Zaliko Bodzhadze is putting the finishing touches to what looks like a gigantic clay egg when I first visit his potter’s studio in Maqatubani, a 90-minute drive west from Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. His creation towers over him, and he smooths the swollen belly of what’s essentially a huge coil pot with pride. The hollow vessels — known as qvevri — are the key to Georgia’s ancient winemaking tradition. With their pointed bottoms and open-necked tops, they’re made in many sizes, the largest holding up to 2,000 litres of wine. After firing, the qvevri are painted inside with hot beeswax before being buried in the ground. The grapes ferment into wine inside the clay, surrounded by the earth in what the Georgians call the ‘mother’s embrace’.
“Based on local archaeological findings, Georgian wine has been made in qvevri for at least 8,000 continuous vintages,” he explains. “It’s an unbroken tradition that’s been passed from father to son through the centuries, just as I’m passing it on to my boys. Today, only a handful of families still have the inherited know-how to keep the qvevri making going.”
This unique ceramic tradition has recently been recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, and it’s the reason I was first drawn to Georgia, four years ago. As a food and wine writer, based for more than 20 years in rural Italy, I was intrigued by this style of wine when I first encountered it in the cellars of Josko Gravner, in north-eastern Italy. His orange-coloured wines, made from macerated white grapes vinified in Georgian qvevri, were unlike any others I’d tasted. They combine the structure and tannins of a well-made red wine with the flavours of exotic teas and dried apricots that are more associated with whites. Gravner was the first non-Georgian to make wine in this ancient way.
Georgian wines have another distinctive characteristic: they marry superbly with Georgia’s food, as I learned at my first supra, or Georgian feast. In one of Tbilisi’s most inspiring restaurants, Azarpesha, a banqueting table was laid for 30. Before we were seated, heaped dishes of food were arranged along the table, filling the centre with colourful displays of vegetables enriched with walnut paste, fermented acacia blossoms and peppers, fish baked in lemon leaves, tomatoes stuffed with delicately spiced meats, and salads of mulberries and fiery greens. Aromatic herbs — particularly tarragon, basil and coriander — feature heavily in every dish.
As the first wave of eating gets underway, platters of oozing cheese-filled bread (khachapuri), soups, meat stews, steaming dumplings (khinkali), and other hot dishes are brought out. A supra means at least eight to 10 different dishes served during the course of the meal. The flavours range from earthy to spicy, from sharp to sweet, so it takes an unusual wine to accompany them. That’s where the macerated whites come in: they complement this range of tastes much better than the reds or whites I’m used to.
Wine flows freely from bottles or jugs set along the table as we help ourselves to food. However, it’s not just a free-for-all; a supra is given structure by the presence of the tamada, or toastmaster, who punctuates the meal with toasts following prescribed formats: in Guria, for instance, along the Black Sea coast, the first toast is always to peace. For Georgians, the guest is ‘sent by God’, so there are always inclusive toasts to make even the loneliest traveller feel welcome.
The final supra element, and one of the most exciting, is the music. Georgia’s ancient polyphonic tradition lives on in families and singing groups throughout the country. No large feast is complete without its share of this stunning music, usually sung at several points throughout the meal by a small group of diners. The songs and chants are generally sung a cappella, and the music is rousing and remarkable. The overall combination of the music, food and wine is incredibly powerful.
I was deeply impressed and moved by the natural beauty of this amazing country, set between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains. After that first visit, I resolved to spend the next few years writing about its food and wine culture, and photographing its marvellously hospitable people.
Carla Capalbo’s new travel book, Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus, features more than 70 authentic recipes and is published by Pallas Athene. RRP £30.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)