes (mezze) for brunch. No need for a dinner after that!IMG_1542

Tasty lentil soups for breakfast, along with tea and then later coffee with a sweet, tart glass of cherry juice, a little date and walnut snack and some weird, white, sticky mastic goo in a glass of water.

On to Samsun in a smallish but comfortable coach. Compared to my previous stopovers, Samsun seemed huge, a modern, industrial city that has served as a port for centuries. Its other claim to fame is that Kemal Ataturk landed there on 19 May 1919 to organise the defence of Anatolia.IMG_1546

The Fiesta Bar, around the corner from the first hotel I saw when I got off the coach, was dark and gloomy inside and I seemed to be the only customer besides two sad looking elderly staff who hastened to turn on disco lights just for me in an attempt to enliven the place. The beer was cold but tasted bad and I put it down and picked up a kaleidoscope-like tube from several crates stacked near my table. Idly I twisted the tube and with a bang, the bloody thing ‘shot’ me in the thigh, not hard enough to tear my pants but hard enough to leave an angry mark on my leg. Time to leave, thinks I and I did, leaving an unfinished beer behind.

Frustrated that the Fiesta was the only bar in town, I took a taxi to what was gaily proclaimed as “Bar Street” about 10k from the hotel where the first ‘bar’ there didn’t serve beer but the Olympiad next door did. Back to the Fiesta only to find that it had an open, airy but empty rooftop, which I hadn’t noticed before, so it was definitely time to move on to Trabzon.

The procedure at the bus ticket office was now comprehensible – buy a ticket, wait for the shuttle to the bus station, board the large, black Metro CIP bus – premium economy class this time! – and relax. Within minutes of pulling out, a pretty steward served a meal and I snoozed on a very pleasant trip to Trabzon.IMG_1565

First impressions however were of a grimy city, well used by generations of occupying Assyrians, Miletians, Persians, Romans, Goths, Comnenes and Ottomans but more importantly perhaps, it boasted an easily accessible roof-top bar, Gunnes, which actually had people in it, drinking too. More lentil soup and succulent charcoal roasted lamb and it was time to move on away from beer and into the birthplace of wine in Georgia.

Crossing the Caucasus

When I was in school, I used to enjoy Geography and was proud of my childish ability to name European capital cities. Then the world seemed more compact, comprising of Western Europe, The USSR, Asia, Africa, The Americas and Antarctica. Then, of course from the ethnocentric European point of view, there was the Near East (Egypt and Suez), the Middle East (Syria, Turkey) and the Far East (China, Japan) and, intriguingly, Asia Minor or was it Eurasia? And then there was something called the Balkans, famously described by Bismarck, I think, as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and the Caucasus, which, in my mind, was a sort of no-go area. Nevertheless, none of those areas was ever clarified in my mind.

Confusingly too, in American crime news and novels, there were always references to “Caucasian males, armed and dangerous, if encountered, do not approach”. Who or what they were I was never quite sure but I suspected that I might be one of them – no, not the armed and dangerous bit, of course.

Anyway, as I learned recently, the currently outmoded system of classifying our species depended on a 19th century German physiologist and anthropologist, Blumenbach. He classified human kind in traditional terms of Caucasian / Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Australoid and Negroid, but it was the use of the term Caucasian that fascinated me.

The Caucasus Mountains in modern day Georgia, and specifically the southern slopes,

Wine Qveri
Ancient Wine amphora or Qveri from Batumi in Georgia

were apparently the home of, not only the autochthones – the original members of mankind – and the site at which Noah’s (of the Ark fame) son, Japheth – the traditional Biblical ancestor of the Europeans – established his tribes before migrating into Europe proper but also the birthplace of wine more than 8,000 years ago!With a history like that, what was there not to like about exploring this hitherto unknown – to me – part of the world.

Factually, the Caucasus is the area of land, composed mostly of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan (along with lesser, recognised and / or unofficial Republics of Ossetia (north & South), Abkhazia, Adjara, Ardsakh, bounded in the north by the Greater Caucasian Mountains and about 100 kilometres south by the lesser Caucasian Mountains.

188px-Kaukasus
Satelite view of the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains

Nevertheless, without bothering particularly to look at maps, I arbitrarily decided for myself that my Caucasus (trip) would start in Istanbul where the Bosporus drained from the Black Sea and would encompass everything as far as Baku in Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea. It seemed simple – Black to the Caspian Sea with the Caucasus somewhere in between – and the wine bit sounded good, to me at least.

Caucasus 2 Map
Istanbul to Baku, The Black to the Caspian Sea.

I remember, years ago, I dozed through a class called Comparative Analysis of an Uncommonly Taught Language, Turkish and English. The only definitive thing I took away from that class was that Turkish is an ‘agglutinative’ language. I could still remember a smattering of Arabic phrases from my time in the Gulf so language shouldn’t be a problem! All I had to do now was get to Istanbul and start discovering 8000-year-old wines!

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