Georgia has beautiful scenery, a fascinating wine scene and the world’s nicest taxi drivers. What’s not to like?
If you, like me, are a fan of stunning mountains, delicious wine, dangerous high-speed taxi journeys and cheese bread, allow me to suggest a trip to Georgia. Your friends and family will likely make a Ray Charles joke and/or put their foot in it by asking “like in Russia?” (which it definitely isn’t), but persevere and you will be richly rewarded.
Georgia has a reputation for wine – deservedly so, considering they’ve been making theirs for about 8,000 years. A friend in Tbilisi directed us to Kakheti if we wanted to get amongst, and to save money for wine we opted for a marshrutka.
Marshrutky are the cheapest way to travel the vast and mostly mountainous Georgian terrain. Until this moment we’d been travelling through Georgia in the relative luxury of taxis, which are still on the cheap side and have the added bonus of putting you in close, prolonged, one-on-one proximity to Georgian taxi drivers, in our experience the biggest pack of sweethearts this side of the Caucasus. Officially a shared taxi but in reality the public transport equivalent of wearing jeans that are two sizes too small, your seat in a marshrutka typically feels about 30% smaller than required and it won’t leave until it’s absolutely full, making even the most relaxed person feel claustrophobic. When I relaid our decision to travel thusly to my Georgian friend she laughed sympathetically and said matter-of-factly, “I do not travel by marshrutka.”
We were headed to ludicrously picturesque Sighnaghi on recommendation from said friend and because I’d read about a poetically named winery called Pheasant’s Tears in an article about Yotam Ottolenghi’s culinary travels in Georgia, and god knows that if Ottolenghi told me to put pineapple on pizza, I’d do it. It’s owned by a Georgian winemaker and an American painter, produces exclusively organic wines, and on the day we arrived was blasting hip hop from the cellar door.
It was midday and we decided to share a generous tasting flight, but this was immediately lost in translation and we realised that we’d committed to one flight each. We braced ourselves to get rat-arsed. Elegantly rat-arsed, though: a difficult-to-find and unassuming entrance belied a massive courtyard, some really beautiful wine and an exceptionally good menu.
Instead of being aged in barrels, Georgians traditionally age their wine in massive beeswax-lined clay pots called qvevris, which, after a maceration period of between three weeks and six months, are buried in the earth for anywhere up to 50 years (take note – no oak). Almost all the varietals are classed as semi-sweet, and we partook of an apricoty, white (but really amber) Rkatsiteli, a Mtsvane, a Tavkveri, and the most famous, the berry-ful and brutal Saperavi, which to my undiscerning palate was also the best. We finished up with some chacha for good measure – a traditionally home-brewed sort of brandy made with grape residue, which to me tasted like a really good tequila.
Not wanting to call it a day after merely one Kakhetian town, we headed north by taxi to Tsinandali, an even smaller town and home to the Shumi Winery. We were talked through a tasting by an extremely knowledgeable winemaker (and disciple of Ronnie James Dio, judging by his Rainbow shirt). The first was a blend of local Saperavi and cab-sav grapes named after Shumi itself and another Tsinandali white which, to be perfectly honest, I don’t remember too much about except that it was sweet and delicious.
Thinking we’d reached peak Georgia fandom, we set off with our driver on the four-hour journey back to Tbilisi (which cost less than $100). Half an hour into the journey, he stopped to run an errand without explanation. He returned to the car and wordlessly handed us a massive piece of shotis puri, delicious, pillowy Georgian bread shaped like, and roughly the size of, a canoe. He smiled, and indicated that it was a gift. For no reason.
But what if we don’t just want to eat and get rat-arsed in romantic hilltop villages, I hear you ask. We also came for hiking, which we did several days of in the Kazbegi National Park, on the border with South Ossetia, one of the regions where the border with Russia is disputed. Our hotel, the far-too-cool-for-us Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, perches at the foot of a mountain in Stepantsminda overlooking the Gergeti Trinity Church, Mount Kazbegi and an endlessly looping swirl of clouds. We arrived on a Sunday, dragged ourselves up the rocky face to the church and stumbled inside, swearing and broken, only to be stopped short by a chorus of the famous Georgian polyphonic singing (get it on YouTube if you’re feeling jagged).
And then there’s the food, which deserves its own biopic (with Tilda Swinton starring as khinkali, Georgian dumplings). Plums are big here, and cherries, and tomatoes and cucumber and walnuts – lots of walnuts. Pomegranates, marigolds and coriander, bitter tanginess and dry sweetness. Tough bread, soft bread, and best of all cheesy bread: khachapuri is the pillowiest, fluffiest, meltiest bread stuffed with sulguni curd cheese and only served in portions large enough to feed at least six, but which we put away uncomfortably but happily between the two of us.
Some combinations are complex – lobio is a soup made from red kidney beans, deep and dry and nourishing, and served in a pot with a tough, crumbly bread top that collapses in the dark red sauce and makes a delicious paste that is cut through by the pickled vegetables served on the side. Others seem simple but aren’t – the one salad that appears everywhere seems run-of-the-mill: tomatoes, cucumber, onions, walnuts and herbs. But by some alchemy involving two not-so-secret ingredients (it’s the sunflower oil from Kakheti and salt from Svaneti in the northwest) it is made incredible and irritatingly inimitable.
By all means go for the food and wine – you won’t be disappointed – but I say go for the taxi drivers, too. Winding their way endlessly through the mist-filled valleys and snowy mountains, they really are representative of the Georgia we experienced. People are helpful and kind – there’s not much English spoken but that doesn’t stop strangers from tapping you on the shoulder when you’re getting the wrong bus, offering you a spot to rest your luggage on the metro, or buying you treats for no reason. I’ve never felt so relaxed somewhere so different to what I’m used to. You should go.