“They spoke of Georgians as supermen, as great drinkers, great dancers, great musicians, great workers and lovers. And they spoke of the country in the Caucasus and around the Black Sea as a kind of second heaven.”
– John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal, 1948
Wine is so deeply embedded in Georgian identity that to talk of ‘Georgian wine culture’ is to talk of Georgia. Georgians are proud of their country’s wine history and pre-history: the oldest evidence of winemaking in the world was uncovered in Georgia, at Imiri, in 2015. The much loved statue “Mother Georgia” looking out over Tbilisi holds a sword in one hand, and a wine cup in the other. Her Georgian name is Kartlis Deda and she was erected in 1958 to mark 1500th anniversary of the founding of her city. Georgians are poetic types, and love symbolism. Her sword represents Georgia’s fierce defence of their freedom. Her cup holds the wine of hospitality.
Georgian creativity, energy and appetite enchant visitors today as much as it did Steinbeck 70 years ago. Wine features in every meal, and is the star of the ‘Supra’, a living tradition of feasting and bonding in grand style. Supra are thrown for special occasions to honour family events and important guests.
The table groans with stews, soups, salads, herbs, and spices. (Georgian food is famed for its deliciousness). Khantsi are distributed to guests – often they are shared. These richly decorated curved ram horns are filled with wine. Khantsi are a beautiful and satisfying drinking vessel – the finest examples are decorated with fine silver work, and antique examples are precious and collectable. Of necessity, they must be drained. (Thoughtfully, Khantsi come in standard and small ‘for the lady’ sizes.)
But this is not a drinking game. The Tamada (Toast Master) rises and introduces a theme for the night. He toasts to the theme, alludes to the characters and interests of the guests, and downs his horn. Each guest then makes their own toast – responding to the Tamada’s theme – and downs their horn. Toasts can be extremely beautiful and poetic. They can be funny and irreverent. To a reticent Brit, this wine-fuelled extemporizing may sound intimidating. But a Georgian Supra is a beautiful and welcoming experience. Despite the large hornfuls of wine, the pace of consumption is gentle, although the night is long. The exchange of ideas, and the slow revealing of personality, and the gentle ribbing, is as intoxicating as the wine.
Wine, song, and dance
After the eating and the toasting, many Supra move on to dancing and song. Horns are swapped for glasses, or drinking cups. In music, Georgians are to Eastern Europe what the Welsh are to the UK. A small nation packed with great singers. Georgian Polyphonic singing dates back to at least the 8th century, and has been recognised as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ by Unesco since 2008. While formal performances of top Polyphonic choirs such as the Rustavi ensemble sell out Tbilisi’s theatres, impromptu singing at Supra is common, and unforgettable. Many of the songs celebrate wine and winemaking, and probably originated as workers’ songs in the vineyards.
Georgians love to dance, and Georgian folk dance is highly symbolic and deceptively demanding. The dance repertoire includes a canon of routines that tell folk stories. Karachokheli commemorates the love of wine, the good life, and romance. Outside of formal performances with big dance troupes, many Supras end with impromptu dancing, with the beat provided by singing and clapping.
Tbilisi – at the crossroads between East and West – has always been a magnet for artists, writers and musicians. In addition to fine arts, Tbilisi is flourishing with hip galleries, avant garde communities, and uber cool bars and clubs. As travel writer Tara Isabella Burton writes, there is a cultural revolution in Tbilisi: “…a generation of young…educated artists and entrepreneurs who long to revive Tbilisi’s status as a cultural cosmopolis.”
The optimism and diversity of Georgia’s wine industry today reflects the stability and outward connections of the last two decades. There are winemakers working in Georgia now who can remember when their family’s vineyards were seized by the Soviets. Georgians also remember the many hundreds of native Georgian varieties that were forced to be dug up and replaced with generic, efficient grape varieties. One producer described the ‘Pasteurisation’ of Georgian Wine Culture during the 1950s and 1960s, and the enforced focus on high volume, low quality wine. During the difficult times of the 1990s, many vineyards were abandoned.
Georgian wine is supported by its own Governmental agency. Investment into the sector is booming. Projects to identify, save and replant native Georgian varieties are thriving. Wine tourism – along with tourism in general – is developing as more European countries, including the UK, offer direct flights to Tbilisi and specialist companies offer guided tours.
All nations have their traditions and folk heritage. In Georgia, these traditions remain vital and relevant. At festivals of singing, dance and wine all generations participate, including the young, and with great gusto. This tiny, feisty nation has been coveted and invaded by powerful and imperially minded neighbours through its history. Georgia’s wine is a symbolic expression of her hard-won independence, individuality and creativity, and runs through every aspect of Georgian culture and idea of itself.
“In these terrific Georgians we had met more than our match …Everything they did was done with flair…And nothing can break their individuality or their spirit. That has been tried for many centuries by invaders…Everything has struck at their spirit and nothing has succeeded in making a dent in it.”