Kakheti is in the very east of Georgia, and whilst it is quite a large region, I based myself not far from the border with Azerbaijan. I stayed on a vineyard in a tiny place called Tkhilitstskaro. Try saying that after a couple of glasses…
Kakheti is the country’s main wine region, but it is also produced in other areas.
It was 10⁰c warmer than in the mountains, and like another planet. I had dinner outside both nights, and breakfast outside both mornings. The foothills of the Greater Caucasus started about 500m away, so they made a fabulous backdrop, but Tkhilitstskaro is in the plain of the Alazani River.
Driving there from Kazbegi mostly it went according to plan, but roadworks on a 20km section made it very slow. I suspect it was also the time for bringing animals down from high pastures. Herds of sheep, cows and horses blocking the road were almost as common as cars. The herders and their dogs are very helpful about clearing the way, but still. There is a technique for getting through.
Anyway – it took 5 hours in the car to cover 150 miles/241 km.
Georgian wine made the traditional way involves fermenting the whole grape in a clay pot which is buried underground up to its neck – a qvevri. It is in there for 6 months. The winemaker does not control the fermentation and nothing is added – it is 100% natural.
For a white wine like the Rkatsiteli-Mtsvane (pictured) the end result is an amber colour and 14% alcohol. The aroma is of honey, but the taste is dry. Although they state what grapes are used they emphasise where the wine has come from just as much. A wine using that combination of grapes from a vineyard a short distance away could be quite different – different soil, different sunshine, different cultivation and production methods.
With only Friday and Saturday nights in the area, and having to drive back to Tbilisi after the second one, my ambitions for exploring were limited. A wet morning on my only full day resulted in plenty enforced relaxation but a bit less exploration.
As Saturday lunchtime approached, I set off to explore the area, heading south to Sighnaghi. By the time I got there an hour later, the rain had stopped and the sun had started to appear. Ideal.
The town was fortified with a wall around it in 1772 by Erekle II, and most of the older buildings are 18th and 19th century. With an eye to future tourism, many were renovated during the time of the Saakashvili government.
The town is a bit of a tourism hot spot, of the day trip kind, as it is only 103 km from Tbilisi. It does look great in spite of that, however.
I enjoyed a gentle wander around but the highlight was a great cup of coffee (with cake) at Art Cafe Qedeli. It is a social enterprise supporting a nearby home for disabled people. They bake the cakes sold in the cafe. I had read about it in my guidebook, but when the urge for coffee hit I just went into the first attractive place I saw… and it turned out to be Qedeli.
Sighnaghi lies on a hilltop, but other than that the countryside is totally flat and agricultural.
On the Sunday I drove from Tkhilitstskaro to Tbilisi via Kvareli (fuel stop) and Telavi. It was a gentle drive through seemingly endless vineyards, including well known Georgian wine names like Tsinandali and Mukuzani, then across the 1,620m (5,314 ft) Gombori pass.
I could easily have spent more time exploring the Kakheti region and its wines, which seems like a good excuse to go back.
ⓒ iain taylor, 2019