Georgia is one of Europe’s most under-rated countries. In the heart of the Caucasus Mountains, wedged between Russia, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, it is at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, an ancient land with a rich history and culture. Because of its coveted position on the ancient Silk Road crossing the formidable Caucasus Mountains, much of that history has been violent, including invasions, attacks, and occupation. Despite this destruction and continual turmoil that saw the capital, Tbilisi, razed to the ground multiple times, the Georgian people have rebuilt their land and their cities, maintaining their culture, language and love of life and wine in the face of extreme adversity.
Alice Feiring has captured this triumph superbly in her latest book, For The Love of Wine. An award-winning writer, Alice is an ardent champion of natural winemaking, who chronicles her voyage of discovery through this magical land. “It was like emerging from the magic wardrobe into a world filled with mythical characters making delicious wine,” she writes.
The wine is made using an ancient process that has existed in Georgia for over 8,000 years. Indeed, evidence points to Georgia as being the cradle of wine (or “ghvino” as it is called here). That the process has survived at all is miraculous, given the lengths to which the Shahs of Persia and the Soviets, among others, went to destroy the vines. The fact that several hundred species exist today in Georgia (most of them unknown to the rest of the world) is a testament to the tenacity of the people….and the vines.
I first came across For the Love of Wine while researching our trip to Georgia. I read it cover to cover in one sitting and then read it again slowly, savoring every word, every description, every image, as Alice led me on an odyssey through the country. She is so passionate and eloquent that I could almost imagine myself walking alongside her.
In the process, she describes how wine is made using “natural” or “organic” techniques. In the fall the grapes are stomped in a long wooden trough; the grape juice, together with skins and pips are poured into Qvevri (enormous terra cotta clay pots, the relative of Roman and Greek Amphorae) to ferment. When fermentation is complete, the grape sediment is removed. The wine is then left to age in the Qvevri, buried in the ground, anywhere from 1-8 years. No pesticides are used on the vines, and there are no yeasts, preservatives or chemicals added, just the grapes going through a natural process and turning out a unique and delicious product.
As she meanders through the vineyards where Kisi, Mtsvane, Rkatsiteli and other grapes grow, Alice Feiring introduces us to many of the local inhabitants – the farmers, winemakers, Qvevri-makers, chefs, who are embracing their roots and their traditions, in spite of the efforts of outsiders who arrive with their chemicals, pesticides and so-called “modern” technology to change the traditional ways.
The characters come to life as she describes them – Bishop Davit, the Metropolitan of Alaverdi Monastery who “has made traditional and natural wine a mission of the church;” Zaliko, maker of qvevri in Imereti; Lamara Bezhashvili, “a fierce Kakhetian woman who embodies the spirit of natural qvevri wine, John Wurdeman, vigneron of The Pheasant’s Tears Winery, and so many more.”
Alice celebrates their traditions and their way of life, including their love of feasts (the supra) with wine at its core, presided over by a toastmaster (the tamada). Food, after all, is a necessary part of wine drinking. And Georgian food is delicious! To tantalize your taste buds, tucked away through the book you will find recipes for such delicacies as Beets with Cherry Sauce or Rose Petal Jam, interspersed in the narrative.
Throughout, Alice Feiring is a passionate and outspoken defender of Georgian natural winemaking, which many believe has healing properties. After all, Georgia is one of the countries where the number of people living into their 100s far exceeds the norm elsewhere.
Alice’s enthusiasm and passion are contagious. By the time we had finished the book for the second time, we couldn’t wait to travel. In fact, we were so excited by what we had read, we ran out to several New York City wine shops to look for bottles of natural Georgian wine.
Imagine the glee when we ran into Alice, together with four of Georgia’s top winemakers – Nikki Antadze, Ramaz Nikoladze, John Okrasvhivili, and John Wurdeman — at a Georgian winetasting at Chambers Street Wines. Needless to say, many bottles were purchased and drunk! “Butchki!” as they say in Georgian before clinking glasses!
For the Love of Wine is Alice Feiring’s latest book; her other works include Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally and The Battle for Wine and Love; or, How I Saved the World from Parkerization. If you love wine, run, don’t walk to the nearest bookstore to get copies! (www.alicefeiring.com/)