Bringing tradi­tional and modern together

Kakheti in Eastern Georgia is one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the world. The pecu­liar geograph­ical region on the border between East and West has always enjoyed ample water supplies, fertile soil and bright, warm summers – a God-send for wine-growers, fruit-growers and farmers

A bumpy dirt road trail along an irri­ga­tion canal leads to the peach orchard of Mamuka Amon­ishvili and his son Vazha in the heart of Kakheti. Looking into the cloud­less sky, you can see the peaks of the Caucasus moun­tains on the horizon. On the plains of the fertile Alazani Valley, the temper­a­tures rise to 25 degrees Celsius even at the end of September. Arriving at the orchard, we take a break under a home-made shelter, which the peach-pickers use for shade in July and August during harvest.

Mr Amon­ishvili walks down the rows and comes back with a handful of peaches. “We started planting peach trees here 17 years ago, in very chalky soil where wheat, barley and corn used to grow,” says the 55 year-old.

Hailing from the village of Khum­laki, he worked in the local collec­tive farm during Soviet times and, like all Geor­gians working in agri­cul­ture, received an area of 1.25ha from the Geor­gian state after the collapse of collec­tive farming. Not really enough to earn a perma­nent living, which is why Mr Amon­ishvili bought more land in the 1990s. The family now culti­vates around 8ha of their own land.

Mamuka Amon­ishvili on the peach plan­ta­tion of his family.

Kakheti: A wine-growing region with prospects

As well as peaches, they also grow walnuts, nectarines, apri­cots and, on a small patch, cher­ries – a fruit that is in rather high demand at the moment. Mr Amon­ishvili is gener­ally quite content. The harvest in 2019 went well, and prices weren’t bad. With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that demand for land in the Kakheti valley is high. “It’s next to impos­sible to expand our oper­a­tions because the land on the market is so expen­sive,” says his 26-year-old son Vazha. At the end of the day, it’s also proof that agri­cul­ture and wine-growing offer the younger gener­a­tion in Georgia’s eastern region real prospects, adds Mr Amon­ishvili opti­misti­cally.

The driving force is wine-making, which has a near 8000-year history south of the Caucasus. During the grape harvest, which reaches its peak at the end of September, thou­sands of workers swarm into the vine­yards to pick the produce. The roads every­where are filled with vans taking the sweet fruit to the cellars.

Grape harvest at Shilda.

Old Russian trucks are still in use in a lot of places, although in the valleys of the Alazani and Iori rivers, there has been a lot of invest­ment in wine-making in the past few years. New, care­fully tended vines can be seen every­where on the slopes – around 200-600m above sea level – and espe­cially in the Alazani valley, many new, some­times very sophis­ti­cated-looking winery build­ings rise up out of the land­scape. In fact, many new wine­makers are now linking their wine produc­tion to tourist offers.

Tradi­tion meets tourism

For example, at the Mosmieri winery in Kisiskhevi, visi­tors are intro­duced to tradi­tional wine­making in so-called Qvevris (large amphorae) which can hold up to 2,000 litres and are hand­made from clay. While this age-old method of wine-making was completely suppressed in the Soviet era, it is currently expe­ri­encing an unex­pected renais­sance. For many new wine­makers, it’s no longer just a ques­tion of quan­tity, but also of quality.

The orthodox monastery of Ikalto in the valley of the Alazani River in Kakheti was once the univer­sity of the kings of Georgia. Qvevris in the monastery garden bear witness to the monastery’s viti­cul­ture.

Nukri Kurdadze embodies this approach to the full. During the 1980s he worked as a physi­cist and after the hammer and sickle finally fell to the ground in Georgia, he served as a brand ambas­sador for a French spirits company in the Russian-speaking world. After about 10 years he had had enough. By buying a small vine­yard near the village of Akhasheni, he fulfilled a life-long dream: To finally be a wine­maker himself.

Right in the centre of his vine stock – which now comprises 9ha of Saperavi and Rkat­siteli vari­eties – he has built himself a cubic func­tional building. It contains his cellar with several Qvevris on three levels, a small wine store and a styl­ishly furnished apart­ment. From the terrace there is a wonderful view of his ecolog­i­cally culti­vated vine­yards and the distant moun­tain range.

Fermen­ta­tion is a magical process, the more you exper­i­ment the less you know.

Nukri Kurdadze

“Fermen­ta­tion is a magical process, the more you exper­i­ment the less you know,” explains the 62-year-old with a myste­rious expres­sion. His organic farm with the Papari Valley brand, certi­fied by the Caucacert agency, produces around 20,000 bottles a year. They are mainly exported, predom­i­nantly to Japan, Germany, USA, France and Great Britain. The customers in these coun­tries appar­ently like to dig deep in their pockets for the synthesis of modern wine knowl­edge and sensi­tive tradi­tional crafts­man­ship à la Qvevris, as a product sealed with a natural cork costs more than €30 (£26) per bottle.

“The new gener­a­tion of wine­makers is trying to combine the modern with the tradi­tional to create some­thing new,” explains Mr Kurdzadze. “The art of Geor­gian wine is ulti­mately a Euro­pean wine culture.”

The vine­yard "Papari Valley" of Nukri Kurdadze in Akhasheni. The wine­maker Nukri Kurdadze, here in his wine cellar, prac­tices organic viti­cul­ture and puts quality before quan­tity.

Michael Begashvili stirs the mash in a Qvevri.

Wine diver­sity from Georgia

More­over, Geor­gian viti­cul­ture boasts an incom­pa­rable genetic diver­sity: Nowhere is this better demon­strated than in Jighaura, a small town north of the capital Tiblisi. The National Centre for Vine and Fruit Tree Prop­a­ga­tion, a depart­ment of the Scien­tific Research Centre for Agri­cul­ture (LEPL), has planted over 450 indige­nous Geor­gian grape vari­eties on many hectares, thus ensuring their long-term preser­va­tion.

The diver­sity is very impres­sive – you can see it in the grapes alone: Large, small, long, furry, sweet, fruity, etc. “We know the enor­mous value of the many vari­eties in our collec­tion,” assures director Prof Levan Ujma­juridze. “That is why we are so careful with their preser­va­tion.” There is also great interest in the genetic pool from abroad.

Agri­cul­ture and wine-making play a deci­sive role for the economy in Kakheti.

Irakli Kadag­ishvili

“Agri­cul­ture and wine-making play a deci­sive role for the economy in Kakheti,” Governor Irakli Kadag­ishvili empha­sises in his office in Telavi. It’s not without some pride that the head of Kakheti’s regional admin­is­tra­tion speaks of the 250,000t of wine produced annu­ally, along­side over 20,000ha of fruit plan­ta­tions.

In addi­tion, Mr Kadag­ishvili mentions the numerous entre­pre­neurs, some foreign, who try to grow hazel­nuts, olives, pista­chios and roses in the warm, and in some areas even subtrop­ical, climate which has an annual rain­fall of about 800mm. But sheep farming and the cultivation of maize and wheat are also impor­tant. In the Kakheti region alone, for example, around 70% of Geor­gian wheat is grown.

The National Center for Vine and Fruit Tree Prop­a­ga­tion in Jighaura, as part of the Geor­gian Scien­tific Research Center for Agri­cul­ture, houses a collec­tion of over 450 indige­nous vine vari­eties.

The director of the Research Centre Prof. Dr. Levan Ujma­juridze presents grapes of the variety Mtsvane Kakhuri clone 12.

Governor Irakli Kadag­ishvili in his office in the regional admin­is­tra­tion of Kakheti in Telavi.

Water supply for vine­yards

In view of these inten­sive agri­cul­tural activ­i­ties, it is unsur­prising that the regional author­i­ties are called upon to ensure a smooth water supply to guar­antee good harvests, espe­cially in inten­sive crops. In fact, the provin­cial amelio­ra­tion office manages all water-related issues. The moun­tain waters of the Iori and Alazani rivers are already dammed at the upper reaches of the rivers and chan­nelled into canals which supply the land.

While the flow of the river Alazani eases off to a trickle after a long summer, the water continues to rush lavishly through the concrete canals. Keeping an eye on the water levels at all times, finely control­ling them and main­taining dams, is certainly not an easy task for the state author­i­ties. Never­the­less, the fee per hectare culti­vated costs each farmer a mere 87 lari – the equiv­a­lent of around €30 (£26).

To further opti­mise water manage­ment as demand increases and to adapt it to the respec­tive needs, the governor would like to see more regional deci­sion-making powers. However, much would still be decided centrally in Tiblisi. At the same time, he has to admit that the respon­sible author­i­ties in neigh­bouring Azer­baijan, where the Alazani River flows east­wards, will not be involved in plans for new barrages or other water uses.

The Duisi Dam in the Pankisi Valley, built in 1971, regu­lates the inflow of water from the Alazani River into the irri­ga­tion system of the Alazani Valley.

Josif Gigo­lashvili, head of the service centre, explains on a mural the irri­ga­tion system that also supplied areas in Azer­baijan during Soviet times.

Tech­ni­cian Nadari Kautarashvili regu­lates the water flow into the canal.

Banana trees in the subtrop­ical micro­cli­mate

Mean­while, not far from the Azer­bai­jani border, in the very north-east of Kakheti and north of the Alazani in the village of Natsisqvi­lari, the water flows abun­dantly from many arte­sian wells. It flows into the ditches and supplies lush gardens. The micro­cli­mate is almost subtrop­ical, even banana trees – although without ripe fruit – grow here.

In north­eastern Kakhetia, several villages are supplied with abun­dant water from arte­sian wells.

Laurenti Chachanidze pushes the big barn door aside. “This is my corn from this year’s harvest,” says the 56-year-old farmer and contractor. A few chickens, star­tled, scurry away on the large, 1,000t pile. By the end of August, Mr Chachanidze was able to combine the 100ha of maize on his land in extremely dry condi­tions and store it directly without any further drying. But he is not entirely satis­fied with the harvest, since at around 8t/ha it was far below the average of 18t.

“That’s why I’m hoping all the more that prices will keep going up steeply towards winter.” Mr Chachanidze never­the­less looks ahead undaunted and on the way to his garden, where colourful peren­nials, kiwis and pome­gran­ates thrive, picks a few fresh kakis from the next tree. Tasty, like so much of the natu­rally blessed kakheti.


Wine­growing in Kakheti

The Kakheti region stretches east of Georgia’s capital Tbilisi to the Azer­bai­jani border. It is about half the size of Hesse in Germany and has about 312,000 inhab­i­tants. The provin­cial capital is Telavi. Archae­ol­o­gists esti­mate that wine was already being culti­vated and drunk in Kakheti 6,000 years before Christ.

This tradi­tion is still mani­fested today by the so-called Qvevris (amphorae made of clay), which are mostly buried in the earth to ferment the wine. In addi­tion, due to the ground storage, hardly any oxygen pene­trates the wine through the clay pores. Only micro-oxida­tion takes place, which is impor­tant for the wine to mature. The grapes – complete with skins and seeds – are poured into the Qvevris and fermented, followed by a four-to-five month aging on the mash. In this way, addi­tional tannins and polyphe­nols are released, making the wine very full-bodied.

In the second half of the 19th century, the whole of Georgia had about 71,200ha of vine­yards. Due to fungal diseases intro­duced from North America (powdery and downy mildew) and pests (like phyl­loxera), this area decreased to about 37,400ha by the begin­ning of the 20th century. In order to put the destroyed vine­yards back into economic use, phyl­loxera-resis­tant Amer­ican vines were imported as root­stocks in Georgia as in the rest of Europe.

Geor­gian wine then found strong sales in the Soviet Union. An era of mass produc­tion began: Georgia’s vine­yard area grew to about 128,000ha by 1985. After the end of the Soviet Union, this area shrank and was severely curbed by the import ban on Geor­gian wine imposed by Russia in 2008. However, according to wine experts, the sudden problem with sales had a healing effect. From this point on, Georgia returned to quality and tradi­tion. Today it can be assumed that the vine­yard area has increased again to well over 50,000ha.