It has become more and more commonly known that the nation of Georgia in the Caucasus was the birthplace of the wild vines that eventually became domesticated into what we know today as the grape, as well as this fruit’s greatest realization, wine, which in the Georgian language is known as ghvino (any similarities to other culture’s names for this noblest of beverages is likely directly derivative). Wine has has been made in Georgia for over 8,000 years.
The vine grows in all but the coldest and most moutainous regions of this exceptionally beautiful country – from the hot and humid southwesternmost region of Guria hard by the Black Sea to the sunny and semi-arid Kakheti in the country’s northeast. And though Georgia is only the size of South Carolina, there is scientific documentation for well over 500 exclusively Georgian wine grape varieties, and almost surely scores more languishing untended and/or unnamed in tiny hidden plots in every corner of the nation.
And for place that has been making wine for eight millennia, it’s not surprising that Georgia’s winemakers have developed some unique techniques for doing so, and this wine grown above 1,800 feet of elevation in the Kartli region northwest of Gerogia’s capital, Tbilisi is no exception. Traditional Georgian wine is made in huge clay vessels called qvevri that are buried up to their necks in the earth inside wine sheds called marani. At harvest, the grapes are pressed directly into the qvevri and the skins and seeds and stems (which are covered with natural, wild yeasts that cause a spontaneous fermentation) are included as well. The qvevri are then sealed with beeswax to undergo a long and very slow vinification process. After about a year or more, the wine is racked unfiltered into smaller clay vessels (traditionally) or nowadays into bottles. Precisely what happens to wines made in qvevri is difficult to fully convey in words, but suffice it to say that they are wonderfully incomparable.
This particular wine is made from one of those hundreds of Georgian vine varieties called Shavkapito that yields tiny-berried, thick-skinned fruit that makes dark, earthy, smoky but still very elegant wines. So to match these characteristics, I matched this wonderful ancient wine with a very traditional first course called pkhali – a whole class of vegetable pates made with the main vegetable (in this case spinach) ground walnuts, coriander seed, herbs, onions, vinegar et al. and garnished with yogurt and pomegranate seeds that I followed with a main course of twice-cooked (boiled then fried) beef patties with ground walnuts, mashed potato, egg and parsley, and garnished with with raisins fried in butter and accompanied by another Georgian classic called lobio – a room-temperature dish of kidney beans in a vinaigrette with parsley, cilantro, tarragon, dill and basil.
Pheasant’s Tears Kartli Shavkapito 2011
Deep, blackish crimson color. Complex and elegantly rustic nose of wild blueberry, wild raspberry and sour plum backed by notes of pungent spice, roasted red peppers, cooked mushrooms, wood smoke and brown underbrush. In the mouth the wine is medium in body with dry stiff tannins and a tart acidity that vaults sweet and sour flavors of myrtle, burnt orange peel, pomegranate molasses violet and roasted chestnut. Long, pleasantly austere peppery finish.