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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.