Saturday, October 6, 2007

Rtveli: Vintage in Kakheti

Fr. Theodore owns a small 1 hectare (2.47 acres) vineyard in the province of Kakheti near the town of Tbani. Kakheti is the Napa Valley of Georgia; the best wines of Georgia (Georgian wines themselves considered to be among the best in the world) come from this province situated 1.5 hours east of Tbilisi at the footsteps of the Caucasus. Viticulture has a long history in Georgia, going back thousands of years, and has produced several hundred unique varieties of wine.

If you couldn’t guess, wine plays a central role in Georgian culture. For those who’ve read about my earlier adventures will know that it’s nigh impossible to have a Georgian meal without draining a pitcher of wine. As you might expect from a culture in which drinking is a part of daily life, people drink responsibly; drunkenness is frowned upon. At more formal dinners, known as supras, which can last several hours and even days (I haven’t yet had the pleasure (?) of attending one of these marathon events), drinking is coordinated by the tamada, or toastmaster. It is the tamada’s job to make sure that everyone is a bit buzzed but no more by limiting alcohol intake to the toasts he carefully spaces out. Usually, the less hangover-inducing white wine is imbibed at supras instead of red wine (“black wine” in Georgian).

Back to the vineyard. This is the time of year for the harvesting (vintage; “rtveli” in Georgian) of grapes and subsequent wine making, and Fr. Theodore invited me along with some other mostly American guests to take part in this ancient tradition. We left Tbilisi a little past 8 am. I rode in a hired Marshrutka along with two young Georgian artists, part of the Perdue family, and Anne Brown and her son Kevin. The rest of our convoy was made up of two Toyota Land Cruisers: one driven by Fr. Theodore, carrying Giorgi, the rest of the Perdue family, Giorgi’s cousin Kaki, and two professional photographers from Russia; the other by John Hanson, carrying his newlywed Georgian wife, Salome, and his brother, Eric. John works for USAID. Mike Perdue has a background in dairy farming in Iowa, but wanting to do something different, is hoping to start a livestock business in Georgia. Anne Brown and her husband John are from Nashville and have been in Tbilisi since January. John is a retired judge who is volunteering his time to help the struggling judicial system in Georgia.

Before arriving at the vineyard, we stopped at a roadside restaurant to have a hearty brunch of mtsvadi (shish-kebab), bread, cucumber and tomato salad, cheese, and buffalo yogurt. Stuffed, we continued along the highway, watching herds of sheep, goats, and stray donkeys out the windows. Fr. Theodore’s one hectare vineyard is but one among a sea of vineyards in the valley. The vineyard has been in Fr. T’s possession for almost 6 years, but each year his vines have born fewer and fewer grapes. This year, his vine master, Gela, tried something different, pruning the vines such that that more shade would be available for the grapes on the north-facing side—more grapes, fewer raisins. And indeed it worked. Luckily for us grape-pickers, only half of the one hectare had vines bearing grapes; the other half contained immature vines planted last year. Nonetheless, the vines in the half-hectare (~1.25 acres) produced over three tons of rkatsiteli (a white grape) grapes.

We were quickly put to work, separated into teams of three, each armed with a sharp knife. We sweated under the heat and occasionally cut ourselves with our knives. The juice from the sweet grapes quenched our thirst and staunched the flow of blood from any cuts. In all, there were approximately 15 of us working half of the vineyard; the other half worked by a half-dozen local women. Many hands make light work and within a couple of hours we had completed the harvesting of the grapes, packed them into plastic bags, and loaded them onto an ancient truck.

Next, we drove a short distance to Gela’s house where the rest of the winemaking would take place. Gela’s marani, or wine cellar, is attached to his house and directly across from his pig-sty. The main features of a marani are the kvevri and the crushing trough (I know neither the Georgian name nor the correct English viticulture term for it). Kvevri are large clay pots buried up to their openings in the ground. It’s in these kvevri that the wine is fermented. Gela’s marani holds kvevri ranging in size from a mere few hundred liters up to 1600 liters—the largest about six feet deep and the opening large enough for a slender man to slip inside. The trough is a marvel. Measuring 15 feet long by 3 feet wide by 3 feet high, it was carved from one oak tree more than 3 generations ago. It took 18 strong men to move the trough into the marani.

Now was the fun part. In all, we had more than 90 bags of grapes, each weighing approximately 40 kg. We carried 8 or 9 bags at a time from the truck and dumped them into the trough, and… Yep, we crushed them with our bare feet. For the first crushing, a wild herb was added to the bottom of the trough. The herb is supposed to give white wine many of the healthy properties of red wine. 4 or 5 people stood in the trough at a time. When the fresh plump grapes are first dumped, everyone simply treads on the grapes. The experience is almost like being on a stair-stepper at the gem: you pull your feet out of the grape muck (it isn’t very pretty) and up onto the mound of uncrushed grapes and you sink back into the muck. The work is much more fun than it sounds, especially with a glass of wine in hand. After grape mound has been beaten into a juicy pulp, the work is divided into two groups: those who are at the end of the trough and those towards the center. Those at the end continuing squishing the grapes, trying to squeeze as much juice out of the grapes as possible; those in the middle have the job of preventing the pulp from sliding away from the squisher so that only the juice flows down and out the spigot (basically, keeping the spigot from getting clogged). The juice flows down a wooden chute directly into the kvevri When 95% of the juice has been squeezed out, the remaining pulp is scooped into buckets and dumped into the kvevri. Everything from the grape—juice, skins, seeds, and stems—ultimately ends up in the same place. After the first fermentation (about a week), the pulp will have settled to the bottom and the new wine is ladled out into new kvevri where it will undergo further fermentation. The pulp is not thrown out; instead, it is distilled to make chacha, a very strong brandy.

Our wonderful experience in Kakheti ended with a cookout under the stars (and at least one shooting star) at Fr. Theodore’s cottage. We ate mtsvadi, cooked by Giorgi over grape vines, cheese, and bread. And of course, we drank wine.

As always, visit my flickr site for photos (

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the fascinating description of grape crushing in particular. Fascinating!

Off to look at the photos...