If you are a fan of food and wine, there is nothing like exploring them right at the source: from the families who make the wine themselves, and keep generations of culinary traditions alive every day in their home kitchens. Grass-roots authenticity is the essential element that makes all the difference for me.
The trouble is, unless you have a few months in a place to make connections and get those sort of invites, you are often going to struggle to even scratch the surface. Often resorting to luck only. Not ideal if you want to make the best of your time and leave Georgia having had the best possible experiences, without leaving it to chance.
If you only have 1 day in the Kakheti wine region, how do you make the most out of it?
For a food and wine adventurer, getting a taste for everything Georgia, this was my 1 day experience:
1 Day Telavi Food & Wine Experience
First, we traveled from Tbilisi to Telavi – the municipal capital of the Kakheti region, and the heart of the North Alazani Valley wine region. This takes about 2 hours, traveling over the Gombori Mountain pass. Along this mountain route, you’ll pass beekeepers at the side of the road (seasonal). You can stop to buy or taste, as well as get some views of the valley as it rolls south towards Armenia.
Once across the mountain pass, views north to the majestic Caucasus mountains open up, as you wind down the road into the Alazani Valley below. Before the wine begins, we make a stop to some of the main points of interest in Telavi Georgia.
The municipal central market focuses mainly on fresh produce. From salty mountain ham, to various types of pickles, live fish, fruit and veg and endemic cheeses. Cheeses like “Guda”. Not to be confused with Dutch “Gouda”. Georgian Guda is a mountain cheese made primarily from sheep or goat milk (or both), occasionally mixed with cow’s milk. It is sharp and intensely salty. Traditionally it is made in the spring, and must be stored through the whole summer in the mountains without any refrigeration. The high salt content acts as a preservative.
Following the market, we took a short drive through Telavi to the fortress of King Erekle II, the last king of Kakheti before it was united with the rest of Georgia, and shortly after annexed by the Russian Empire in 1800/1801. Also, a visit to the 900 year old Plane Tree, the oldest tree known in the region that has stood through a turbulent history of invasions.
By this point, we were getting thirsty, and eager to explore the historic wine culture of Georgia. To do this at its most authentic, you need to engage not just with the wine itself, but with the 8000 year old production method, with the food – as it all goes hand in hand – and with the artisans that still honor the ancient traditions.
Visit An Independent Georgian Artisan Winery
So, the next stop is to meet the first winemaker at their small independent winery. Because the places you’ll visit really are family run (and only family run) the exact stops on the tour may vary depending on who is available each day to host you. But there is a selection of top choices, all with their own uniqueness, and all hitting the same marks as each other – high quality artisan wine, great hospitality and lovingly crafted homemade food, all with oodles of authenticity.
The biggest artisan producer that you might visit makes ~25,000 bottles per year, the smallest less than 5,000 bottles per year. And you’ll visit their small marani (wine cellar) to begin your education into Georgian wine production.
It’s quite a big difference from the typical generic tours which stop somewhere like Shumi winery – who produce ~2.5 million bottles per year – and although the food and wine at Shumi is acceptable enough, it’s mass-produced wine, commercial kitchen and service by waiters, not by the winemaker themselves. It’s not even close to sitting down for lunch and tasting wines with the person who made them, while eating their family’s home cooked dishes and exploring wines that hardly anyone else has, or will ever, taste.
Many of the lunch stops Eat This! Tours has on offer also have mountain views, so you really can have it all for a personal, intimate lunch, surrounded by nature. The winemakers always offer some of the toasts of the traditional supra (feast) so you can feel a part of the real Georgian dining experience that families enact across the country at every important meeting. The wine keeps flowing, so take it easy, as there are many more wines still to try!
A little tipsy, it’s time to head back to the van. The next stop is the qvevri builder. You’ve seen how the qvevri is used to make wine, now you will see how the vessels themselves are built, and how this special type of material influences the wine. Clay is a porous material, so unlike steel tank production, which is used in commercial winemaking all over the world, the clay lead to micro oxidation during the initial aging process.
What this allows is for tertiary flavors/aromas to appear in young wines. Normally tertiary properties like honey, walnuts, mushroom etc. appear after years of bottle aging. In qvevri wine, they can develop over the course of months, before the wine is even bottled.
The Qvevri Builder
The qvevri method is part of the UNESCO intangible heritage list. You’ll learn about every step of the production process, and of course, as it’s Georgia, everyone makes their own wine in the countryside, so you will also have the chance to taste wines made by the qvevri builder.
From the living history of the qvevri to the living history of the oldest continuous production location of wine in Georgia, where it is still produced today. Unbroken production on the same site since 1011 AD.
Alaverdi Monastery – Producing Wine Continuously Since 1011 AD
Alaverdi Monastery, built in the early 11th century by order of King Kvirike III of Kakheti, is a fortified monastery sitting alone on the central plain of the Alazani valley, with the Caucasus Mountains rising abruptly behind it. Although only VIPs can actually get to taste the wine in the marani there, the rest of the location is open to everyone to visit and explore, and learn about the history of the place and the wine.
Meet Another Artisan Winemaking Family, Help to Make Khinkali
The final stop on the tour is visiting the home of another artisan winemaker, this time you’ll be getting interactive and helping to make Georgia’s national dish: Khinkali. Join the family in the kitchen to stuff and pleat Georgia’s iconic meaty soup dumplings (vegetarian options also possible). Then, of course, eat them while you sit down to learn more about these wine styles, and take part in a few more traditional toasts – you are actively encouraged to say your own, with the permissions of the tamada (toastmaster), as you immerse yourself fully in everyday Georgian life.
Join This 1 Day Kakheti Wine Tour – Artisan Food & Wine
- Dive right into Georgian artisan food & wine, with full immersion in traditional qvevri wine culture and homemade cuisine.
- Visit the northern Alazani Valley, the heart of Kakhetian traditional qvevri (amphora) winemaking. Discover cheeses and traditional ingredients at the Telavi market. Then enjoy a lunch feast (supra) of traditional dishes and dine with the winemaker as he introduces 4+ small batch artisan wines, direct from his marani (cellar).
- Learn about the 8000 year history of the Georgian winemaking process by visiting the qvevri builder at his home workshop and then Alaverdi Monastery, the site of the longest continuous winemaking in Georgia – making artisan wine since 1011 AD in the same location.
- Finish the day by making khinkali (Georgian dumplings) with the family of a winemaker, and then eating them along with more small batch artisan qvevri wines.