Why Georgians are the best people to hold a wine festival
…and why you should visit the New Wine Festival in Tbilisi.
Grey clouds muffle the Spring sunshine but under the bright awnings no-one seems at all fazed by this. Hundreds of people have gathered together in Deda Ena Park to celebrate one thing – Georgian wine-making.
The family winemaker stalls are cheek by jowl and covered with plates of cheese, bread and the ultimate Georgian combination of the two – khachapuri – cheese cooked into bread. The Georgians have over forty different variations of this rib-sticking, irresistible, carb-laden oozy speciality. Vessels of all kinds from pottery crocks, to bottles scrawled with hand-written labels, are spread across the tables. It’s the norm for Georgian families to make their own wine even if they have to ferment the grapes on the balcony of their city flat or buy grapes from another region.
Along a path, in a clearing among towering trees are the traditional winemakers who follow a method used for centuries in Georgia, which was nearly lost under a hundred years of Soviet rule, of fermenting their wines in qvevri. These are enormous clay vessels, taking a special skill to make, which are buried underground and sealed with beeswax. Both red and white wines are often fermented on the skins, pips and even stalks to give a distinctive style to the wines. Gravity causes natural filtration and the method has been emulated in other countries as the ultimate in natural wine making and it has UNESCO status.
Another area of the park houses stalls and tents belonging to larger producers using conventional wine-making techniques but mainly indigenous Georgian grape varieties which are estimated at about 525 (although a core of about 45 are used commercially at present).
Jolly, relaxed, convivial; music plays as visitors wander about tasting wine, washing down the bread and cheese. More and more families stroll into the park and something dawns on me that is utterly astonishing, but appears totally normal to the Georgians. This wine festival is absolutely free of charge – anyone can come into the park, taste wine from the stalls and enjoy their spread of food.
A group of men in traditional dress break into haunting polyphonic singing which announces the ceremonial opening of a qvevri. Chairman of the National Wine Agency, Giorgi Samanishvili, breaks the beeswax seal and dips a ladle into clear white wine, sharing it into glasses for whoever wants to drink.
For 10 lari you can buy a wine glass and tasting pouch for hanging the glass around your neck if you’d rather not taste out of plastic cups. Juggling a bag, camera, phone and my attention elsewhere I miss the pouch and my glass shatters to the floor. My efforts to move the shards out of the way of passing pedestrians is interrupted by a man who races up with a brush and scoops them away. I haven’t noticed until this moment a small army of cleaners dotted around the park.
All ages are present at the festival, a few families in traditional dress, a small girl looking very important holding tightly to the hand of her toddler brother who looks totally bewildered. A few parents are giving their children tiny sips of wine. I ask one stallholder if the grandson on her lap likes wine, “yes of course” she says proudly. Wine is at the heart of this culture, written into its history and language.
A band playing some excellent jazz draws me to a bit of the park close to the river. Skewers of meat are being grilled over charcoal and they’ve set up a bread oven or tone to make fresh shotis puri, diamond-shaped flat breads with a honey-combed centred. Meanwhile sixty wine companies, winemakers and family cellars continued to pour their late harvest (or new) wines with at least 72 grape varieties, to an appreciative audience.
All this gets me to the crux of…
Why Georgians are the best people to host a wine fair
1. Wine is in Georgian’s blood, so rooted into their culture, it’s part of everyday life. There was no pushing and shoving, no drunkenness, no over-indulgence on an obvious scale. Can you imagine a civilised free wine festival anywhere else in the world? Me neither.
2. Hospitality to visitors is intrinsic. Living in the Middle East, I’ve been the recipient of legendary levels of generosity; with a Dad who was Polish I also know all about force feeding visitors; but Georgians take it to another level entirely. Everyone is welcome.
3. There is a certain way of doing things. Perhaps it was the time under communism but, despite their laid back friendly appearance, there is a way of doing things that Georgians adhere to. I was the guest of an amazing wine tasting at a venue with stunning views of the city the night before which was the official ceremony to open the New Wine Festival. There was attention to detail in organising the event, such as the sweeper-uppers, which meant it felt effortless.
4. They are relaxed about things that matter. A trust that people are adult enough to drink from glass (ahem) in a park without going OTT on health and safety. A family environment meaning that wine is something to be savoured, respected and enjoyed in moderation.
5. Georgia is the longest continuous wine making culture in the world with over 500 unique grape varieties and wine making traditions. Surely the perfect foil to the intensive viticulture, commercialisation and homogenization of the global wine market which focuses on a handful of popular grapes with cookie cutter styles of wine. No more boring wine.
Meet you there next year? In the meantime, here are some of my (shaky iPhone) video highlights:
Central Tbilisi is a very attractive, the Mtkvari river divides it and many bridges cross its brown waters (fed from the mountains) including the famous Peace bridge which looks like a modern, transparent armadillo. At night, particularly when viewed from the cable car or the top of the funicular railway, the lights of many splendid churches and the Narikhala fortress reflect magically from its surface.
With pictures in the news a few weeks ago of escaped wild creatures from Tbilisi zoo, cars being dug out of silt and the reports of fatalities both human and animal caused when the river Mtkvari flooded the city, it’s hard to imagine that, in March, I was enjoying this really special event on its banks. The Georgians have shown their resilience yet again and everyone has pitched in to help disaster-struck victims, roads are clear and I have been assured by Georgians that it’s perfectly safe for visitors, who will receive the usual magnificently warm welcome.
How to visit the next New Wine Festival in Tbilisi: Pre-publicity was a bit thin on the ground. Visit Vinoge for information about Georgian wine including details of the next festival when available. Follow mycustardpie on Facebook and Twitter where I’ll post details as soon as I have them.
More about the New Wine Festival 2015:
- New Wine Festival with the New Venue and New Drive! on Vinoge
- New Wine Festival 2015, Tbilisi: bijzondere wijnen op een bijzonder evenement (Wine Chronicles) – in Dutch
- Rare Georgian Wines at the 2015 New Wine Festival in Tbilisi by Sarah May Grunwald of Taste Georgia
- Georgia: Wine Culture on Muse Radio
- New Wine Festival 2015 in Tbilisi on Georgian Recipes
- The Tbilisi New Wine Festival on Travel Freak
- Georgia celebrates New Wine Festival 2015 on Demotix
I travelled to Georgia as a guest of the Georgian National Tourism Administration, the Georgian Wine Club and the Georgian National Wine Agency.
Please note that no images or content can be reproduced in part or in full without express permission from myself. Ask first.
Read more about my other visits to Georgia here.